Flannery O’Connor: the shock of grace

FlanneryCatholic author Flannery O’Connor’s short stories have been captivating readers for decades. Unlike some writers, whose fame comes after death, Ms O’Connor enjoyed readers’ appreciation during her lifetime for her well-crafted prose, unforgettable characters and gripping plots, which culminated with insights into the fragile human condition.

Jesuit Father Michael Paul Gallagher gave a fascinating presentation recently on this 20th-century writer to participants in The Lay Centre’s on-going series on women and their contributions to the Church. Fr Gallagher delved into the author’s faith life and its influence on her bold writing, which he says still continues to lead readers “toward a divine explosion of grace”.

Fr Gallagher kindly shared his thoughts on Flannery O’Connor with The Lay Centre in the interview format below. Read his insights. Then listen to the celebrated writer read one of her well-known stories.

Q.  What could you share with us briefly about the life of this Catholic woman and writer, Flannery O’Connor?

Flannery O’Connor died just 50 years ago at the age of 39, having written just two short novels and about 30 short stories. She was born, of Irish blood, in Savannah, Georgia, in the south of the United States in 1925. When she was only 25 she discovered that she had inherited the disease lupus from her father and from then on she knew that she had not many years to live. Instead of causing depression or self-pity, this knowledge seems to have spurred her on to write marvellously ironic stories about ultimate themes such as grace and sin, pride and judgement.

After her death when her letters and essays were published, gradually people began to recognise her also as a sharp Catholic thinker, grounded in theology and passionate about her faith. She called herself a “hillbilly Thomist” who read Aquinas for twenty minutes every night before going to bed. She also read many of the major theologians of the period and commented that this made her fiction more courageous. Thomas Merton saw her as an equal of Sophocles. About a hundred books have been written on her work, many of them recognising her as the most theologically alert novelist of the entire century.

Q.  Some personal writings by Flannery O’Connor were published recently. What do they tell about this rather young writer?

Just a few months ago a small spiritual notebook became a best seller. It was copybook handwritten over sixty years ago by a 21-year-old girl and it was hailed as an extraordinary find. Entitled Prayer Journal, it would never have been published if its young author had not gone on to become probably the greatest Catholic novelist of the last century in English.

Probably she would not have approved of the publication of that recently discovered notebook. It contains many pages of self-worried spirituality and yet it also gives glimpses of her later and larger vision of life and faith. In particular it shows the seriousness with which even this young student (at a creative writing school) took the inner battle of faith.

“I want so to love God all the way,” she wrote. “At the same time I want all the things that seem opposed to it—I want to be a fine writer.” At the same time these personal jottings show her moving from “self-effort” to more trust in God. At one stage she asks about her fiction, “am I trying to shock with God?” and indeed that is what she went on to do with more comic brilliance.

Q.  Besides this spiritual notebook that was recently published, what insights do her short stories and novels give us into her own journey of faith?

O’Connor’s path towards faith meant going through the surfaces of life towards an encounter with strangeness. She held that enlarging people’s imagination was a key role for the Church and for a Catholic writer of fiction. Her stories lead her readers towards a larger vision of reality, ultimately towards a divine explosion of grace.

On this necessity of a disturbing transformation she pulled no punches: “I don’t know if anyone can be converted without seeing themselves in a blasting annihilating light, a blast that will last a lifetime”. In a similar spirit she in her youthful journal spoke about reading a French religious novelist called Léon Bloy: he was like an “iceberg” coming to disturb her safe “Titanic”

Q.   As you mentioned, Flannery O’Connor is hailed as a great Catholic writer. How would you describe or categorize her as a writer on matters of faith?

Her narratives often dramatise the shock of grace and the shields that people hide behind in order to escape the more demanding aspects of Christian commitment. She described herself as “a Catholic peculiarly possessed of the modern consciousness”, adding that for her “there is only one Reality”, the Incarnation in which “nobody believes” today, and hence “my audience are the people who think God is dead”.

