Something tells me Flannery O’Connor would have registered a complaint, had she been with us at Mass today.
She wouldn’t have liked the way this Gospel passage from the 11th chapter of Matthew was translated.
From the days of John the Baptist until now,
the Kingdom of heaven suffers violence,
and the violent are taking it by force.
Flannery, of course, famously borrowed the last portion of that passage, using it as the title for one of her most acclaimed novels: The Violent Bear It Away.
Right away, you notice the power and poetry in the second version when it’s matched up against the first. And Flannery would have wanted it that way. She was not one to mince words. She didn’t worry about prettifying images or softening convictions in order to make them more palatable.
In fact, she often wrote about the danger in the modern tendency to do just that—once decrying in a letter the trend ‘to turn religion into poetry and therapy, to make truth vaguer and vaguer and more and more relative, to banish intellectual distinctions, to depend on feeling instead of thought, and gradually to come to believe that God has no power, that he cannot communicate with us, cannot reveal himself to us, indeed has not done so, and that religion is our own sweet invention.’
But here’s the interesting thing about Flannery’s world view: “Clear truth” did not equal “complete understanding.” She wrote her memorable stories, in part, to help us explore ‘the mystery of our position on earth, the mystery of Divine life and our participation in it; the mystery that life has for all its horror been found by God to be worth dying for.’
Which is to say, Flannery O’Connor was surely a prophet…in the tradition of John the Baptist. She saw the same sorts of things in our modern world that John and Jesus had seen in theirs: The kingdom of heaven, suffering violence. The perpetrators, always seeming to gain the upper hand—and in position to wipe out all hope.
Then, as now, it’s easy to get caught up in despair each time we see The Violent Bear It Away.
But our call as Advent people, Flannery might say, is to keep our eyes fixed on a different reality: The ultimate victory, won by Christ.
Let us pause now…to recall that we are in the presence of the Holy One.