A Literary Retreat: King and O' Connor on Sin, Redemption, & Mercy

Black eyes.   Technically brown, but any border of iris is lost in their depths.   Not just windows to her soul, but to their observer, they seemed to also be a mirror into his own soul.   Eyes whose near blackness had the same effect as the nun's black habit, always turning my thoughts to God.   In the daylight, those turned thoughts were fresh, hopeful and exciting: a new life, redemption, belief sparkled within delicate almond-frames.   Sharp wit and wisdom beyond years.  

But then there was the night, as the blackness deepened around, so it did in those eyes.   Still sparkling, but now with a depth of experience and knowledge.   She was close to God, in love and hope, but that proximity also opened her up to the spiritual world.   The reality of battles, forces, of angels and demons.   Sure, knowing, and peaceful, relying on the name of Jesus and to use the evangelical vernacular, claiming her assurance and blessing in His name.


Deep in conversation, Regina and I would share the secrets of our hearts, especially our questions.   Our late-night talks always left me with just a few hours of sleep, not only because they lasted until near-dawn, but because, they left me wide-awake to my thoughts and my reality.   It was in the day, in the cover of sunlight that I could hide behind the face I showed the world,  but all was made visible in the darkness of the night.   I couldn't look at Regina as she talked without acknowledging the real me and the truth of my life.   Her convictions were too true, her faith too real for me to look away.   She was too real for me to not be affected and too sincere for me to hide.




All of this comes to mind after my recent literary spiritual retreat.   As I spent so much time lying in bed, learning to deal with my pain and wondering what my future might hold with the next diagnosis, I had a sudden urge to make specific book purchases.   Three books-- click, click, click--without my usual budget worries or feelings of guilt after purchase.   They were just what I needed, but not what I expected.  Three books, two women, one retreat.   One faith. 

I began reading Parched, a memoir by Heather King, right after it arrived.   A nice, neat, contained volume within a tightly sealed padded envelope.   All protection stopped at the bubble-lining of the envelope, though, as the book held my attention with a sincerity like that of Regina's eyes.   I couldn't look away.

I expected to be "spiritually enriched" by reading the memoir.   I had read enough of King's writing to know that though it was a memoir of her years as an alcoholic, there would be great universal truths for me, former founder and president of a Students Against Drunk Driving chapter.   As a white-dress-down-the-aisle girl, I would be able to find mystical associations with the scars and healing of sexual sin.   Because we are all --in some mysterious collective--great sinners, in need of mercy.   Humanity, neatly gathered together, collective sins contained, and waves of God's mercy washing over us all.   How neat.   How tidy!

I had been chaffed to new awareness by a previous encounter with King's work, but Parched led me back to the feeling of late-night conversations with Regina.   As I couldn't look at her and maintain pretense, I couldn't read this book and not acknowledge my kinship with its author.   This was unflinching memoir, the author before a mirror, exposing all not only to herself, but to the reader as she recounted her long journey as a self-acknowledged drunk.   As King described the neuroses of her childhood and their continuation into adulthood, I wondered how I did not become an alcoholic or drug addict.   I realized the other things I had done, the habits I had formed, my mechanisms by which I coped.   My behavior, my banal teenage and college years were a result of my abnormally strict home-life and a heavy-born obligation to protect my mother, not real virtue on my part.   I would have done anything to lessen her burden.   Years later, as a 35-year-old woman, married with three young children, I would stand in my father's nursing home room, staring at him as he lay bed-ridden and mute, body ravaged by Parkinson's and his mind destroyed by dementia.   I stood there, still terrified of this shell of a man, as I reverted to a frightened, always confused,  little girl once again.   At the end of each visit, I had to collect myself and become wife and mother again as I returned home.




Not just as collective am I part of The Broken, Wounded, and Scarred.   I am broken.   I am wounded.   I am scarred.   Baking and eating as addiction for comfort.  Just as I would give in to the demands of playmates so they would not make good on their threats to leave, I bake it, cook it, decorate it, to make people want to come and stay because deep-down I fear that might be all I have to offer.   Years of learning to handle physical manifestations of my shyness and fear of meeting new people.   Being forbidden to date or even be in a car with a peer behind the wheel, including the years of college, when I lived at home and attended the local university.   I rode to school each day with my father and came home with him or was picked up by Mama.   Such upbringing does not make for normality and yet, even as a high schooler, I was weirdly aware that my particular loneliness and craving for attention would have resulted in such greater sin if I had the slightest normal freedom.  

