On May 30, 1962, the writer Flannery O’Connor wrote the first of three long letters to a Georgia college freshman who had written and told her he was losing — or had lost –his Christian faith. He was looking for counsel. He was a budding writer (a poet) and obviously admired Flannery (if I may speak of her in such personal terms). He obviously knew that, in addition to being a fellow Georgian, she was, based on her essays and literary output, unapologetically Catholic, a fact which did not notably detract from the high esteem in which most critics held her, or her two novels and several short stories. She herself insisted she was a better artist by virtue of the unwavering Christian certitude that informed those works. She also knew that she’d be held to a higher standard as a Christian writer, since so much of contemporary Christian “literature” was mere treacle.
There was nothing didactic or pious about her — hardly. She wrote in ways that often shocked modern sensibilities. Her stories about simple rural Georgia folks were unsentimental, sometimes violent, often humorous and took a loving but unsparing view of human nature in the light of the eternal. She skillfully traced the hidden working of divine grace, as she perceived it. She was forever, in the words of Yeats, casting “a cold eye on life, on death” — and here she was writing only two years before her own death at the tender age of 39, as her health steadily declined from the disease of Lupus.
She also never, or rarely, had characters in her stories who were Catholic. They were products of the snake-handling, fundamentalist deep South. And she was, as a Catholic, an outsider, despite being born in Savannah and a long-time resident of Milledgeville, Georgia. She always maintained that the South, while Christ-haunted, was not Christ-centered. Her “haunted” characters wrestled like Jacob with the God of revelation, self-deluded, and afflicted almost invariably with the sin of pride, the deadliest sin of all.
The young college freshman and correspondent’s name was Alfred Corn. He was at Emory College in Atlanta, heard Flannery speak to his English class, “was much taken by what she had to say and by her presence,” according to the editor of her collected letters, but was too shy to approach her, so wrote her instead.
Flannery began her first letter to him, I think that this experience you are having of losing your faith, or as you think, of having lost it, is an experience that in the long run belongs to faith; or at least it can belong to faith if faith is still valuable to you, and it must be or you would not have written me about this.
A few sentences later (all her letters are collected in a volume entitled, The Habit of Being), Flannery writes, Peter said, ‘Lord, I believe. Help my unbelief.‘
It is the most natural and most human and most agonizing prayer in the gospels, and I think it is the foundation prayer of faith, she said.
There must have been a response from her young correspondent, because she wrote a second long letter on June 16, 1962 that offers an overtly religious diagnosis of the modern malaise and, again, to her mind, its tragic misdirection:
One of the effects of modern liberal Protestantism has been gradually to turn religion into poetry and therapy, to make truth vaguer and vaguer and more and more relative, to banish intellectual distinctions, to depend on feeling instead of thought, and gradually to come to believe that God has no power, that he cannot communicate with us, cannot reveal himself to us, indeed has not done so, and that religion is our own sweet invention. This seems to be about where you find yourself now.
And where did Flannery’s correspondent ultimately “find” himself later in life? He became a famous poet — speaking of poetry — and, based on the evidence, never regained anything like an orthodox Christian faith but rather liberated himself to contemporary secular mores. Art, specifically poetry, seems to have become his “religion”.
More about the poet Alfred Corn later — because what did ultimately happen to him is significant in light of my thesis here that we are, as a culture, caught up in a faithless, agonizing acts of modern misdirection — and confusion — regarding matters of the spirit. Many of us, like Alfred Corn, seem to be living according to Justice Anthony Kennedy’s famous dictum in the Supreme Court’s Casey decision on abortion: “At the heart of liberty is the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life.” That essentially crystalizes the modern creed of radical human autonomy embraced by multitudes and, in Flannery’s diagnosis, “make truth vaguer and vaguer and more relative.” It’s also likely to make any religious creed we adopt “our own sweet invention.” Justice Kennedy made that pronouncement exactly three decades after Flannery wrote those words.
