Sunday, February 5, 2012

G.K. CHESTERTON: ORTHODOXY AND MIRACLES


For some extraordinary reason, there is a fixed notion that it is more liberal to disbelieve in miracles than to believe in them. Why, I cannot imagine, nor can anybody tell me. For some inconceivable cause a “broad” or “liberal” clergyman always means a man who wishes at least to diminish the number of miracles; it never means a man who wishes to increase that number.
--G.K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy

Chesterton’s observation that the truly liberal person is more, not less, likely to believe in miracles, in the supernatural, in fairy tales, goes to the heart of what to me is so endlessly compelling about Christ. The child who is always ready to be astonished, who wears his or her heart on her sleeve, who is easily angered, easily hurt, and equally easily forgives is poised to be a close friend of Christ’s…

To believe in the sacramentality of life, in mystery—which is what dogma defines and protects—is to live by an unerring North Star that directs us always back to the child-like purity of desire and heart of which the world is constantly trying to divest us. The world, while purporting to live by the “rules” of science and politics and technology, is vague and abstract and centerless and incidentally without mercy; the rules of dogma, that the world accuses of being rigid and strict, by contrast make for crystal-clear decisions—even if it often takes years to make them, and a life of urgency, point, and purpose—even if we often have no idea where it is leading us…

Dogma allowed me to leave a marriage (and to have the marriage annulled) that for all the fruit it bore, should not have been entered into in the first place. That I saw marriage as a sacrament made the decision to leave more agonizing—for I was frightfully aware that I was breaking a sacred vow—but it also, in the end, allowed me to make a decision at all. It forbade me from hanging on because I was afraid of being alone, of being pitied, of being seen as and of myself feeling a failure. When you see marriage as a sacrament, the decision to leave (or for that matter, stay) gets “made” in a sense for you. Integrity prevents you from participating in a lie. Love dictates that for yourself and the other, you MUST leave, no matter what the cost, financially, socially, emotionally, psychologically, no matter what your friends or the world thinks. What your friends, much as you love them, think; what the world thinks, in fact, don’t even figure in—to any of your decisions.

That I view all of life as a sacrament allowed me to quit my job as a lawyer, which I loathed, and embark on the precarious life of a writer. I have met scores of people who are kinder than me, more generous than me, more talented than me, smarter than me, who have told me, I wish I could write. The only reason I am writing and they are not is that to me writing is and has been since the day I started, a sacred honor. There’s a world of difference between viewing something as an honor and viewing it as a sacred honor. When you see the call of writing as a sacred honor you MUST write. You will undergo any hardship, any ignominy, any loneliness, any failure, any humiliation, any risk of being called selfish, anti-social, or insane.

You believe in miracles, you believe in magic, you believe that love will reign, you believe that our hidden lives and sacrifices register, you believe that you were put on earth to write and whether you write and what you write is a matter of life and death. So in a quiet way, you absolutely have the courage of your convictions. And God buoys you up. To not believe in miracles, in dogma, to put your trust in mere conscientiousness,  mere talent, mere intelligence, is to work at a job you hate and to stay in a marriage that is killing you. Or it is to write and to have all the joy of writing leached away because you are constantly disappointed that things aren't working out the way you'd hoped (or as a friend observed after visiting William Blake: “Still Poor, still Dirty”). It is to remain forever in bondage to self. Whereas Christ is saying, in so many words: You are not crazy, go back to your child-like heart, your desire to have everyone around the table, your love of stories, your belief in elves and fairies and miracles, for what I want for you is exactly what you want for yourself.


From an interview with Father Thomas Joseph White, O.P. in Religion & Ethics, November 20, 2009:

“Flannery O’Connor’s said “people who read my works tend to think I’m a hillbilly nihilist, but I would like to be seen rather as a hillbilly Thomist,” and one of the things I think she’s clearly taken from St. Thomas is this understanding of what a sacrament is. In the Catholic tradition there are seven sacraments, and a sacrament is both a sign and an instrument of grace, so that it symbolizes what it also confides, that is to say the grace of God. She says very clearly in a number of places her stories are about how God’s grace works invisibly in the world for people who don’t have sacraments. So she’s trying to write as a kind of hillbilly Thomist about how God works in a non-Catholic terrain of southern Protestantism, of skeptical southern progressivists etc., and in that context looking at how kind of grace manifests itself in signs that are instruments, but you don’t have baptism, confession, and the Mass, which she says are the center of her life. You have instead odd and grotesque, historically surprising events where people encounter the grace of God. Someone throws the book across the room at someone they’re angry at, and the book is called “Human Development,” and when it smacks the person on the head you have the confiding of grace. The book is a sign and instrument of human development, and the absolute becomes manifest in this very concrete, sacramental way. In her story “Greenleaf” you have Miss May who’s gored to death by a bull, who represents Christ, and as the horn of the bull pierces her heart she looks up to heaven, and the bull is a sort of sacramental presence of grace. That’s very odd, it’s very provocative. It’s Catholic but with a very strange twist. The second thing I’d say about sacraments for Aquinas is they’re only suggestive of a glory to come. They’re not a full realization of what we will see in heaven, and so there’s a lot in Flannery O’Connor about a partial, almost secret unveiling of God in the world, leaving the reader with questions and leading the reader toward more questioning about God. So there’s a sort of mysterious ambivalence. If God’s at work in the world, we don’t find him very easily. His grace can explode onto the world, but it also leads us to a higher aspiration to see God, to know God beyond this world. That’s very Catholic. She talks about how she wants to stimulate an understanding of God’s grace hidden in the American South.