In one of her talks she put it more strongly: “Redemption is meaningless unless there is cause for it in the actual life we live, and for the last few centuries there has been operating in our culture the secular belief that there is no such cause”.

All this might give the impression to those who do not know her work that she is a preachy novelist. Nothing could be further from the truth. Indeed she was scathing about pious fiction, accusing it of being unfaithful to the Incarnation. In fact she was a comic writer, ferocious in unmasking the many faces of human pride. Through her strange and often “grotesque” stories (her own word) O’Connor set out to disturb the complacency of both agnostics and over-secure believers.

In her view a Christian novelist should move in a larger universe than the merely visible one. She chose to recount tales of fundamentalist figures of her own region of the South, the so called Bible Belt, ranging from characters of ferocious faith to others of fierce atheism. Faithful to the externals of that world, her hope was to push her readers towards the unexpected, because in her view “mystery is a great embarrassment to the modern mind”.

As a Catholic writer her stories work indirectly to provoke an awakening to religious possibilities, rather than focusing on the content of faith. Her goal was to jolt her readers out of their securities and towards openness to religious experience. All her major stories hinge on moments of grace that are not just surprising but sometimes violent. In her view all good stories are about conversion, and therefore she stressed the disturbing nature of an encounter with grace. As the theologian Metz has said, faith means interruption.

Q.  Can you recall one of these of “awakenings”, where grace interrupted people in their stupor or misguided convictions?

“Revelation”, which was O’Connor’s favourite story completed in the last winter of her life, traces the awakening of Mrs Turpin to her own hypocrisy as a Christian and ultimately to the differentness of God. Two revelations therefore, one humiliating, and the other like a hymn of joy.

Located in totally realistic settings, a doctor’s waiting room and later a pig farm, both perhaps comic symbols, her complacency undergoes a double therapy. At one moment in the waiting room, perhaps itself a comic symbol, Mrs Turpin is crowing out to everyone her thanks to Jesus for having “a little of everything, and a good disposition besides”. At this point a disturbed girl, called Mary Grace, flings a book, called Human Development, at her eye and then calls her a wart hog from hell. This first dent in her armour fuels a rage against God on the part of Mrs Turpin, and that evening she finds herself roaring at God across the pigs. Scriptural echoes of Jacob and of the Prodigal Son are surely deliberate, but the main plot is the conversion of a Pharisee.

“Who do you think you are?” she yells at God. But ironically her question returns as an echo or “an answer from beyond the wood”. Mrs Turpin remains still gazing “at the very heart of mystery” in the pig pen, “as if she were absorbing some abysmal life-giving knowledge”.

The story ends with her vision of a procession of hordes of people she had despised “rumbling toward heaven”, while her own type of respectable believers march with dignity at the end. “She could see by their shocked and altered faces that even their virtues were being burned away”. As she walks home by a “darkening path”, she can still hear “the voices of the souls climbing upward into the starry field and shouting hallelujah”. Even here we can see her desire to capture her readers with beautifully realized details, leading them beyond surfaces and closures into a glimpse of costly transformation as gift.

Because of Pope Francis’ special stress on mercy, let me mention the end of another story with the now embarrassing title “The Artificial Nigger”. After a story of betrayal of his grandson, an old man at the end experiences the tenderness of grace.

“Mr Head stood very still and felt the action of mercy touch him again but this time he knew that there were no words in the world that could name it… He understood that it was all a man could carry into death to give his Maker and he suddenly burned with shame that he had so little of it to take with him. He stood appalled, judging himself with the thoroughness of God, while the action of mercy covered his pride like a flame and consumed it”.

Q.  If you were to capture Flannery O’Connor’s greatest contribution as a Catholic writer in one sentence, what would it be?

Even today she jolts us into recognising a real battle between complacency and grace, and she does so with comic pleasure.

 

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