The Province of Joy: Praying with Flannery O'Connor
Angela Alaimo O'Donnell
Many people consider Flannery O’Conner the best short-story writer of the twentieth century. Her macabre tales of death and dysfunction shake readers out of their comfort zone in order to show them grace in the darkest of circumstances. Her work continues to be praised by religious and secular critics alike.
However when studying her work, Flannery's faith is often ignored. She was a devout Catholic who loved the Sacraments, studied the Summa, and prayed each day. Her faith clearly grounded her stories, inspiring themes like redemption, the surprise of grace, and the horror of sin.
While a small handful of books probe her spirituality, fewer if any explore her personal prayer life. This makes Angela Alaimo O’Donnell’s new book, The Province of Joy: Praying with Flannery O’Conner (Paraclete Press, paperback, 155 pages), a welcome contribution.
A poet and English professor at Fordham University, O’Donnel has written a book which is less biography and more “prayer book.” It’s structured like a “Book of Hours,” with morning and evening prayers for seven different days. Each day carries a theme, such as “The Christian Comedy”, “Blindness and Vision”, and “Facing the Dragon.” Each also has a Gospel meditation, prayers from the Divine Office, a passage excerpted from Flannery’s writings, and some closing reflections from O’Donnel herself.
The Divine Office structure is ripe for meditation and moreso when you add Flannery’s own writings. Here’s a sample passage:
“Faith is a “walking in darkness” and not a theological solution to mystery. The poet is traditionally a blind man, but the Christian poet, and storyteller as well, is like the blind man whom Christ touched, who looked then and saw men as if they were trees but walking. This is the beginning of vision, and it is an invitation to deeper and stranger visions.”
In Province of Joy, O’Donnel provides that same invitation. You'll pray with Flannery, contemplate her words, and eventually emerge with “deeper and stranger visions”--visions that both comfort and provoke.
God Will Provide: How God’s Bounty Opened to Saints and 9 Ways It Can Open for You, Too
When times are good, it’s easy to trust God. We all have peace when our bank account is full, our pantry lined with food, and our bodies in good health.
But what happens when desperation hits? What do you do when the car breaks down and you have no money to fix it? Or when you lose your job and don’t know where to turn?
That's when our trust in God is ultimately measured. It’s then we wonder whether he'll come through or not.
Those of us in that boat will find help in a new book by Patricia Treece titled, God Will Provide: How God’s Bounty Opened to Saints and 9 Ways It Can Open For You, Too (Paraclete Press, paperback, 206 pages).
Patricia provides many examples of God meeting needs, specifically those of the saints. She gives us Dorothy Day at the Catholic Worker house, wondering how to pay the rent before a man surprises her with just the right amount. We see Fr. Solanus Casey praying outside an empty food pantry, when a baker suddenly drives up with a truckload of food. Then there’s Mother Teresa, a paragon of divine trust, who throughout her life refused to fund-raise for her work, sure that God would provide money when needed (he did.)
Patricia draws nine principles from these inspiring stories to help deepen your own trust in God’s providence. Her tips include cultivating gratitude, retooling your mind, and giving yourself over to God’s care, even when you doubt it.
Like Jesus' advice to "consider the lilies of the field", the purpose of Patricia's book is to move you from asking “why won’t God do more?” to recognizing how God has always taken care of you.
If you want to strengthen your trust in God, especially when such confidence seems unattainable, this is the book for you.
Pope Benedict XVI
Pope Benedict XVI has long been considered a staunch conservative. Liturgically, morally, and doctrinally, most place him far to the right of any issue, which is precisely why people are surprised when he speaks on traditionally “liberal” issues like the environment.
A new book titled simply, The Environment (Our Sunday Visitor, paperback, 175 pages), collects excerpts from the Pope’s audiences, speeches, encyclicals, letters, and homilies, all dealing with care for creation.
Pope Benedict doesn’t mince words in the collection. He dives right into hot topics like climate change, overpopulation, and the connection between peace and sustainability, and handles each with his characteristic balance and clarity.
One of the Pope's major emphases is the need for environmental solidarity. Whether we live in Arkansas or Africa, Mexico or India, we all live on the same collective planet. Pope Benedict affirmed this in his message for the 2007 World Day of Peace:
“Preservation of the environment, promotion of sustainable development and particular attention to climate change are matters of grave concern for the entire human family. With increasing clarity, scientific research demonstrates that the impact of human actions in any one place or region can have worldwide effects.”
