The action of mercy

Flannery O’Connor:
“Mr. Head stood very still and felt the action of mercy touch him again but this time he knew that there were no words in the world that could name it. He understood that it grew out of agony, which is not denied to any man and which is given in strange ways to children. He understood it was all a man could carry into death to give his Maker and he suddenly burned with shame that he had so little of it to take with him. He stood appalled, judging himself with the thoroughness of God, while the action of mercy covered his pride like a flame and consumed it. He had never thought himself a great sinner before but he saw now that his true depravity had been hidden from him lest it cause him despair. He realized that he was forgiven for sins from the beginning of time, when he had conceived in his own heart the sin of Adam, until the present, when he had denied poor Nelson. He saw that no sin was too monstrous for him to claim as his own, and since God loved in proportion as He forgave, he felt ready at that instant to enter Paradise.”
A beautiful description of personal identity shaped by the grace of the gospel.
Mr Head is at once aware of the “monstrous” depth of his own sin AND aware as never before of the firm and sufficient love of God (he is “ready at that instant to enter Paradise“). All this due to “the action of mercy”, which “covered his pride like a flame and consumed it”; which revealed to him his depravity; and which revealed to him the magnificent proportions of God’s love.
Mercy for which there are no sufficient words in the world.
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In accord with his use of the poker

When Thomas Aquinas went to study at the University of Naples, he joined the Dominican Order. At the time, the Dominicans were a new order in the church dedicated to study, teaching and preaching. The mission of the Dominicans fit Aquinas’ scholastic abilities and his personal sense of vocation; he wrote, “It is a greater thing to give light than to simply have light, to pass on to others what you have contemplated than just to contemplate.

His family, however, did not welcome the news of this new direction in life. They considered the Dominicans “an upstart group”, writes Gerald McDermott, and they tried to disuade him from joining. 

McDermott writes:

According to one story passed on by G. K. Chesterton, the brothers [of Aquinas] kidnapped Thomas and locked him in a tower. They tried every argument they could think of to get him to leave the Dominicans, but nothing worked. So at last they decided to blacken his reputation, which would cause the new order of teachers to refuse him. They paid a fetching prostitute to come to the room where Thomas was held.

Thomas immediately grabbed a burning brand from the fire and pointed it at the woman, who shrieked in terror and ran from the room. Thomas slammed the door shut and seared into the back of the door the sign of the cross.

Flannery O’Connor loved Aquinas, and I think loved this story about him. She recounts it in a letter to the unbelieving “A”, writing that though “It would be fashionable today to be in sympathy with the woman”, “I am in sympathy with St. Thomas.”

In a later letter, O’Connor writes more about the incident. She notes that St. John of the Cross:

would have been able to sit down with the prostitute and said, ‘Daughter, let us consider this,’ but St. Thomas doubtless knew his own nature and knew that he had to get rid of her with a poker or she would over come him. I am not only for St. Thomas here but am in accord with his use of the poker.

Thomas, of course, having had to “fight to protect his chastity and reputation” (McDermott), went on to write some of the greatest works in the history of Christianity.

O’Connor on writing

Flannery O’Connor, on writing (in a letter to Cecil Dawkins, 1957):

I write only about two hours every day because that’s all the energy I have, but I don’t let anything interfere with those two hours, at the same time and the same place. This doesn’t mean I produce much out of the two hours. Sometimes I work for months and have to throw everything away, but I don’t think any of that was time wasted. Something goes on that makes it easier when it does come well. And the fact is if you don’t sit there every day, the day it would come well, you won’t be sitting there.

Christian skepticism in college

In May of 1962, Flannery O’Connor wrote to Alfred Corn, a student in college who wrote concerned that he was losing his faith. O’Connor wrote:

As a freshman in college you are bombarded with new ideas, or rather pieces of ideas, new frames of reference, an activation of the intellectual life which is only beginning, but which is already running ahead of your lived experience. After a year of this, you think you cannot believe. You are just beginning to realize how difficult it is to have faith and the measure of a commitment to it, but you are too young to decide you don’t have faith just because you feel you can’t believe.

She writes that he needs to read more broadly (suggesting Pierre Teilhard de Chardin) not to get answers but to get

different questions, for that stretching of the imagination that you need to make you a sceptic in the face of much that you are learning, much of which is new and shocking but which when boiled down becomes less so and takes its place in the general scheme of things. What kept me a sceptic in college was precisely my Christian faith. It always said: wait, don’t bite on this, get a wider picture, continue to read.

She gives many other practical suggestions – that he not jump too quickly to the conclusion that he can’t have faith just because he is currently experiencing doubt (indeed, she says, doubting is part of faith); that even as he wrestles intellectually with questions, he should look for God by acting as a Christian (she recommends, through Hopkins, charitable giving); and that for every anti-Christian book he read, he should also read one “that presents the other side of the picture”.

She writes:

To find out about faith, you have to go to the people who have it and you have to go to the most intelligent ones if you are going to stand up intellectually to agnostics and the general run of pagans that you are going to find in the majority of people around you.

Learn what you can, but cultivate Christian scepticism. 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.

THE REST IS EXPENDABLE

“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, reviewed in Time.) 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. The people who took me were Robert Lowell and his now wife, Elizabeth Hardwick. 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.”

Flannery O’Connor

“Letter to A”, December 16, 1955