By DAVID A. KING, Ph.D., Commentary | Published October 14, 2010
Reading this piece as you are, you immediately join the company of the audience that Georgia author Flannery O’Connor most wanted to address: an informed modern Catholic reader. That many of you are also no doubt natives of O’Connor’s home state and region is a fact that would have also pleased her.
And yet, paradoxically, by being Catholic and a resident of the South, you also represent the readership that most often failed to understand her unique vision of man’s suffering and depravity in a fallen world that nonetheless still remained capable of receiving the grace of Christ’s salvation.
O’Connor is a difficult writer. Her violent and often grotesque stories frequently confound a Catholic readership that has in many ways been conditioned to understand its faith only through edifying and pious literature. For O’Connor, this kind of writing had become stale for Catholics, and completely irrelevant to a modern, secular world who believed its salvation lay only in its own intellectual and philosophical frameworks. But O’Connor was adamant that “I write the way I do because (not though) I am a Catholic.”
Ultimately, O’Connor believed that the only way to reach her Catholic audience—and indeed any audience—was through shock. O’Connor rightly saw that in a fallen world, the only way to present for the reader his need of redemption in Christ is to depict that very world honestly and precisely, in spite of its violence and ugliness.
As she said, “For the hard of hearing you shout, and for the almost blind you draw large and startling figures.”
The reader who understands this approach opens himself to the enjoyment and understanding of one of the most provocative literatures of the 20th century; furthermore, the reader who shares O’Connor’s sacramental, Catholic understanding of the world will find his faith challenged and inevitably deeply affirmed.
As a Southern writer, and as a Catholic living in the predominantly Protestant South, O’Connor discovered what she often referred to as the “true country,” that region that unites geography and culture with a deeply personal sense of place and a spiritual sense of vocation. Though her work is set exclusively in the South, it transcends the regional to become universal, primarily because of her concern with Christian grace and redemption.
Yet the South gave her the material she needed precisely because “Southern writers have this penchant for writing about freaks because we are still able to recognize one. To be able to recognize a freak, you have to have a conception of the whole man. And in the South, the general conception of man is still, in the main, theological … While the South is hardly Christ-centered, it is certainly Christ-haunted. The Southerner who isn’t convinced of it, is very much afraid that he may have been formed in the image and likeness of God.”
Reflect upon the truth of this statement the next time you try to find a parking spot at one of our crowded Sunday Masses!
Yet understanding O’Connor’s Catholicism and Southern identity provides only two points of entry into an appreciation of her work. The reader who seeks to comprehend O’Connor’s fiction must also have insight into the mystery of physical suffering. O’Connor almost died at age 25 of lupus, the same disease that killed her father. She lived only until age 39 when she finally succumbed to the disease.
However, she adapted bravely to her illness by embracing the philosophy of passive diminishment, the theological notion of suffering that suggests a great Christian paradox: as we suffer physically, the body declines, even though spiritually we may be strengthened.
For O’Connor, this paradox actually represented a gift of mercy, for our own physical suffering allows us to share in the agony of our Lord, even as it reminds us that our time in this fallen world is but a fleeting moment before our reward in eternal salvation.
As a reaction to her illness, O’Connor also embraced the Catholic philosopher Jacques Maritain’s understanding of art as vocation, literally as “habit,” that sustains and fulfills the spirit of the artist.
O’Connor’s favorite prayer was one that she frequently offered to St. Raphael: “Lead us towards those we are waiting for, those who are waiting for us … may all our movements, all their movements, be guided by your light and transfigured by your joy.”
In her fiction, and in her life, O’Connor reveals the joy of living in this communion of saints, even when that joy seems obscured by the hard realities of the world. O’Connor often recounted as well St. Cyril’s parable of the dragon: “The dragon sits at the side of the road; beware lest he devour you. We go to the Father of Souls, but first we must pass by the dragon.”
O’Connor’s characters—some slain on lonely Georgia red clay back roads, some abandoned in haylofts or cafes, some lost on the streets of Atlanta—all encounter the dragon, yet many of them as well encounter Christ at the same time. Often unexpected, and almost always undeserved, Christ’s grace is open to us all not because of our virtue but in spite of our faults. This fundamental Christian mystery is at the heart of everything O’Connor wrote, and it represents for me the essence of this wonderful Georgia writer’s enduring literary legacy.
David A. King, Ph.D., is an associate professor of English and film studies at Kennesaw State University and an adjunct faculty member at Spring Hill College, Atlanta, where he teaches graduate courses on Christianity, film and Flannery O’Connor. He has also published and presented widely on Thomas Merton. He is a parishioner at St. Joseph Church, Marietta, where he is active in the adult education program.