Sunday, December 21, 2014

A THEOLOGY OF FACES

DOROTHY DAY

FLANNERY O'CONNOR

GERARD MANLEY HOPKINS

It was a spiritual kinsman of St Isaac, the Father Zossima of The Brothers Karamazov, who showed how our direct responsibility for our own bodies and for dumb creatures may indirectly stretch yet further. In his final conversations father Zossima describes how our very faces may indireclty produce momentous consequences. He asks us to think of a child walking down a street, rather bewildered by the evil in the world and searching for signs that life has meaning. If we have over the years allowed our hearts to become embittered, that will be reflected in our faces. So when the child has seen our face the image that will remain in his heart will be of evil and meaninglessness. It may turn out that our face has sown a seed of evil in the child which will one day overgrow his whole heart. On the other hand, if we have over the years filled our hearts with love, that also will be reflected in our faces and the passing child in the street will be encouraged by what he sees to find meaning in life.

Nor is such an illustration by any means imaginary. We have from the pen of Olivier Clément a moving account of how a face saved his life. It as in the days when he was an atheist, though an unhappy one. He was so unhappy, in fact, and so oppressed by the meaninglessness of human life that he was seriously thinking of committing suicide. Then one day as he was walking depressed beside the Mediterranean sea-shore his attention was riveted by the face of someone who was passing by. The person's face was radiant with meaning, full of such goodness as can only come from years of cultivating a loving heart. In a twinkling Clément's suicidal thoughts were dispelled and a seed sown in his heart that was eventually to transform him into an ardent believer. Not surprisingly, Clément asserts with warm conviction that there is a branch of theology that is properly described as a 'theology of faces.'


--Donald Nicholl, Holiness (New York: Seabury Press, 1981), 48-49.


DETAIL, HEAD OF CHRIST, c. 1648-56
REMBRANDT
 

6 comments:

  1. How lovely this is.
    I've been rereading some Flannery O'Connor stories; in the introduction by Robert Fitzgerald he quotes her beautiful statement about writing, that is applicable to any art:
    "The serious fiction writer will think that any story that can be entirely explained by the adequate motivation of the characters or by a believable imitation of a way of life or by a proper theology, will not be a large enough story for him to occupy himself with. This is not to say that he doesn't have to be concerned with adequate motivation or accurate reference or a right theology; he does; but he has to be concerned with them only because the meaning of his story does not begin except at a depth where these things have been exhausted. The fiction writer presents mystery through manners, grace through nature, but when he finishes, there always has to be left over that sense of Mystery which cannot be accounted for by any human formula."

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    1. Oh Altoon, that's a wonderful quote from the woman I consider my literary mentor: thank you. I love Flannery O'Connor's Mystery and Manners in which she talks at length about art and how the purpose of art isn't to impart a "positive message" or to play to the market or to give people what they need or think they need. She says a "Catholic" novel is a good novel, an excellent novel. We--by which I mean all artists, everywhere--show our love and gratitude by the excellence of subject matter and craft. "At a depth where these things [formulas, imitations] have been exhausted"...

      Speaking of which, thank you for your own superb blog. Studio and Garden, folks, altoonsultan.blogspot.com.

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    2. Thanks for the suggestion of O'Connor's book of essays. I have read some of them but would like to have the collection. I see that it's edited by Sally and Robert Fitzgerald. It was in Robert Fitzgerald's excellent introduction to the collection "All That Rises Must Converge" that I found the above quote.

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  2. Here are my favorite quotes made by two of the faces above:

    The Gospel takes away our right forever, to discriminate between the deserving and undeserving poor." Dorothy Day"You shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you odd.” Flannery O’Connor

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    1. Wonderful quotes!
      My favorite by Hopkins:
      "....Ah well, God rest him all road ever he offended!"
      from Felix Randall the Farrier

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    2. George, I just read that Dorothy Day quote (for to my knowledge the first time) a few weeks ago and it has been ringing in my ears. Cause man, do I want to divide "the poor" (which for me is often the people in my immediate circle of acquaintances and friends) into camps. Every day it seems I have to remember all over again that I'M a premier member of the "undeserving poor"...
      Thanks for this and Merry Christmas to you.

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