Author Flannery O’Conner was anything but glib about orthodox Christianity.
Writer Flannery O’Connor was born in 1925 in Milledgeville, Georgia. After studying at a women’s college in her home town, she attended the University of Iowa’s School for Writers. In 1951 she was diagnosed with lupus erythematosus, an incurable and debilitating disease. She then returned to Milledgeville to live with her mother until her death 13 years later.
A devout and orthodox Roman Catholic, O’Connor often explored the meaning of faith through the fundamentalist characters in her fiction. She once commented that she wrote about such characters “because they express their belief in diverse kinds of dramatic actions which are obvious enough for me to catch.” O’Connor’s further thoughts about life and faith are most explicitly revealed in The Habit of Being, (Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 1979).
I have tried for a dozen years to “rescue” Flannery O’Connor from those inclined to read her stories as dramatized sermons for our times. “Although I am a Catholic writer,” she once said, “I don’t care to get labeled as such in the popular sense of it, as it is then assumed that you have some religious axe to grind” (The Habit of Being, p. 391). Despite her concern, however, her fiction has often been read in this limiting way, both by those who applauded her views and by those who deplored them.
Interpreting her stories as if they were “tricky tracts”—to use Marion Montgomery’s felicitous phrase—seems reductionistic to her fiction and unworthy of her artistic achievements. At the same time, having now the perspective of 20 years (the time since her death), it may be appropriate here to lay aside her fiction temporarily and reflect upon her letters in order to get an unassuming but accurate spiritual autobiography.
Flannery O’Connor herself, in her usual self-effacing manner, thought there would be no biography. “As for biographies,” she wrote, “there won’t be any biographies of me because, for only one reason, lives spent between the house and the chicken yard do not make exciting copy.” However, if the stories and essays left any question, her reviews and letters make absolutely clear that her life was only apparently limited by the view from her back yard. Her inner life, despite its external constrictions, was impressively rich and varied.
“To Believe Nothing Is To See Nothing”
Central to O’Connor’s life and writing was her Christian faith. Although she never swerved from her orthodox beliefs, her faith—as revealed in her letters—was rigorous, intelligent, and unsentimental.
“I take the Dogmas of the Church literally,” she wrote in her first letter to Cecil Dawkins, a person with whom she would have a continuing correspondence. Dogma, O’Connor wrote in a later letter to Dawkins, “is the guardian of mystery. The doctrines are spiritually significant in ways that we cannot fathom” (p. 365).
O’Connor recognized that many, including some of her correspondents, viewed the Christian faith as being restrictive to her life as a writer. From her perspective, however, the faith was essential and liberating, freeing her to write. “For the fiction writer,” she argued, “to believe nothing is to see nothing. [However,] I don’t write to bring anybody a message as you yourself know this is not the purpose of the novelist” (p. 147).
Repeatedly, she asserted her complete acceptance of the central doctrines of the Incarnation and redemption, recognizing, of course, that many who considered themselves Christian held rather different views than she. In 1963, after she returned from a symposium on religion and art at Sweet Briar College, O’Connor wrote to her good friends Sally and Robert Fitzgerald, “Boy do I have a stomach full of liberal religion! The Devil had his day there” (p. 510).
While she deplored the liberalism that denied or downplayed the supernatural aspect of the faith, she also turned her sharp gaze on the anti-intellectualism of many within the church. In one of her most biting comments, she wrote her long-term friend, “A”: “I also told them that the average Catholic reader was a Militant Moron” (p. 179).
In her letters, then, Flannery O’Connor emerges as one who accepts church dogma wholeheartedly, but who also has no patience with intellectual laziness or thoughtless credulity. In fact, mindless believers, she wrote, brought disrepute to the church:
“I think that the reason such Catholics are so repulsive is that they don’t really have faith but a kind of false certainty. They operate by the slide rule and the Church for them is not the body of Christ but the poor man’s insurance system. It’s never hard for them to believe because actually they never think about it” (pp. 230–31).
Nor did the clergy escape her biting wit. On one occasion O’Connor quoted someone who had said he became interested in the church because “the sermons were so horrible [that] he knew there must be something else there to make the people come” (p. 348). Weak sermons did not invalidate the faith for her, of course, but neither was shabbiness excused as being inconsequential. To Fr. John McCown she wrote: “I wish we could hear more preaching about the harm we do from the things we do not face and from the questions we give Instant Answers to. None of these poor children want Instant Answers and they are right” (p. 309).
Always she mistrusted glibness in religion, whether in herself or others. To Maryat Lee, a friendly antagonist, she wrote (acknowledging her own “inadequate” discussion of religious mysteries): “I doubtless hate pious religious language worse than you [do] because I believe the realities it hides” (p. 227).