As I read, I felt the uneasiness that had kept me awake long after Regina had fallen asleep at one of our sleep-overs.   This book left me alone with my thoughts and memories and the reality that I am in need of God's mercy, in its flood, as it washes over me.   I have experienced God's mercy in my life.   I've been brought to my knees by it, but I still sometimes need the reminder that it is as this sinner I seek Christ because I need him.  Not in a general sense of "No human being is perfect" am I a sinner.    Like I need to eat and drink, I need Him so I can live each day as it comes.    Through Parched, Heather King reminded me that I don't seek to love my fellow man out of benevolence or obligation, not simple solidarity, but rather, out of real identification with him, as him.  Yes, there is always our role as a member of the Body of Christ, but as King realized in her constant journey of conversion, we have to understand ourselves in our reality as sinners to better participate in the work of the Church, with our fellow redeemed.  Such necessary awareness is the at the core of King's words:

I still don't know why God allows obsessions, cravings, disease; I just know I'm really glad that when Christ stood among the Pharisees he said, "Healthy people don't need a doctor; sick people do."   I just know that anything that is worthwhile about me arose, in one way or another, from the suffering of those twenty years of drinking.   I just know that only a God of inexhaustible love, infinite creativity, and a burning desire to count every last one of us in could have taken a broken-down wreck like me and made something useful out of her.





 After Parched, I began King's spiritual memoir, Redeemed.   Again, I had the sense of having found a kindred spirit in this fellow convert.  I found in her not some abstract love of books or a show of reading as part of some created image, but a real need for books, an acknowledgement that books saved her life.   It was through reading that I escaped, that I learned what normalcy--not perfection--could look like in families and individuals.   Books feed me, as they did in my younger years.   My bookshelves are not display pieces.   They are sacrosanct and basic for me.   It was beautiful to read the intimate role reading played in King's life.   She didn't have to stop reading or close herself to the range of literature when she became Catholic.

Those outside the Church might pick up Parched and not recognize the God element.   It is part of the beauty and power of King that she can speak to a religious or secular reader and still remain true to her beliefs and in as much as any of us can while we are still aliens in this world, true to herself.    Redeemed is obviously focused on her journey to and with Christ, but it is so honest, it would not make a non-believer uncomfortable.   Spare us one more Agony Aunt in the Catholic world, dishing up steps or tips for DIY Catholicism or graciously offering to share her self-admitted wisdom with the rest of us.   This is a book by an author who seems to pull up a seat beside you and just share her story.   You can sense the spiritual exercise it must have been to write the book and the fruit it must have born in her life.   It's a beautifully written treasure, but she seems to have reached a point, through the process, where she was able to simply offer it up, so we could get from it what we could.  




I gave up a sighing "Yes" as I read her chapter about sex and love.    And then, I let myself give in to my hidden heart as King described writing.   It had been my secret ambition, that thing I would be able to do on the side as I taught school.   I would teach for two years and then enter a writing MFA program.   My professors told me I wrote better than most people in graduate school.   They thanked me for letting them read my assigned essays during the semester, but I wanted to try my hand at fiction.   I loved exploring literature and writing about my findings, but I wanted to take a more creative route.   Graduate school, moving, conversion, teaching, my mother's death, my father's decline and death, settling estates, three children: it all added up to distraction and postponement of my writing.  Now, I write posts and I journal because the sentences form in my head and rattle about until I get them out.  Well, if Heather King could come out of the other side of alcoholism and find her way to her writing desk, then I suppose I can also take a plunge.   Suddenly compromised health and my youngest child's last year home before kindergarten weren't necessarily reasons to despair.   Perhaps they were a new path on the journey.    It's never to late to begin or to return.




The third book which made up my retreat is a spiritual biography of Flannery O'Connor, The Terrible Speed of Mercy by Jonathan Rogers.  I have wanted to read this book for over a year, but until now, I had agonized over whether to purchase it.   Living with a history teacher, you learn how much you have to sift through books in the History section.   The same is true for the Biography shelves.  Over the years, I've learned more about sorting through to find quality works, but I worry especially when a book is about a person or topic I hold dear.   I'm more interested in what Flannery O'Connor herself had to say, but this book kept drawing my attention.   It turned out to be a good purchase and it took its place in this trinity of books as if by plan.   The book is well-researched and written by a scholar with a PhD, but it can be read by scholars and non-scholars alike.  Rogers is also a published storyteller and the book reads more as a story of O'Connor than an informative academic work.  It offers an overview of O'Connor's life, in the context of her faith, but it does not try to rise above O'Connor herself.   Through his organization and pacing, Rogers leads you slowly through Flannery's childhood and her early years as one of the most promising young writers in the country.   Tension builds, along with urgency as you read of her diagnosis and physical suffering.   You are left with the true sense of a life of tremendous purpose lived for such a short time.

