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The Table Video

Jessica Hooten Wilson

With One Eye Squinted - Flannery O'Connor and the Call to Suffering

Associate Professor of Creative Writing, John Brown University
October 29, 2018

Jessica Hooten WIlson on the reality of suffering, Flannery O’Connor and her suffering, and the call of the Christian to suffer.

It is hard to switch gears here. You had me in tears. Because what you’re talking about is real. And it is suffering. And I think we do a disservice to suffering when we don’t feel it. And so it’s one of the things I want to talk about tonight.

Flannery O’Connor prayed, it is hard to want to suffer. But I presume grace is necessary for the want. What an extraordinary claim. It is hard to want to suffer. But I presume grace is necessary for the want. My prayer life looks nothing like that. And I don’t know about yours, but trusting that there may ber some truth there from a woman that I admire and that I trust. That even as we look at the evil in the world, and we don’t want to turn away from that and call it evil. Racism is evil. Injustice is evil. But there’s a consequence suffering that perhaps God could be using instrumentally for his good. Because that’s how mysterious and great he is. And so I wanna explore her claim a little further. O’Connor prayed this in her journal when she was 20. And I don’t think we can just knock it because it’s by a 20 year old zealous girl because this girl became one of the greatest writers in America. I would say one of the greatest Christian writers America has ever produced. And she’s writing it because she’s trying to overcome her mediocre faith. And she uses that language. And she says I’ve been praying these traditional prayers my whole life and I’m saying them and I’m not feeling them. But Lord I wanna know you. I wanna grow closer to you, I want to become a saint. Now at the time she’s in graduate school so she’s doing a lot of reading. And one of the thinkers that she’s reading is called Leon Bloy. And Leon Bloy, French names just destroy my tongue.

But Leon Bloy was extreme in his views on sainthood. He said the only tragedy, the only sadness in this life is to not become a saint. O’Connor loved this. This was attractive to her. Here she was suffering this lukewarm faith and seeing this lukewarm faith around her. And so she read more and more of him. Now he’s extreme in his views on suffering as well. For him, it is the only pathhood to redemption. He reasons because God became a human being in order to suffer, then it implies a call for all of us to embrace suffering. He takes imperatives such as the first shall be last as commands that we shall be last. That we will not only be poor in spirit, but poor in our lives. This was Bloy. So suffering to him was this road to redemption. But O’Connor saw it as perhaps a way towards sainthood. Perhaps looking at suffering could be a way to become more holy, to become closer to God, and to get over this mediocre faith. And so I want to look at her fiction and also at her life. Both of these things.

So there’s this story, and you may know it, called the Temple of The Holy Ghost, in which it’s semi-autobiographical. O’Connor writes it about this little girl who’s praying. And she prays, dear Lord, I want to be a saint. Because that is the vocation in which you know everything. But then she concludes, but, I will never be a saint. Because I’m a born liar. And I’m slothful, and I sass my mother, and I’m ugly to almost everybody. Now I can’t be a saint, but I might be a martyr if they kill me quick. [audience laughing] This story illustrates O’Connor’s real prayers. I’m afraid of pain. I suppose that’s what you have to pray in order to get grace, but Lord can you give me the courage to stand the pain to get the grace?

She’s not praying to withstand cauldrons of boiling pitch or arenas of lion, it’s a different kind of suffering that she’s praying about. One that would actually be a conduit for grace. What’s ironic is five years after this prayer, O’Connor is diagnosed with Lupus. And from the time she’s 25 until she dies at 39, she struggles with this disease. It’s during the entire of her writing career. When one interviewer asked O’Connor whether the lupus affected her writing she said, no, since for my writing I use my brain and not my feet. But the suffering does appear in her work. It does seem to affect her stories. She tells one of her friends in the letter, all of my characters that I love the most, I feel beholden to weigh them down with suffering. As you know, all God’s friends suffer. So her most beloved characters, she’s putting in these situations of suffering. For the way to sainthood in O’Connor’s world, it is more than narrow. It is harrowing. It is painful. Now she’s not advocating suffering with some masochistic desire to feel pain. As her youthful temple of the holy ghost character says, I don’t want the pain, but I want the grace.

