Saturday, May 6, 2017

Heaven Isn't for Respectable People, Save by the Mercy of God

I don't particularly like Flannery O'Connor.

Now, before former teachers of mine apparate out of thin air to string me up for cultural philistinism, let me say that I acknowledge the genius of Flannery O'Connor. I recognize that her writing is excellent and her stories, well-crafted. I acknowledge the importance of her work. I've got nothing on her.

Still, though, I don't particularly like it.


I guess I like my view of human nature with a little less gimlet-eyed vision of the sores and disorders that afflict us all. I like to focus more on the positive, or at least to allow the fig leaf of my ignorance of the inner lives of many of those around me to preserve my illusions.

She sees so darn much, and depicts it so darn well, leaving no room for pride to pretend.

One of the greatest insights she brings forth is that Christianity and the Kingdom of Heaven are the natural homes of the disreputable, of those people, whoever they are, that we, the members of polite society (or of C.S. Lewis' Inner Ring) are better than. It's quite clear in her short story "Revelation," where Mrs. Turpin has a vision in which she sees all the people she looks down on--those who are black, or trash, or somehow on the margins of her smug, southern society--dancing their way into Heaven at the head of the line, and the respectable people all bringing up the rear, stunned expressions on their faces, even their virtues being stripped away.

It's the sort of thing that Pope Francis understands perfectly, and why he does what he does.

You see, Heaven is for the weak, for those who admit they are weak, for those who are humble and acknowledge their radical dependence on God. It takes strength to admit that you are weak, and to allow God to make you strong. So Heaven is for the strong, but for those with a strength that the world, the flesh, and the devil do not easily understand, and do not encourage. It's a strength of generosity, of trust, a strength of self-gift and self-abnegation, of self-donation and of a willingness to receive charity, to accept the handout from God of Himself, of His own life and love, to be empowered by one greater than we, by one whose own inner life is an infinity of absolute self-gift and receiving a total gift of self from another.

It takes humility to give of oneself so completely, so trustingly, to believe that the other will receive it, to trust that another may actually be waiting to receive and give back. The devil would have us take no chances, you see, and stay safe in our own egos, the prison cells of our own hearts, closed in, locked away, safe--untouched, untouchable, and unredeemable, in the end.

Pope Francis gets that. He knows that the Good Shepherd, who has gathered a flock about Himself and drawn them into a sheepfold, will leave those 99 and go searching for the one lost sheep gladly, immediately. And he calls on us to remember that Christianity isn't about staying in the sheepfold, staying safe, staying perfectly unsmudged by the world or by the present age, untouched, unmartyred, irreproachable, respectable. No--Christianity is about Christ. And if He is out there finding the lost sheep, then we should be out there with Him, where He is, for He is the way, the truth, and the life; He is the gate of the sheepfold, the shepherd, the guard. And where He is? We don't need walls.

Oh, there's value in the church buildings, yes, and the lost sheep often need a safe place to sleep, to rest, to recover from being lost out in the storms of the world. There's room in the Church for the sheepfold, absolutely. But we can't mistake the means for the end, the structures and the buildings for the Body of Christ Himself. Pope Francis is living and loving like a Jesuit of old, which is to say, a man on a mission from God for whom all things are of value only insofar as they aid in the salvation of souls, and useless to him insofar as they get in the way of the salvation of souls.

So he will be all things to all people, just as St. Paul and so many others have been down through the years, in order to allow all people to see Christ wearing a face they can recognize, a face like their own. He will disregard convention, find new ways of saying ancient truths, deemphasize certain things and emphasize others (no matter what the 99 sheep in the pews may think) because we're all on a mission from God, and Jesus is far more interested in saving the one lost sheep than in maintaining the 99 in the manner to which they have become accustomed.

Heaven belongs to the disreputable, to the children born in the stables to a mother who didn't conceive the child with her husband; to the rabble, the tax collectors and sinners, rather than to the scribes and the Pharisees; to the Gentiles and the fishermen; to the ones whom, by conventional standards, it shouldn't.

So as each new age and its fashions ushers in a new version of respectable, of admirable, of the pinnacle of society and the inner ring, watch out--holiness hasn't budged from the same glowing core of life-giving love, of self-donation, of living like Jesus--on a prayer, without any place to lay one's head.

In other words: Flannery O'Connor is an uncomfortable prophet, and we all make it to Heaven by the Divine Mercy, with the last leading the way.

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