The Environment isn't meant to be political, nor was it designed as a science text. You won’t find data supporting or refuting global warming.
Instead, the Pope’s focus is on the moral and spiritual demands we all share in regard to the environment. Because of this angle, the book has the potential to be a bridge between social liberals and conservatives who are often far apart on this topic.
Pope Benedict XVI has spoken more on creation than perhaps any other pontiff or Catholic leader. This new collection synthesizes all his teachings and confirms that the environment isn’t just a "liberal" issue—it’s a deeply Catholic concern.
Every day I talk with atheists, Protestants, and other non-Catholics about my faith. Sometimes the discussion is personal, with me sharing how Jesus has changed my life. Other times it centers on moral issues like abortion, homosexuality, or contraception. And still other times I deal with objections to things like the male-only ordination, the Church's "anti-science" stance, or her bold claims to authority.
Through it all, I've learned that no matter what the topic is, what matters most is the way I choose to dialogue. Reason and logic are important. It's certainly necessary to deliver sharp, well-reasoned explanations of why I believe what I believe. But even when I present an air-tight defense of Jesus' divinity, for example, if I'm a jerk, nobody cares.
The key to evangelizing is joy.
Everyone is drawn to joy, as St. Thomas notes, which makes it the ultimate magnet. Look at the best evangelists down through the centuries and you'll see this. Most drew people in through their warmth and charity. They were gracious people first, great intellects second. And they prove that most people respond to kindness before logic and charity before truth.
Now don't get me wrong. This isn't an either/or situation. We need both charity and truth (see: Caritas in Veritate). Yet I think we emphasize the latter more often than not. You can see this by scanning Catholic websites and bookstores. You'll find thousands of good resources on apologetics, philosophy, logic and more. But there aren't many that teach you how to share your faith with joy and love.
So to that end, here are three ways I evangelize with joy in my own life:
1. Smile profusely.
A smile is perhaps our most powerful evangelistic tool--and one of the most neglected. St. Teresa of Avila famously said, "a sad saint is a bad saint," and the same is true for evangelists.
Just look at Mother Teresa. Despite her dark night of the soul, she walked around with a beaming grin and it was contagious. She knew its value and liked to remind people that, "peace begins with a smile."
As does evangelization.
When discussing your faith, keep reminding yourself to smile. This small act communicates joy more than almost anything else. You'll find that smiling actually improves your tone as well, making it more jovial and upbeat.
During my interview on FoxNews a few months back, several friends told me the Fox online chat room was filled with atheists claiming I "smiled too much" and was "too happy."
I loved hearing that.
It meant most of them had only experienced dry, solemn Catholics. Perhaps I gave them a new face. Maybe I showed them that joy and Catholicism are not mutually exclusive.
As an aside, it should be noted that smiles are just as powerful online. Not because your dialogue partners can see it, but because it affects the way you write. When you participate in a heated combox discussion, try to smile as you type. Just as your physical position shapes the way you pray, so smiling will affect your words and tone online.
2. Practice "affirmative orthodoxy."
When discussing faith with non-Catholics, you'll undoubtedly receive angry comments regarding several controversial subjects: the sexual abuse crisis, the Church's shrinking numbers, her "retrograde" stance on women, abortion, contraception, homosexuality, science, and more.
When this happens, it's often tempting to go on the defensive. You want to launch a powerful natural law defense or fight back with statistics and sharp rebuttals.
But don't fall into that trap. Don't feel as if you're the lone ranger, bulwarking the Church against a vicious onslaught. Instead, spin the critique around, go on the offense, and calmly emphasize the positive.
Cardinal Timothy Dolan is great at this. He practices what John Allen calls "affirmative orthodoxy," which emphasizes what the Church is for rather than what she's against. It focuses on her huge "Yes!" to life, love, and joy rather than her "No" to evil and sin.
Here's what it looks like in practice. Suppose someone frames a question about "homosexual marriage" by asking, "Why does the Church discriminate against homosexuals? Why doesn't it want them to be happy?"
Your first inclination may be to angrily fire back with reasons why homosexual activity is sinful. That may be true, but it's not winsome.
A good alternative would be to respond like this (with, of course, a smile):
"Oh, we Catholics want everyone to be happy! We cherish each man, woman, and child and we're convinced that every person deserves a life full of love and joy. We vigorously protect that.
And you're right that regardless of one's sexual orientation, all people were created by God with supreme dignity, which means nobody should ever be unjustly discriminated against. I'm with you there.