I think she’s trying to both teach and shock. Teach and shock are not opposed for her. She says that in a very secular world that we have trouble recognizing the sacred except under the signs of violence. But it’s not a violence that is from the outside. I mean she’s clear about that. The violence of the external, physical events that are shocking is meant to reflect an inner violence of the conversion of love, and she says this when she talks about the title of her book The Violent Bear it Away. She says St. Thomas says the violence that bears us away to Christ is the violence of love that allows us to overcome the defects of our own nature that’s fallen and that’s fragile and can be selfish and egoist. So it’s about the violence of love converting itself to God. The shocking violence of the exterior world is supposed to mirror the internal conversion of love. It’s not something that’s opposed to the will or destroying our freedom. It’s something opening our freedom. She’s very clear about that. Her stories are humorous because her stories are about liberation, but it’s often a liberation that comes despite our selves. We don’t want to be free. We actually want to be free from the love of God, and the love of God comes in kind of comic ways, almost violently frees us to be our better selves.


Flannery O’Connor was a very intuitive, I would almost say shoot-from-the-hip kind of Catholic. She had a deep intuitive sense of the truth in Catholic faith.

She says in one of her letters I am a Catholic not in the way some people are Baptists or Methodists, but in the way some people are atheists. It has a kind of evidential force for me that I find difficult to question’, not in the sense that she was an anti-intellectual. If anything she read avidly, lots of secular as well as religious authors and theologians. But there’s a sense in which she’s grounded in something prior to speculations or deductions or arguments. She’s got a deep intuitive sense of Christ present in the Mass. She says Mass is the stable pillar of her life, that it’s what makes life in the modern world tolerable for her. So she’s a fairly traditional Catholic, I think.

Flannery O’Connor says repeatedly in her letters to Betty Hester that dogma is not a force that’s anti-intellectual for a believing Catholic, nor does it cramp one’s freedom, but rather dogma preserves and safeguards mysteries that open the mind to contemplation and preserve the freedom of the person to approach God more intimately. So she sees dogma not as something anti-intellectual or hampering the development of the human person, but opening the human person up to the mystery of God. She was very concerned about the Catholic Church’s moral teachings in the sense that she was very committed to them. She knew in her own day about the controversy about the question of regulation of birth and birth control, and she was pretty clear that she was on the side of the church’s traditional teaching. She said we should be prepared to move over and get used to being crowded rather than anybody commit the least sin with regard to the Church’s teachings in this domain, so I don’t know how she would have reacted to the liturgical changes of Vatican II, but I think in terms of the teaching of the Catholic Church concerning doctrine and morals, she had a very deep reverence for the church’s tradition.”

This is the thrilling romance of Orthodoxy. People have fallen into a foolish habit of speaking of orthodoxy as something heavy, humdrum, and safe. There never was anything so perilous or so exciting as orthodoxy. It was sanity: and to be sane is more dramatic than to be mad. It was the equilibrium of a man behind madly rushing horses, seeming to stoop this way and to sway that, yet in every attitude having the grace of statuary and the accuracy of arithmetic.
--G.K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy

THE HOLLYWOOD FREEWAY, SOUTH-BOUND

9 comments:

  1. Beautiful post! Miracles are everywhere, all around us, each breath is a miracle. You are right, writing as a sacred honor is very different than writing because one can. Kudos!

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  2. If Flannery O'Connor were alive and armed with a camera, Heather, she would have done the impossible, as you have here: to make the Golden Arches transcendentally beautiful.

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  3. ha ha, thanks, Bill--I forgot to say that was taken from my car at the distinctly non-transcendent (although of course in its way everything is transcendent: even the MacDonald's sign!) corner of Fountain(?) (or maybe Santa Monica) and Vermont on my way to 5:30 Mass at Immaculate Heart of Mary in East Hollywood...

    Thanks, Stephen and Barb as well...

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  4. Lifted high today by your beautiful post!
    Writing as a sacred honor...wow!

    Thanks, Heather.

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  5. ...and a very teachable post. It's a keeper for me!

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  6. Yeah really great post... Your intro was great and really liked the reflection on dogma. I think the fact that dogma is not something ultimately to contain but to free is a great and beautiful paradox, and one that is often very difficult to convey to someone who doesn't necessarily experience it firsthand. I'm not sure I can really explain it to myself perfectly. I'd love to hear more on it, though I know you've written on it before and I should just do a little searching.

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  7. I can never understand bow one man could say so many clever things, or more precicely say so many ordinary things in such a clever fashion.I am also in awe of the ability of one woman's ability to me so much. I like the comments about O'Connor, and her Thomist desire to bring grace through the sacraments to everyone,who she found mostly kicking and screaming that they don't want them. The girl who threw the book was named Grace, wasn't she?
    There can be no covenant without sacrifice. I forget who pronounced that for my consideration recently, but I believe it. The violence of the sacrifice that is part of making a covenant is always played down by people who don't want to make sacramental decisions.
    Thank you for your remarks about divorce and sacramental nature of marriage. I think I had a visceral understanding of your point from experience, and now I could maybe explain it if anyone cared.

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  8. Vocation comes from the Latin vocare; to call.

    You were called to writing and answered yes. I wondered, have I answered yes to His particular call to me? Do I honor the vocation to which He called me? Do I rather regard it as a burden?

    This, of course, salted with 1Cor 9:16 from yesterday's Mass -- where Paul speaks of his own vocation -- lent some immediacy to these questions.

    Many thanks. Your yes ripples outward spreading grace.

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