THE MODERN CONSCIOUSNESS

“I write the way I do because (not though) I am Catholic. This is a fact and nothing covers it like a bald statement. However, I am a Catholic peculiarly possessed of the modern consciousness, that thing Jung describes as unhistorical, solitary, and guilty. To possess this within the Church is to bear a burden, and a necessary burden for the conscious Catholic. It’s to feel the contemporary situation at the ultimate level.

I think that the Church is the only thing that is going to make this horrible world we are coming to endurable; the only thing that makes the Church endurable is that somehow she is the body of Christ and that on this we are fed. It seems to be a fact that you have to suffer as much from the Church as for it but if you believe in the divinity of Christ, you have to cherish the world at the same time that you struggle to endure it. This may explain the lack of bitterness in the stories.”

–Flannery O’Connor, re her short story collection A Good Man is Hard to Find


Emphasis on “It seems to be a fact that you have to suffer as much from the Church as for it.”

As any Catholic knows, part of the Cross is enduring homilies that grate like chalk going the wrong way up a blackboard. We’ve all been to Masses where the priest’s major mode is “harangue.” During the week especially, the parishioners are people mostly in their 60s, 70s or even older who have obviously spruced themselves up and hauled their aching bodies to church, longing for a word of accompaniment, comfort, consolation.

Instead, we get reproached on behalf of the many people who SHOULD be there, but aren’t. ‘You know why there aren’t more people at Mass, my dear brothers and sisters?” Father asked one recent morning. “I’ll tell you why. Because we’re not MARKETING CORRECTLY!” I glanced at the crucifix above the alter, where Christ hung dying, his body contorted in agony. How do you propose to “sell” that?

I tried not to squirm and sigh and roll my eyes, but not entirely successfully. “Thank God!” I muttered when he finished, and I did mean God the Father who I had a hard time believing wasn’t squirming, too.

But later that day I suddenly thought: “Could you not sit with me an hour?”–Christ’s anguished, agitated question to his disciples in the Garden at Gethsemane.

So little is asked of us, really; and like the disciples, I had (mentally) fled, unable to bear even six minutes of mild discomfort.

I thought of the Christians in North Korea who are being imprisoned, tortured, beaten, starved. I thought of Servant of God Fr. Walter Ciszek (whose memorial, once he’s canonized, will be tomorrow): saying Mass under pentaly of death in the woods of his prison camp in Siberia, for men who had fasted since midnight the night before in order to receive the Eucharist. I thought of Blessed Fr. Stanley Rother, “the shepherd who would not leave his flock,” the Oklahoma priest who insisted on staying with the Guatemalan peasants he served in spite of death threats, and who was assassinated there, in his room one night, by paramilitary thugs.

Those are the people who remind me that we don’t market the Cross; we carry it.

FLANNERY O’CONNOR WITH A BELOVED PEACOCK:
“THE KING OF THE BIRDS.”

SHE DIED OF LUPUS AT 39.

14 Replies to “THE MODERN CONSCIOUSNESS”

  1. Maybe this is my favorite piece. ( I say that on every one) The photo of Mary Flannery O’Connor is arresting. Yes, carrying her cross. Our cross can be obvious or it can hide within everyday things like a six minute harangue. Today, inspired by your thoughts, I will be recognizing my cross instead of whining as I usually do. Blessings, Joyce

    1. HEATHER KING says: Reply

      Bless you, Joyce Bock! If we think we have to “endure” for the Church, think of how Christ feels/felt!

  2. Teresa Kleber says: Reply

    Oh my gosh…Marketing. Come Holy Spirit.

    1. HEATHER KING says: Reply

      Ha, right, Teresa? If Christ has us for his salespeople, He’s in worse trouble than I thought! Blessings to you!!

  3. Stephen Sparrow says: Reply

    Thank you Heather. Excellent as usual and featuring my favourite uncanonized 20th C saint and beside me as I say this is the recent book Good Things Out of Nazareth which contains many of her previously unpublished letters and includes the letters of those who wrote to her.
    Thank you again.

  4. Meg Ginnetti says: Reply

    Exactly!
    “If this is how they treat you, how do you think they treat Me”?

    How’s that for intimacy!!!

  5. Regina George says: Reply

    We are blessed with a Jesuit parish that serves University of Michigan students as well as the community. I regularly thank our priests who always seem to have prepared to edify and educate us with their homilies at every Mass all week long. Although I have qualified that with “of course I come for the Mass, but, gee, a good homily helps.” One priest said he had wondered at how parishioners could continue to attend when homilies leaned towards the harangue you reference, Heather. We suffer one another and endure because of Him. 🙂

  6. Kenneth Melton says: Reply

    Thank you Heather King for this essay. I am reminded of one of your YouTube videos about not going to Mass for the homily.

