Monday, August 19, 2013

Books Like Whoa: The Habit of Being by Flannery O'Connor

Thinking about an amazing collection of letters from one of my favorite authors...



The Habit of Being
by Flannery O'Connor

Procured from the Regent Bookstore

Procured in February 2013

Finished in July 2013

Format: Trade paperback with a beautiful illustration of a phoenix on the cover

Why I gave it a try:  I had this book checked out of the library for months on end for papers I was writing... I eventually bought it because I wanted to write in it, real bad

Summary: This is a curated collection of Flannery O'Connor's letters, spanning from the late 40's through the early 60's. Her dear friend, Sally Fitzgerald, collected and edited them in the 1970's. 

Thoughts: I have now spent two terms thinking about Flannery O'Connor (which is a delightful way to spend one's time) and it only makes me want to spend more time thinking about her. She is an enchanting cipher - so funny yet so harsh, with equal measures of self-deprecation and self-confidence. 

I find much of her fiction quite funny (I know, it's also brutal, but go read "The Enduring Chill" and tell me that she is not a humorist), but her letters are even better. I have spent much library time this year trying to stifle my giggles at her descriptions of people, her wry observations, her hilarious metaphors. I especially enjoy her descriptions of people's wacky responses to her work.

But besides getting a better sense of her warmth as a person, I also have enjoyed seeing her sharp mind at work in literary criticism, the writing process, and philosophy. Flannery was incredibly well read in theology, as well, and she engages in fascinating correspondence on the subject of faith with Christians and non-Christians alike.

My favorite letter on belief was written to a college freshman who heard her speak and sent her a letter asking for advice about whether he should renounce his faith:

To Alfred Corn
May 30, 1962

"I think that this experience you are having of losing your faith, or as you think, of having lost it, is an experience that in the long run belongs to faith; or at least it can belong to faith if faith is still valuable to you, and it must be or you would not have written me about this.
I don't know how the kind of faith required of a Christian living in the 20th century can be at all if it is not grounded on this experience that you are having right now of unbelief. This may be the case always and not just in the 20th century. Peter said, "Lord, I believe. Help my unbelief."* It is the most natural and most human and most agonizing prayer in the gospels, and I think it is the foundation prayer of faith.
As a freshman in college you are bombarded with new ideas, or rather pieces of idea, 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. About the only way we know whether we believe or not is by what we do, and I think from your letter that you will not take the path of least resistance in this matter and simply decide that you have lost your faith and that there is nothing you can do about it.
One result of the stimulation of your intellectual life that takes place in college is usually a shrinking of the imaginative life. This sounds like a paradox, but I have often found it to be true. Students get so bound up with difficulties such as reconciling the clashing of so many different faiths such as Buddhism, Mohammedanism, etc., that they cease to look for God in other ways. Bridges once wrote Gerard Manley Hopkins and asked him to tell him how he, Bridges, could believe. He must have expected from Hopkins a long philosophical answer. Hopkins wrote back, "Give alms." He was trying to say to Bridges that God is to be experienced in Charity (in the sense of love for the divine image in human beings). Don't get so entangled with intellectual difficulties that you fail to look for God in this way.
The intellectual difficulties have to be met, however, and you will be meeting them for the rest of your life. When you get a reasonable hold on one, another will come to take its place. At one time, the clash of the different world religions was a difficulty for me. Where you have absolute solutions, however, you have no need of faith. Faith is what you have in the absence of knowledge. The reason this clash doesn't bother me any longer is because I have got, over the years, a sense of the immense sweep of creation, of the evolutionary process in everything, of how incomprehensible God must necessarily be to be the God of Heaven and earth. You can't fit the Almighty into your intellectual categories. I might suggest that you look into some of the works of Pierre Teilhard de Chardin (The Phenomenon of Man et al.). He was a paleontologist- helped discover Peking man- and also a man of God. I don't suggest you go to him for answers but for 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 it 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.
If you want your faith, you have to work for it. It is a gift, but for very few is it a gift given without any demand for equal time devoted to its cultivation. For every book you read that is anti-Christian, make it your business to read one that presents the other side of the picture; if one isn't satisfactory read others. Don't think that you have to abandon reason to be a Christian. A book that might help you is The Unity of Philosophical Experience by Etienne Gilson. Another is Newman's The Grammar of Assent. To find out about faith, you have to go to the people who have it and you have to 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. Much of the criticism of belief that you find today comes from people who are judging it from the standpoint of another and narrower discipline. The Biblical criticism of the 19th century, for instance, was the product of historical disciplines. It has been entirely revamped in the 20th century by apply broader criteria to it, and those people who lost their faith in the 19th century because of it, could better have hung on it blind trust.
Even in the life of a Christian, faith rises and falls like the tides of an invisible sea. It's there, even when he can't see it or feel it, if he wants it to be there. You realize, I think, that it is more valuable, more mysterious, altogether more immense than anything you can learn or decide upon in college. 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.
I don't know if this is the kind of answer that can help you, but any time you care to write me, I can try to do better."

-The Habit of Being, 476-478

I wish that when I was younger, someone had said this to me. I wish that I had had enough self-awareness to ask!

What I love (and the theme I've been meditating on in some of my classes this summer) is O'Connor's comfort with doubt and unbelief. Most of my Christian experiences have responded to doubt as a stain to be removed. Here's the 20-minute scrub in the form of an argument, new exegesis, or apologetic, and voila! Doubt is gone! I'm just not sure that's how faith actually works. I'll be blogging more about some of the other books I read this summer which will tie into this theme, but suffice it to say, I don't think that in the modern world it is possible to have mature faith without undertones of unbelief or doubt. Rereading Flannery, along with Bonhoeffer, Dostoevsky, and many others, makes me long for constructive ways to address doubt as a part of the gift of faith, rather than a disease to be cured.

This is a stellar collection of letters that illuminate much of O'Connor's thoughts on writing, philosophy, literary interpretation, faith, and culture. She is one of America's greatest literary treasures and her letters, I am sure, will continue to amuse and inspire readers for generations to come. 

Rating:

6 - Why are you still reading this review? Go pick this one up NOW

Do you like reading collections of letters?

*Mark 9:24 - I assume she means Peter as the apostle that Mark used as his primary source for this gospel

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