Because what she fears is to be a lukewarm Christian who desires only the rainbows after Noah’s Ark. Right? The kind of Christian for which Christ comes out of the tomb high-fiving his disciples. Or in which the bumper sticker defines your faith. All things work for the good of those who love the Lord. She writes, what people don’t realize is how much religion costs. They think that religion is a big, electric blanket. When of course it is the cross. Religion is the cross. If we are to be saints, then rather than eschew suffering, we must have eyes that see the cross and take it up and follow it. So when O’Connor creates these saints in her stories, they teach us different ways that suffering might be a good. First, in O’Connor’s stories, suffering is purgatorial. It functions as we way to burn off the dross and the taints that sin leaves behind in the human soul. O’Connor’s getting these ideas, she was reading lots of saints, and one of the saints she was reading was Saint Catherine of Genoa who writes on purgatory. And Saint Catherine writes, the fire must purge sinners of all the rust and strains of sin in order to be united to that divine love. Only the foreign substance, which is not of God, will be burnt out of the soul. And thus the fire that once pained it will now delight it. This is not a fire of hell, but a divine fire that cleanses one and makes her holy.

In O’Connor’s second novel, The Violent Bear It Away, there’s a young girl named Lucette. I just have to tell you, I’m pregnant, and our daughter’s name is Lucette. Comes straight from this. She’s the daughter of missionaries who preaches to a congregation about the word of God that burns one clean. Her name is likely drawn from Saint Lucy, who is the saint of vision. Who also, if you know the Divine Comedy by Dante, it actually one of the saints who carries Dante through purgatory. And Lucette begins her sermon. Jesus is love. If you don’t know what love is, you won’t know Jesus when he comes. And she tells the story of how God sent his word Jesus to be king od the world. And yet the world did not recognize him. When Jesus came, he came on cold straw, warmed by the breath of an ox. And the world said, who is this? Who is this cold blue child? And this mother plain as winter?

The world could not see how the word of God could be as cold as wind, or plain as winter. Where is the summer will of God, the world demands? Where are the green seasons of God’s will? Where’s the spring, where’s the summer? Where’s the electric blanket? So they rejected this word and nailed him to the cross. And run a spear through his side. But Lucette reminds her listeners he will come again. Will you know the Lord Jesus then, she asks. Listen, for the word of God is in my mouth. Are you deaf to this word? It will burn you clean. It burns man and child. Be saved by the Lord’s fire. Or perish in your own. Whew, there it is. There’s the ultimate choice that O’Connor offers in all of her stories. Be devoured by the Lord’s flame or perish in your own. Will you ultimately allow him to remove through suffering all your unholiness? Or will you destroy yourself by rejecting his word? Rejecting his will? And rejecting his suffering?

Now if you haven’t read this novel, the primary plot revolves around this choice. And the main protagonist is Francis Marion Tarwater. And it’s from him we learn two more ways that suffering might be instrumentally good. His great uncle Mason has raised Tarwater to be a prophet. But Mason dies at the start of the story, and thus Tarwater gets to make his own way in the world. And decide whether he wants to follow his uncle Mason, who appears slightly crazy to most people. Or whether he wants to have this life of hedonism. The title of the story is The Violent Bear It Away. It’s drawn from Matthew 11:12. O’Connor had this highlighted in her own Bible. And it reads, the Kingdom of God suffereth violence, and the violent bear it away. And here we have two different ways of suffering. One is the persecution that will be faced by the Kingdom of God. And the other seems to be a form of asceticism in which the violent deny themselves, and I’ll go into this one in a second.

But neither of these sound appealing to a teenage boy. I don’t know why. Mason has warned him about this first kind of suffering that a profit will face. When Mason’s nephew, who’s a psychologist, describes Mason, he says that he’s delusional and he has called himself in this infuriates Mason. He starts yelling, called myself? I’m Mason Tarwater, called myself? Called myself to be spit upon and beaten? Called myself to be snickered at? Struck down in my pride and torn by the Lord’s eye? Mason here lists out all of these sufferings as examples that it was not his doing. It was not his call to become a profit. The Lord called him into a path of suffering. Not only the kind Lucette mentions, which is purgatorial, to be torn by the Lord’s eye, and removed of all his pride. But also another form of external violence in which he’s beaten and snickered at. And his external persecution.

The second type that is mentioned, the violent bear it away, is this asceticism. Giving up the luxuries of the world in order to follow Christ. O’Connor refers to St. Thomas Aquinas’s gloss on this verse in Matthew. She says the violent here that Christ is talking about are those ascetics who strain against nature like the prophets of the Old Testament. Or the Apostles, or the early church fathers, or the saints like Francis. It refers to those who forgo the feast of Babylon. They live nomadically without roofs and sofas. They suffer as a vocation. By the end of the narrative, Tarwater does receive this call to sainthood. He says he begins to feel hungry, but not longer as a pain, but as a tide. The narrative says it is a hunger for the bread of life. He felt it rising in himself through time and darkness. Rising through the centuries.

