Obviously, I must start reading Flannery O’Connor
Via Mark Shea, Paul Greenberg wrote a column about a letter from Flannery O’Connor. It’s a decent column. But the interesting bit for me was that I’d never before seen the context for O’Connor’s famous comment on the Eucharist, “If it’s just a symbol, to hell with it.”
She was writing a friend of hers about a soiree she’d attended as a student at the University of Iowa’s writers’ workshop:
“I was once, five or six years ago, taken by some friends to have dinner with Mary McCarthy and her husband, Mr. Broadwater. (She just wrote that book, “A Charmed Life.”) She departed the Church at the age of 15 and is a Big Intellectual. We went at eight and at one, I hadn’t opened my mouth once, there being nothing for me in such company to say. . . . Having me there was like having a dog present who had been trained to say a few words but overcome with inadequacy had forgotten them.
“Well, toward morning the conversation turned on the Eucharist, which I, being the Catholic, was obviously supposed to defend. Mrs. Broadwater said when she was a child and received the host, she thought of it as the Holy Ghost, He being the most portable person of the Trinity; now she thought of it as a symbol and implied that it was a pretty good one. I then said, in a very shaky voice, Well, if it’s a symbol, to hell with it.
“That was all the defense I was capable of but I realize now that this is all I will ever be able to say about it, outside of a story, except that it is the center of existence for me; all the rest of life is expendable.”
I can’t tell you how much I identify with the situation. (Including the mindboggling feat, from an otherwise well-educated person, of identifying the Body and Blood of the 2nd Person of the Trinity with the 3rd. Though happily I didn’t run into that one in person.) There are times when people say things to you that just boggle the mind with how totally they contradict your deepest beliefs and knowledge of the truth. In some ways, the depth of your own knowledge and belief can become a handicap at such moments, because it all rushes up and blocks you from thinking clearly. I don’t know whether O’Connor’s Irish temper rose, too, (though the language she used seems indicative!) but I know mine would’ve. It makes me feel better to know that I’m not the first person to have this problem. And it moves me to see how God has used this sort of horrible muddy moment that O’Connor was just trying to get off her chest, to become a really important statement about the Real Presence.
I feel the need for a “Well, if it’s a symbol, to hell with it.” T-shirt.
It runs two ways, though. If I’m going to complain about other folks talking trash or silliness about my religion, I’ve got to be respectful of other people when I talk about their religions. I ought to think before I speak, and not talk out of my unknowledgeable butt. I’m allowed to be certain, but not smug. I do have a bad tendency toward smug.
Speaking of smug, Mark Shea also linked to this interesting comment comparing the kindliness of priests to the scrupulosity and holy-go-piousness of amateur online theologians. Sometimes I may resemble that remark….
(Is it me, or is it becoming increasingly obvious that I’m sorry to have missed Confession on Saturday? Boy, I hope I won’t keep subconsciously examining my conscience all frackin’ week. Not a pretty process, especially for an easily depressed person like myself.)