Flannery O’Connor on the Eucharist and Church History

I know I’ve posted this before, but I’m struck at how beautifully Flannery O’Connor expressed herself regarding both the Eucharist and Church history.  First, she famously had this to say of the Eucharist, as recounted in a letter she wrote in December of 1955:

Flannery O’Connor
I was once, five or six years ago, taken by some friends to have dinner with Mary McCarthy and her husband, Mr. Broadwater.  (She just wrote that book, A Charmed Life).  She departed the Church at the age of 15 and is a Big Intellectual.  We went at eight and at one, I hadn’t opened my mouth once, there being nothing for me in such company to say.  The people who took me were Robert Lowell and his now wife, Elizabeth Hardwick.  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 the 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 touches on a point that I find fascinating.  I find that while Protestants tend to overestimate the importance of our differences on justification, there’s a tendency to underestimate the importance of our different understandings of the Eucharist.  Understanding this difference as one of degree (whether Christ is spiritually or physically Present) would be as misleading as supposing that it was just a difference of degrees between Arianism (which said that Christ was of a similar substance as the Father) and Catholicism (Christ is of the same substance as the Father).  In the case of Arianism, it’s the difference between Jesus Christ being God or not.  In the case of Protestantism, it’s the difference between the Eucharist being Jesus Christ or not.  For us, the Eucharist is everything, period.

On a related note, Flannery O’Connor succinctly pointed out the illogical ecclesiology and Church history within Protestantism, in a July 1959 letter to one Dr. T.R. Spivey:

We mean entirely different things when we each say we believe the Church is Divine. You mean the invisible Church with somehow related to it many forms, whereas I mean one and one only visible Church. It is not logical to the Catholic to believe that Christ teaches through many visible forms all teaching contrary doctrine. You speak of the well-known facts of Christ’s life – but these facts are hotly contested – the virgin birth, the resurrection, the very divinity of Christ. For us the one visible Church pronounces on these matters infallibly and we receive her doctrine whether subjectively it fits in with our surmises or not. We believe that Christ left the Church to speak for him, that it speaks with his voice, that he is the head and we are the members. 

Juan de Juanes, The Last Supper (1560)

If Christ actually teaches through many forms then for fifteen centuries, he taught that the Eucharist was his actual body and blood and thereafter he taught part of his people that it was only a symbol. The Catholic can’t live with this contradiction. I have seen it said that the Catholic is more interested in truth and the Protestant in goodness, but I don’t think too much of the formula except that it suggests a partial truth. 

The Catholic finds it easier to understand the atheist than the Protestant, but easier to love the Protestant than the atheist. The fact is though now that the fundamental Protestants, as far as doctrine goes, are closer to their traditional enemy, the Church of Rome, than they are to the advanced elements of Protestantism. You can know where I stand, what I believe because I am a practicing Catholic, but I can’t know what you believe unless I ask you. You are right that enjoy is not exactly the right word for our talking about religion. As far as I know, it hurts like nothing else. We are at least together in the pain we share in this terrible division. It’s the Catholic Church who calls you “separated brethren,” she who feels the awful loss.

I had to fight the impulse to put every sentence in bold, because she manages to capture everything I could say in a few short paragraphs.  She points out the inherent contradictions within Protestantism, sees the brewing chaos within mainline Protestant (back in 1959!), and yet, she’s not triumphalistic about it, but pained.  As much as I love Flannery’s writings for her sharp wit and keen insights, the most beautiful thing to emerge from her writings is a true Christian love for the Eucharist and for her neighbor, even for those she disagreed with.


  1. Wow! I so identify and of course I’ve already emailed a few folks! 😉 what pain!

    God, heal our division and bring us all into the fullness of your truth and love!

    In Christ

  2. My mother, before she came home to the Church, told me about her Episcopalian days saying: “You can tell when it’s not the real thing.” I totally agree with that. Ask me to tell you why another denomination’s communion isn’t valid, and I’ll go to my grave without providing a solid answer. I just know that there’s something different when a Catholic Priest or Bishop does it, that’s all.

