“Well, if it’s a symbol, to hell with it.” –Flannery O’Connor

During the ten years I spent as a Baptist, I believed the elements of our monthly communion—the little cubes of white bread and the tiny individual glasses of grape juice—were symbolic.  I nevertheless found it disrespectful to put the empty glass on the floor afterwards, the same way I would not want to see an American flag dropped onto the floor.

As my faith deepened, however, it became intuitively more sacramental.  By the time I first visited Annunciation of the Blessed Virgin Mary I was ready for acknowledging Christ’s Real Presence in the Blessed Sacrament.  It helped this understanding was imparted so simply by the reverence the priests showed in how they prayed the Mass.  Lex orandi; lex credendi.   

So, this morning, when I read news of a new Pew Research study that shows seven in ten U.S. Catholics believe the bread and the wine in Holy Communion are merely symbols, I thanked God for how our traditional Anglican Catholic form of worship prepared us for understanding Catholic teaching on the Eucharist. 

Of course, the self-identified Catholics in the study are not all regular Mass attendees.  Of those who attend Mass at least once a week, 63 per cent believe in transubstantiation.  But that means 37 per cent either don’t believe it or don’t know what the Church teaches, according to the Pew study.

The study reminded me of Flannery O’Connor’s description of a dinner party she attended, in one of her letters.

“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.”

We are so very blessed to be Catholic and to now have no doubt about the validity of our priests’ holy orders and our sacraments.  At the same time, we are blessed to have the beautiful way we worshipped—with a few positive changes— now a full Catholic Mass so we can continue to deepen our conversion and play a role in evangelizing others, even some fellow Catholics who do not know their faith.

3 thoughts on ““Well, if it’s a symbol, to hell with it.” –Flannery O’Connor

  1. Ah, yes, the power of symbol — a word widely misunderstood in the modern mind.

    Here, etymology is very instructive. The word “symbol” comes from the Greek: the prefix sym- meaning “together” or “alike” + the root ballein meaning “to throw” or “to cast” giving the combined meaning “to cast together” or “to unite.” A symbol, therefore, is something so united with a reality that the two are truly inseparable: an assault on the flag of a nation is an assault on the nation itself, and, here in the States, we pledge our allegiance “to the flag of the United States of America and to the country for which it stands…” — and note that the flag — that is, the symbol — comes first! So yes, the consecrated bread and wine are indeed symbols — but in the true meaning of that word and not in the popular misunderstanding thereof.

    Incidentally, the opposite of “symbol” is “diabol” — also from the Greek, combining the prefix dia- meaning “apart” with the same root giving the combined meaning of “to divide” or “to separate.” The adjective forms of this word — “diabolic” or “diabolical” commonly understood to mean “of the devil” or “from the devil” — undoubtedly are much more familiar than the noun, and the association of this term with the devil is indeed fitting — it is indeed Satan and his minions who seek to divide Christians and to separate us from God. There is no doubt that the many schisms and divisions within Christendom are Satan’s work, which we must strive to overcome.



  2. Very good explication, Norm. Well done and helpful. Thank you. And perhaps the initial statement about symbol and the eucharist, and the famous outburst, were based on the popular misunderstanding of the word symbol. Again, thanks.


    • Keith,

      You’re welcome — but the real credit belongs to Fr. Thomas Richstatter, OFM, under whom I had the privilege of studying liturgy and sacraments at St. Meinrad School of Theology. The fact that a Franciscan — or, for that matter, a member of any other order — would be a Professor of Liturgy and Sacramental Theology at a Benedictine seminary is a scandal to the Benedictines, but that’s their problem.



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