Meanwhile, Flannery’s heartfelt catechetical intervention on behalf of Alfred Corn would seem to have been a failure, though, in her short life, she likely remained unaware of that — unless Alfred Corn kept in touch (not likely, since there were no subsequent letters from him).
Flannery affirmed her unflinching Catholic orthodoxy to Corn in that letter in a way that might induce cringes among 21st Century moderns.
Of course, I am a Catholic, she wrote, which she acknowledged was always a counter-cultural, even back in 1962, when Catholic culture had enjoyed, at least superficially, a decade of comparative cultural affirmation, especially on the silver screen. I recall around1960 attending a technicolor Bing Crosby/Debbie Reynolds movie in which, Bing as a priest, approaches a beautiful, candle-lit marble alter to a swell of organ music. It was time for the movie to end, but instead of the traditional THE END, the words, THE BEGINNING was magisterially superimposed over the alter and tabernacle. Only then did the scene shift to a final shot of the New York cityscape along with the words, THE END.
Hollywood was affirming Christ — and the Church — as the alpha and omega. It’s what the moguls thought many audiences wanted to see. Those days would soon be gone and Catholics, especially Catholic politicians, would begin conforming themselves to an increasingly secular culture, contorting their former creed to fit their newly adopted lifestyles and political beliefs. The more honorable among us simply left the Church.
But not Flannery.
I believe what the Church teaches, she wrote Alfred Corn. – that God has given us reason to use and that it can lead us toward a knowledge of him through analogy; that he has revealed himself in history and continues to do so through the Church and that he is present (not just symbolically) in the Eucharist on our alters. To believe all this I don’t take any leap into the absurd. I find it reasonable to believe, even though these beliefs are beyond reason.
Beyond reason, not unreasonable — a distinction pointedly rejected by the unreligious.
But then the letter takes a helpful, but slightly dubious ( at least to my mind) turn — which is also helpful to those of us who have suspected that Flannery the artist, along with the young freshman and future poet, were being buffeted by the winds of the wild contemporary marketplace of modern ideas. Flannery made an odd choice.
Sensing her correspondent’s spiritual and intellectual hunger but perhaps also his desire to cast off what he thought of as dusty old religious notions, she recommend a book that, all these decades later, might betray the undercooked nature of some of the late 20th Century Catholic theological and scientific dabblings among nonetheless devout, sophisticated contemporary souls eager to bring the Church “up to date.”
The recommended book was from among the many volumes of renowned (and controversial) Jesuit French scholar Teilhard de Chardin. Teilhard still has his Catholic intellectual defenders. But in most orthodox circles, his theological and scientific capital has been devalued, if not entirely ruled null and void.
Flannery’s religious reading tastes, in addition to the Scriptures and Thomas Aquinas, often ran to the metaphysical and abstruse and the challenging but orthodox. She was intrigued by Teilhard’s curious and novel theological “take” on old questions. She was open to those who found Teilhard problematic. She was an intellectual wayfarer but nonetheless saw the justification for the Church’s long-ago-abandoned Index of (forbidden) Books.
Teilhard notions of a universe in evolution towards spirit and that spirit being realized in the form of personality, and the supremely personal being the Universal Christ all sounds fairly harmless to me. But other Catholic scholars began to cast Yeat’s “cold eye” on Teilhard’s speculations and conclusions.
Among the greatest of 20th Century Catholic philosophers was the Gereman Dietrich von Hildebrand, a vigorous anti-Nazi who barely escaped to America with his wife as the Reich swept over Europe. In 1949, he was introduced to Teilhard and attended one of his lectures. His reaction was highly negative.
Teilhard’s lecture was a great disappointment, for it manifested utter philosophical confusion, especially in his conception of the human person. I was even more upset by his theological primitiveness. He ignored completely the decisive difference between nature and supernature. After a lively discussion in which I ventured a criticism of his ideas, I had an opportunity to speak to Teilhard privately. When our talk touched on St. Augustine, he exclaimed violently: “Don’t mention that unfortunate man; he spoiled everything by introducing the supernatural.” This remark confirmed the impression I had gained of the crass naturalism of his views, but it also struck me in another way. The criticism of St. Augustine, the greatest of the Fathers of the Church, betrayed Teilhard’s lack of a genuine sense of intellectual and spiritual grandeur.
