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Saint Flannery and Long Looks

By August 4, 2017 One Comment

by Luke Hawley
I’m going to a music festival this weekend. It’s gonna be great: hanging out on a blanket for two days, listening to fantastic bands, spending time with my family and some close friends, tent camping with an 8-month-old—well… maybe one of these things is not like the others. On the whole though, the experience should be a blast.

But I’m a musician, too; I’m a songwriter and guitar player and I play in a really great band (who just put out our first EP). And because of this, fully enjoying the experience of listening to music can be complicated. In fact, it’s pretty rare that I find myself totally immersed in a musical experience—I’m usually too busy analyzing what’s actually happening, thinking about what exactly the song means or how I might do something different. In the words of my little brother: I am jealous of everyone, but I still try to be a good friend.

I’m also teaching an online literature class right now (though probably not a lot this weekend). Right now, it’s short stories, including some Flannery O’Connor, the patron saint of Christianity and Literature.

In conjunction with the stories, we’ll also read some passages from On Mystery and Manners, O’Connor’s essays on writing, including a section about the three different types of reading that medieval commentators on scripture used: allegorical, tropological, and anagogical. Allegorical reading is the thing they’ve often been taught, that one thing points to another; a symbol-hunters favorite type. Tropological is responsive in nature; O’Connor calls it “moral” reading, reading that propels us to live differently.

Then there’s anagogical reading. It’s experiential; O’Connor describes it as having “to do with the Divine life and our participation in it.” It’s also often a confusing idea for my students (as it was for me when I first ran across it), but I use an easy (and probably flawed) analogy to explain it. Think about the first day after a long winter when the sun hits your skin and feels truly warm for the first time. The allegorical reading is something like, This feeling on my skin points to the idea of God’s love for us all. The tropological reading says, As the sun warms me, so I should warm others. But the anagogical reading, the one O’Connor really wants us to understand is both simpler and more complicated than that, it’s not really a reading at all, it is simply the experience of the sun on your skin after a long winter. A participation in the Divine life.

It’s not something I’m particularly good at. For me, there is effort to stay present in the experience; the concept of mindfulness feels like theoretical math, something that I’m sure a couple people are good at but is beyond my abilities. I’m learning though that maybe that’s not true, maybe it just takes some practice, a reminder here or there from the sun on my skin or my 8-month-old’s laughter or Flannery herself.

Later, as O’Connor talks about writing novels, she turns her attention on the reader: “People without hope not only don’t write novels,” she says, “but what is more to the point they don’t read them. They don’t take long looks at anything, because they lack the courage.”

This weekend, I’m practicing long looks. And anagogical listens.

Luke Hawley teaches English at Dordt College in Sioux Center, Iowa.

Luke Hawley

Luke Hawley teaches English at Dordt College in Sioux Center, Iowa. His collection of short stories, The Northwoods Hymnal, won a Nebraska Book Award. He sings and writes songs for The Ruralists. Check him out at or

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