The title of this blog, “Acts of Idiot Praise,” comes from Flannery O’Connor’s novel, The Violent Bear it Away. One of the book’s characters, George Rayber, is a staunch atheist. Rayber, however, isn’t simply a non-believer. He is an avowed materialist violently opposed to God, religion, and anything else that reeks of irrationality. He lives an austere life, practicing a strange kind of secular asceticism in an attempt to deny himself any pleasure or joy, anything which might incline him towards some higher power or purpose. But not even his uncomfortable bed or plain food can shield him from the occasional, sudden pang of affection. This is most true concerning his son, a mentally handicapped boy Rayber often despises. Rayber knows the child should be useless to his modern, materialist way of thinking. But, somehow, he still feels something for the boy against his better judgement. O’Connor writes:
“For the most part Rayber lived with him without being painfully aware of his presence but the moments would still come when, rushing from some inexplicable part of himself, he would experience a love for the child so outrageous that he would be left shocked and depressed for days, and trembling for his sanity.”
To Rayber’s increased horror, this terrible love would come at other times, too, even when his son was not around:
“Anything he looked at too long could bring it on… It could be a stick or a stone, the line of a shadow, the absurd old man’s walk of a starling crossing the sidewalk. If, without thinking, he lent himself to it, he would feel suddenly a morbid surge of the love that terrified him – Powerful enough to throw him to the ground in an act of idiot praise. It was completely irrational and abnormal.”
I’m not an atheist like Rayber but, for most of my waking hours, I behave as if I were. I walk around as if I DON’T believe the all powerful creator of the cosmos has anointed me as his own. I live day to day as if I DON’T believe this God has covered me with mercy and blessed me far beyond anything I could hope to ask.
I don’t know why I’m like this. It’s possible some of it is due to my temperament. I don’t feel things as keenly as many other people do. I almost never make decisions based on emotion and I have a difficult time convincing people that I am, in fact, excited or happy. It’s not that I lack emotion, it’s just that the emotion I do feel isn’t quite as strong or significant.
But there are times when, like Rayber, I feel something with great clarity. I always love my children, of course. But sometimes my girls will laugh a certain way or my son will furrow his brow and I will feel an overwhelming, primal love. Similarly, I always feel affection for my wife. But there are often moments when we’re lying in bed, I see her nursing one of our children, or I catch her eye just so and I feel a sense of peace and belonging and deeper love. Every so often, I’ll feel something similar when I’m sitting in prayer or when I see a bird turn his head just so. I don’t feel these things passionately, per se. But I’m aware of this small spark that brings up in me an urge to fall down in “an act of idiot praise.” I see it as an awareness of the grace which always follows me, as if I’m suddenly conscious of my own breathing. I don’t really want to feel things any differently than I do now. But I do want to act as if I understood, every moment, the “terrible mercy” of God.
So, why did I name my blog after this? It’s not because each entry is meant to be such an act of praise. Instead, it’s a reminder of the love which sustains me and makes everything else possible. I understand the gravity of wonder and the seriousness of love. And I would gladly live my life as a series of acts of idiot praise.