Thinking of Flannery

You have to go south to get to her home.  You pass through Macon and head southeast about 35 miles into Baldwin County and the old capital city of Milledgeville.  Say “Milledgeville” to a native Georgian and most likely the first thing they’ll think of is “mental hospital.”  That’s true.  There’s also a large juvenile prison there.  Hundreds of troubled souls live near Milledgeville and she knew that well.  You’ll see some lovely old homes, garish new McMansions and everywhere, Confederate battle flags.  And there’s a farm nearby named Andalusia which was her longtime home.  She was Flannery O’Connor, writer, daughter, southerner, and devoted Catholic.

Born Mary Flannery O’Connor in Savannah in 1925, she was educated at the Georgia State College for Women and the University of Iowa where she studied journalism.  Flannery deeply loved her family, her southern roots and her Catholic faith.  Her father died of lupus when she was 15, long before her writing would help her to know how very much her roots made her the woman she’d become.  Her short stories, essays and letters are a treasure of American literature.  In one of her many letters to her best friend she described what she found to the the universal truth of life:  that “the world has, for all its horror, been found by God to be worth dying for.”  It’s impossible to separate her Catholic faith from her writing.  She stated bluntly, “I write the way I do because I am a Catholic.”  But don’t think that O’Connor wrote about Catholics or Catholicism.  She lived, after all, in the Bible belt of south Georgia and she wrote out of that heavily protestant environment.  Her writing is filled with mostly backward and deeply-flawed southern “characters” that most native Georgians would immediately recognize because most small towns have their share. When she was asked about her writing style, she said,”Whenever I’m asked why southern writers particularly have a penchant for writing about freaks, I say it is because we are still able to recognize one.”  Her fiction is funny and ironic and sometimes shockingly violent.  Her themes nearly always present a psychologically wounded character who undergoes a painful transformation which in turn reveals their true nature.  In many ways, her writing illuminates the Catholic notion of divine grace as a mysterious and ultimately unknowable transformation of the soul.

She loved the Catholic Church and was deeply devoted to the writing of St. Thomas Aquinas, calling herself a “hillbilly Thomist.”  Like St. Thomas, she had a great love for the Holy Eucharist.  Once at a New York dinner party, a fellow guest asked her what she thought of  the “symbol” of the Eucharist.  Flannery famously replied, “Well if it’s a symbol, to hell with it.”  Her faith in the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist helped her to cope with the lupus which would eventually kill her at the age of 39.  Flannery never married and she lived her last decades with her mother at the family farm in Milledgeville.  There she raised peacocks and other exotic birds.  She wrote.  And she prayed and worshiped the Lord at her local parish church.  Like St. Thomas, she believed that the world is alive with the spirit of God and that often our journey to Him requires suffering.  Very Catholic.  We are all, in some way, mysteriously broken.  Far from being meaningless, our suffering can reveal to us the very grace we need to see the face of God.  Flannery O’Connor did her own share of suffering and her faith always remained strong.  She died in 1964 and is buried in Memory Hill Cemetery in Milledgeville.

I measure God by everything I am not.”   —–Flannery O’Connor (1925-1964)

What Are You Praying For?

Imagine that every day of your life began and ended with prayer. And imagine that every moment in between, from the second you woke up until the instant you fell asleep was a prayer to the Lord. Your every thought, every feeling, every action was a living conversation with God. How would that change the quality of your life? What impact would such a prayerful, God-centered existence have on how you lived? On your happiness? On your hopefulness? Well, here’s a newsflash: every moment of your life IS a living conversation with God. The question is, what is your life telling Him? And are you listening to His responses?

We might think that such a contemplative life could only be lived in a monastery or cloister. Not true. We are all contemplatives. It’s what or Whom you contemplate that shapes your heart and calls you to your destiny. As Christians, we are called to become more like Jesus. If we’re serious about that calling, then our joy and our fulfillment comes in contemplating Him. We can look to the lives of the saints as examples of how this conversation with Jesus can be lived in daily life.

Saints read the Gospels. Not just on Sundays or not just for their Scripture study meetings, but every day. They read them, they prayed them, they absorbed them. They thought about the life and teachings of Jesus Christ the way some of us think about the news, or music, or politics or the stock market. In many ways, what you think about becomes the reality of your life, good or bad. St. Paul’s advice seems written for our time, “Whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is gracious, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things” (Phillipians 4:8). Read the Gospels. Think about Jesus.

