Want to know what scares me most? What makes me fear I will fail at, spectacularly? How to selflessly love a person who hates God or professes ambivalence. People like that and I think so differently but are made of the same stuff: the imprint of human nature. We all want love. Especially when we are suffering.
I met a kid this week, a referral from another teacher, who asked me to reach out to a particularly isolated student. I gave the kid a call and found myself facing this fear even as I agreed to each week and just listen as the kiddo faced all the coming treatments for the medical particularities of his life-threatening, extremely painful condition.
I found myself praying, Dear God, let me love like this– insert the words of Michael Rennier:
“love is violence that is freely chosen and endured on behalf of another.”
The kid sounded like John B McLemore from the podcast S-Town. When someone sounds like that, I ask if they’ve listened to the podcast and what they think. I do this out of an instinctual trust in my hero Flannery O’Connor’s belief in the place of violence on the road to change. The way to redemption is usually through the violence of the cross(roads).
In her book Mystery and Manners O’Connor shares an anecdote about St. Cyril, which I take as reasonable justification for the risk of having a John B McLemore-like person enter into John’s actual world in S-Town. I think they must pass by the dragon.
“St. Cyril of Jerusalem, in instructing catechumens, wrote: “The dragon sits by the side of the road, watching those who pass. Beware lest he devour you. We go to the Father of Souls, but it is necessary to pass by the dragon.” No matter what form the dragon may take, it is of this mysterious passage past him, or into his jaws, that stories of any depth will always be concerned to tell, and this being the case, it requires considerable courage at any time, in any country, not to turn away from the storyteller.”
― Flannery O’Connor, Mystery and Manners: Occasional Prose
What I fear is that I’m neither perceptive of where grace may intrude in our violent physical world nor how we will respond from the center of our hardened inner lives. I don’t want want any more struggle after four years of watching my sister with cancer fight, seem to win, fight, lose faith, fight, hope, fight, die. I’ve become brittle. I feel like I might break with any more struggle. I didn’t have the cancer either. I try to tell myself there are situations so much harder than my own. “Buck up, little camper,” I self-talk. So, what are my grounds for prescribing hard medicine for those losing faith while they struggle? I don’t know if I have the inner life, prayer or faith of Flannery O’Connor, who wrote:
“I do not know You God because I am in the way. Please help me to push myself aside.”
I don’t trust myself even more after reading that because I’ve never had the transparency of soul to admit that to God. I am trusting in the saintliness of a person like her, who lived with and died of Lupus while writing like I think God loves and keeping her faith. I’m trusting in such wisdom as she revealed in this insight from Of Mystery and Manners,
“Our age not only does not have a very sharp eye for the almost imperceptible intrusions of grace, it no longer has much feeling for the nature of the violences which precede and follow them.”
I worry that the imperctible intrusion of grace may remain when I prescribe violence to illuminate that kind of internal violence. I worry that I’m fueling the darkness that comes with suffering. But I am risking it all. I want to prod and poke at the professed hatred, disdain and general sense of despair at humanity. When I heard that kiddo talk, as I’ve heard others do, I heard him leveraging himself onto a ledge, up onto a height, whereby he thinks the whole of the human story is visible to himself. He thinks he’s the prophet, the seer, the wise one. And what he believes he sees makes him hate humanity. He doesn’t hate himself, of course. –In that way, he is like the flip side of a human coin. On the other side of such a character as him is that of the mother in Brothers Karamozov who loves all of humanity so much but hates taking care of her wheel-chair-bound daughter, who seems selfish and demanding because her handicap.
Both he and the mother are driven to zealotry. He hates the idea of religion. She loves the idea of it. They’ve chosen their beliefs, however rationale or supported. They have made a system of their ideas.
How they confirm what O’Connor says when she says,
“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.”
The zealots of atheism and aggressive apathy, the fundamentalists of religion, and peopel like me who just doesn’t want to leave her safe zone for the foreseeable future, see by beliefs that light the way with hard, flickering shadows.
In his article about O’Connor and her faith, Michael Rennier, “Flannery O’Connor’s ‘Way of Violence,'” writes:
We must not close our ears and lose the true meaning of the words that O’Connor writes, as Robert Giroux bemoans about the critical reviews of Wise Blood, “They all recognized her power but missed her point.” The point isn’t the circus of violence, or cleverness for the sake of drawing attention to her talent, or even to delight the reader with a gothic twist. The point is to rub mud in our eyes so we might see.
Reminder. God uses mud. spit. blood. crosses. violence. suffering. struggle. All of which I care to avoid because I prefer not suffering. It’s sad that I prescribe struggle when I want to avoid it myself.
My sister, Lydia, shared this song with me, since I’ve been over-digesting Jason Isbell’s new song “Anxiety” and both of these hit me right in the soul-hole. This is “Elephant” and some of the bits are just so literal compared to what Naomi’s story is.