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When College Shakes Your Faith, Listen to Flannery O’Connor

AP File Photo 1962
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A second piece in our "Lights in the Darkness" series

In a modern culture that is adrift, it is good to be reminded of the true, the good and the beautiful. Each week it is my humble privilege to offer one selection from an indispensable canon of essays, speeches and books that will light a candle in the darkness. It is a canon I have assembled over many years that I hope will challenge and inspire each reader. But most importantly I hope it will remind us of what is true in an age of untruth. And if we know what is true, we are more apt to do what is right.

It was 1962 when he first wrote to her. A college freshman at Emory University, Alfred Corn was transfixed when the 37-year-old Flannery O’Connor spoke to his English class about her jarring story “A Good Man Is Hard to Find.” She was articulate, acerbic and Catholic. He was young, reserved and intrigued. So Alfred Corn wrote a letter to Flannery O’Connor. In it he discussed his struggles with faith. He was earnest. And Flannery respected that. So she wrote him back.

Here is what she said.

I think that this experience you are having of losing your faith, or as you think, of having lost it, is an experience that in the long run belongs to faith …

I don’t know how the kind of faith required of a Christian living in the 20th century can be at all if it is not grounded on this experience that you are having right now of unbelief … Peter [sic] said, “Lord, I believe. Help my unbelief.” It is the most natural and most human and most agonizing prayer in the gospels, and I think it is the foundation prayer of faith.

As a freshman in college you are bombarded with new ideas, or rather pieces of ideas, new frames of reference, an activation of the intellectual life which is only beginning but which is already running ahead of your lived experience. After a year of this, you think you cannot believe. You are just beginning to realize how difficult it is to have faith and the measure of a commitment to it, but you are too young to decide you don’t have faith just because you feel you can’t believe …

One result of the stimulation of your intellectual life that takes place in college is usually a shrinking of the imaginative life. This sounds like a paradox, but I have often found it to be true. Students get so bound up with difficulties such as reconciling the clashing of so many different faiths such as Buddhism, Mohammedanism, etc., that they cease to look for God in other ways. [Robert] Bridges once wrote Gerard Manley Hopkins and asked him to tell him how he, Bridges, could believe. He must have expected from Hopkins a long philosophical answer. Hopkins wrote back, “Give alms.” He was trying to say to Bridges that God is to be experienced in charity (in the sense of love for the divine image in human beings). Don’t get so entangled with intellectual difficulties that you fail to look for God in this way.

The intellectual difficulties have to be met, however, and you will be meeting them for the rest of your life. … Where you have absolute solutions, however, you have no need of faith. Faith is what you have in the absence of knowledge. … You can’t fit the Almighty into your intellectual categories …

What kept me a skeptic in college was precisely my Christian faith. It always said wait, don’t bite on this, get a wider picture, continue to read.

If you want your faith, you have to work for it. It is a gift, but for very few is it a gift given without any demand for equal time devoted to its cultivation. For every book you read that is anti-Christian, make it your business to read one that presents the other side of the picture; if one isn’t satisfactory read others. Don’t think that you have to abandon reason to be a Christian. … To find out about faith, you have to go to the people who have it and you have to go to the most intelligent ones if you are going to stand up intellectually to agnostics and the general run of pagans that you are going to find in the majority of people around you …

Even in the life of a Christian, faith rises and falls like the tides of an invisible sea. It’s there, even when he can’t see it or feel it, if he wants it to be there.

“You realize, I think, that [faith] is more valuable, more mysterious, altogether more immense than anything you can learn or decide upon in college. Learn what you can, but cultivate Christian skepticism. It will keep you free — not free to do anything you please, but free to be formed by something larger than your own intellect or the intellects of those around you …”

Like countless college students today, Alfred Corn’s struggles with faith were genuine. And so were Flannery O’Connor’s answers. But while she encouraged Alfred on his journey, she also challenged him. The riches of faith await us, but we must be willing to courageously and prayerfully “put out into the deep and let down our nets for a catch.” We must be willing to vigorously answer the call of faith.

Indeed.

Flannery O’Connor counseled and challenged Alfred Corn.

And she challenges us too.

[To read Flannery O’Connor’s entire letter to Alfred Corn (along with other brilliant letters), please find them in The Habit of Being, edited by Sally Fitzgerald and available on Amazon.]

 

Tod Worner is a husband, father, Catholic convert and practicing internal medicine physician. He blogs for Patheos as A Catholic Thinker.

 

 

 

 

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