The short story writer Flannery O’Connor enjoyed a loyal but circumscribed following of readers during her lifetime. The life and career of this brilliant young woman, a devout Roman Catholic who spent much of her life in Milledgeville, Georgia, ended in 1964 when she was just 39 years old. Since then, her work has increasingly gained the literary recognition it deserves. Her stories weave together penetrating insight, acerbic humor, irony, and subtle allegory. Unlikely prophets abound and God’s grace lurks in absurd encounters.They are stories that deliver a visceral shock of self-knowledge for the reader with “eyes to see and ears to hear.” All of this of course, should sound like familiar terrain to us followers of a certain story-teller from ancient Galilee. In a talk given to a group of young writers, O’Connor offered the following words about the art of short story writing:
When you write, your beliefs will be the light by which you see, but they will not be what you see, and they will not be a substitute for seeing. For the writer of fiction, everything has its testing point in the eye, and the eye is an organ that eventually involves the whole personality, and as much of the world as can be got into it. It involves judgment. Judgment is something that begins in the act of vision, and when it does not, or when it becomes separated from vision, then a confusion exists in the mind which transfers itself to the story.[i]
O’Connor had an intimate and creative relationship with scripture, and it is easy to imagine how this evening’s gospel passage from Luke may have shaped her understanding of the writer’s art. Her words about writing fiction somehow seem relevant to anyone seeking to live an examined life, but especially the Christian, who is called to see clearly, to judge rightly, and to enter into the vision of Christ in order to tell his story in the midst of a confused and confusing world.
What is this vision? To what kind of seeing are we called? What “substitutes for seeing,” to use O’Connor’s phrase, can distract us, and what confusion can transfer itself to the story when right vision is blurred or blinded? These are the kinds of questions that may well arise in our hearts if we listen to the injunction of Jesus: “Consider whether the light in you is not darkness.”
In Matthew’s gospel, the image of the raised lamp primarily suggests witness and proclamation of the kingdom. For Luke, there’s a different twist. The raised lamp appears in two separate passages, both immediately followed by an appeal to our faculties of sense perception. In the eighth chapter of Luke, we hear:
No one after lighting a lamp hides it under a jar, or puts it under a bed, but puts it on a lampstand, so that those who enter may see the light. For nothing is hidden that will not be disclosed, nor is anything secret that will not become known and come to light. Then pay attention to how you listen; for to those who have more, more will be given; and from those who do not have, even what they seem to have will be taken away. (8.16-18).
The healthy eye and the attentive ear enable a kind of seeing and hearing that we might describe as a transformed consciousness, a new orientation toward God, others, and ourselves that Jesus called the Kingdom. The word metanoia, usually translated as “repentance,” is much more accurately and literally translated as “a large mind.” This enlarged mind, this expansion of our perceptual capacity by the slow working of grace to take in more and more of the largeness, light, and love of God, is the vision to which Christ calls us. It is the vision that transformed the apostle Paul and to which he called the Christians at Philippi when he wrote, “Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus.” The spiritual organ of this new mind is a fully opened eye that seeks the beholding of God, even and especially when that seeing is difficult and the light is blinding.
The kind of enlarged perception brought by participation in the kingdom, available to us even now just as the kingdom is a dawning reality in the midst of our present experience, will inevitably bring us into encounter with paradox. I think of paradox as a collision of apparent opposites, with the power to astound or provoke, baffle or enrage…or to gently open a door into new perception. On the spiritual path, paradox is often the force that shocks this eye awake as well as the content beheld by our awakened sight. Jesus was a Master of paradox, and as a Jewish wisdom teacher his sayings and parables make abundant use of it, though our ears may be blunted or domesticated to its force by habituation. From Luke’s gospel, three examples come readily to mind:
Those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will save it. (9.24)
Some who are last will be first, and some are first who will be last. (13.30)
All who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted. (18.14).
The linear, self-conscious mind that is so useful for ensuring our day to day survival is relatively useless when it comes to grasping such words. That mind perceives only logical contradiction when faced with death that brings life, or humbling that brings exaltation. But there is a deeper facet of our being that is able to wait on the threshold where such disparate realities converge, and in the silent company of God or the joyful self-forgetfulness of worship, grace opens a way in and we recognize that these sayings of Jesus do describe the basic laws of the kingdom.
