Tuesday, August 25, 2009

I'd Like to Be More Like Swiss Cheese

Religion can be a very private matter. Sharing one's spiritual path in life with others takes bravery. I like to read and talk about religion in general, because questions of faith are central in my life. Like so many other people, I have chosen to practice and live the religion I was given by my parents: Catholicism. I'm beginning to see that even among some of the holiest people, no two faith journeys look alike, and they shouldn't be the same because every human being starts at a different place.

It's very hard to be Catholic; it requires so much more than church attendance. In truth, there are tenants of this faith that I grapple with daily. Ultimately, I think religion should lead one to a connection with his Maker, others, and a deeper sense of wisdom. It should lead a person to holiness, and each one of us has to take responsibility for his own journey.

Yesterday, while I was snacking and finishing reading Wise Blood by Flannery O'Connor, I had a thought. I think God wants me to be just like Swiss cheese. I need to make holes in myself. Unlike this book, I absolutely do not mean self-mutilation! Let me explain. Holiness may mean becoming more vulnerable, and in a sense, less guarded. In attempting to be more open, accepting and loving one creates spaces in the heart for suffering. The more open a person becomes, the scarier life becomes. According to the faith I've chosen, I am to trust that even if I do get hurt, being open is the right choice that will lead me to a sense of peace.

This idea of becoming open goes against everything I hear. I live in a world that suspects everyone and everything in the negative. My television puts out stories of murder and rape every evening on almost every prime time channel. The news media revels in conflict, danger and disaster. People are trained not to trust in or look for the goodness in others. This message hurts us just as much as violence itself.

I think the best literature asks a universal question and leaves you thinking about it further. One question that I constantly find myself seeking to explore in things I read deals with holiness. What is it and why do I want it? I like seeing the many roads that people take towards it, and the ways in which people who are not looking for holiness stumble into it anyway.One of the reasons why I like Flannery O'Connor stories is because she discusses this idea of the quest for faith, and the change that the active search for God makes on a human being.

For example, O'Connor's book Wise Blood explores the quest for holiness. Hazel Motes finds religion on his own, and that is what he longs for in the first place, underneath his fierce rejection of it. The character doesn't want to be forced to swallow the religious perception of others, and through experiencing his own suffering journey of rejecting God, he moves toward a change of heart. Like so many of us, Hazel Motes is ruled by pride, by his need to be right, and he finds a way that is quite unique and terrifying to kill that pride.

This tale, with its many layers, is an example of why Flannery O'Connor is a talented writer. In 1962, ten years after the publication of Wise Blood, she wrote,

"That belief in Christ is to some a matter of life and death has been a stumbling block for readers who would prefer to think it a matter of no great consequence. For them Hazel Motes' integrity lies in his trying with such vigor to get rid of the ragged figure who moves from tree to tree in the back of his mind. For the author Hazel's integrity lies in his not being able to do so. "

Christ's redemption of humanity is the major theme in this novel. O'Connor's subtle message is that ALL humanity, even those we perceive to be bad, nasty, ugly, evil people are loved unconditionally by God. The characters in this story are gross, despicable human beings. O'Connor is never afraid to show a picture of humanity in the raw. In Wise Blood we see Hazel Motes, someone who is plainly full of hate, find peace and faith through suffering. To find his "truth" he removes the obstacle to it, in this case, his sight. Motes blinds himself, and only then does he find some rest from the frantic quest to disprove the existence of God.

In some mysterious way he decides, after maiming himself, that he was wrong about Jesus. Then he stuffs his shoes with rocks and glass, and wraps his body in barbed wire to "pay" as he says, for his sins. This character's actions are fascinating and horrific. Through his warped, misguided sense of guilt, Hazel Motes seeks to change and follow Christ in the end of his life, after publicly denouncing and ridiculing Jesus, and even killing a man.

I read the middle chapters of the book three times to find the place where he changed. I'm wondering why he changes. I decide, finally, that it has something to do with losing his car and then blinding himself. More important than the strange self-mutilation that is, in itself, sinful, is Hazel Motes' inward desire to change into someone holier. It makes me wonder how ordinary real-life characters like myself can change while still being immersed in this society that is so counter-Christ and confusing. Just like in the world of Wise Blood, sometimes those who claim to be religious are not acting holy. How is an ordinary person supposed to find truth and garner the courage to live openly?

Hazel Motes does not pray verbally after his change in heart, but he sits, motionless, in a kind of Adoration perhaps, doing his secret, painful penance. His last words are:

"I want to go where I'm going."

I think about this line for a while. Could the author mean that Hazel Motes finally makes peace with the spiritual unrest in his heart? He changes and re-establishes a relationship with Christ the best way that he is able to.

For the first part of the novel, Hazel Motes is on the run.

“Nobody with a good car needs to be justified.” He says.

His change in heart begins the moment the cop pushes his car off the cliff. Finally forced to stop running and face his actions, is Hazel Motes trying to kill his own pride? I’m still trying to figure this out. Is he trying to absolve himself and at the end of his life does he feel a sense of freedom? I think O’Connor leaves this idea up for debate in the end, but she does give the character more integrity for trying to change. Hazel Motes is definitely like Swiss cheese at the end of his life.

