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Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Losing - or Keeping - Your Faith
From a Letter to a Student
Flannery O'Connor
Reprinted from

Burdened by a crippling disease but armed with a razor-sharp mind and unshakeable convictions, writer Flannery O'Connor left a large and impressive body of spiritual writings when she died at 39.

Though not as widely known as her gothic novels and short stories, these pieces are more readily accessible, and (probably because so many are letters) they speak with a highly personal, immediate voice. In this one, written to her good friend Alfred Corn, she decries what she once called a "tired cliche": the idea that education in general, and collegiate / university life in particular, must inevitably lead to a shipwrecked faith.

I think the experience of losing your faith, or 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. “Lord, I believe; help my unbelief” is the most natural and most human and most agonizing prayer in the gospels, and I think it is the foundation prayer of faith.

A friend once wrote to the poet Gerard Manley Hopkins and asked him to tell him how he could believe.  He must have expected a long philosophical answer. Hopkins wrote back, “give alms.” Perhaps he was trying to say 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.

Faith is what you have in the absence of knowledge… and that absence doesn’t bother me 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.

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 time devoted to its cultivation…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.

Monday, September 29, 2014

Homily at a Wedding

I want to tell you two stories.

Look at these two people! We know enough about human sexuality and culture to see how they might discover each other and be interested, right? In the musical “Guys and Dolls,” the character named Sky Masterson called it chemistry. It’s not so surprising that they would find a connection. It is reasonable. This man and this woman make sense together. It is a good story to tell.

Look at each other. Go ahead. We know enough about how guest lists are assembled to figure out who is here today. Humans are social beings and a kinship analysis would reveal how everyone you see around you is connected by one or more threads of relationship to other people here. We can talk about family ties, ties of friendships long and short, we can understand the “Who’s Who” of this gathering. It is reasonable. This gathering makes sense. We make a fine story – call it chapter two of our first story.

Now expand your vision to this place. There is light and sea and air. We see the Maine coastline revealed in the stone ledge under our feet; formed from the slow shifting of tectonic plates, the grinding of giant ice sheets, the gradual erosion of the elements. We know the geology is mapped. The meteorological explanation of a sunny day is also something we can find on the web. When you dig into it, it is rational and makes sense. So we have chapter three of our first, good story.

Here is another story.

Can you see the poetry in the shapes of these stones? Do you feel the thrill of this sea air? Does your heart respond to the expectation of the open horizon? Are you brightened by the wonder in our spirits? Breathe it in! Let it fill you up - at the same time that it makes you empty and yearning for something more. We are in a world that has been made by a love well beyond our sense of time and understanding. There is surrounding us a flow of something ancient and unimaginable. It is right here and also elusive. Something or someone is delighted with all this and filled with wonder, just like we are.

Can you see that this gathering is extraordinary? We will never recreate this particular gathering of people and relationships another time. You are right here, right now. There is nothing else in your life you can really be sure of but this precious moment in which we are alive together. This couple and their parents have given us this moment as a completely unexpected and impossible gift, a completely unexpected blessing. Maybe like me, you can hardly believe it.

Can you imagine the complex web of choices that brought this particular man and this particular woman to this season in their lives and to this particular moment? A missed train, a different friend, some alternate decision about staying or going – it is as if they have been guided here. You know, God loves a romance as much as any of us, where boy and girl eventually find each other. And what God really loves is a story that starts this way and just keeps going.

So. I have set before you two stories. You can be happy with the fascinating story about chemistry, kinship ties, and the geology of coastal North America. You can be happy with the story about a creating love that is greater than time and space, the unexpected blessing of this moment together that you will never forget, and a destiny fulfilled and ready for the next step. I suggest you keep the first story in mind but choose the second.

Beloved, choose the better story!

Illustrating "Who's Garden?"

I can well imagine an atheist’s last words: “White, white!  L-L-Love! My God! – and the deathbed leap of faith.  Whereas the agnostic, if he stays true to his reasonable self, if he stays beholden to dry, yeastless factuality, might try to explain the warm light bathing him by saying, “Possibly a f-f-failing oxygenation of the b-b-brain,” and, to the very end, lack imagination and miss the better story.

Yan Martel, The Life of Pi, (Knopf Canada, 2001), Chapter 22