    Also I can state with some small degree of authority (Long story…) that what Flannery O’Connor said with a shaky voice many year ago, Satanists today proclaim firmly, and with conviction behind closed doors.

  3. Rob, I replied to you that this is the answer why the Protestants’communion is invalid. It is because they do not have the Apostolic Succession bestowed by Jesus Christ upon his Apostles. When Jesus appeared to them on the 8th Day after His Resurrection, He ordained them as Priests to Celebrate the Eucharist as He had done on Holy Thursday when He offered Himself to the Heavenly Father. The Divine Sacrifice for which He became Man for our salvation, was consummated at the Last Supper. Only the physical Sacrifice would be accomplished on the following day on the Cross at Calvary. On this 8th Day, Jesus also bestowed His Divine Powers to forgive sins to His Apostles when he breathed onto them and, thereby, solemnly instituted the Sacrament of Penance (Reconciliation). This is the same reason why the Catholic Church cannot ordain women. Sacrifice to God the Creator of all, in all cultures and religions of the world have since time immemorial been done by men. When the Catholic Priest is celebrating the Holy Eucharist, he is acting in the place of Jesus Himself. At the moment of Consecration, Jesus Himself takes over and offers Himself to His Father – in perpetuity at every celebration of the Holy Eucharist. This is the truth why the communions of the Protestants are null and void

  4. This is highly speculative upon my part, and I am insufficiently aware of the history of theology to determine if this is a new conception of the Trinity or not. Nor would I hold to it if the following were contrary to (St. Bernard guide me) Catholic doctrine….
    Problem: How can God be both three persons and one substance?
    Conundrum: As God is previous and external to humans and we can only grasp anything about God intelligibly, we need to take into account the neurological influence and possible distortions that might arise in the exercise of intelligibility (because intelligibility can not be some extra-neurological facility).
    Solution: Pertaining to the question of substance, Jesus Christ is God before us; The Holy Spirit is God looked through or God as medium; God the Father is God at a intelligible physical/temporal and eternal distance. There is no difference in substance because the difference is only an apparent difference arising out of the way the human mind was formed. This not to suggest that an apparent difference would invalidate the functional difference. On the contrary, it is another of His graces for us, allowing us to know Him. He reveals Himself in these three ways so that we can know Him more fully (but never completely).

    Intelligibility: seeing truth in the imagination and therefore dependent on the cognitive models extrapolated from our physical experience.

    1. From your post, contra the protestant conception of the Trinity, “…and Catholicism (Christ is of the same substance as the Father)…” and I advanced a hypothesis meaning to add (non-theological) support to your citation of orthodoxy. I suppose one could/should be satisfied with an obedient acceptance of the teaching on the matter, but is it not of some use if the nature of the Trinity can be illustrated in such a way as to clear up the confusion about how the persons of the Trinity are the same substance? (Not that I am claiming that my formulation DOES clear it up. No, I only propose that it might.)

      And I do not know what Modalism or Sabellianism is. I’ve looked them up but that has not, to this point, aided me in understanding your request for clarification. It was not my intention to open a rabbit hole.

    2. Modalism is the idea that what we call the Three Persons of the Trinity are really simply three roles played by God. It sounds like that’s what you’re describing in your original comment, but I can’t tell for sure. If it is, that’s not an accurate understanding of the Trinity.

    3. “There is nothing new under the sun.”

      I did attempt to stave off the “modalism” charge, which I intuited (but being unlettered could not name), by stating “This not to suggest that an apparent difference would invalidate the functional difference.” in that apparent is defined as “appearing to be such” or “it only looks that way” like the visual phenomenon of parallax. Functionally, the Trinity would still perform as billed by orthodox teaching, but I was hoping that my pet hypothesis might prove of some utility in aiding the understanding of those minds unhabituated to theological proofs.

      If it be a trifle, so be it.

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