And when it comes to marriage, the Church is the biggest proponent. We're convinced that marriage is the bedrock of society and worth fighting for. Yet central to that institution is the procreation and education of children. Without that, marriage collapses, and so does the society around it.
So we value both the dignity of every person and the supreme value of marriage. We're the strongest proponents of each and will support them till the end of time."
See how instead of beginning with a "no" to homosexual marriage, we start with the Church's "yes" to dignity and love. This is so important since it's easier to communicate joy with a "yes" than a "no."
Now later on in the conversation, you can move to the particular reasons why the Church says "no" to certain things like homosexual marriage. There's a time for that. And I think Cardinal Dolan handles it best again when he explains that the Church only says "no" to other "no's". For example, when people say "no" to the life of an unborn child, the Church is forced to reply with a stronger countering "no."
But begin with affirmative orthodoxy. When facing a prickly question, don't let your blood boil. Don't feel like a crusader against a vicious onslaught. Instead, think "OK, how can I emphasize the Church's great 'Yes!' to all that's good, true, and beautiful?"
3. Learn from the greats.
In my mind, the two most effective evangelists today are Cardinal Dolan and Fr. Robert Barron. Both are brilliant by any measure. Both are clear thinkers and great writers. However most people are drawn to them because of their warmth and charisma.
We can learn a lot by studying their joyful style. In Dolan's case, I highly suggest his new book-length interview with John Allen titled A People of Hope. There he tackles controversial issues, again and again, with great joy and aplomb.
You can also see Dolan Mode in action through many videos online, including this one:
Click here if video doesn't load, and Google "Cardinal Dolan video" for many more.
To learn from Fr. Barron, read his marvelous book, Catholicism: A Journey to the Heart of the Faith, or catch any of his 180+ YouTube vignettes. Here's one where he explicitly discusses the power of joy in evangelization:
To Cardinal Dolan and Fr. Barron I'd also add Fulton Sheen, Fr. Jim Martin, Mother Teresa, Pope John Paul II, and Pope Benedict XVI. Read their writings, watch them on YouTube, and study their methods. By learning from the greats, you'll discover how to evangelize through smiling, humor, and happiness in your own life.
So there are my three strategies. For even more check out a wonderful new book by Austen Ivereigh titled How to Defend the Faith Without Raising Your Voice. It's a field-guide to "affirmative orthodoxy" which will help you share your faith with clarity and joy. The book was just released by Our Sunday Visitor and I'm hoping to review it soon. Here's the publisher's description:
"It is about winning friends, not arguments. It is about shedding light, not heat. It's about reframing the argument so hearts can be opened and minds can be inspired.
How to Defend the Faith without Raising Your Voice is a new sort of apologetics. It is for those moments when you are thrust into the spotlight as the token Catholic whether the spotlight is simply at the office water cooler or whether it is front and center at the in-laws Thanksgiving celebration.
The book gives Catholics a fresh way of explaining the Church's teaching on contentious issues humanly, compellingly, and succinctly.
But this book does not pretend to suggest it is as simple as memorizing a speech. Every conversation is different. Every day's news cycle will bring new arguments and new challenges. Instead, it is a book about what the issues really are and where the criticisms are coming from so you can understand and communicate effectively.
It is the fruit of a group of speakers and experts brought together by a single idea: to make sure that Catholics and the Church were represented properly in the media when Pope Benedict came to visit the UK in 2010. Their original and thoughtful approach helped make that visit a triumph and now it can be expanded for a much broader use.
Whether read in groups or alone, studied in schools or parishes, How to Defend the Faith without Raising Your Voice offers the same thorough briefings on hot topics and the same top tips for effective communication which helped make the project such a success."
How many people can say that they prayed with two saints at the same time? One who can is Fr. Ed Thompson, my spiritual director and parish priest. Fr. Ed shared some of his stories with me last year in a video. Most of the tales were about his encounters with Archbishop Fulton Sheen, whose unofficial feast day is today.
But one story stood out.
Fr. Ed recalled an episode from his time as vocations director in Philadelphia where he was tasked with arranging a dynamic prayer service. Looking for help, he decided to call on the two holiest people he knew--Mother Teresa and Archbishop Sheen. Sure enough, they both agreed to come, and Fr. Ed had the rare privilege of praying hand-in-hand with two spiritual giants.
Listen to the story below:
(This is just one clip from a longer movie that we filmed. You can hear all the other fantastic stories in the full version at the bottom of this post.)
