Broken in Pieces All Asunder

Flannery O'Connor

Flannery O’Connor

Spiritual Sunday

I use today’s post to call your attention to a wonderful website. Daniel Clendenin’s superb weekly essays at Journey with Jesus are thoughtful meditations on religious poetry. This week’s post also examines the Christian vision of Flannery O’Connor, who Clendenin says walked a fine line between (in her words) “Despair and Presumption.” O’Connor turned to both her faith and her writing to handle the lupus that killed her at 39. As Clendenin writes,

[L]iving in the tension between despair and presumption is a good if difficult place to live as a believer. We should be wary of both extremes.

We ping pong between the realities of human nature (described so graphically in her fiction) and our hope to experience the mystery of divine grace. Between the Already of God’s kingdom and the Not Yet of its consummation.

I love the George Herbert “Affliction” poem that Clendenin chooses to capture this tension:

Affliction (IV)

By George Herbert

BROKEN in pieces all asunder,
Lord, hunt me not,
A thing forgot,
Once a poor creature, now a wonder,
A wonder tortured in the space
Betwixt this world and that of grace.

My thoughts are all a case of knives,
Wounding my heart
With scattered smart ;
As wat’ring-pots give flowers their lives.
Nothing their fury can control,
While they do wound and prick my soul.

All my attendants are at strife
Quitting their place
Unto my face :
Nothing performs the task of life :
The elements are let loose to fight,
And while I live, try out their right.

Oh help, my God !  let not their plot
Kill them and me,
And also Thee,
Who art my life : dissolve the knot,
As the sun scatters by his light
All the rebellions of the night.

Then shall those powers which work for grief,
Enter Thy pay,
And day by day
Labour Thy praise and my relief :
With care and courage building me,
Till I reach heav’n, and much more, Thee.

Clendenin concludes,

Despite her many “passive diminishments” (a concept from Teilhard de Chardin that she liked), O’Connor stayed true to God’s call on her life. She rejected pious platitudes and sentimentality for the hard truths of Christian realism. She reminded us that “grace changes us and [that] change is painful.”

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  • sue

    I agree with you, Robin, that the Herbert poem is an apt one to help us feel this deep struggle between doubt and pain and transformation and grace. Reading it brings to mind a psalm attributed to King David when beset by inward emotions of despair as well as outward taunts of enemies. Like the “case of knives” wounding and pricking, these threaten to undo his faith.

    This struggle is one which is as old as mankind itself, isn’t it? And our poets and writers help us see it for what it is, and give us a way forward.

    Psalm 42

    As the deer pants for streams of water,
    so my soul pants for you, my God.
    My soul thirsts for God, for the living God.
    When can I go and meet with God?
    My tears have been my food
    day and night,
    while people say to me all day long,
    “Where is your God?”

    These things I remember
    as I pour out my soul:
    how I used to go to the house of God
    under the protection of the Mighty Oned
    with shouts of joy and praise
    among the festive throng.

    Why, my soul, are you downcast?
    Why so disturbed within me?
    Put your hope in God,
    for I will yet praise him,
    my Savior and my God.

    My soul is downcast within me;
    therefore I will remember you
    from the land of the Jordan,
    the heights of Hermon—from Mount Mizar.

    Deep calls to deep
    in the roar of your waterfalls;
    all your waves and breakers
    have swept over me.

    By day the Lord directs his love,
    at night his song is with me—
    a prayer to the God of my life.

    I say to God my Rock,
    “Why have you forgotten me?
    Why must I go about mourning,
    oppressed by the enemy?”
    My bones suffer mortal agony
    as my foes taunt me,
    saying to me all day long,
    “Where is your God?”

    Why, my soul, are you downcast?
    Why so disturbed within me?
    Put your hope in God,
    for I will yet praise him,
    my Savior and my God.


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