Sometimes pleasures and joys slide one over the other. They pour so quickly into our lives, we begin to believe the cup of blessings can’t run dry. But then some crack appears. The blessing cup becomes hourglass, and happiness begins to pour away.
While still a graduate student at the famed University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop, Flannery O’Connor published her first short story, Geraniums. A year later, in 1947, she graduated from Iowa, winning the Rinehart-Iowa Fiction Award for an early version of her novel Wise Blood. The next year, she joined the ranks of America’s literary elite, being accepted to Yaddo, a prestigious residential artists’ colony in Saratoga Springs, New York. In less than five years, this unknown girl from Georgia had become a celebrated author. Headed home to Milledgeville, Georgia for Christmas 1951, she could see, in miles and months, how far and how fast she had come.
Over the holidays, however, Flannery fell seriously ill and was eventually diagnosed with Lupus. It’s a cluster of disorders, caused by the autoimmune system becoming hyperactive and attacking healthy tissue. The disease had taken her father. It would claim Flannery as well, after only fourteen more years of life, on crutches, largely confined to the family farm in Georgia.
Recently, A Prayer Journal
that Flannery O’Connor kept for about a year, while at Iowa, was found and published. Here’s her take on hope.
Dear God, About hope, I am somewhat at a loss. It is so easy to say I hope to—the tongue slides over it. I think perhaps hope can only be realized by contrasting it with despair. And I am too lazy to despair. Please don’t visit me with it, dear Lord, I would be so miserable. Hope, however, must be something distinct from faith. I unconsciously put it in the faith department. It must be something positive that I have never felt. It must be a positive force, else why the distinction between it and faith? I would like to order things so that I can feel all of a piece spiritually. I don’t suppose I order things. But all my requests seem to melt down to one for grace—that supernatural grace that does whatever it does. My mind is in a little box, dear God, down inside other boxes inside others boxes and on and on. There is very little air in my box (17).
This parochial school graduate knew that hope was more than optimism. “It’s easy to say, I hope to—the tongue slides over it.” Like faith and charity, hope is called a theological virtue, a strength by means of which we touch God.
“Perhaps hope can only be realized by contrasting it with despair.” When we despair, we close ourselves to God, to any possible action of God. Hope does the opposite. It’s a way, a hard, demanding way, of remaining open to God. Optimism is a natural endowment; children are borne with it. Hope is a supernatural gift, a lifetime’s work of grace.
Optimism comes from an all-too-human calculation of our chances. As such, it can be one more way of closing our world to God: our luck just needs to turn; we only need to work harder; we can hold out. “My mind is in a little box, dear God, down inside other boxes inside other boxes and on and on. There is very little air in my box.” Optimism has its place in human life, but sorrow sucks it away like a noonday sun. It grows pallid when death appears.
As a theological virtue, hope is a gift from God, rooted in the very nature of God, of who God is for us. Christian hope entered the world an early Easter morning, when a tomb was found empty. Christian hope is not a question of calculation. It’s a looking out, a sighting far into the distance, beyond doubt and death.
If then you were raised with Christ, seek what is above,
where Christ is seated at the right hand of God.
Think of what is above, not of what is on earth (Col 3: 1-2)
Like all young people, Flannery O’Connor had plenty of optimism. But something in the young graduate student knew that we must look beyond ourselves, our powers and our probabilities. We need to hope, and hope has only one terminus, God. Indeed, life is most human when it stretches beyond its horizon and hopes for something more.
Dear God, please give me as much air as it not presumptuous to ask for. Please let some light shine out of all the things around me so that I can what it amounts to I suppose is be selfish. Is there no getting around that dear God? No escape from ourselves? Into something bigger? Oh dear God I want to write a novel, a good novel. I want to do this for a good feeling and for a bad one. The bad one is uppermost. The psychologists say it is the natural one. Let me get away dear God from all things thus “natural.” Help me to get what is more than natural into my work—help me to love and bear with my work on that account. If I have to sweat for it, dear God, let it be as in Your service. I would like to be intelligently holy. I am a presumptuous fool, but maybe the vague thing in me that keeps me in is hope (17-18).
Acts 10: 34a, 37-43 Colossians 3: 1-4 John 20: 1-9