Flannery O’Connor (actually Mary Flannery O’Connor) was a celebrated author of short stories in the middle of the last century. A native of Georgia, O’Connor was characteristically southern in her frame of mind and in her turn of phrase.
But she was also, quite uncharacteristically for a southerner, a dedicated Roman Catholic. Even in midlife when illness had gotten the best of her, the writer continued to go to Mass almost every day. While attending a writer’s workshop in Iowa in 1945, the young author was overcome with homesickness. Happily, she found solace for her melancholy in St. Mary’s Catholic Church there in Iowa City.
As author Brad Gooch relates in a new biography, a friend later recalled O’Connor’s words: “I went to St. Mary’s as it was right around the corner and I could get there practically every morning. I went there three years and never knew a soul in that congregation or any of the priests, but it was not necessary. As soon as I went in the door I was at home.”
O’Connor was not “at home” in St. Mary’s Church in Iowa City because someone smilingly shook her hand at the door and showed her to her seat. The writer was not “at home” there because she was asked to stand at the introductory rites of the Mass and identify herself as a visitor to that congregation so some volunteer could offer her coffee and a muffin after Mass. The author was not “at home” at St. Mary’s because of an eager gesture offered over several pews at the sign of peace. Flannery O’Connor was “at home” in St. Mary’s Church on East Jefferson Street because of the deep Catholic faith that she brought with her from her home in central Georgia to this small university town.
Mary Flannery O’Connor’s faith transcended the tastefulness of the Gothic décor, the warmth of the community, even the eloquence of the priests. It was the presence of Christ reflected in the time-honored rituals and made real in the familiar sacraments that assured her that she was indeed “at home.”
The same religious experience that had nurtured and nourished her in Milledgeville, Ga. was available to her now in Middle America. For the believing Catholic, the celebration of Mass, the absolution in confession, and a visit to the Blessed Sacrament are spiritual encounters that depend more on the faith of the believer than they do on the skill of the celebrant or the earnestness of the community. Every Catholic has been gratified by the surprising beauty of a church or by a finely crafted sermon or by the liturgical excellence of a well-trained congregation. Yet at the same time, Catholics have been renewed and fortified by a basic rite at a summer chapel or by a scantily attended Mass in an inner city or by a toddler-filled liturgy in a school auditorium in the suburbs. In the event, it is the faith of the believer that draws meaning from the Mass, reinforcing the presence and power of Christ in any celebration.
In this coming Sunday’s Gospel passage, the crowds are overawed that Jesus has been able to relieve their neighbor of his speech impediment. “They were exceedingly astonished” writes St. Mark, “and they said, ‘He has done all things well. He makes the deaf hear and the mute speak.’” The crowds were rightly impressed with Jesus’ skill at working miracles, and he adeptly uses his talents to draw the multitudes closer to him. Yet sadly, awe at Jesus’ excellence is not sufficient to make true believers out of these people. The crowds might revel in Jesus’ signs and wonders, but their later fickleness proves that the true significance of this man eludes them. A faith-filled appreciation of the person of Jesus rather than an enthralled acknowledgment of the activities of Jesus is what makes a believer feel “at home.” Faith in the nature of the church rather then awe at the splendor of the Church is what makes a Catholic feel “at home.”
Fulfillment at Mass and satisfaction in church depends more upon the depth of one’s faith than on the extent of one’s participation. Catholics can be very busy at Mass: greeting and reciting and reading and singing and processing. But active participation is first and foremost an activity of faith, an awareness of the divine presence, an attentiveness to the beyond in our midst. In the end, it is the sensed presence of God that makes and will make the true believer really “at home.”