Will I ever get holy? Um, I’m not sure. I will not do what that character did to get there, I'm certain. My life, however, looks nothing like what his looked like. For me the road to truth is a different landscape. Maybe it doesn’t matter at all if I change or not into a better person. Maybe what matters is my effort.


Putz said...

the one and only time you were mad at me was when i related a movie i am sure you never saw angels and demons .>>>>>a scene where an apostle and now saint peter in his square was waiting for a bomb to go off, and you resented the bomb and saint peter and his square being in the same sentance...of course your saints mean much more to you than me, but i thought of all my screwy prophets in mormondom, but i was trying to describe the show and you thought i was focusing on the saints....if i weren't a mormon, i would have to be a catholic ....unbroken line of authority

Anonymous said...

Very insightful writing! Faith is integral to my life; and it's my quest to remain open. You're right it can be difficult--my faith is often stretched; the rewards are tremendous. I think if you make the effort, there will be obvious change, and the areas you put the effort into will blossom.

Have you read the book, "The Shack" by William P. Young? You might find that helps you to think about faith as well. The gist is that God meets you at your point of pain/weakest point, and if you can surrender that to Him amazing things can happen with your spirit then life.

You are amazing with words--thank you for sharing!

Loren Christie said...

JChristin, I will look for the book you mention. Thank you for the comment. Mr. Putz, I realize what you were referring to now and it's okay, I understand your humor. That movie and The DaVinci Code are so disrespectful to the Catholic faith that I have no patience. I tried to read the books by Dan Brown and they really ticked me off. Is it possible that Jesus could be more than mortal? Well YES, that's my core belief. It made me sad how they trivialized my faith. I'm still annoyed at Tom Hanks for participating in the films, so don't feel bad. It looks like I have a very long and winding road to becoming Swiss Cheese. :)

rhymeswithplague said...

I'm a huge Flannery O'Connor fan. Let me rephrase that: I'm a huge fan of Flannery O'Connor. No, that's not what I mean, either. Oh, well. She is my favorite writer. There, I said it.

Loren, if you have not read Stephen Sparrow's excellent essay on Wise Blood, you can find it here. There are links to many more of Stephen's essays on various short stories of Flannery's here. Every single one of them is worth reading. It is one of my favorite sites to explore.

I'm not sure I agree with you that Hazel Motes's blinding himself was "a sin" -- indeed, Jesus Himself said "If your eye offends you, pluck it out. It is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye, than having two eyes to be cast into hell fire" (Mark 9:47). Don't worry, though; I am not planning to blind myself.

I love what Sabbath Lily Hawkes told her father about Hazel: "I like his eyes. They don't look like they see what he's looking at but they keep on looking."

John Huston made a film of Wise Blood that you might want to rent.

Very good post. I think God wants us all to be more like Swiss cheese.

Loren Christie said...

Mr. Brague, Thank you very much for your feedback on Wise Blood. I appreciate the links and I see your point about the blinding. I was thinking of that line in scripture, but I could not get past the creepiness of self-mutilation. I do remember that quote from Sabbath Hawkes and I do see the link! Isn't she such a sad character, wanting just to be loved and accepted?

Sean said...

I hate most religions, not because I am atheist or anything like that, I hate them because they teach love and understanding, and I think that's why most people need religion because it gives them the sense of being loved unconditionally by an entity that doesn't need to love them.

But then when it comes to people who believe in different things than they do, or want to love someone who their religion doesn't want them to they start preaching and being hateful. That to me looks like it goes against the whole idea of religion, because how can you be so hateful to someone who doesn't believe what you do, or doesn't love who you think they should?

Loren Christie said...

I see your point. People can be so hypocritical; no one is perfect. No one should stuff a religion down your throat. If you want to know your Maker then you should do it your own way, but seeking God is good for your health, of that I am certain. I think you make a good point here: People tend to tailor their religion to meet their own ways of seeing the world. We try to make God's will the same as our will, and it's not. You're also right to say that God doesn't have to love us. My belief is that He does no matter what we think or what religion we practice. Thanks for reading!

rhymeswithplague said...

The writer Anne Lamott once said that you will know that you have created God in your own image when it turns out He hates all the same people you do....

Loren Christie said...

Anne Lamott is another really witty writer. I enjoyed the book Bird By Bird...

Todd Lemieux said...

I absolutely LOVE this post. Thanks so much.

I think you have created God in your own image when He hates anyone.

Loren Christie said...

Hi Todd, I agree. Hate happens sometimes, but people need to make an effort to let go of it, as unfair as that action may feel. Thank you for commenting.

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Welcome to my writer's blog, started about six years ago for fun. Over time, the writing I have posted has ranged from personal reflection, to Long Island history research, to tall tales for my own amusement, to feature articles for local newspapers. As you can see from topics listed here, I travel in many mental directions in regard to interests. Click on the tabs and labels to explore my strange mind which senses that you may be having a criss-cross day. If so, perhaps this blog will distract you. However, please note that if you tell me my blog is beautiful just to get me to advertise rhinoplasty surgery and cheap drugs from Canada in your comment, I will ask the gods to give you a tail that cannot be concealed.


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