I’d call that a slam. What very little I’ve read of this charming, long-departed French cleric struck me as inoffensively and sweetly — poetic. Maybe, in retrospect, I was reading entertainingly poetic theology. I don’t know and am not qualified to say. And I suspect Flannery didn’t know, either, and though she was made of sharper cerebral and discerning stuff than most, was quick to admit her intellectual limitations.
She plainly had an pedagogical motive for recommending something like this to an eagerly searching mind and soul. But she simultaneouslky offered the pastoral equivalent of the universal counsel, “keep it simple.”
One result of the stimulation of your intellectual life that takes place in college, Flannery wrote Corn, is usually the shrinking of the imaginative life….Students get so bound up with difficulties such as reconciling the clashing of so many different faiths such as Buddhism, Mohammedanism, etc., that they cease to look for God in other ways. (Robert) Bridges once wrote Gerard Manley Hopkins and asked him to tell him how he, Bridges, could believe., he must have expected from Hopkins a long philosophical answer. Hopkins wrote back, “Give alms.” He was trying to say to Bridges that God is to be experienced in Charity (in the sense of love for the divine image in human beings). Don’t get so entangled with intellectual difficulties that you fail to look for God in this way.
Simple advice, just as things were getting complicated.
The year 1962 was the threshold of all the mid-to-late-20th Century turbulence and confusion in the world and in the Church. The Second Vatican Council was about to convene in Rome and bishops were poised to make many pastoral adjustments to the Church’s outreach to the modern world. That was the stated purpose of the Counsel, in a nutshell. But in opening itself to the modern world, the Church was also about to open itself to all the moral and spiritual pathologies and intellectual novelties that were then regnant in the 1960s cultural revolution, including voices far more disorienting than that of poor Teilhard de Chardin who died an earnest son of the Church. There was a degree of theological chaos at the Council
In fact, there seemed a kind of subterranean clerical cabal intent on making dogmatic as well as pastoral adjustments to ancient Church beliefs and practices once that epical Council was underway. The result has been lingering decades of theological turmoil and conflict.
The barque of Peter seems to have slowly righted itself. Or, has it? After three very orthodox papacies, we have the seemingly deliberate, historically unprecedented ambiguities growing out of the pastoral style of Pope Francis I. God has sent His children a challenge in the form of a very personable pope — a Jesuit — who himself or his mischievous minions are always suggesting that 2 + 2 can equal 5 when it comes to religion. Flannery would ultimately be dismayed, I fear. She valued clarity.
This is all important stuff. Why? Reject the premise if you wish, but I submit that the condition of Catholicism and of the Church in the modern world has implications for all of civilization. It remains the ancient, unyielding ” wall” against which the culture bangs its head. It is the ‘institution” whose status millions in and out of the Church regard as an indices of spiritual ,civilizational progress or decline. It is forever countercultural. Its enemies are mounting.
“Modernity’s heart is, when finally exposedl skeptical and nihilistic,” wrote the late Jesuit theologian and educator James V. Schall in the June, 2007 issue of Homiletics & Pastoral Review. He went on to suggest that, the intellectual position of Catholicism in the modern world has never been stronger, but is cultural position has never been weaker….
Strong new and young theological voices are easy to find. But those who identify as Catholic or claim any religion are dwindling alarmingly.
Nietzsche ( and nihilism)provided the basis of a new or “post-modern” world, Father Schall wrote. He continues to function as the real and most logical alternative to a failed liberalism that refused to return to metaphysics and revelations for foundations in the real. He is also the alternative to Christianity in the culture, though outside it, there is Islam.…
No alternate and consistent grounding on which to organize one’s life and society, Nietzsche thought, could be found in any system, particularly not in liberalism in its various and changing forms. Nor could it be found in Christianity, which latter he rejected not so much because he did not think it true, but because he did not think Christians, in practice, thought it was true — hence “the last Christian died on the Cross.”
