O’Connor’s Letter to A
We don’t often think of Lent as being about the Incarnation and the virgin birth. That’s Christmas material. But neither Lent nor penance make sense without either of those truths. If Jesus Christ isn’t true God and true Man – “born of the Father before all ages” and “by the Holy Spirit was incarnate of the Virgin Mary and became man” – then the crucifixion is just another Roman execution. The resurrection is just another fancy. In that case, you’d be better off skipping Lent. Penance would be senseless. Catholicism would be in vain. Like a Monty Python skit, life would be tragically yet comically meaningless. At best, it’d be a chronicle of amusing but pointless experiences. At worst, it’d be grief upon grief. Either way, it would end in despair, like a dismal pit at the end of a long dark tunnel.
The fact of the Incarnation makes Jesus’ actions meaningful. Especially the action of the Pascal Mystery: his death and resurrection. I call the Incarnation a fact because it’s entirely objective. It’s a totally divine initiative. Man’s only role in it was Mary’s willing “yes”: “Let it be done unto me according to your word” (Luke 1:38). On the other hand, Jesus’ death and resurrection have a subjective aspect, like everything He did. During the three years between Jesus’ baptism and his death/resurrection, men and women – flesh and blood – played an active and willful role. They are protagonists. And the main character is the Man Jesus. His humanity – his flesh and blood – directly engaged a whole cast of characters: the Virgin Mary, Apostles, disciples, Romans, Greeks, Samaritans, Jews, Pharisees, sinners, saints, the meek, the mighty, the sick, the crowds, etc. It’s like this: a Divine Person becomes a human protagonist in history for three years. His life, teaching, miracles, actions, death and resurrection will resonate through every time and place on earth, including your living room, until time’s End. Jesus even had an effect on home lavatories. In my world, people often had the Morning Offering – with a Sacred Heart picture – stickered on the mirror over the sink for when shaving or washing up. It’s a matter of doctrine that Jesus has a human will because He has a human nature. But he also has a divine will because he is a Divine Person. He’s “true God” and “true Man.” In Jesus, God acts through a real human nature – a human nature that is more real than ours because it’s sinless. He’s history’s most important protagonist. And history’s only innocent protagonist. And history received Him not.
What does this have to do with Lent? Lent entails forty days of penance – giving up something, almsgiving, spiritual reading, extra prayer, no meat on Fridays, fasting on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday. Penance and fasting involve willfully doing something contrary to what we desire, or contrary to what we’re inclined to do. They are contrary to what our “flesh and blood” invites us to do. Penances are all the more difficult because they’re not magic. They don’t bear fast fruit. Virtuous and well-intentioned penances don’t, in and of themselves, make us holy. But we should still do them. Penances give us an important faith experience: faith doesn’t always feel good. It’s not always satisfying. It rarely has obvious or immediate effects. It’s often frustrating. “By your perseverance you will be saved” (Luke 21:19). Living out our Catholic faith often cuts against the grain of our natural – and even legitimate – desires and emotions. It challenges what we presume to be human nature.
The famous Catholic writer, Flannery O’Connor (1925-1964), wrote about this in a series of letters to an unnamed pen pal called “A” in the mid-1950s. “A” enjoyed reading O’Connor and other contemporary authors. However, “A” was troubled by the grotesque realism – the Christian Realism – of O’Connor’s tales. On this account, “A” had problems with O’Connor’s Catholicism. In reply, O’Connor said that “A” was a “Romantic,” who expected too much emotional satisfaction from religion.
In a letter to “A,” O’Connor said, “The truth does not change according to our ability to stomach it emotionally,” and that, “A higher paradox confounds emotion as well as reason…” O’Connor notes that her skeptical pen pal assumes that the Incarnation and virgin birth comprise a “suspension of the laws of the flesh and the physical.” “For me,” wrote O’Connor, “it is the virgin birth, the Incarnation, resurrection which are the true laws of the flesh and the physical. Death, decay, destruction are the suspension of these laws.” With regard to “the laws of the flesh” and “physical reality,” she wrote that, “We know them as we see them, not as God sees them.” She remarks that purity is the most mysterious of the virtues. “It occurs to me that it would never have entered the human consciousness to conceive of purity if we were not to look forward to a resurrection of the body.” Christ didn’t just become a man, she said, but He became Man. Christ reveals a new Humanity – the real Humanity – which we’ve lost sight of due to sin. When Adam fell, truth and innocence – and authentic human nature – became incomprehensible and even repugnant to us.