And he knew that it rose in a line of men who’s lives were chosen to sustain it. Who would wander in the world strangers from that violent country where the silence is never broken except to shout the truth. And here Tarwater understands himself as chosen to suffer violence. He is part of the violent country, the kingdom of Heaven, and must wander like Elijah and Paul and Francis for whom he has been named. Tarwater also lists out Able as one of this predecessors, implying that he might be called to martyrdom. As he walks toward the city where he will begin his ministry, his eyes are described as singed deep in their sockets. For he too has been burned clean by the word of God. He is ready to suffer self-denial, as well as persecution. Now in America, most of us consider ourselves free from persecution. As far as being Christians, we don’t fear the removal of our property or public stoning. And yet, as Saint Jerome, one of the early church fathers, writes to a young novice, he says what a terrible mistake, my brother. If you imagine there is every time when a Christian does not suffer persecution. One is attacked most powerfully when he fails to realize he is being attacked at all. Jerome references these unseen attacks, the invisible suffering of our souls that are being drawn away from God’s image without realizing it.

Although physically free from external attacks, to me this is a more fearful state. It is the lukewarm and mediocre faith that O’Connor prayed against, for which she believed suffering could be an antidote. So the last way I wanted to talk about suffering is as volitional. As chosen by us to undergo. My favorite O’Connor character I believe is a saint. Her name is Mrs. Greenleaf, and she comes from a story that is named after her, Greenleaf. But it actually revolves around Mrs. May, who’s another character. Mrs. May is a good Christian woman with a large respect for religion. Though of course she did not believe any of it was true. While she orders around her field hand, Mrs. May is stopped short by a guttural, agonized voice. Great Jesus! Jesus! Fearing that someone has been hurt, Mrs. May rushes to only find Mrs. Greenleaf sprawled out on her hands and her knees with her head buried in the ground. And Mrs. May shrilly demands, what is going on here? And Mrs. Greenleaf pops up. Her face a patchwork of dirt and tears. And she ignores her entirely. Jesus, stab me in the heart, Jesus. Stab in the heart. And Mrs. May has no idea how to respond. Now, Mrs. Greenleaf considers these prayer healings, is what she calls.

So everyday she cuts the morbid stories out of the newspaper. Those in which women have been raped, children have been burned, train victims, and the divorces of movie stars. [audience laughing] And she takes these to the woods and she buries them in the ground. And then she lies on top of them and prays. Now when my students read this, they express probably what you’re expressing and what Mrs. May expresses, Jesus would be ashamed of you, get up and go wash your children’s clothes. Do something practical. But Mrs. Greenleaf is experiencing an unseen reality. Perhaps her response is better. She sees the persecution that Mrs. May does not see.

And how many of us respond that way anymore? How many of us see headlines and pray about them? Or do we do what Evan suggested earlier and we mourn in less than a second as we flip to the next screen? Or we publicly express ourselves on Facebook. O’Connor says you will have found Christ when you are more concerned with other people’s sufferings than your own. So we don’t want to lose this ability that Mrs. Greenleaf has to experience other people’s sufferings. To somehow take them on. And whether or not we believe in vicarious substitution or mystical suffering in that sense, it seems true that to share another’s burdens lessens that burden.

I think of Dietrich Bonhoeffer who chose to return to Nazi occupied Germany because he believed that he could suffer with his fellow brothers as a physical sign of the gracious presence of the trying God. He advises those brothers, those theologians that were underneath him, to pray a psalm every day. Now the psalms are mixed, as we just heard from Liz. They’re songs of lament and songs of joy. And he said, when you pray a psalm of lament, when you yourself are not lamenting, you are praying on behalf of another sufferer in the body of Christ. Perhaps that’s the only way we can sometimes respond is to take on that suffering. And instead of publicly expressing it in our Facebook statuses to take it into a closet and give it to the one who can actually heal and remove tears. O’Connor writes remember that these things are mysteries. And if they were such that we could understand them, they would not be worth understanding. A God you can understand is less than yourself.

When O’Connor prayed for suffering at 20 years old, she would have never imagined her upcoming battle with Lupus. That as the disease debilitated her, she confessed two truths. One, I’m sick of being sick. And then the other, I can with one eye squinted take it as blessing. Her honest frustration with sickness reveals her human limits to understanding her suffering and yet she was granted another vision. Through this other eye, she sees a potential blessing in her sickness. She writes sickness is a place more instructive than a long trip to Europe. Is one of God’s great mercies. So if suffering is a grace, then perhaps it could be prayed for. If it cleanses us of impurity, and opens us up to a vocation of sainthood and lessons the burden of others, then O’Connor’s prayer makes much more sense. It is hard to want to suffer. That if O’Connor’s vision is true, then may the Lord grant us all the courage we need to ask for it. Thank you. [applause]