Published November 1, 2007
For the past six months, I have been immersed in the world of a woman who died in 1964.
When I was in college, I read this woman’s short stories and had little notion at the time that she was Catholic because my professors dealt with her faith as if it were some odd embarrassment.
I didn’t read her letters in “The Habit of Being” until a few years ago, and she then began to assume a real, almost living presence in my life.
In many ways, I felt that I had found a friend in this odd-duck writer who lived her life quietly and frugally on a farm outside of Milledgeville.
Of course, I am referring to Flannery O’Connor, a name that often brings a smile to people’s faces.
“Oh, I love her stories,” some will say, while others will confess that her stories are rather baffling and a tad too violent for their tastes.
Those who intrigue me, however, are the people like my younger self who have no idea that she was Catholic. Once they find out that she was, many assume that she was a Catholic in name only.
After all, aren’t all smart, funny, creative women who have made a name for themselves in the world somewhat distrusting of religion?
Aren’t they all strong proponents of feminism? And don’t they chafe at the notion of following decisions made by the pope?
The big surprise for such folks, however, is that Flannery was a very traditional Catholic, who dotted all the i’s and crossed all the t’s. She was so obedient to rules that she asked a priest for a dispensation when she wanted to read a book that was on the Index, a list of books forbidden by the church.
She was also the kind of Catholic who embraced the Eucharist as the center of her existence, and she defended the real presence of Christ passionately.
Many readers will be familiar with the marvelous scene recounted in one of her letters, when she was at a dinner party and the hostess called the Eucharist a symbol. Silent up until that point, Flannery could hold her tongue no longer.
“Well, if it’s a symbol, to hell with it,” she said.
Clearly, she was not shy about defending her faith. And her letters reveal that she wasn’t hesitant to state that she believed that the Catholic Church was the one, true church, which Christ himself had founded.
She considered the changes that had resulted after the Reformation to be unfortunate, since they had reversed many of his essential teachings.
Her point is hard to refute: Why would Christ have taught for 1,500 years that the Eucharist was really his body and blood, and after that decided it was just a symbol?
Flannery is much on my mind these days, and not because I have been writing a book about her.
I am also thinking about her because we are fast approaching All Souls’ Day, when we pray for those who have died. Because Catholics believe in purgatory—another uniquely Catholic belief that Protestants denied after the Reformation—we trust that the living can help the dead.
For Flannery, there was nothing as important as the immortal soul. Although she was stricken at age 25 with a terrible disease, lupus, she accepted her fate with grace.
Atheists might have trouble grasping such a reaction, but her life was devoted to writing, which she believed was God’s plan for her. The disease allowed her sufficient energy to live out her vocation, so she saw no reason to bemoan her situation.
Indeed, she said that when one had to measure out time and energy, as she did, one could grasp what a blessing they really were.
Flannery made a last will and testament a few years before her death at age 39. She had never married and had no children, so she left her material possessions to her mother and various other relatives.
I managed to get a copy of her will, and the first item on it sent chills quivering along my spine. You see, Flannery bequeathed the sum of $500 to her mother, Regina, to ensure that Masses would be celebrated for her after her death.
Of course, Flannery didn’t have to leave a cent, since Masses for the dead can be celebrated in the absence of donations, but the fact that she made this stipulation—and placed it first on her list—speaks volumes about what mattered to her.
Her immortal soul was worth far more than her body, ravaged by illness, and far more than any material possessions.
Regina lived many years after Flannery died, and she was a fervent Catholic, so she surely had the Masses celebrated. No doubt many people continue to pray for the repose of Flannery O’Connor’s soul, even though at times they might wonder if there is still need to pray.
She carried her cross quietly and humbly, and she did much good in the world, even if she wasn’t well enough to perform the standard works of mercy like visiting the sick and feeding the hungry.
She did, however, give generously of her time by mentoring friends who were fledgling writers. She also helped the Dominican Sisters of Hawthorne get a book published about a little girl who had lived at Our Lady of Perpetual Help cancer home in Atlanta.
At her funeral, the bishop pointed out that there are many ways to be merciful to others and many ways to follow Christ. He said that writers like Flannery may follow Christ through their creative efforts.
Each year, as All Souls’ Day approaches, I always get out my list of the dearly departed. Sometimes I wonder if some folks for whom I am praying might be looking down from heaven and shouting, “Enough already! We’re fine!”
But God’s time isn’t our time, and what may seem like 10 years to us might seem like a day to him. So, just to be sure, I continue praying for all the folks who have gone before me, and that includes Flannery.
I hope that someday Flannery O’Connor’s name will be among the list of those who are celebrated on All Saints’ Day, the day before All Souls’.
She bristled at the notion of being called saintly, but I do think she was a very holy woman, although never holier than thou.
And I must confess that there are times when, instead of praying for her, I ask her to pray for me.
Lorraine Murray will speak at Corpus Christi Church, 600 Mountain View Drive, Stone Mountain, on Saturday, Nov. 3, at 9:30 a.m. Her topic will be “Embracing the Joy of Christ in a Broken World.” Her books and artwork by Jef Murray will be available for purchase. Contact: (770) 469-0395, ext. 16. Readers may e-mail Lorraine Murray at firstname.lastname@example.org. Column artwork featured in the print edition by Jef Murray. More of his work may be seen at www.jefmurray.com.