by C.S. Saunders

Most days, answering why it is that I still go to church – the Catholic Church in particular – is a difficult thing to do. Not in response to other people’s questions, although of course there are many of these. (How can I claim to encompass feminist, liberal and Catholic views is one question, amongst many, often implied or outright asked of me). But the questions that consume me come from within. Where the struggle of my past consisted largely of explaining to my peers why I didn’t attend a hip non-denominational Christian church with lay preachers and contemporary music, or no church at all, today I experience a far profounder sense of having to explain to myself why I believe. I wrestle with my own reasons for, and defence of, Catholicism. What are the truths that resonate with me and how am I living them? On what is my religion based?

But whatever semblance of an answer I can piece together is, at any given moment, messy at best, vague at worst. I am a doubtful, doubt-ridden Catholic, wandering a strange no-man’s land between strong believers and cynics – in awe of the former but unfamiliar with their sense of conviction; afraid to drift along with the latter but at home with their criticisms.

In the midst of this confusion and attempt as patchy justifications, I have found that reading and re-reading the reflections of Flannery O’Connor offers – if not clarity – something close to fortitude for the struggle that still lies ahead.

Born in 1925, Flannery O’Connor was a Southern American writer best known for her short stories, though by the time of her premature death in 1964, she had amassed a body of work comprising a range of critically-acclaimed fiction and non-fiction. O’Connor is considered one of the great literary minds of the twentieth century. She was also, despite the rising secularism of her time, a devout and passionate Roman Catholic.

Except that to explain it this way is misleading, because “also” is not at all how O’Connor viewed her faith. Catholicism was not a coincidental add-on to her artistic voice; it was essential to it. Like Muriel Spark after her, whose conversion to Catholicism unlocked her creative abilities, O’Connor believed that her faith was instrumental to her craft.

She grappled in her fiction, as in life, with morality, suffering, guilt, redemption, and how to search for and reflect the truth of God’s love. But her stories are neither simplistic, nor didactic. Indeed, the faith which informed her writing was open to – even encouraging of – a vigorous intellectual scrutiny and skepticism.

When a college student wrote to O’Connor seeking advice on how to deal with his crisis of faith, she responded:

 

Bridges once wrote Gerard Manley Hopkins and asked him to tell him how he, Bridges, could believe. He must have expected from Hopkins a long philosophical answer. Hopkins wrote back, “Give alms.” He was trying to say to Bridges that God is to be experienced in Charity (in the sense of love for the divine image in human beings). Don’t get so entangled with intellectual difficulties that you fail to look for God in this way. … What kept me a skeptic in college was precisely my Christian faith. It always said: wait, don’t bite on this, get a wider picture, continue to read. … Even in the life of a Christian, faith rises and falls like the tides of an invisible sea. It’s there, even when he can’t see it or feel it, if he wants it to be there. You realize, I think, that it is more valuable, more mysterious, altogether more immense than anything you can learn or decide upon in college. Learn what you can, but cultivate Christian skepticism.  It will keep you free – not free to do anything you please, but free to be formed by something larger than your own intellect or the intellects of those around you.

O’Connor was deeply critical of those Catholics for whom “the Church…is not the body of Christ but the poor man’s insurance system. It’s never hard for them to believe because actually they never think about it. Faith has to take in all the other possibilities it can.” She believed fervently in a questioning faith, but refused to be diminished by intellectual entanglements that ensued.

Most of all, Flannery O’Connor was quick to acknowledge her own unbelief. In a letter to a friend in 1955, she revealed:

 

When I ask myself how I know I believe, I have no satisfactory answer at all, no assurance at all, no feeling at all. I can only say with Peter, Lord I believe, help my unbelief. And all I can say about my love of God, is, Lord help me in my lack of it.

 

O’Connor, who believed that her faith lay at the very centre of her life and artistic vision, was grounded in Catholicism and yet dissatisfied by her own explanations for it.

This conundrum brings me immense comfort.

A Catholic from birth – a “cradle Catholic” as they say – has sometimes made me complacent on my religious journey, uninclined to interrogate my faith because it is so second nature, so much a part of me. Flannery O’Connor would have deplored such complacency, believing as she did that faith was nothing if not radical and demanding. But on another point, my belief echoes something of hers. Having been steeped in Catholicism from my earliest days, raised by a mother whose faith is strong but critical, open but unwavering and who has modelled for me the closest thing possible to Christ-like selflessness – this upbringing has developed in me the unshakeable belief that God is there. By which I mean, I know God to be here, right here in this world, in each one of us. I do not know what God wants for my life, most of the time I cannot feel, hear or see the God to whom I pray. And yet, I experience God’s presence as the invisible ocean of which O’Connor speaks – fluctuating but undeniable.

I trust in the great author’s words when she writes: “let me tell you this: faith comes and goes… If it is presumptuous to think that faith will stay with you forever, it is just as presumptuous to think that unbelief will.”

Not hearing, not seeing, now knowing – this is not the final word. For in the unpredictable patterns of the invisible ocean, God speaks.