“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.”
– Flannery O’Connor, writing to college freshman, Alfred Corn
Alfred Corn was nineteen at the time. A freshman ostensibly majoring in French literature, Alfred found himself in a spring semester English class at Emory University. Along with his classmates, he was intrigued, if not entranced, with the sharply-spectacled, strangely named fiction writer serving as the day’s guest speaker. Her name was Mary Flannery O’Connor. By this time, the author had made a name for herself with her raw, jarring and often violent works including the novels Wise Blood and The Violent Bear It Away and the short stories including A Good Man is Hard to Find. But the tales Flannery O’Connor weaved were more than simple and sensational shock-fiction. And her message was anything but conventional. This gangly, slightly awkward yet refreshingly blunt woman spoke in terms not commonly discussed in 1962 college English classes. Deeper meaning, not clever symbolism, suffused her work. Slivers of grace shone through cracks in the violent, dishevelled, disordered lives of her characters. Yes, this woman – this writer – was different. And Alfred Corn seemed to realize this. Too shy to approach her after class this busy nineteen-year-old college freshman would write the thirty-seven-year-old Flannery O’Connor a letter.
It is not clear exactly what Alfred asked Flannery, but it appears it can be inferred from her responses. His were not the standard questions a freshman would ask of a prominent fiction writer. If Flannery’s answers are any testimony to their depth and quality, Alfred’s questions were extraordinary. They touched less on the mechanics of writing and the requests for canned sources of “inspiration” that every famous writer is supposed to trot out for their most eager acolytes. Instead, Alfred seemed to focus more on matters of faith, mystery, authority, and free will.
Let’s start with what is arguably the best spiritual advice I have ever read attempting to address the concerns of the skeptical college student (if not the skeptic of any age). When it comes to explaining Flannery O’Connor, I have come to realize it is best to simply get out of the way and let her speak for herself. Here is Flannery’s response in full to Alfred’s first letter (collected along with her other letters in Sally Fitzgerald’s magnificently edited, The Habit of Being). This response is worth reading in its entirety (with my bold print emphases).
“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 [sic] 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 ideas, new frames or 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 to discover Peking man–and also a man of God. I don’t suggest that you go to him for answers but for different questions, for that stretching of the imagination that you need to make you a skeptic 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 place in the general scheme of things. What kept me a skeptic 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 go 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 applying broader criteria it, and those people who lost their faith in the 19th century because of it, could better have hung on in 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 skepticism. 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.”
Two weeks later, another letter would reach the young Alfred Corn. This one attends to the nature of Church authority, the indissolubility of faith and reason, and the risk of diluting faith into vague sentimentalism (again, my bold print emphasis),
“I certainly don’t think that the death required that ‘ye be born again,’ is the death of reason. If what the Church teaches is not true, then the security and emotional release and sense of purpose it gives you are of no value and you are right to reject it. One of the effects of modern liberal Protestantism has been gradually to turn religion into poetry and therapy, to make truth vaguer and vaguer and more and more relative, to banish intellectual distinctions, to depend on feeling instead of thought, and gradually to come to believe that God has no power, that he cannot communicate with us, cannot reveal himself to us, indeed has not done so, and that religion is our own sweet invention. This seems to be about where you find yourself right now.
Of course, I am a Catholic and I believe the opposite of all this. I believe what the Church teaches – that God has given us reason to use and that it can lead us toward a knowledge of him, through analogy; that he has revealed himself in history and continues to do so through the Church, and that he is present (not just symbolically) in the Eucharist on our altars. To believe all this I don’t take any leap into the absurd. I find it reasonable to believe, even though these beliefs are beyond reason…
Satisfy your demand for reason always, but remember that charity is beyond reason and, and that God can be known through charity.”
Within the next two months, Flannery O’Connor’s two final letters would find their way to Alfred Corn. They addressed questions he posed about her novel, The Violent Bear It Away, with answers brilliantly and seamlessly evolving from character description to theological insight on the nature of freewill, the sensibility of Church authority, and the inscrutable wonder of mystery. This prodigious clarity of thought and communication, however, should not surprise. Without doubt, Flannery was a genius, a devout Catholic and a devotee of St. Thomas Aquinas, reading his magesterial Summa Theologica into the late hours of each night. But Flannery didn’t needlessly intellectualize faith. Her novels and short stories testified to the raw nature of faith, mystery and grace in which few would detect the subtle roots in Aquinas and Gilson. More than anything, she loved her faith passionately especially for the mean grace which, at times, redemptively pierces our broken-down world (for more on this, please see my previous post “The Mean Grace of Flannery O’Connor”). And so she would pass some final thoughts on to Alfred Corn,
“I hope you’ll find the experience you need to make the leap toward Christianity seem the only one to you…Sometimes it may be as simple as asking for it, sometimes not; but don’t neglect to ask for it.”
“So you can see that I don’t find it an infringement of my independence to have the Church tell me what is true and what is not in regard to faith and what is right and wrong in regard to morals. Certainly, I am no fit judge. If left to myself, I certainly wouldn’t know how to interpret Romans IX. I don’t believe Christ left us to chaos.”
In sum, there were only four letters over one summer. That’s all. And yet, what insight those letters held. Less than two years later, Flannery O’Connor would be dead from the ravages of lupus. She was only thirty-nine.
Alfred Corn still lives. In fact, he is a critically-acclaimed poet and essayist who has won numerous awards and accolades. But let’s step back for just a moment to Alfred Corn the shy, reluctant college freshman. Had the young Alfred never picked up his pencil to write Flannery O’Connor and had Sally Fitzgerald not collected, edited and achieved the publication of O’Connor’s letters (including the four to Alfred) in the book, The Habit of Being, this woman’s candor, wisdom, and transference of grace would have been lost. But it wasn’t. Thank you, Alfred. Thanks for writing a letter.
Source of letters: The Habit of Being: Letters of Flannery O’Connor, edited by Sally Fitzgerald (New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 1979), pages 476-80, 484-485, 488-489.