Religious clichés and instant answers, concocted from a broth of pious sentimentality, led, she believed, to “vapid Catholicism,” which had limited power to influence or change people, and which had better be discarded along with one’s baby teeth. O’Connor’s recently published book reviews make clear her own effort to have her mind challenged by a wide range of writers from Teilhard de Chardin to Karl Barth, from François Mauriac to Wyndham Lewis.
“My Christian Faith Kept Me A Skeptic”
Clearly, O’Connor was, as she wrote in her first letter to “A,” “a Catholic peculiarly possessed of the modern consciousness” (p. 90). And perhaps more consistently than any other sequence of letters, her thoughtful letters to “A” reflect a keen awareness of the problems of belief in a world that basically does not accept a Christocentric view of life.
At times in her letters on religious questions she was direct and combative; often she was quiet and probing. Always she respected the person to whom she was writing, though she might thoroughly disagree with his or her intellectual position.
Although her correspondence with him was limited, some of her most sensitive letters on matters of faith in the modern world are addressed to Alfred Corn, a young poet apparently too shy to speak to her after an English class she had addressed. In her first letter to him concerning his questions, she urges him to consider that God is larger than the intellectual categories that humans set up to try to contain him. At the same time, she writes, “Don’t think that you have to abandon reason to be a Christian” (p. 477).
In fact, she says, the Christian faith will give one a place from which to evaluate and critique the world views to which one is exposed in college. Don’t look for final answers, but for different questions. “What kept me a skeptic in college,” she writes, “was precisely my Christian faith. It always said: wait, don’t bite on this, get a wider picture, continue to read” (p. 477).
Although O’Connor never appeared to be preoccupied with doubts, she empathized deeply with those whose struggle between the demands of “modern consciousness” and the awful mystery of supernatural revelation were not resolved:
“I think there is no suffering greater than what is caused by the doubts of those who want to believe. I know what this torment is, but I can only see it, in myself anyway, as the process by which faith is deepened. A faith that just accepts is a child’s faith and all right for children, but eventually you have to grow religiously as every other way, though some never do” (pp. 353–54).
Some did come to the faith, and O’Connor was delighted when, after long consideration, her friend “A” entered the church. However, “A” later left the church and O’Connor was saddened, though never scornful, of her decision. “I don’t think any the less of you outside the Church than in it,” she wrote, “but what is painful is the realization that this means a narrowing of life for you and a lessening of the desire for life” (pp. 451–52).
In O’Connor’s view, “A” relied too heavily on her emotional reactions rather than her will and mind. In a letter to “A” written six years earlier—soon after the beginning of their correspondence—she had written, “Leaving the Incarnation aside, the very notion of God’s existence is not emotionally satisfactory for great numbers of people, which does not mean God ceases to exist.… The truth does not change according to our ability to stomach it emotionally” (p. 100).
Flannery O’Connor could feel deeply—and did—but she believed that emotions had little to do with the foundations of faith. In a review of the Writings of Edith Stein, she commented, “The spiritual writings … are very impressive, being the type of spirituality that is based on thought rather than emotion.”
“Grace Changes Us And The Change Is Painful”
Although some of the fundamentalist Christians whom she depicted in her stories sought an emotion-charged salvation, O’Connor believed the act of grace to be quite distinct from emotion. To a Protestant friend, Dr. Ted Spivey, she wrote, “We [Catholics] don’t believe that grace is something you have to feel. The Catholic always mistrusts his emotional reaction to the sacraments” (p. 356). Grace is not emotion, nor is emotion even any particular evidence of God’s grace.
In both her fiction and her letters, grace is a major theme. O’Connor uses the term in at least two major senses: the one is grace as mediated through the church, specifically through the sacraments—a concept not familiar to many Protestants. Grace in this sense results from one’s regular, disciplined response to the requirements of the church.
On the other hand, grace may come through the sudden, even violent, incursion of the supernatural into the natural world. Grace in this sense may seem harsh and even overwhelming. To “A” O’Connor wrote, “This notion that grace is healing omits the fact that before it heals, it cuts with the sword Christ said he came to bring” (p. 411). Certainly in her stories grace often comes with violence: a charging bull in a pasture, a criminal threatening an old woman with a cocked pistol, harsh fingers of a mad girl on a woman’s soft neck.
Grace of this type is not sought; in fact, it is often resisted. “All human nature vigorously resists grace,” O’Connor wrote to Cecil Dawkins, “because grace changes us and the change is painful” (p. 307). Grace is mysterious, powerful, inexplicable. In a review of an autobiography by Elizabeth Vandon, O’Connor observed, “She [Vandon] fell into the church in one of those conversions for which there is no logical explanation except grace.” Grace changes people, though not in ways that can be predicted.