The authors of the New Testament epistles and other early Christian writers continued the free use of paradox employed by Jesus as, inspired by the Holy Spirit, they sought ways of naming the reality of the resurrected Christ, giving him titles such as “image of the Invisible God,” “rejected cornerstone,” “servant king,” “wounded healer,” “eternally begotten,” and “born of a virgin.” It is also fairly clear from the combined evidence of the Gospels that the disciples often struggled with Jesus’s use of paradox and on occasion they misunderstood or required further commentary framed by more familiar logic. What was poetry on the lips of Jesus was translated or interpreted into prose. And at times, correct beliefs about Jesus have dominated or obscured the great adventure to which Christ calls us: “abide in me as I abide in you.” When they operate independently, doctrine can become a “substitute for seeing” and spiritual practice can become like an eye with no guiding light. But when the light of right belief—or orthodoxy— is paired with the eye of a transformed consciousness, then the “whole body is full of light.”
Irenaeus of Lyons, whose feast we celebrate today, was one of the earliest systematic theologians in the Church and attempted to ensure that the Christian story handed down within the lineage of the apostles remained a synthesis of wide-eyed vision and discerning judgment, of deep contemplation and balanced belief. He is most well-known for his multi-volume work, entitled Against Heresies, in which he sets forth the basic contours of early Christian orthodoxy by defending some of its core paradoxes, especially the paradox of Christ’s full humanity and full divinity, as well as the intrinsic union of spirit and flesh in human beings. While Medieval heresy was largely a response to the issue of who wielded the most power in the Church and who stood on the margins, the thinkers we have come to regard as heretical in the early Church were most often responding to the intrinsic paradoxes of the Christian mystery by flattening or rationalizing it beyond proportion. They preferred sophisticated philosophy over the faith of Galilean fishermen.They chose a divine Christ or a human Christ, and found these categories mutually exclusive. They chose a view of human nature or the created order that elevated spirit far above matter, rather than maintaining its unity. These “substitutes for seeing,” or refusals to stand on the threshold of paradox are very reasonable from the perspective of the small, linear mind. How can God be both one and three? How can Christ be human and divine? How can the Son be eternally-begotten and born of a virgin? How can an eternal soul make its home in frail and unreliable flesh? On this last question, Irenaeus writes, “Spirits without bodies will never be spiritual men and women. It is our entire being, that is to say, the soul and the flesh combined, which by receiving the Spirit of God constitutes the spiritual man.” (Adv. Haer. V, 8,2). In other words, human nature – like paradox – is an apparent collision of opposites and a blessed doorway to something more. There is no formula or recipe for living comfortably and logically in that in-between space. But the way of Christ equips us with the strength, serenity, healthy detachment and compassion to gaze upon people, places and things as unconditionally as Jesus. Opening our eyes to the kingdom among us and yet-to-come can help us accept our contradictions even while we long for their integration.
Flannery O’Connor reconciled the intense demands of her own artistic vision with a humbling and prolonged physical illness by learning how to see – to see herself, her weaknesses, her gifts and her God with an unflinching gaze. She raised peacocks on her farm, and the many eyes in the peacocks tail-feathers are one of her favorite images for such vision. I’ll end with a passage from her essay, “The King of the Birds,” a fitting tribute to the eye of faith:
When the peacock has presented his back, the spectator will usually begin to walk around him to get a front view; but the peacock will continue to turn so that no front view is possible. The thing to do then is to stand still and wait until it pleases him to turn. When it suits him, the peacock will face you. Then you will see in a green-bronze arch around him a galaxy of gazing, haloed suns. This is a moment when most people are silent.[ii]
[i] O’Connor, Flannery. “Writing Short Stories,” from the collection Mystery and Manners. Ed. by Sally and Robert Fitzgerald.
[ii] O’ Connor. “The King of the Birds,” from the collection Mystery and Manners. Ed. by Sally and Robert Fitzgerald.
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