Monday, September 23, 2013

In the society of ducks


Ah, yes, Flannery O'Connor. Saint Flannery. The Blessed Mother of Catholic literature.

I'm not being smart-assed or disrespectful. O'Connor richly deserves her high regard, both for her literary gifts and her fidelity to the Church. And besides, she was a wonderfully complex and fascinating human being.

Now here she is in the pages of The New Yorker, nearly 50 years after her early death at age 39. We are given excerpts from the journal she kept as a young aspiring writer at the Iowa Writer's Workshop in 1946. The entries are in the form of prayers, addressed unabashedly to God.

They will resonate with many Catholics who came of age in the 1940s and 50s. Certainly they resonate with me. She is caught in a struggle between self-absorption and surrender, between a love of things and a purifying asceticism, between aspirations for literary success and pursuit of the transcendent. "Please help me get down under things and find where You are," she prays. And again: "Give me the courage to stand the pain to get the grace."

And then, in the midst of these familiar (and sometimes painfully inscrutable) struggles, comes this startling entry:
No one can be an atheist who does not know all things. Only God is an atheist.
The two sentences jump off the page, leap out of the youthful crisis of faith. They take us into another level of reflection, more Zen koan than Thomas Aquinas. Not a prayer, but a meditation on the possibility of prayer.

An unresolved meditation. A meditation wrapped in a conundrum. A meditation that can only be answered with silence.