“What People Don’T Realize Is How Much Religion Costs”
One may wonder whether O’Connor viewed the lupus with which she had to cope through most of her writing career as being in some inscrutable way linked to God’s grace. She apparently saw the illness primarily in its human dimension—particularly the pain and physical limitations it brought. If she tried to sort out the reasons for her suffering, the letters do not give any clear indication of that introspection. O’Connor’s comments on her own illness were often humorous, sometimes merely descriptive, occasionally philosophical, almost never self-pitying.
She did on a few rare occasions reflect in her correspondence on her extended illness. Apparently, she had at one point received a letter from her devout Catholic friend Janet McKane about the value of suffering. Her response rather characteristically moves from the subjective, personal experience to the nature of the church. “I don’t much agree with you and your friend, the nun, about suffering teaching you much about the redemption. You learn about the redemption simply from listening to what the Church teaches about it and then following this to its logical conclusion” (p. 536). This observation was written less than a year before her death.
In a letter written to “A” in 1956 she became more personal: “I have never been anywhere but sick. In a sense sickness is a place, more instructive than a long trip to Europe, and it’s always a place where there’s no company, where nobody can follow. Sickness before death is a very appropriate thing and I think those who don’t have it miss one of God’s mercies” (p. 163).
These meditative reflections on the meaning of her illness are rare. More characteristic is her lamenting that she has accepted another speaking engagement and now must transport herself on four legs—two of them aluminum—in an uncongenial, unfamiliar environment.
As O’Connor knew only too well, the medications she took only controlled (they did not cure) her lupus. She apparently accepted the incurable nature of the disease as inevitable, though naturally undesirable. A few people, particularly an aunt, wanted her to go to Lourdes to take the healing “bath,” a prospect that was frankly distasteful to her. Although she later reluctantly changed her mind, O’Connor wrote “A”: “About the Lourdes business. I am going as a pilgrim, not a patient.… I am one of those people who could die for his religion easier than take a bath for it” (p. 258).
She neither desired nor expected a miracle there. While O’Connor no doubt believed that God could perform a miracle on her behalf, she seemed somewhat embarrassed by the business and was obviously relieved when it was finished.
In a later letter to Elizabeth Bishop, however, O’Connor did admit that “Lourdes was not as bad as I expected it to be.… I saw nothing but peasants and was very conscious of the distinct odor of the crowd. The supernatural is a fact there but it displaces nothing natural; except maybe those germs” (p. 286). (The only answer to prayer, she was to say later, may have been renewed progress on her novel The Violent Bear It Away, a work that had been a source of repeated frustrations for her.)
Flannery O’Connor’s faith during her long illness and repeated hospitalizations was undramatic and unwavering. Never one to flaunt her problems—or success—she could write to a correspondent for months without that person’s awareness of her chronic illness. When she did mention the problem, she tended to dismiss it quickly. A few months before her death, though, in one of her most poignant lines, she wrote Louise Abbot, “Prayers requested. I’m sick of being sick” (p. 581). Her brief comment, written in a postscript, is characteristic of both her honesty and her piety, a piety expressed reservedly lest it degenerate into sentimental religious drivel.
In fact, one would have expected her to shun such sentimentality. But the reader of O’Connor’s letters may be surprised by the evidences of a personal humility not necessarily anticipated in the author of such hard-hitting fiction. To Janet McKane she wrote, “I do pray for you but in my fashion which is not a very good one. I am not a good prayer. I don’t have a gift for it. My type of spirituality is almost completely shut-mouth” (p. 572). And to “A,” who seemed to need an emotional religious experience, O’Connor admitted, “I have almost no capacity for worship. What I have is the knowledge that it is my duty to worship and worship only what I believe to be true” (p. 474).
O’Connor had an unusual capacity to join a strong intellectual grasp of the faith with a disarming personal modesty—a modesty that one perceives to be a genuine humility. “My mind is usually at ease,” she would write on another occasion, “but my sensibilities seldom so. Smugness is the Great Catholic Sin.” While believing with all her strength in the truth of the faith, she fought the temptation of becoming overly confident and self-satisfied. With remarkable insight she wrote to “A”: “I know well enough that it [her writing] is not a defense of the faith, which doesn’t need it, but a defense of myself who does” (p. 131).
One discovers in O’Connor’s letters a woman who was orthodox in her belief, yet never glib in her proclamations of belief; a women whose faith was intellectually tough, yet one who respected others with differing views, even when she challenged them sharply. Her religious views are epitomized in a letter to Louise Abbot:
“What people don’t realize is how much religion costs. They think faith is a big electric blanket, when of course, it is the cross. It is much harder to believe than not to believe, you must at least do this: keep an open mind. Keep it open toward faith, keep wanting it, keep asking for it, and leave the rest to God” (p. 354).
So firm in her commitments, so unostentatious in her words and practice, Flannery O’Connor’s unplanned achievement in her letters is to make that invitation credible.
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