This is the point of Lent. It’s the point of Christian morality. Faith calls for active resistance to inclinations of “the flesh” in order to cull pride, envy, greed, lust and gluttony. These capital sins are the real “suspensions” of the “laws of the flesh.” But our scandal-ridden times call for a return to basic Christian practices, which beckon us to Christ from sin’s chaos. Poverty, chastity and obedience – to which all of the baptized are called in one way or another – are about following Christ. Discipleship cuts against the inclinations of fallen nature. It hurts. It frustrates. It fails, at times. But the Way to Joy is a Way of the Cross.
Experience Lent. Experience faith. Penance is an act of faith. Penance is an act of hope. Penance banks on “the real laws of the flesh” and “the resurrection of the body.” This may not be emotionally satisfying, for now. But it prepares us for another fact of life, about which O’Connor wrote: “…there are long periods in the lives of all of us, and of the saints, when the truth as revealed by faith is hideous, emotionally disturbing, downright repulsive.” But as O’Connor said, “The truth does not change according to our ability to stomach it emotionally.” Her comment that the whole world is experiencing a sense of repulsiveness toward Christianity – a global “dark night of the soul” – may resonate with people nowadays. So I offer you O’Connor in her own words. Ponder life from the vantage point of the “true laws of the flesh” – the Incarnation, virgin birth, life, death and resurrection of Jesus. “Salvation is found in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to mankind by which we must be saved” (Acts 4:12).
Fr. Frederick Edlefsen, Pastor
From a Letter to A, by Flannery O’Connor
September 6, 1955
(From “O’Connor: Collected Works,” The Library of America, pp. 952-953)
I can never agree with you that the Incarnation, or any truth, has to satisfy emotionally to be right (and I would not agree that for the natural man the Incarnation does not satisfy emotionally). It does not satisfy emotionally for the person brought up under many forms of false intellectual discipline such as nineteenth century mechanism, for instance. Leaving the Incarnation aside, the very notion of God’s existence is not emotionally satisfactory anymore for great numbers of people, which does not mean the God ceases to exist. M. Jean-Paul Sartre finds God emotionally unsatisfactory in the extreme, as do most of my friends of less stature than he. The truth does not change according to our ability to stomach it emotionally. A higher paradox confounds emotion as well as reason and there are long periods in the lives of all of us, and of the saints, when the truth as revealed by faith is hideous, emotionally disturbing, downright repulsive. Witness the dark night of the soul in individual saints. Right now the whole world seems to be going through a dark night of the soul.
There is question whether faith can or is supposed to be emotionally satisfying. I must say the thought of everybody lolling about in an emotionally satisfying faith is repugnant to me. I believe that we are ultimately directed Godward but that this journey is often impeded by emotion. I don’t think you are a jellyfish. But I suspect you of being a Romantic….
To see Christ as God and man is probably no more difficult today than it has always been, even if today there seem to be more reasons to doubt. For you it may be a matter of not being able to accept what you call a suspension of the laws of the flesh and the physical, but for my part I think that when I know what the laws of the flesh and the physical really are, then I will know what God is. We know them as we see them, not as God sees them. For me it is the virgin birth, the Incarnation, resurrection which are the true laws of the flesh and the physical. Death, decay, destruction are the suspension of these laws. I am always astonished at the emphasis the Church puts on the body. It is not the soul she says that will rise but the body, glorified. I have always thought that purity was the most mysterious of the virtues, but it occurs to me that it would never have entered the human consciousness to conceive of purity if we were not to look forward to a resurrection of the body, which will be flesh and spirit united in peace, in the way they were in Christ. The resurrection of Christ seems the high point in the law of nature.