Earlier this week, I had the first public reading from my new memoir, Into the Paradox. The audience was attentive and responsive, asking me hard questions about how I manage to belong to a Catholic church, given my self-definitions. My response was rather lame: I invoke the mantra from 12-step programs of “take what you like and leave the rest.”
What I didn’t say is much of the book is about my figuring out exactly how to maneuver that “paradox.” Listening to the earnest questions that night convinces me that some readers will engage the text using that lens; I can only hope that by the end, most will see the path I have woven for myself.
All that day I had felt unusually anxious, asking myself whence came the butterflies in my stomach and the shortness of breath. I lectured to large groups of students for years and have held many readings/signings of my other writings. Finally it dawned on me that the source of my anxiety lay in the simple fact that in my world people don’t talk about God, Jesus, and faith at the drop of a hat. In many cases, they don’t engage these subjects at all unless it is to critique them and their adherents. As I was coming to this understanding of my own uneasiness, I was reading an article in the September 16 New Yorker about Flannery O’Connor’s personal journal, kept from 1946 to sometime in 1948 when she was in her very early 20’s. This journal is a series of letters to God in which she bares her innermost thoughts and fears about her relationship with that being and about her development as a writer. The more I read of the essay, the closer I felt to this Southern writer who has long fascinated me because of how she was able to put into words her fierce “take” on Christianity. In these letters, O’Connor tells us of her belief in hell that actually comes more easily to her than a belief in heaven; she speaks movingly of her worry that she may be “keeping [her] faith by laziness”; she asks God to help her write a story that will “be made too clear for any false & low interpretation .” As I put the pages from the magazine, brought to me by a friend who knows of my fondness for O’Connor, into my recycling bag, I reflected that if only it had been published three years ago, I might have finished writing about my own faith journal a little sooner.
I write this on an early Sunday morning. Soon I’ll drive down Hennepin Avenue to the Basilica, light my three-day candle as usual, kneel beneath the bright mosaic of Our Lady of Guadalupe, and pray to be able to put aside my arguments with church doctrine so as to be present for the mystery of the eucharist and the beautify of the choir. I’ll then enter into community with all the other people who have gotten themselves to this gorgeous edifice for what I assume are a wide variety of reasons. I will feel part of something bigger than myself and I will be nourished by the repetition of words I’ve heard and spoken since I was a little girl in Alabama.