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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  • Literature is as vital to our lives as food and shelter. Stories and poems help us work through the challenges we face, from everyday irritations to loneliness, heartache, and death. Literature is meant to mix it up with life. This website explores how it does so.

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