I love Mother Teresa, but Archbishop Sheen is one of my greatest heroes--especially when it comes to preaching and evangelizing. He was a master orator who understood rhythm, story, and stage presence better than any Catholic preacher I know. He knew how to connect with people at a deep level and was absolutely magnetic on the stage. When he preached, according to witnesses, you felt like you were listening to one of the apostles.
In my mind, Sheen was the most influential American Catholic of the twentieth century. He was certainly the most renowned evangelist, dominating the airwaves and attracting larger audiences than guys like Milton Berle and Frank Sinatra.
Yet sometimes his warmth and charisma overshadow his brilliant mind. In his time, Sheen was a renowned (and prolific) theologian. His Life of Christ is a sure classic and many of his other works has been loved by priests, laypeople, and even popes--John Paul II claimed to watch Sheen's television shows to brush up on his English.
Today, many young Catholics are unfamiliar with Sheen; they may know his name, but they haven't seen him in action. For a good introduction to Sheen's work, I suggest you start with his books--Life of Christ or Three to Get Married are great starting points.
You can also learn more in the following ways:
- Watch Archbishop Fulton Sheen: Servant of All. This new two-DVD package includes five episodes from Sheen's popular TV program and an hour long look at his life. You see his entire journey from young altar boy to worldwide evangelist and hear many fascinating anecdotes along the way. One of my favorites comes from a family member, who explained how Sheen was notorious for living with an open hand. If you walked into his house and complimented a lamp, he would make you take it--no arguments allowed. People slowly learned never to praise anything Sheen had or else they'd be forced to leave with it. That sort of generosity characterized the rest of his life.
- Listen to some of Sheen's talks. The Fulton Sheen Audio Library has a ton of archived content. There you can read many of Sheen's writings, stream several MP3 talks for free, and also view YouTube videos of Sheen preaching.
- Learn more about Sheen's cause for canonization. After a few hiccups, his journey toward sainthood seems to moving along. If you know anybody that needs a miracle, consider asking for Sheen's intercession; it just might help him become the first American-born saint.
- Follow Archbishop Sheen through social media. No, he's not posting tweets from the grave. But you can stay on top of Sheen's cause and other related news by 'Liking' the Fulton Sheen Facebook page or following them on Twitter.
Here's the full version of Fr. Ed Thompson's spiritual recollections, which includes many more stories about Archbishop Fulton Sheen:
Mother Teresa of Calcutta: A Personal Portrait
Fr. Leo Maasburg
Since her death in 1997, we've seen a steady stream of books about Mother Teresa. A quick Amazon search reveals that there are more than 10,000 titles on the holy woman.
Now that's not a bad thing. I think more people need to discover her; I agree with Dr. Peter Kreeft who says that if you want to be a saint in the modern world, all you need is to read Mother Teresa and John Paul II. One problem with all of these titles, though, is redundancy. Most books tell the same stories in the same ways and feature the same prayers and words of wisdom.
That’s why I was so excited to read a new book by Fr. Leo Maasburg titled Mother Teresa of Calcutta: A Personal Portrait (Ignatius, hardcover, 265 pages). This book is special--certainly set apart from the other 10,000--precisely because Fr. Maasburg was Mother Teresa’s friend, confessor, spiritual advisor, and translator for many years. He brings a unique perspective and in the book shares fifty stories that have never been published before.
One of my favorites was the tale of her marching up to Pope John Paul II, demanding the canonization of Fr. Damien of Molokai. “Holy Father, we need a saint for our lepers!” she explained. After Mother noted why Fr. Damien was the perfect candidate, the Pope recommended she talk with the prefect of the Congregation for the Causes of Saints.
Mother Teresa went to him next, but encountered a snag. The bishop explained that no miracles had been attributed to Fr. Damien after his death, a fundamental requirement for canonization. With admirable resolve, Mother Teresa countered, “Yes, but maybe this would be a good opportunity to change that tradition.”
The prefect gave a kind and clever smile, then said, "Mother Teresa, you're quite right. But don't you think it would be much simpler for you to ask the Good Lord for these miracles than for us to change our four-hundred-year-old tradition?" Fr. Maasburg claims that was the only time that he ever saw Mother Teresa speechless. She walked away without giving an answer, presumably to begin her onslaught of prayer.
From building a Spanish orphanage without a penny in her pocket to saving a declining railroad company from ruin, these stories reveal a side to Mother Teresa that the world has never seen. Certainly, any book on Mother Teresa is a valuable read, but Mother Teresa of Calcutta: A Personal Portrait stands out among the rest as a unique glimpse at one of the twentieth-century’s most holiest women.