And then what? Then listen to what He wants to say to you. You can’t listen to God if you’re watching television or talking on the phone. It’s hard to hear that “still, small voice” (I Kings 19:12) of the Lord while you’re texting your friends or updating your Facebook status. Saints give God their full attention. They listen. They wait. They focus their hearts and minds on Christ and then, they are still and silent and open to hear Him. In the silence of an open heart, a saint finds two persons: themselves, and Jesus Christ. Not like a thunderbolt of revelation, but more like the gradual lifting of a mist. They make small discoveries, hear tiny whisperings, and these little steps, over time, bring them into an intimate relationship with the Savior of the world. Being quiet and still in the presence of God is a radical departure from the way most of us live our lives. And yet, it is what God most longs for. He craves our open and listening hearts. His love for us can overwhelm the noise of the world, if we allow Him. Your life is already a prayer—what are you praying for? And to whom are you praying? Start out small. Ten minutes a day in a Gospel and five minutes afterwards of quietness, just thinking about Jesus. He’s already thinking about you. He has been since the beginning of time.

“We need to find God, and He cannot be found in noise and restlessness. 

God is the friend of silence. See how nature–trees, flowers, grass —grows in silence; see the stars, the moon and the sun, how they move in silence…We need silence to be able to touch souls.”

—Blessed Mother Teresa of Calcutta


It’s Up To Us

No one’s going to save us, but us. The sooner that more of us understand this, the sooner we can begin to turn things around. We’ve got to realize that no government or president or king or pope can make it all okay for us. We can’t legislate our way out of all the problems we see around us. No presidential executive order is going to keep us from killing one another. Our Church leaders preach peace and love and mercy, but they can’t do it for us. We have to be the makers of peace and love and mercy. Us. No one else.

In the face of cultural chaos, some of us stockpile food and weapons. We expect some kind of holocaust and we want to be prepared for it when it comes. Others see our problems and place the blame for them on anyone who is not like them: the immigrant, the corporate giant, the minority or the majority, anyone who is different is seen as a threat. Some of us join gangs. Some of us join militia groups. Some of us drop out of society: we don’t vote, don’t go to church, don’t know our neighbors, don’t invest in anything outside our own immediate families. But most of us are somewhere in the middle. We obey the law, we work hard, we love our children—and when we look at the world we live in, we no longer recognize it.

The values and shared beliefs that were once the fabric of the country of our childhood seem to be gone. Family life is in shreds with absent fathers, broken homes, and widespread poverty. Our children face an economic future more tenuous and difficult than we can imagine. The rule of law seems to have eroded at every level of society. We fear the policemen that we used to run to for help. Our country, founded by immigrants, now looks for ways to lock our doors to keep immigrants out. Both in our country and in our neighborhoods, we’re battening down the hatches and pulling up the drawbridges. The fabric of our culture is unraveling, thread by thread—and we’re the ones with the scissors.

As a Catholic, my faith in Christ sustains me and gives me hope. But sustenance and hope are just the beginning of the Gospel. Jesus doesn’t call us to be sustained and hopeful in our bunkers. He calls us to follow Him. Our faith has to be lived out in the world and not just in our prayer rooms or it’s meaningless words. If we don’t transform our culture with the living faith of Christ, how can we call ourselves Christians? He went into the temple, into the streets, and into homes to engage people. He fed and healed.  He touched the lepers and comforted the sorrowful. The faith He shares with us is a living, breathing faith and not an intellectual exercise or a social commentary. He went to where the hurting people were and gave them love and mercy. And that’s what we have to do, too.

Christ didn’t die on the Cross and rise on Easter morning to save our civilization. He died and rose again to save our souls. Saving civilization is up to each one of us. We’re the salt and the light—or we’re supposed to be. We’re the ones called to share our cloaks, to walk the extra mile, to feed the hungry, and visit the sick and imprisoned. We have to throw open the doors of our hearts to the hurting and the marginalized. Catholics celebrated a “Holy Year of Mercy” in 2016. We heard it preached to us almost every Sunday and many of us engaged in missions and programs of evangelization and welcome. Many more of us heard it preached to us and then did nothing more. The mercy that God offers us has to be shared with others. It can’t be a gift that we receive but don’t pass on.