Whatever might be said of Vatican II’s effort to bring Catholicism “up to date,” the fact is that it did not understand clearly what it was that was in fact motivating the culture.. It was not merely a question of debate and ideas, but of habits, institutions, laws, and philosophies that implicitly guides people in explaining how they lived according to modernity.
In an August 12, 1962 letter to Alfred Corn, Flannery, indicating she was aware of the coming Vatican Council, and professed her faith in the Church’s reasonableness and future survival. I don’t believe Christ left us to chaos, she wrote.
So what path did Alfred Corn eventually follow in the wake of his encounter with Flannery’s orthodoxy?
Well, according to what biographical material I’ve been able to obtain, he would go on to considerable academic and literary achievement, write many books of poetry, marry a classmate, then divorce, then come out gay and be regarded as a “gay” poet. He would edit a book I once owned (don’t know what happened to it) entitled, Incarnation, in which a number of prominent writers interpret books of the Bible in decidedly heterodox ways. The fact that he edited such a volume suggests that he remains — he is now 77 — absorbed with religious questions but, by Flannery O’Connor’s Catholic standards, has gone into a dark, confused place morally and artistically. (Flannery’s longest, most voluminous and lively correspondence with a woman named Elizabeth Hester whom Flannery, to her delight, brought into the Church. But the conversion did not stick — to Flannery’s dismay. She had already seen her friend Robert Lowell quickly abandon the faith following his conversion. She was evangelizing in Gomorrah, a disheartening business. Elizabeth Hester was an especially tragic figure — very bright, very private, a wonderful writer who rarely published and worked all her life as a water department clerk — a lesbian who’d been flushed out of the military on moral grounds ( a painful revelation she made to Flannery who did her best to reassure her of her dignity and worth as a human being.) She was apparently bipolar, suffered from depression and, decades after Flannery’s death, committed suicide by blowing her brains out. She ended life mocking the Church, as did Lowell.
But Flannery’s faith in the Church, her embrace of all it taught — about homosexuality, the natural law, abortion, birth control, love, death, resurrection — never wavered. She endured her illness serenely and heroically and went on writing.
Flannery’s prayer journals were published in 2013. She never intended that it see the light of day, being, basically, pages of soul-searching, devout jottings in a speckled black 5&10 notebook. It dates to the late 1940s, when she was just starting out as a writer.
In a May 4th entry — year unknown — she wrote:
Freud, Proust, Lawrence have located love inside the human & there is no need to question their locations; however, there is no need either to define love as they do — only as desire, since this precludes Divine Love, which, while it too may be desire, is a different kind of desire –Divine desire — and is outside of man and capable of lifting him up to itself….
Perversion is the end result of denying or revolting against supernatural love….The sex act is a religious act & when it occurs without God it is a mock act or at best an empty act. Proust is right that only a love which does not satisfy can continue.
And thus in her brief life did tough-minded Flannery O’Connor — novelist, unmarried, Catholic, American, Southerner — buck, chastise, love, support and attempt to correct in here small way the modern world on its wobbly course – and those souls she encountered along the way who seemed open to what she and her Church had to offer the troubled times.
Is anybody lisening?
I half want to write Alfred Corn to ask him why he ultimately found Flannery’s case for religion — not to mention the natural law — so unpersuasive. Why did he revolt, if I can use that word, against what she called “supernatural love” –and, for that matter, “natural” love? What do he and the world make of love these days? I’m afraid I know. I’m afraid the evidence is everywhere. Where is it taking us?
At the end of her second and last novel, Flannery’s character Tarwater, having accidentally drowned an impaired child in the process of baptizing him, wandering in the wake of a homosexual rape by a truckdriver, emerging from a line of burning woods ( I told you her stuff was harsh), suddenly ceases to resist the promptings of grace and is determined to spread the word of God’s mercy available even to the likes of him.
He may be ignored, jailed — or killed.
His singed eyes dark in their deep sockets, seemed already to envison the fate that awaited him but he moved steadily on, his face set towards the dark city, where the children of God lay sleeping.