The University Bookman


Winter 2015

On Looking for What We Have Been Given

James V. Schall, S. J.

“Giving one Catholicism, God deprives one of the pleasure of looking for it, but here again He has shown His mercy for such a one as myself … who, if it had not been given, would not have looked.”

—Flannery O’Connor, September 24, 1947.

A former student of mine from Chicago sent me a short collection from Flannery O’Connor’s Journals. These jottings are from 1946–47, each in the form of a prayer or discussion about prayer. The book has but thirty-seven pages of text. It also reproduces the script version found in Miss O’Connor’s “Sterling Note Book.” She had a very clear, legible, and neat script.

Flannery O’Connor had a genius for revealing our souls in her own prayers. Prayer, of course, is also an ancient literary form. Our Sunday Visitor Press recently published a collection of Benedict XVI’s reflections on prayer. He begins with several samples of prayer from many religious traditions, ancient and classical. What makes O’Connor unique, I think, is that she prays that she simply be a good writer, telling a good story. “I don’t know, but, dear God, I wish you would take care of making it a good story because I don’t know how, just like I don’t know how to write it, but it came.” “Please help me, dear Lord, to be a good writer and to get something else published.” I do not think good writers know ahead of time what exactly they will write. The knowing what they will write, especially its truth, comes, as O’Connor says—“it just came.”

In the first undated entry, O’Connor writes: “O God, make my mind clear.” As a self-confessed Thomist, O’Connor is probably here not praying for Descartes’ “clear and distinct” ideas. She wryly explains: “Please let Christian principles permeate my writing and please let there be enough of my writing (published) for Christian principles to permeate. I dread, O Lord, losing my faith. My mind is not strong It is a prey to all sorts of intellectual quackery.”

Devoted readers of Flannery O’Connor found her quite familiar with “intellectual quackery,” but, in spite of her protests, hardly susceptible to it herself. And she was vain enough to recognize that unpublished writings probably “permeated” very little. “My mind is a most insecure thing, not to be depended on. It gives me scruples at one minute & leaves me lax the next. If I must know all these things thru the mind, dear Lord, please strengthen mine.” We are in fact to “know” things through the mind. That is what it is for. But she is right; we are finite. Our minds are the weakest of the minds in the universe. It is no accident that the vice of pride consists in claiming to know more than we know by our finite intellects.

O’Connor’s wit is seldom absent from her prayers. She does not avoid the great issues. “Learned people,” she tells us, can explain her fear of hell. Their explanation is simple—no such place exists. Hell, however, seems more plausible “to my weak mind” than heaven. Hell is more “earthy.” She can “fancy the tortures of the damned, but I cannot imagine the disembodied souls hanging in a crystal and praising God for all eternity.” I believe it was Milton who once suggested that, pretty much for the reasons Flannery O’Connor gives here, it was always easier to depict the Devil than the gods. He usually managed to steal the show every time he appeared on stage.

O’Connor pursues this thought a bit further: “If we could accurately map heaven, some of our up-&-coming scientists would begin to draw blueprints for its improvement, and the bourgeois would sell guides 10ȼ the copy to all over 65.” Her logic here is perfect. In the most perfect place, the scientist has to find ways to improve it, whereas the ordinary bourgeois in the Kingdom of God finds there a way to make an extra buck. Though if our minds are “clear,” we will prefer the former to the latter, still heaven is indeed more difficult to imagine than hell. That may just be the best argument we can have in its favor. A heaven limited to what we can imagine is probably some place we would be wise to avoid.

Readers of Flannery O’Connor’s stories, novels, and letters soon become aware that more is going on than meets the eye. “O dear Lord, I want to write a novel, a good novel. I want to do this for a good feeling & a bad one. The bad one is uppermost. Psychologists say it is the natural one. Let me get away, dear Lord, from all things thus ‘natural.’ Help me to get what is more than natural in my work …” Here we have the reason and revelation issue right before us, the supernatural that is not opposed to the natural but still remains beyond it.

Earlier, Flannery O’Connor told us that she had been reading “Mr. Kafka.” His “problem,” she thought, was that of “getting grace.” The Catholic does not have the same problem as he can “go to Communion every day.” She then adds something she had heard from the Monsignor who evidently said the Mass she attended. “He said that it was the business of reason, and not emotion—the love of God.” This remark brings us back to her “clear” mind. God can only be loved, as St. Thomas said, if He is first known. We have here, no doubt, intimations of the controversy between the Scotists and the Thomists about the relation of love to reason—veritas et caritas. The reference to Kafka is striking here as the “getting grace” implies both the limits of the finite mind and its openness to a grace that makes it more natural mind, but still mind.

What about the atheists? Flannery writes on the second of January 1947: “No one can be an atheist who does not know all things.” And who does know all things? Flannery’s logic is impeccable: “Only God is an atheist. The devil is the greatest believer & he has his reasons.” One cannot help but be amused. If no one can be an atheist who does not know all things—the human condition—then God must be an atheist for He knows all things. The devil is the only person the universe who is not, and knows he is not, God. He knows too much. Anyone who spends his days seeking to thwart the deeds of God cannot be an atheist. He can be very cunning and prideful in what he manages to pull off. This is what Augustine’s City of Man is all about. But he knows he is not God. He knows that God exists. He is the greatest theist, as Flannery implies.

O’Connor speaks of the views of the world behind the plot and explains its consistency. “The most important single item under this view of the world is conception of love—divine, natural & perverted.” She uses Freud, Proust, and Lawrence to make her point. They have placed love exclusively “inside” the human. But to define love as only “desire” excludes Divine Love as rooted in the loves we know. “Divine love is outside of man and capable of lifting him up to itself. Man’s desire for God is bedded in his unconscious & seeks to satisfy itself in physical possession of another human.” That is a remarkable sentence, with shades of Augustine’s “restless heart.”

But if we remove from love its existential levels within us, what is left? “The modern man, isolated from faith, from raising his desire for God into a conscious desire, is sunk into a position of seeing physical love as an end in itself.” In the case of writers like Proust, they see that, if this thesis is correct, then once physical love is over, all is over. It leads to a despair. It leaves us with a kind of hell. Indeed, “perversion is the end result of denying or revolting against supernatural love.” This sequence is pretty much what has happened in the culture under the notion of “rights” to do what we want to do. Flannery O’Connor, a spinster lady, concludes with the following absolutely countercultural observation: “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. Only a love which does not satisfy can continue.”

In the beginning, I cited the passage in which Flannery O’Connor confessed that she would not have searched for what it all means unless the power to do so had been given to her. It was something that prodded her, something she could not ignore. “I am so weak that God has given me everything, all the tools, instructions for their use, even a good brain to use them with, and a creative brain to make them immediate for others.” Far from thinking that all her talents and genius were something she acquired by herself for her own good, she sees it all as a gift and a responsibility that, perhaps if she writes well—good novels, good stories—the reality that she sees will become “immediate” to others. C. S. Lewis put it well in Mere Christianity: “Nothing that you do not give away can ever remain yours.” This principle includes, as Flannery O’Connor saw in her prayers, even our self-love, or, perhaps, especially our self-love. In an age of relativist individualism, nothing could be further from the truth, or when thought about, bring us closer to it.  

Posted: January 11, 2015 in On Letters and Essays.

Did you see this one? book cover

Look Under the Turnip
Craig Bernthal
Summer 2015

The twentieth-century conservative is concerned, first of all, with the regeneration of the spirit and character—with the perennial problem of the inner order of the soul, the restoration of the ethical understanding, and the religious sanction upon which any life worth living is founded. This is conservatism at the highest.

Russell Kirk


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