“You don’t serve God by saying: the Church is ineffective, I’ll have none of it. Your pain at its lack of effectiveness is a sign of your nearness to God. We overcome this lack of effectiveness simply by suffering on account of it. To expect too much is to have a sentimental view of life and this is a softness that ends in bitterness. Charity is hard and endures. I don’t want to discourage you from reading St. Thomas but don’t read him with the notion that he is going to clear anything up for you. That is done by study but more by prayer. What you want, you have to be not above asking for.”
– Flannery O’Connor, Letter to Cecil Dawkins
Earlier this week I shared the quote above on the Junto’s Facebook page. It resonated with me for two reasons. First, I tend to be an idealistic, emotional fellow, prone to expecting much of the world and being profoundly disappointed at the reality of things. (When I took my first job in Minneapolis, certain co-workers called me “Farm Boy” due to my apparent “naive optimism.”) Second, we live in a time in which the future of the Church seems uncertain, and I, for one, struggle to know what to do about it. Our recent discussion of the first half of the Holy Father’s encyclical Laudato Si is a case in point: our merry band was unanimous in our criticism of the piece, and in being at a loss at how to respond.
O’Connor’s rebuke of her friend, Dawkins, was the sharp slap that I needed to regain some perspective. Here’s how I break it down:
- “You don’t serve God by saying: the Church is ineffective, I’ll have none of it.” The Church is the Body of Christ here on earth. There is no other, and nothing to be gained by bemoaning its human weaknesses, for as Peter says to Jesus: “Master, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life” (John 6:68).
- “Your pain at its lack of effectiveness is a sign of your nearness to God. We overcome this lack of effectiveness simply by suffering on account of it.” Scripture tells us that “power is made perfect in weakness” (2 Cor 12:9) — our growing awareness and understanding of our weakness humiliates us, reminding us we are creatures dependent on our Creator. Further, Jesus tells us we will suffer if we follow Him, but assures us “I am the Way and the Truth and the Life” (John 14:6). Our hope is in suffering with Him — His Body was meant to be sacrificed.
- “To expect too much is to have a sentimental view of life and this is a softness that ends in bitterness.” Our Lord and His saints have all warned against putting our faith in the things of this world. Much of this life is beautiful, but it is far short of what we were made for: eternity with Our Heavenly Father. As St. Augustine, whose feast is today, wrote: “Thou hast made us for thyself, O Lord, and our heart is restless until it finds its rest in thee.”
- “Charity is hard and endures.” This, to me, is the core of O’Connor’s rebuke, and I love the double meaning: Charity is not soft, sentimental love that is here, then gone — it is like a firm stone that weathers any storm. But charity is also hard as in difficult: this love requires an act of the will. Jesus specifically calls us to love the unlovable: our neighbors, our enemies, those who persecute us — and to forgive, and forgive, and forgive. We are called to love fallen-away Catholics, lukewarm clergy, poorly-formed parents, and misguided bishops. It is hard, but when we choose this love (and keep choosing it, come what may) — this is love that endures.
- “I don’t want to discourage you from reading St. Thomas but don’t read him with the notion that he is going to clear anything up for you. That is done by study but more by prayer.” The Junto has discussed this before: certainly there is much to be gained from study — but knowledge and wisdom, sound theology and holiness, are not the same. With God we can achieve anything; without God, nothing. So when I ask, “What can I do, besides pray?” I am asking a fool’s question. Absent prayer, I can do nothing for God, who is my only guide.
- “What you want, you have to be not above asking for.” Again, power is made perfect in weakness. Whatever we want — whether it’s God’s deliverance for His people, God’s guidance for our Pope, God’s will for us in the face of confusion, persecution, and violence, God’s grace to be charitable when we don’t have it in ourselves — we must humble ourselves and ask.
A brief tangent I hope will be relevant: A few weeks back my oldest and I went on a silent retreat. I had heard mixed reviews about the retreat in question, and was not quite sure what to expect. Our retreat master was a middle-age Jesuit priest, well-educated and well-spoken, and unafraid to poke fun at himself or his order.
On the flip side, my son and I immediately noticed he was a bit more casual around the sanctuary than we were accustomed: a slight bow (more at the neck; less at the waist) before the tabernacle, and unconcerned about using the altar to set his notes or remote on. His taste in sacred music tended toward the folkier side of things (though not exclusively) and in his talks, he referenced saints, but also non-Catholic theologians and visionaries, and secular or “culturally Catholic” poets.
I remember thinking to myself during his first talk that this could be a long weekend — then recalling how I wound up at that particular retreat (a perennial retreatant’s recommendation and my teenage son’s unlikely urging) on that particular weekend (a fluke of the August calendar). I decided that I would proceed on the assumption that I was where I was supposed to be, when I was supposed to be there, and give the priest the benefit of the doubt and my full attention.
And you know what? He challenged me to be a better disciple. While I hope to have a different retreat master next time, I am grateful to him and plan to make the retreat again.
Similarly, social media has been abuzz the last week or so about Stephen Colbert’s GQ interview (warning: some strong language), in which he unabashedly pulls from the Baltimore Catechism, J.R.R. Tolkien, and most importantly, his mother, for the joy he finds in his life and work, despite devastating losses he experienced as a child. I suspect I would disagree with Colbert on many things with regard to the Catholic Church and the world, but by the end of the article, it was also clear to me that I could learn from him.
“Smugness is the Great Catholic Sin,” O’Connor once wrote. “I find it in myself and don’t dislike it any less.” It seems to me that we must be extra vigilant that we do not become too proud of our abilities, our knowledge, our Catholicism, our orthodoxy. None of this is to suggest that we gloss over real sin, real evil in the world — but rather that we recognize the inherent goodness in every image of God with whom we interact, and when they fall or fail, we see our own failings in them and help them. We can sometimes get caught up in our own knowledge of the world and of the faith, and forget that no amount of it can get us to heaven. We can be dismissive, contradictory, annoyed, and even angry with those around us who don’t see the world in the same way. In some cases, our annoyance or anger may be justified, but so many good and holy saints have urged caution in this regard. Let us heed their advice, praying much and forgiving much, in order to preserve ourselves for the work of God’s kingdom and, God willing, an eternity with Him.