Georgia Bulletin

The Newspaper of the Catholic Archdiocese of Atlanta

Two Books Plumb Flannery O’Connor’s Depths

By Reviewed By MITCH FINLEY, CNS | Published January 22, 2004

FLANNERY O’CONNOR: SPIRITUAL WRITINGS, edited by Robert Ellsberg. Orbis Books (Maryknoll, N.Y., 2003). 173 pp., $15.00.

FLANNERY O’CONNOR: THE OBEDIENT IMAGINATION, by Sarah Gordon. University of Georgia Press (Athens, Ga., 2003). 296 pp., $19.95.

Most Catholic readers are probably aware that Flannery O’Connor (1925-1964) was a Catholic who wrote fiction, but many may not realize that she was also sharp-as-a-tack in the spirituality department—which means, of course, in the living-everyday-life-as-a-Catholic department.

To our great benefit, editor Robert Ellsberg in “Flannery O’Connor: Spiritual Writings” has gathered into one compact volume excerpts from O’Connor’s fiction, letters and essays in which she wrote about religious and spiritual matters. Also lucky for us, Fordham University professor of English Richard Giannone has written the book’s introductory essay, “Flannery O’Connor’s Dialogue With the Age.”

O’Connor would have smiled broadly, then laughed out loud, at the suggestion that she could serve as a spiritual adviser to anyone. But that only serves to put the stamp of authenticity on her words. I think one of the most important characteristics of a healthy Catholic spirituality is the ability and the inclination to laugh—especially at oneself. This is why a rigidly conservative spirituality, and a rigidly liberal spirituality, are both mere ideologies masquerading as piety. An authentic Catholic spirituality is anything but narrow-minded or rigid. And so in O’Connor’s words you will find liberation and joy, plus a no-nonsense honesty and clarity of thought that will sometimes knock your socks off and almost always delight you.

O’Connor avoided all pious platitudes. Reading her, you may find yourself blinking and saying, “What? What?” For example, writing to someone about to become Catholic, O’Connor said: “Having been a Protestant, you may have the feeling that you must feel you believe; perhaps feeling belief is not always an illusion but I imagine it is most of the time; but I can understand the feeling of pain on going to Communion and it seems a more reliable feeling than joy.”

In other instances, O’Connor’s words will seem like an honest dig in the ribs or a wake-up slap to the chops. Thus, writing in 1962: “One of the effects of modern liberal Protestantism has been gradually to turn religion into poetry and therapy, to make truth vaguer and vaguer and more and more relative, to banish intellectual distinctions, to depend on feeling instead of thought, and gradually to come to believe that God has no power, that he cannot communicate with us, cannot reveal himself to us, indeed has not done so, and that religion is our own sweet invention.” (We’ll leave aside for now to what extent these words may apply to popular Catholicism in recent decades.)

“Flannery O’Connor: Spiritual Writings” is one volume that belongs in the hands of every thinking Catholic regardless of age or ideological inclinations. Her wisdom makes the leap from her mid-20th century era to our own with all its flags a-flying. Hmm. Has anyone suggested starting Flannery O’Connor’s canonization process? We could use one like her.

Meanwhile, “Flannery O’Connor: The Obedient Imagination” is written by Sarah Gordon, a professor of English at Georgia College & State University in Milledgeville, Ga., O’Connor’s alma mater in her hometown. Gordon has chaired the university’s renowned symposia on O’Connor and has been editor of The Flannery O’Connor Bulletin since 1983.

Gordon’s book is a fine biographical work of literary criticism. Gordon, who has been teaching courses on Flannery O’Connor for 30-plus years, asks what inner struggles led O’Connor to write fiction that was disturbing, ironic, haunting and sometimes brutal. Much of this, Gordon suggests, came from the natural resistance of O’Connor’s imagination to the obedience that was expected by the male-centered church, society and literary background of her time.

Gordon believes that O’Connor was a writer whose environment was saturated in male presumption regarding women and creativity. “Flannery O’Connor: The Obedient Imagination” offers many new insights into O’Connor’s growing up years as a dutiful, upper-class Southern daughter.

She also examines how O’Connor was influenced by her reading of James Thurber, Edgar Allan Poe, T.S. Eliot and other authors who, Gordon thinks, were negative toward women. Along the way, Gordon also discovers insights in the lives and works of other Southern writers such as Eudora Welty, Caroline Gordon and Margaret Mitchell.

Not all readers will agree with all of Gordon’s conclusions, but her book is loaded with thought-provoking material that will be of great interest to anyone serious about a study of Flannery O’Connor.

Finley is the author of more than 30 books for Catholic readers, most recently “It’s Not the Same Without You: Coming Home to the Catholic Church” (Doubleday) and “The Corporal and Spiritual Works of Mercy” (Liguori).