The occasional, often ill-considered thoughts of a Roman Catholic permanent deacon who is ever grateful to God for his existence. Despite the strangeness we encounter in this life, all the suffering we witness and endure, being is good, so good I am sometimes unable to contain my joy. Deo gratias!

Saturday, December 3, 2016

Flannery O'Connor, the devil, and today's Holy Innocents

I've been re-reading a lot of Flannery O'Connor lately, both her absolutely perfect fiction and her enlightened and enlightening non-fiction. If you've never read her work, your life is grossly incomplete and needs a little shot of Flannery to make it half-full again. Her work is always grace-filled, always surprising. But it's also (at least to me) gloriously optimistic because it tells of the effects of God's redemptive act in the lives of His creatures, even in the midst of tragedy.

So many people in our confused world are half-empty pessimists because they ignore the showering of God's grace in their lives. Either that or they reject out of hand the very idea of God's active presence in the world. For these, God has no role in all that He created and all that He maintains through His love. They evict God from their lives, and Nietzsche's claim that "God is dead!" becomes the watchword of their closed, truncated worlds. They either slide into a deep, suicidal despair or they grab hold of an ideology that assumes man (that's us) is actually in charge and can bring about a perfect world. As Flannery O'Connor wrote to a correspondent:
"The Liberal approach is that man has never fallen, never incurred guilt, and is ultimately perfectible by his own efforts. Therefore, evil in this light is a problem of better housing, sanitation, health, etc. and all mysteries will eventually be cleared up. Judgment is out of place because man is not responsible" [The Habit of Being, p. 302].
And so man becomes godlike, seemingly in charge of his little world. But because he is a tiny god in a massive, sprawling universe, he is not responsible and can escape judgment. And although he must contend with an array of forces, Satan isn't one of them. If a personal, loving God doesn't exist, neither can personified evil. The devil, then, becomes a fiction.

How many people today actually believe the devil exists, that he is a personal entity, a rebellious and fallen creature? How many believe God's grace is a very real and active force in the lives of individuals and in human history? At one time, at least in our Western Civilization, the vast majority of people believed with absolute certainty that Satan and grace were indeed very real. But no longer. 

Shortly before she died In 1964, Flannery O'Connor, addressing the plague of relativism that has infected so many today, anticipated the thought of Pope Benedict XVI and his condemnation of the "dictatorship of relativism" when she wrote:
"Those who have no absolute values cannot let the relative remain merely relative; they are always raising it to the level of the absolute" [Mystery and Manners, p. 178].
On another occasion, discussing her fiction, she wrote something that got me thinking about how the devil, certainly without intention, moves God's plan forward:
"From my own experience in trying to make stories 'work,' I have discovered that what is needed is an action that is totally unexpected, yet totally believable, and I have found that, for me, this is always an action which indicates that grace has been offered. And frequently it is an action in which the devil has been an unwilling instrument of grace" [Spiritual Writings, P. 128]
That last phrase -- "the devil has been an unwilling instrument of grace" -- was a bit of a shock to me. But then I found myself thinking of Satan's greatest success in our modern world: the plague of abortion. Since January 22, 1973, when the Supreme Court sanctioned abortion through its infamous Roe v. Wade decision, well over 50 million unborn children have been killed in our country, not to mention the hundreds of millions of unborn slaughtered throughout the world. Satan is surely pleased as he revels in the deaths of so many innocents and in the guilt of those who took their lives. 

And yet, where are these millions of innocents now? In their sinlessness, dressed in the robes of their martyrdom, they are in God's eternal presence. They join the saintly members of Christ's Mystical Body; and there, among the heavenly host, they prayerfully intercede for those who took their far too brief lives. Indeed, they pray for us all, for a world that has lost its way. And can any prayers be more efficacious than their prayers, the prayers of the completely innocent?

What, then, has Satan done? In his lust for death he has been "an unwilling instrument of grace." He has unwittingly raised up an army of prayerful saints, millions of God's most precious creatures determined to destroy all of Satan's works. Baptized in the blood of martyrdom, all those aborted babies, through their prayerful intercession are now instruments of God's grace, living signs of His love and mercy. This, then, is another of God's great paradoxes: the slaughter of these innocents, one of the modern world's great evils, has become a blessing that will change the world. Yes, God certainly has His ways doesn't He? For "We know that all things work for good for those who love God" [Rom 8:28].

Satan, as Lucifer, might have been the greatest of God's creations, but as the "light-bringer" he could only reflect God's eternal light. With Satan's fall from grace, having torn himself away from God's love, he can bring nothing but darkness. Flannery O'Connor realized that his works, more often than not, led to the wondrous manifestation of God's grace. "In my stories," she wrote, "a reader will find that the devil accomplished a good deal of groundwork that seems to be necessary before grace is effective" [Spiritual Writings, P. 128]

If God's grace were visible, it would fill the world, bringing light even to those hidden dark corners, just begging every person to reach out for it, to grasp it, to bathe in it. But that grace really is visible, for it's present in the sacraments of the Church, those "grace-giving outward signs" that free us from our sinfulness. Our Church, then, is a Church, not for the smug and the self-righteous, but for sinners who come to experience God's mercy and forgiveness. Yes, it's through an awareness of our sinfulness that we can approach God in repentance and come to accept His saving grace.

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