Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Flannery was one wise country gal


I asked Doc Pence for his reaction to some comments of the great Catholic writer, Flannery O'Connor, who died of lupus in 1964 [his words are in italics]:

"Our age not only does not have a very sharp eye for the almost imperceptible intrusions of grace, it no longer has much feeling for the nature of the violences which precede and follow them.  The devil's greatest wile, Baudelaire has said, is to convince us that he does not exist.”

There are two insights here.

One from the novelist who reminds us there is a major character missing in the modernist story. I am learning to substitute conversations about policies and practices (like the male priesthood and heterosexual marriage) with a comparison of notes about who we think is on stage with us.

 It turns out an accurate and more complete listing of the dramatis personae – the players in the drama – is the fighting point of stasis where we should contend with the modernists. The characters most often missing are the fallen Angel – Lucifer, and the first Man – Adam. 

Secondly, she reminds us that moments of grace are often preceded and followed by other less friendly spiritual movements.  This is the only adequate explanation of the terrible hijacking of two great civic and ecclesial religious events of the last century: the American civil rights movement and the Second Vatican Council. Those two workings of the Spirit have been twisted by another Force. Herod has had his murderous day, but he will not kill the baby. A resurgence of grace will eventually yield the fruits of these movements. But we cannot deny O’Connor’s insight – at every wisp of grace the devil wants his due.

"I suppose the reasons for the use of so much violence in modern fiction will differ with each writer who uses it, but in my own stories I have found that violence is strangely capable of returning my characters to reality and preparing them to accept their moment of grace.  Their heads are so hard that almost nothing else will do the work."

Does it take these one-day rampages of mass murderers to wake us up? Miss O’Connor certainly thought that was true in novels. They say difficult cases make bad law but it may be that conversion demands the grotesque. It took some pretty terrible deeds to turn Pharoah’s heart and, even then, only for an instant.  

"It requires considerable grace for two races to live together, particularly when the population is divided about 50-50 between them and when they have our particular history.  It can't be done without a code of manners based on mutual charity.  I remember a sentence from an essay of Marshall McLuhan's.  I forgot the exact words, but the gist of it was, as I recollect it, that after the Civil War, formality became a condition of survival.  This doesn't seem to me any less true today.  Formality preserves that individual privacy which everyone needs and, in these times, is always in danger of losing.  It's particularly necessary to have in order to protect the rights of both races.  When you have a code of manners based on charity, then when the charity fails – as it is going to do constantly – you've got those manners there to preserve each race from small intrusions upon the other."

Manners, morality, civic charity and the nature of public life are all deeply related. Her emphasis here is the role of manners in keeping peace between the races in the South. I would say there is some similar problem today in employing manners to bring the natural protective order of adult authority back as a vivid daily experience. The public agreement of men who do not know each other’s name but recognize one another as fellow protectors (the basis of citizenship and masculine civic friendship) manifests itself in rituals of gestures and greetings to one another, to women and to younger males. The first school of such manners is the form of liturgical actions in religious gatherings.    

"The Hebrew genius for making the absolute concrete has conditioned the Southerner's way of looking at things.  That is one of the reasons why the South is a storytelling section.  Our response to life is different if we have been taught only a definition of faith than if we have trembled with Abraham as he held the knife over Isaac.  Both of these kinds of knowledge are necessary, but in the last four or five centuries, Catholics have overemphasized the abstract and consequently impoverished their imaginations and their capacity for prophetic insight. 

"Nothing will insure the future of Catholic fiction so much as the biblical revival that we see signs of now in Catholic life.  The Bible is held sacred in the Church, we hear it read at Mass, bits and pieces of it are exposed to us in the liturgy, but because we are not totally dependent on it, it has not penetrated very far into our consciousness nor conditioned our reactions to experience... 

"We Catholics too much enjoy indulging ourselves in the logic that kills, in making categories smaller and smaller, in prescribing attitudes and proscribing subjects.  For the Catholic, one result of the Counter-Reformation was a practical overemphasis on the legal and logical and a consequent neglect of the Church's broader tradition.  The need for this emphasis has now diminished, and the Church is busy encouraging those biblical and liturgical revivals which should restore Catholic life to its proper fullness.  Nevertheless the scars of this legalistic approach are still upon us.  Those who are long on logic, definitions, abstractions, and formulas are frequently short on a sense of the concrete..."

This great insight was a driving force of Vatican II. The Council held up the presence of Christ amidst the world – not as the conclusion of a philosophical argument, not as special friend with whom every man makes his separate peace, but as the Head of a living body acting sacramentally throughout the world in particular lands in this particular time.  The Council itself substituted the language of biblical personalism for the philosophical categories. This was not in any way a rejection of the rigor of philosophy; but there is a 'rigor mortis' and a 'rigor vitae' – and Miss O’Connor and the Holy Spirit at the Council purged the rigor mortis.  

The Council was a living icon in a place at a time marked by 1) the collegial experience of  fraternity among 2000  bishops under the office of Peter; 2) the recognition of the liturgy as the unifying life-giving actions defining the Church; 3) a new public manifestation of the Church’s renewed historical self consciousness as an apostolic body. This presence cast off any claim to temporal power, but projected an even more dramatic presence as a continued apostolic fraternity participating in the biblical narrative of history as the light to the nations. The two great world wars which mocked the fractured public church with the armed atheism of the Nazis and Soviets were answered with the reappearance of those two great biblical actors: the armed nation of Israel, and the ‘light to the nations’ -- the evangelizing Apostolic Church.

