Friday, March 23, 2007

Flannery O'Connor and the Society of Jesus.

If you're anything like me, you've probably had an experience like the one I'm about to describe. You start by embarking on what you optimistically describe as a "working vacation," bringing along essential reading and paperwork in the hope that you'll find the time to attend to academic or professional obligations while still managing to relax and enjoy a break from your normal routine. Projects like the "working vacation" are seldom a complete success, the constituent elements of "work" and "vacation" being an uneasy mix even under the best of circumstances. At the end of your vacation, you realize that though you've had a lot of fun you haven't made much of a dent in the pile of books and papers you brought along with you. As a result, the days following your vacation are devoted to catching up on all the work you intended to do during your vacation - often racing against the clock, for you probably wouldn't have planned on a "working vacation" in the first place if you didn't have a cluster of deadlines or due dates awaiting you on your return to work or school. Sound familiar?

My week at Georgetown was enjoyable in all respects, but my inability to get much work done while I was there left me with a lot to do this week. Now that I'm at last coming out of the tunnel, I'm free to devote some time to this blog. One item that seems worthy of immediate attention is an update on the state of my Lenten reading. I'm still reading the daily meditations contained in Thomas Hopko's The Lenten Spring, and I'm deep into Flannery O'Connor's Complete Stories. As is often the case with collections of short stories, some of the stories in the O'Connor volume are far more stimulating than others. The justly-celebrated "A Good Man Is Hard to Find" is my favorite so far, with "The Displaced Person," "Good Country People" and "A View of the Woods" as runners up. One of the stories in the collection, "The Enduring Chill," contains a surprising - if amusing - reference to the Society of Jesus.

"The Enduring Chill" tells the story of Asbury Porter Fox, a young man who returns to his hometown in the South after an unsuccessful attempt to make a living as a writer in New York. Suffering from a mysterious and possibly terminal illness, Asbury finds himself deeply unhappy both with his own failures and with the parochial surroundings in which he is to spend what he believes to be his last days. After rejecting a suggestion from his mother that he accept a visit from a local Methodist minister, Asbury offers another proposal:
For a time [after Asbury rejected a visit from the minister] they sat there in silence. Then his mother looked up. He was sitting forward again and smiling at her. His face was brightening more and more as if he had just had an idea that was brilliant. She stared at him. "I'll tell you who I want to come," he said. For the first time since he had come home, his expression was pleasant; though there was also, she thought, a kind of crafty look about him.

"Who do you want to come?" she asked suspiciously.

"I want a priest," he announced.

"A priest?" his mother said in an uncomprehending voice.

"Preferably a Jesuit," he said, brightening more and more. "Yes, by all means a Jesuit. They have them in the city. You can call up and get me one."

"What is the matter with you?" his mother asked.
At this point, I should probably offer a little more context. Earlier in the story, Asbury recollects a meeting he had with a particular Jesuit he had met in New York, Ignatius Vogle, S.J. Asbury had encountered Father Vogle at a public meeting on Buddhism and had been impressed by the priest's polite but confident assertion of Christian doctrine in the face of dismissive questions and comments by other meeting attendees. On his putative death bed, Asbury recalls his meeting with Father Vogle and thinks about how "the priest appealed to him as a man of the world, someone who would have understood the unique tragedy of his death, a death whose meaning had been far beyond the twittering group around them." To explain to his incredulous mother why he wants a visit from a Jesuit, Asbury offers the following:
"Most of them are very well-educated," he said, "but the Jesuits are foolproof. A Jesuit would be able to discuss something besides the weather." Already, remembering Ignatius Vogle, S.J., he could picture the priest. This one would be a trifle more worldly perhaps, a trifle more cynical. Protected by their ancient institution, priests could afford to be cynical, to play both ends against the middle. He would talk to a man of culture before he died - even in this desert! Furthermore, nothing would irritate his mother so much. He could not understand why he had not thought of this sooner.
Eventually, Asbury's mother sends for a priest, who - to Asbury's dismay - turns out to be an elderly, half-deaf and one-eyed moralist rather than an urbane sophisticate. Asbury's - and perhaps O'Connor's - view of the Jesuits mirrors a particular perception of the Society of Jesus commonly held by many of our friends as well as our foes. The worldly, cynical, cultured Jesuit is a stock figure in Catholic fiction, a caricature with some basis in fact that nonetheless represents only a small part of the broad spectrum that makes up the Society of Jesus. The underlying truth in O'Connor's "Jesuit" vignette goes beyond the perception that Jesuits are "able to discuss something besides the weather," as I hope to explain below.

From our earliest days, Jesuits have ministered to people on the margins - not simply those on the margins of society, but those on the margins of faith. In the era of the Counter-Reformation, this ministry bore great fruit in the writing of apologetic and catechetical literature and in often clandestine ministry to persecuted Catholics. Throughout the Society's history, the Jesuit commitment to serving those on the margins of faith has also extended to Eastern Catholics, who have often been maligned both by other Eastern Christians (who denounced their allegiance to Rome) and by Roman Catholics (who frequently failed to respect their Eastern traditions). Our ministry to the margins of faith has also included efforts to reconcile science and religious belief and to narrow the gap between faith and modern culture. On an individual level, it's also included ministry to people like the fictional Asbury Porter Fox, seekers whose struggle to believe has led them to seek spiritual counsel from members of the Society. Like Asbury, some of these seekers may come with less-than-laudable motives. However, by the workings of grace many such people have unwittingly found their ways to God. Oftentimes, God has gotten through to the Asbury Porter Foxes of the world through the improbable instrument of this or that Jesuit. As Jesuits, we are often the instruments by which God and those who unwittingly seek Him are brought together. For this great gift, and for the many ways in which God works in each of our lives, I give thanks on this Lenten Friday. AMDG.

2 Comments:

At 3/28/2007 9:33 PM, Blogger Karen said...

I have always loved that story, but I have a different take on it. I'm going to have to read it again before I take you on, though!

 
At 3/28/2007 9:48 PM, Blogger Joe said...

Karen,

I look forward to hearing your take on "The Enduring Chill." I'm almost done with the book, and just completed "The Lame Shall Enter First," which may be my favorite in the collection - perhaps I'll write something about it at some point.

 

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