“Whatever you do, anyway, remember that these things are mysteries and that if they were such that we could understand them, they wouldn’t be worth understanding. A God you understood would be less than yourself.” — Flannery O’Connor, The Habit of Being
Flannery O’Connor (1925–1964) was an American writer and southern Catholic, whose novels and short stories are inhabited by some of the strangest characters you’ll meet in fiction: absurd, often violent, and frequently driven by a spiritual fervor. It seems that people either like her fiction, or they find themselves confused and repulsed by it. This is probably because one of her most-anthologized stories — the one you likely read in your high school literature courses — is “A Good Man is Hard to Find,” which is about a family road trip that ends in mass murder.
Literature classes being what they are, you were probably asked to explain the meaning in this story. And good luck with that.
We are blessed, then, that O’Connor herself left us plenty of clues to unlocking her writing. In a book of her letters, collected under the title The Habit of Being, O’Connor writes quite a bit about how being Catholic informs much of her writing. I would call The Habit of Being a necessary book to understanding what the heck she was thinking when she wrote her novels and short stories.
In one letter to a friend (identified in the book only as “A”) she writes “All my stories are about the action of grace on a character who is not very willing to support it, but most people think of these stories as hard, hopeless, brutal, etc.” I’d agree with these people. The stories are hard, brutal, hopeless … but grace does frequently enter in, in surprising and sometimes violent ways. Her characters are often brought to a crisis point, at which opportunities to give or receive grace are offered. Yes, the stories are hard to understand, but when it comes to the Christian life, there’s quite a bit that’s hard to understand.
O’Connor would probably dismiss the idea that she was any sort of theologian, but there is much good and useful theology found throughout The Habit of Being. The quote above comes from a long, undated letter to Louise Abbot (in the book you find it among letters dated October 1959) which is full of much wisdom. It begins:
I think there is no suffering greater than what is caused by the doubts of those who want to believe. I know what torment this is, but I can only see it, in myself anyway, as the process by which faith is deepened. A faith that just accepts is a child’s faith and all right for children, but eventually you have to grow religiously as every other way, though some never do.
What people don’t realize is how much religion costs. They think faith is a big electric blanket, when of course it is the cross. It is much harder to believe than not to believe. If you feel you can’t believe, you must at least do this: keep an open mind. Keep it open toward faith, keep wanting it, keep asking for it, and leave the rest to God.
As the teacher said in Ecclesiastes, “Of making many books there is no end.” I’d say this is particularly true of the sort of “Christian self-help” books that purport to explain how to live the Christian life (Here is a list of 700 of them.) People are not comfortable with uncertainty. They want explanations for everything. They want to understand.
But what O’Connor writes in this letter to Louise Abbot is that uncertainty is part of the process. That we need to become comfortable with mystery and not having answers for everything. “[I]f they were such that we could understand them, they wouldn’t be worth understanding. A God you understood would be less than yourself.”
She closes with “You arrive at enough certainty to be able to make your way, but it is making it in darkness. Don’t expect faith to clear things up for you. It is trust, not certainty…”