  7. Thank you for expressing the very things I have been thinking. I am working hard to control my own eye rolls! I am traveling through Advent with Fr. Alfred Delp, another martyr who suffered through and for the Church. He and the other saints help me put my own struggles into perspective.

  8. Stephen Sparrow says: Reply

    Heather I thought you would enjoy this letter excerpt from Good Things Out of Nazareth – of course you may have already read it.

    “I am thinking about filling up my leather travel diary before I go (to Lourdes) and leaving it at home, as I am supposed to be a creative writer. This strikes me as strictly sensible but I haven’t mentioned it to my mother as I don’t think she will think it is moral.”
    (letter to Thomas Gossett 26 April 1958)

  9. Philippe Garmy says: Reply

    I think it was the once recalcitrant, bon-vivant raconteur, Malcolm Muggeridge, now turned convert, yet ever still sharp-witted and full of irony, who once shared a parable regarding the aftermath of St. Paul’s conversion.
    He was seeking out a marketing firm in NYC who could help him spread the Gospel message via a good news campaign. “Well, suggests an eminent ad-man, you need some kind of symbol to help engage and capture the hearts and minds of your audience.” St. Paul looks at the ad-man with a big, passionate smile and exclaims, “I’ve got just the thing! It’s this cross!” The ad-man looks in horror at St. Paul and replies, “ You can’t possibly be serious?! That’s utter, sheer madness! Nobody is going to follow you with such a horrendous and tormenting symbol of excruciating pain and suffering!”
    And two millennia or so later, we all know different. Indeed, it began by taming violent barbarians and effete, pernicious Romans alike, inspiring a new manner and purpose for living, ultimately creating a vast civilisation filled with beauty, goodness and truth.
    Alas, from what I witness sadly today across our fragile and tormented planet, the good news falls evermore on deaf ears. Fiat Lux!
    Blessed Mother, pray for us…

  10. HEATHER KING says: Reply

    Thank you, all, for these thoughtful, insightufl comments and quotes. I remember liking Malcolm Muggeridge’s “Jesus: The Man Who Lives”,Philippe and great anecdote. I have not yet read O’Connor’s “Good Things Out of Nazareth,” Stephen, thanks for mentioning it.

    Here’s another quote from Flannery, to a friend who couldn’t bear “the hypocrisy”–we cherish a good homily, but no number of “bad” homilies would dissuade us, I hope, from Mass. (Right, Kenneth, I did a little YouTube on this subject!) She says it infinitely more eloquently and with more tenderness than I could:

    “Your dissatisfaction with the Church seems to me to come from an incomplete understanding of sin. This will perhaps surprise you because you are very conscious of the sins of Catholics; however what you seem actually to demand is that the Church put the kingdom of heaven on earth right here now, that the Holy Ghost be translated at once into all flesh. The Holy Spirit rarely shows Himself on the surface of anything. You are asking that man return at once to the state God created him in, you are leaving out the terrible radical human pride that causes death.

    Christ was crucified on earth and the Church is crucified in time, and the Church is crucified by all of us, by her members most particularly because she is a Church of sinners. Christ never said that the Church would be operated in a sinless or intelligent way, but that it would not teach error. This does not mean that each and every priest won’t teach error but that the whole Church speaking through the Pope will not teach error in matters of faith. The Church is founded on Peter who denied Christ three times and couldn’t walk on the water by himself. You are expecting his successors to walk on the water.

    All human nature vigorously resists grace because grace changes us and the change is painful. Priests resist it as well as others. To have the Church be what you want it to be would require the continuous miraculous meddling of God in human affairs, whereas it is our dignity that we are allowed more or less to get on with those graces that come through faith and the sacraments and which work through our human nature.

    God has chosen to operate in this manner. We can’t understand this but we can’t reject it without rejecting life.”

  11. Kathy Allen says: Reply

    Last week, I had to write some materials for our parish’s small groups about prophets of our time. Among others, I had to tackle Flannery O’Connor, though it had been years since I read her actual stories. What an explosion of grace. For those who don’t know her, I recommend a YouTube lecture by Jessica Hooten Wilson about Flannery O’Connor and suffering. It will make you want to dig deeper into her life and work.

    1. HEATHER KING says: Reply

      Oh this looks interesting, Kathy, thank you, watched a couple of minutes and have bookmarked it for later. The comments look worth exploring as well! Anyway, I’m a huge FO fan, both of her work and of her life–which were of course inextricably intertwined…and grounded entirely on her Catholic faith.

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