There is an essential quality of being grounded which is present in good biography.   I think being grounded--in fact and in style--is especially necessary when writing about O'Connor.   I think of the peafowl as a symbol associated with O'Connor, along with her other birds.   But when I think about them, I picture them in the dirt, pecking away and creating dirty clouds as they walked around.   Because beneath the show of feathers that O'Connor said often left people speechless, there was still the very ordinary means of conveyance which the peafowl held in common with any old yard bird.   Birds from an observed distance are a different matter from birds up-close, as a 24/7 responsibility.   This book simply presents O' Connor, mostly from her own letters and from interviews with friends and family.   It presents the balance of genius with the down-to-earth and the ferocity of mind and work with the frailty of body.   You are left to marvel at the literary legacy, fanned out in its glory, but the dusty, hard work, and suffering beneath it all is shown as mystery, a necessary part of the whole, not as impediment.  

The book does not presume, it does not attempt to psychoanalyze Flannery O' Connor.   It lays out her short life story in such a way that her faith is as present, as a real thing, as it is in her fiction.   The account of her intense physical suffering leads the reader not to pity, but to contemplation.   Though there are excellent theological works about suffering, this is a great introduction to suffering and even, to the idea of the Theology of the Body, in that the suffering of O'Connor in body, along with the body as central focus of her writing, reveals and teaches us something about God.   The body is a theology not just in the sexual terms to which it is often reduced, but in the sensual sense.   Eat my body.   Drink my blood.   The smells of incense.   The ringing of bells.   The finger dipped in holy water, waters of baptism flowing over us.    United in mind, spirit, and body with Christ.   O'Connor's faith couldn't be separated from her work or her suffering.  

During my retreat with these books, I was privileged to share in parts of the spiritual journeys of two amazing women.   Even more remarkable, I was able to contemplate my own journey and renew my relationship with Christ.   Heather King holds nothing back and while her work is unflinching, I'm sure the same can't be said for the reactions of some Christian readers.   This is the stuff for which my heart and soul yearns.    In thinking about why I became Catholic, I would say that I was aware of God's presence from an early age.   He was just a certainty for me, even though my only visits to church were the handful of weekends my grandparents visited us.   As I grew older, I could see His presence in so many people and events in my life.   And then, there was the Crucifix.   Empty crosses bothered me and not just because my Church of Christ relatives had issues with any symbols.   It was the emptiness that I could not express until I had the crucifix.   The crucifixion of Christ is not simply historical fact for me.      My mother and sister were saviors for me.   They sacrificed themselves so I wouldn't suffer as they did.  I can relate to God suffering for, and with, me.   The idea that God loves me enough to lay his life down for me makes sense because my sister and mother lay down their lives for me.      So, I am drawn to accounts of hard realities, though they be gritty, dirty, and challenging.   As Flannery O' Connor wrote,

I have found that violence is strangely capable of returning my characters to reality and preparing them to accept their moment of grace.   Their heads are so hard that almost nothing else will do the work.   This idea, that reality is something to which we must be returned at considerable cost, is one which is seldom understood by the casual reader, but it is one which is implicit in the Christian view of the world.
 
 
My own hard head.   The little girl in real time and the little girl still in the heart of the woman: violence and suffering that returned me to reality were somehow part of "moments of grace" in my life.      Flannery O' Connor explained  why she wanted to be able to really see "straight":
 
For me the visible universe is a reflection of the invisible universe.

In Redeemed, Heather King describes her realization:

I started to feel the transformative power in this underground network of seemingly inconsequential acts, to discern a pattern.   I started going to Mass and saw that scattered throughout the city, in the midst of clamor and chaos, were sanctuaries of quiet: oases of dark tranquility smelling of incense and wax.   Through shoot-outs and stabbings, mudslides and earthquakes, jittery nights and adrenaline-charged days--all over the city candles burned in red glass above the Body of Christ, the deepest, most hidden mystery of all...I went because I was beginning to believe that heaven is not some other world, but shot all through the broken world where we already live.
 
 
My greatest prayer for myself and my children has been that we have "eyes to see and ears to hear."   This literary retreat has sharpened those senses and allowed me to reflect on God's presence, even in the toughest of times and places, His mercy, and my response to Him.    Would that what Rogers said of O' Connor's life and work might one day be evident in the mysteries of my life:
 
All that darkness was in the service of eternal brightness.   All that violence was in the service of peace and serenity.   The writer whose every story was a thunderclap took her place beyond the region of thunder.

 


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