Faith Is Not a Big Electric Blanket

In his 1958 essay “The Meaning of Advent” collected in Dogma and Preaching, the then-Father Joseph Ratzinger writes of St. John the Baptist as “the great figure that dominates Advent,” who—along with the Blessed Mother—are “the two great types of Advent existence.”[1] Since Advent is a penitential season wherein all Christians are called to undergo a sober re-examination of one’s conformity (or lack thereof) to Christ and the state of one’s preparation for his second coming in his triumphant Parousia, we would all do well to place ourselves before the last and greatest of the Old Testament prophets and heralds of the coming of the Messiah. “Challenging and active,” writes Ratzinger, “he stands before us, a type of masculine mission in life. He is the stern herald who summons the people to metanoia: to a change of heart or conversion.”[2]

Since the Catholic faith is incarnational and sacramental, however, one need not limit oneself to the biblical witness itself, although one should always start there. There are other places that one may turn as well in one’s Advent preparation to excite the mind, form the imagination, and find spiritual edification according to the spirit and message of John the Baptist. One such person to whom one can turn is our very own 20th-century American novelist and short story fiction writer, Flannery O’Connor.

Flannery is in many ways the John the Baptist of fiction. Her stories are plain spoken, spiritually adept, Christocentric, and brutally honest with respect to the cost of grace and the rebelliousness of human nature. They have all of the passion, grittiness, realism, violence, grace, and call to conversion that one finds in the very life and message of John the Baptist, who, lest we forget, ate bugs and wild honey, was clothed in camel-hair dress, lived in the wilderness, preached repentance and conversion of heart, accused a king of an unlawful marriage, and was then subsequently beheaded because of it.

Her stories all speak of the offering of grace, though typically refused, in territory held largely by the devil, as she was fond of saying, and is suffused with the unexpected and violent, which is not to say that they are not terribly funny as well. She writes of a woman gorged by the horn of a bull (who represents Christ), the stealing of a clever girls’ wooden leg by a crooked Bible salesman, the conversion of a proud grandmother moments before her murder by an escaped convict, and a conceited well-to-do Southern lady who finally comes to an unabashed self-examination only after getting hit in the face by a book thrown by a particularly ugly girl. Her stories are humanly raw and spiritually honest, just as one finds in the life and preaching of John the Baptist. In the writings of Flannery, one undoubtedly finds a kindred spirit to the greatest of those born of women (Matt 11:11).

For Flannery, all good fiction should first and foremost consist of a well-written, realistic, and interesting story. She has no patience for fiction that is simply moralistic or overly sentimental. Fiction that tries to communicate an idea before it simply gives life to its characters is not worth the paper it is printed on. However, there is another, deeper dimension to fiction that it must always bear witness to, or else it fails to truly do justice to the human reality: it should communicate what Flannery calls the “mystery of existence” in and through the “manners” of an authentic human experience and cultural life. According to Flannery, “It is the business of fiction to embody mystery through manners, and mystery is a great embarrassment to the modern mind . . . The mystery . . . is the mystery of our position on earth, and the manners are those conventions which, in the hands of the artist, reveal that central mystery.”[3] This mystery entails the enigma of human freedom, the desire for meaning and purpose, the question of truth and love, sin and evil, the activity of God and the religious orientation of man, and, finally, the mystery of grace freely offered and, typically, stubbornly refused.

It is the manner in which Flannery goes about communicating the mystery of existence that makes her a fitting companion along the Advent journey. According to Flannery and most other warm-bodied people, the modern age is a time of spiritual and religious deafness and dumbness. While it is impossible to know the actual extent of sincere religious belief in times past, there is little doubt that the average Christian believer and the potential believer-to-be of both Flannery’s time and our own have a much tougher time making a go of it, of truly believing and living the faith. Nonetheless, the call that John the Baptist proclaimed remains the same for each and every age hence: Convert! Repent! The Kingdom of God is fast approaching! Whereas peoples of times past, who breathed in a much thicker religious air, might hear such a call and listen and consider it with utter seriousness, we live in a time now when these clarion calls are dismissed as a disconcerting relic of the past or the bigotry and intolerance of the present. The very notion of redemption, which necessarily entails a recognition of sin and guilt, is typically considered as out of step with the Western society of our day.

Flannery, however, has a very common-sense approach that—despite the two millennia that separates them in time—she shares with John the Baptist: screaming, decrying, and shouting so that the message of Christ might be heard above the incessant white noise of human unbelief and obstinacy:

The novelist with Christian concerns will find in modern life distortions which are repugnant to him, and his problem will be to make these appear as distortions to an audience which is used to seeing them as natural; and he may well be forced to take ever more violent means to get his vision across to this hostile audience . . . to the hard of hearing you shout, and for the almost-blind you draw large and startling figures.[4]

Flannery’s response to our religiously deaf age is to shout and shock by bringing to life characters and stories that make apparent both the activity of and need for grace, as well as the state of the human condition that has refused it.

