Thursday, June 07, 2007

If It's a Symbol, to Hell With It

Today is the Feast of Corpus Christi, though we don’t celebrate it in America until this coming Sunday. The solemnity makes me think of a letter from Flannery O’Connor that a lot of people have quoted lately, but that's so good it deserves another run. It's from a letter written in December 1955, in which she describes a dinner with the “Big Intellectual” Mary McCarthy, as well as Robert Lowell, Elizabeth Hardwick, and others.

Having me there was like having a dog present who had been trained to say a few words but overcome with inadequacy had forgotten them. Well, toward morning the conversation turned on the Eucharist, which I, being Catholic, was obviously supposed to defend. Mrs. Broadwater said when she was a child and received the Host, she thought of it as the Holy Ghost, He being the “most portable” person of the Trinity; now she thought of it as a symbol and implied that it was a pretty good one. I then said, in a very shaky voice, “Well, if it's a symbol, to hell with it.” That was all the defense I was capable of but I realize now that this is all I will ever be able to say about it, outside of a story, except that it is the center of existence for me; all the rest of life is expendable.

This is O’Connor at her best: unpretentious, sharp, and right. Of course there are better ways to explain the Eucharist, but this is about as good as you're gonna get in ten syllables. (And give her credit for ending with two iambs!)

By the way, that anecdote comes from a longer letter that also includes an explanation of her most sacramental story, “A Temple of the Holy Ghost.” The last sentence is powerful even out of context: “The sun was a huge red ball like an elevated Host drenched in blood and when it sank out of sight, it left a line in the sky like a red clay road hanging over the trees.”

For the poetically inclined, this here site has a timely hymn by Aquinas and Hopkins's translation.

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