A friend of mine shared this Andy Stanley quote with me today: “We who are Christians are very good at making a point, but not making a difference.” It’s time we put our faith in action. That’s our purpose: to serve Christ by being Christ to others. This is how our culture can be brought back from the wilderness we’re now in. We have to live our lives for the One Who ransomed them from death, knowing that we “can do all things through Christ Who gives me strength” (Philippians 4:13).

“Lord, teach me to be generous.

Teach me to serve You as You deserve;

to give and not to count the cost,

to fight and not to heed the wounds,

to toil and not to seek for rest,

to labor and not to ask for reward,

save that by knowing that I do Your will.”

          —–St. Ignatius Loyola


Silence and Prayer

There are few things I need more than I need silence.  I think it’s because I’m not good at being quiet on the inside if there’s activity and noise going on around me.  Without that interior silence, my prayer life suffers.  When I was younger, I’d notice how hard it was to pray at times, but I didn’t really connect my struggles with a lack of silence.  When you’re young you tend to push through things, or at least I did.  My favorite problem-solving technique was full-speed ahead until I moved past obstacles by brute force.  As I grew in age and maturity, I realized this probably wasn’t always the best method to employ.  Especially in matters of faith, it helps to slow down, to listen, and to invite reflection.

But finding silence and time is a difficult thing to do.  Sometimes I’d feel like I was chasing a dry leaf across the grass as it’s blown and tumbled by the wind, always just out of my grasping hands.  Grasping.  And that’s what it feels like, trying to grab some time and some quiet as it tumbles away from me.  But silence is like happiness: the harder you run after it, the more it slips away from you.  You have to make a home for silence.  Only when you stop trying to grasp a few minutes of peace and quiet and instead actively create it in you day, will you find it.

My prayer life was transformed when I began to pray the Liturgy of the Hours.  This is the ancient prayer of the Church which marks the hours of each day.  Mainly consisting of Psalms, hymns, Scripture, and other holy writings, the Hours (along with the Mass) compose the public prayer of the Church.  Priests and deacons pray the LOTH as part of their vocation, but lay people are also encouraged to incorporate it into their daily prayers, too.

I pray them because it helps me to sanctify my time to the Lord.  I’m not going to say that I always pray each one of the seven groups of prayers through the day and night.  I don’t.  But I try to.  It teaches me to humbly put myself in adoration of God.  The LOTH connects me to the rest of the Church as we all pray the same words, around the world.  It’s been described as “the voice of the Bride to the Bridegroom” and I think that’s both an accurate and a beautiful description.  It helps me to pray at a deeper level than I’d pray “on my own.”  Sometimes my spontaneous prayers focus too much on my feelings and while feelings are important, they don’t define my relationship with God.  I pray with my intellect and my will, as well—praying when I don’t feel like it, when I can’t find the words to pray, and when I don’t think I need to pray at all.  These prayers draw me out of myself and into a place where I can forget my own words and begin to hear the voice of God.  Praying the Psalms does this especially well for me.

Jesus would have prayed the Psalms several times a day, as a Jew.  The earliest Christians, many of whom were converts from Judaism, would have also followed this practice.  So the LOTH help me follow this ancient practice of “praying without ceasing”( I Thessalonians 5:16).  When I pray the Hours, I feel a strong connection to the disciples and to Jesus Himself.  In my mouth are the same words He used when talking with the Father.  I’m reminded that my prayer life isn’t all about me, after all.  I need that reminder.

Praying the Liturgy of the Hours guarantees that I’ll include times of silence and reflection in my day.  Rather than just hoping I’ll squeeze in a few moments of prayer in the morning and at bedtime, the Hours carve out little invitations throughout the day and night.  I use an app on my mobile phone which means I won’t forget and all the readings for each day are conveniently gathered in one place for me.  I need the discipline that the Hours give me in deepening and increasing my prayer life.  I need to step off the hamster wheel a few times each day and silently pray and listen.  If this sounds like you, take a moment and explore the Liturgy of the Hours.  These are prayed by believers from many Christian traditions and may be just what you need to grow in your spiritual life.

Our greatest need is to be silent before this great God…”

               —-St. John of the Cross.