It is a typical feature of Flannery’s stories that she brings to light the need for grace by emphasizing the poverty of sin and the reality of the devil. This is part and parcel of Flannery’s via negativa that one often finds in her work: “Often the nature of grace can be made plain only by describing its absence.”[5] This is because grace is not “Instant Uplift,” which is one of her favorite ways of describing the harmful Manichean tendency found amongst Catholics and other Christians to separate the activity of grace from the messiness of nature. Grace is not a divine gift received at random or in disconnection with the people and events within which God has willed each person to exist and to live. While Flannery holds that grace itself cannot be experienced per se, that is, it cannot be touched, heard, seen, or tasted, it does have real effects in one’s life, such as the experience of conversion to belief in the Christian mysteries and to a radical love of God and all things in God. While grace does not arise as the product of nature, God has so ordained it that grace is communicated in and through the mediation of nature, which is wholly consistent with the reality found in the Son of God’s Incarnation and Paschal Mystery.

However, since grace cannot be experienced, it makes it especially difficult for the fiction writer to relate it to the reader, since the business of fiction is not the analytical discourse found in a theological treatise but the unfolding of the life of characters and events. Since fiction is about the human reality as such, the writer of fiction, says Flannery, can only speak about grace by speaking about nature, which is what makes her via negativa particularly apt. And, since when one writes about “nature” one must also write about the mystery of existence, one must find a way to allow the fictional story to also speak of that to which the mystery of existence is oriented and fulfilled, which is grace and supernatural life. It is for this reason that Flannery thinks that violence and the “freak” are invaluable features of good fiction:

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. This idea, that reality is something to which we must be returned at considerable cost, is one which is seldom understood by the casual reader, but it is one which is implicit in the Christian view of the world.”[6]

And, in another place she writes:

A sense of loss is natural to us, and it is only in these centuries when we are afflicted with the doctrine of the perfectibility of human nature by its own efforts that the vision of the freak in fiction is so disturbing. The freak in modern fiction is usually disturbing to us because he keeps us from forgetting that we share in his state.[7]

On this side of heaven, and especially in today’s increasingly secularized culture, the violent and the freakish are necessary components of any story that attempts to actually speak about human existence. This is because our sense of nature and what we typically consider real and true are wholly deficient whenever we lose sight of the one around whom all of created reality revolves, Jesus Christ.

Flannery O’Connor is a perfect companion during the Advent season because she reminds us of the hard truth that a human life divorced from God’s friendship and grace in Christ is not a world in which one should be at home. At the same time, Flannery reminds us of the sober fact that the acceptance of grace and the call to conversion costs us something: it is painful, but it is a pain worth enduring. “What people don’t realize is how much religion costs. They think faith is a big electric blanket, when of course it is the cross. It is much harder to believe than not to believe. If you feel you can’t believe, you must at least do this: keep an open mind. Keep it open toward faith, keep wanting it, keep asking for it, and leave the rest to God.”[8]

Advent is a penitential season and for good reason. Although we live in the end times of the New Covenant, this does not mean that belief is easy or that the acceptance and cooperation with grace is always comfortable and pleasant, as are the soft lights of the Christmas tree or the warmth of an electric blanket, to use Flannery’s image. The path of Christian discipleship is the only path worth treading, but that does not mean that it is not filled with real, painful struggle and the incessant resistance of our twisted and mangled nature. Flannery reminds us of this and the all-too-tempting temptation to avoid the reality of the Cross. This is why Flannery is an indispensable guide in the Advent season: her stories remind us of the weight of grace, the tragedy of a life lived apart from God, and the necessity of a continual preparation for the life of the world to come, which Christ has inaugurated and will one day bring to fulfillment.

[1] Joseph Ratzinger, “The Meaning of Advent” in Dogma and Preaching: Applying Christian Doctrine to Daily Life, trans. Michael J. Miller and Matthew J. O’Connell, ed. Michael J. Miller (San Francisco: Ignatius, 2011), 322.

[2] Ibid., 322-323.

[3] Flannery O’Connor, “The Teaching of Literature” in Mystery and Manners, eds. Sally and Robert Fitzgerald (New York: FSG, 1983), 124.

[4] Ibid., “The Fiction Writer & His Country,” 33-34.

[5] Ibid., “The Catholic Novelist in the Protestant South,” 204.

[6] Ibid., “On Her Own Work,” 112.

[7] Ibid., “The Teaching of Literature,” 133.

[8] Flannery O’Connor, The Habit of Being: Letters of Flannery O’Connor, ed. Sally Fitzgerald (New York: FSG, 1979), 354.

Featured Image: Master of Gračanica, John the Baptist, c. 1235; Source: Wikimedia Commons, PD-Old-100.


Jordan A. Haddad

Jordan Haddad, Ph.D., is a Professor of Dogmatic Theology at Notre Dame Seminary and the President of the St. Louis IX Art Society.

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