On a less dramatic note, O’Connor’s lesson must also be pondered by the thin-chested orthodox intellectuals who have eviscerated the discussion of natural law from the ordering of the world by a Living God to the verbose tracts of university professors in praise of their own reason. The same chastisement is due the Catholic political philosophers who explain public life and citizenship in tome after tome but never evoke armed men disciplined by God, courageous leaders bound to other men by law, and the fraternal friendship of shared territorial protective duty. Natural law with no Living God ordering nature and history, and Political Philosophy with no men ruling and fighting for their nations – these are the abstractions that Miss O’Connor criticized. She was never pleased with either atheism or emasculation.  

Let's end with the Lady:
"If you live today you breathe in nihilism. In or out of the Church, it’s the gas you breathe… I think that the Church is the only thing that is going to make the terrible world we are coming to endurable… If you believe in the divinity of Christ, you have to cherish the world at the same time that you struggle to endure it… It is easy to see that the moral sense has been bred out of certain sections of the population, like the wings have been bred off certain chickens to produce more white meat on them. This is a generation of wingless chickens, which I suppose is what Nietzsche meant when he said God was dead."        (Flannery O’Connor)

Monday, December 24, 2012

Chesterton on Christmas

GKC’s thoughts (from The Everlasting Man) on the high Holy Day of the 'bleak midwinter when frosty wind made moan':
"Christmas for us in Christendom has become one thing, and in one sense even a simple thing. But like all the truths of that tradition, it is in another sense a very complex thing. Its unique note is the simultaneous striking of many notes; of humility, or gaiety, of gratitude, of mystical fear, but also of vigilance and drama. There is something defiant in it also; something that makes the abrupt bells at midnight sound like the great guns of a battle that has just been won. All this indescribable thing that we call the Christmas atmosphere only hangs in the air as something like a lingering fragrance or fading vapour from the exultant explosion of that one hour in the Judean hills nearly two thousand years ago. But the savour is still unmistakable, and it is something too subtle or too solitary to be covered by our use of the word peace. By the very nature of the story the rejoicings in the cavern were rejoicings in a fortress or an outlaw’s den; properly understood it is not unduly flippant to say they were rejoicings in a dug-out. It is not only true that such a subterranean chamber was a hiding-place from enemies; and that the enemies were already scouring the stony plain that lay above it like a sky. 
"There is in this buried divinity an idea of undermining the world; of shaking the towers and palaces from below; even as Herod the great king felt that earthquake under him and swayed with his swaying palace. This is perhaps the mightiest of the mysteries of the cave. Indeed the Church from its beginnings, and perhaps especially in its beginnings, was not so much a principality as a revolution against the prince of the world. It was in truth against a huge unconscious usurpation that it raised a revolt. Olympus still occupied the sky like a motionless cloud moulded into many mighty forms; philosophy still sat in the high places and even on the thrones of the kings, when Christ was born in the cave and Christianity in the catacombs."

Recently, Dale Ahlquist wrote of Chesterton’s answer to those who criticize Christmas as being artificial:
“ ‘It is natural to man to be artificial.’  Everything about art and culture and custom is technically artificial.  But it is also exactly what separates man from every other creature.  The artificial things we do are not merely practical, but elaborate.  We make not only clothes, but purple robes and golden capes.  We build not only roofs over our heads, but cathedrals and temples… And in breaking away from the mere cycles of nature, ‘the rhythm by which all the other unconscious creatures live,’ we have made a rhythm of our own, ‘with special crises and high moments of festival.’ ”

Sunday, December 16, 2012

Time to exile the cliche of "servant leadership"

Manly chivalry, yes.  As for that recent plaguy phrase – pshaw and begone!

Here is an excerpt from Richard Weaver's famous little book of 1948:
“Fraternity directs attention to others, equality to self… [As we have moved to greater equality], suspicion and hostility have increased.  In the present world there is little of trust and less of loyalty.  People do not know what to expect of one another.  Leaders will not lead, and servants will not serve.”
Or as Pence says: "Refusing to rule is declining the original mission of Adam."

Saturday, December 15, 2012

Set your face like flint against the Dragon

As we trudge up the Advent path to Bethlehem (the high feast to be quickly followed by the commemoration of the Massacre of the Innocents), Holy Mother Church offers us this hymn of consolation:

Hark! a herald voice is calling
  Through the shadows of the night
‘Cast away the dreams of darkness
  Christ descends with heavenly light.’

Wakened by the solemn warning,
  Let the earthbound soul arise;
Christ, her sun, all sloth dispelling,
  Shines upon the morning skies.

Lo, the Lamb, so long expected,
  Comes with pardon down from heav’n;
Let us haste, with tears of sorrow,
  One and all to be forgiv’n;

So, when next he comes with glory,
  And his judgement-day draws near,
Faithful he may find his servants,
  Watching till their Lord appear.

Honour, glory, might, and blessing
  To the Father and the Son,
With the everlasting Spirit,
  While eternal ages run.


Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Merton the monk was the son of artists

Born in France during the First World War, Thomas Merton wrote of his father:
“My father painted like Cezanne and understood the southern French landscape the way Cezanne did.  His vision of the world was sane, full of balance, full of veneration for structure, for the relations of masses and for all the circumstances that impress an individual identity on each created thing.  His vision was religious and clean, and therefore his paintings were without decoration or superfluous comment, since a religious man respects the power of God’s creation to bear witness for itself.  My father was a very good artist.”