Monday, September 17, 2018

Disheartened by the crisis in the Church? Reflect on this wisdom from Flannery O'Connor

Several months ago, I acquired The Habit of Being, a volume of letters by Flannery O'Connor, a Catholic author from the South. I eagerly began reading O'Connor's letters, but then the volume wound up back on the shelf as I became distracted by other books. In the past few weeks I picked up The Habit of Being yet again, and I grew amazed. Although Flannery O'Connor wrote these letters several decades ago, many of her words fit so well during this current crisis that the Catholic Church is experiencing.

O'Connor was a lifelong faithful Catholic who steeped herself in the rich treasures that Catholicism offers. From using her breviary and attending Mass to reading works of Catholic fiction and non-fiction, this "hillbilly Thomist" imbues her stories and her letters with her faith and a profound recognition of how God pours down His graces through broken and imperfect vessels. Here are some quotations from her letters that particularly resonate with me.

"I think that the Church is the only thing that is going to make the terrible world we are coming to endurable; the only thing that makes the Church endurable is that it is somehow the body of Christ and that on this we are fed. It seems to be a fact that you have to suffer as much from the Church as for it but if you believe in the divinity of Christ, you have to cherish the world at the same time that you struggle to endure it." (To "A." 20 July 1955)

The world if filled with awful, horrible events, many of them committed by Christians. And what can give us hope and help us persevere in tumultuous times? Christ, who gives us Himself through the sacraments offered in the Catholic Church. When times get hard, we shouldn't push away from Him, but rather dive into Christ's arms. 

"The truth does not change according to our ability to stomach it emotionally. A higher paradox confounds emotion as well as reason and there are long periods in the lives of all of us, and of the saints, when the truth as revealed by faith is hideous, emotionally disturbing, downright repulsive. Witness the dark night of the soul in individual saints. Right now the whole world seems to be going through a dark night of the soul." (To "A." 6 September 1955)

I don't know the specifics of this worldwide "dark night of the soul" that O'Connor refers to, but here we are, sixty-three years later, undergoing what could easily be classified as a "dark night of the soul." As we encounter this "dark night," let us look to the example of the men and women who have gone before us and achieved high levels of sanctity as they persevered through times of darkness. 

"Christ was crucified on earth and the Church is crucified in time, and the Church is crucified by all of us, by her members most particularly because she is a Church of sinners. Christ never said that the Church would be operated in a sinless or intelligent way, but that it would not teach error...The Church is founded on Peter who denied Christ three times and couldn't walk on the water by himself. You are expecting his successors to walk on the water. All human nature vigorously resists grace because grace changes us and the change is painful. Priests resist it as well as others. To have the Church be what you want it to be would require the continuous miraculous meddling of God in human affairs, whereas it is our dignity that we are allowed more or less to get on with those graces that come through faith and the sacraments and which work through our human nature." (To Cecil Dawkins. 9 December 1958)

It can be temping to believe that God's grace will fill us with warm fuzzy feelings and flow tranquilly through our lives. Here, O'Connor reminds us that this image is not necessarily how God will work, and that we all--laity, priests, and religious--have moments when we resist God's grace.

"To get back to all the sorry Catholics. Sin is sin whether it is committed by Pope, bishops, priests, or lay people. The Pope goes to confession like the rest of us...the Catholic Church is composed of those who accept what she teaches, whether they are good or bad, and there is a constant struggle through the help of the sacraments to be good." (To Dr. T. R. Spivey 19 August 1959)

I've talked before about what it means to represent the Catholic Church, and in a succinct and profound way, O'Connor looks at the Catholic Church with honesty. We frequent the sacraments because we need them. We desperately rely on the graces and gifts that God pours out in the sacraments. 

"I believe there are as many types of saints as there are souls to be saved." (To Dr. T. R. Spivey. 30 November 1959)

There's been a lot of talk lately on how we need saints in the vein of St. Catherine of Siena to rise up now more than ever. It is true that people need to speak up and take a stand against wrongdoings. However, I have seen Catholics berate people who aren't instantaneously "making heads roll." O'Connor's words really hit me with the truth that we can forget: that we are all different and that God uses us in various ways. We need to fight the corruption, but we need to remember that we are all unique; God doesn't need you to be another St. Catherine of Siena, He needs you to be a saint. I think we could all do well to read and reflect on St. Paul's words:

"There are different kinds of spiritual gifts but the same Spirit; there are different forms of service but the same Lord; there are different workings but the same God who produces all of them in everyone." (1 Cor 12:4-6)

"If you want your faith, you have to work for it. It is a gift, but for very few is it a gift given without any demand for equal time devoted to its cultivation." (To Alfred Corn. 30 May 1962)

O'Connor wrote this when corresponding to a man about the experience of losing one's faith. In this current time of crisis, there have been many Catholics who are deeply hurt. Their faith in God as Catholics is being tested, and they are pushing away from the Church. I cannot imagine the pain that these people are going through, and I pray that they will draw closer to God instead of moving away. I find O'Connor's words so excellent to reflect on. She reminds us that we can't expect to have deep faith handed to us on a platter. We need to be proactive about nurturing and growing our lives of faith. 

I know that it can be discouraging to see the corruption and horrors that our fellow Catholics have committed (and continue to commit). In this time of confusion and doubt, I encourage you all to dive deeper into your spiritual lives. Really reflect on what it means to be Catholic. Talk to God about your pain and ask Him to help you. Look to the wisdom of the saints and other holy men and women; my husband and I just finished our re-consecration to Jesus through Mary, and as part of that process we read excerpts from The Imitation of Christ that were excellent points of reflection during this chaotic time. 

Today is the Feast of the Stigmata of St. Francis, the day when we commemorate St. Francis of Assisi receiving on his body the marks of Christ's wounds. St. Francis was transformed, his intimacy with God reflected in his wounded and pierced flesh. On this feast, let us ask God to help us burn with love for Him, to grow in deeper intimacy with Him,and to be more faithful to Him in all things and at all times. 

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