Georgia Bulletin

The Newspaper of the Catholic Archdiocese of Atlanta

Compilation Introduces Georgia Writer’s Faith

By LORRAINE V. MURRAY, Book Review | Published June 23, 2005

FLANNERY O’CONNOR—SPIRITUAL WRITINGS; edited by Robert Ellsberg. Orbis Books (New York, 2003); 173 pp.; $15.

Flannery O’Connor, the Catholic writer from Milledgeville, was at a posh dinner hosted by another writer, when a discussion about the Eucharist broke out.

The hostess said she thought the Eucharist was a “pretty good symbol,” and O’Connor couldn’t hold back.

“Well, if it’s a symbol, to hell with it,” O’Connor replied.

She was too shaken up to say what she later told a friend, which was that the Eucharist was the center of her existence.

“All the rest,” O’Connor confessed, “is expendable.”

“Flannery O’Connor—Spiritual Writings” presents many such kernels of O’Connor’s deeply rooted faith, which editor Robert Ellsberg deftly gleaned from her letters, essays and fiction.

It is a terrific read, but only the tip of the iceberg, one that may lead readers to seek out the collected letters and essays of O’Connor, not to mention her fiction.

O’Connor, who has been hailed as one of the finest American writers of the 20th century, was born March 25, 1925, in Savannah and educated in Catholic schools. The family was dealt a devastating blow when her father died of lupus at the age of 45.

When she was 25, O’Connor discovered she had been stricken with the same disease. As her condition worsened, she moved to Milledgeville to live with her mother on the family farm.

Jokingly referring to herself as a “hermit novelist,” O’Connor spent her days writing fiction, plus making time for prayer, letters to friends and her favorite diversion: raising ducks and assorted peafowl.

Many readers were disturbed by her fiction, especially her first novel, “Wise Blood,” which was honest, stark and often violent, but O’Connor said her work was deeply Christian.

Her goal, she explained, was to show the action of grace in the world, a territory “held largely by the devil.” In her fiction, the healing action of grace doesn’t happen in a Hallmark-greeting-card setting but often follows shocking and disturbing events.

“I want to be certain that the Devil gets identified as the Devil,” she wrote, “and not taken for this or that psychological tendency.”

Ellsberg’s book gives a riveting portrait of a woman of unquenchable faith, whose physical sufferings were enormous.

Still, despite her illness, O’Connor described sickness before death as an “appropriate thing” because “those who don’t have it miss one of God’s mercies.”

In letters, she acted as a spiritual guide to students and friends and was an unflinching defender of Catholicism. One letter nicely underscores the major disagreement between Protestants and Catholics, involving the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist.

O’Connor said she found it impossible to believe that Christ for 15 centuries had taught his church that the Eucharist was actually his body and his blood, and then after the Reformation, changed his mind and said it was only a symbol.

“The Catholic can’t live with this kind of contradiction,” she explained.

O’Connor defended Catholicism in a straightforward and logical way, emphasizing that it is wrong to pick and choose among the church’s teachings because the teachings are rooted in Christ himself.

“What the Church has decided definitely on faith and morals, all Catholics must accept,” she explained.

This did not mean embracing every opinion a priest states in a sermon, she added, but accepting matters defined by canon law.

“Christ left the Church with a teaching authority and … this teaching authority is protected by the Holy Ghost,” she wrote.

“In other words, in matters of faith and morals, the Church cannot err (because) she is Christ speaking in time.”

O’Connor was buried from Sacred Heart Church in Milledgeville, having succumbed to lupus at the age of 39.

Despite the agonies she suffered toward the end, she made light of her physical suffering and continued her devotion to her vocation, which was writing.

“You will have found Christ when you are concerned with other people’s suffering and not your own,” she told one friend.

Writing was O’Connor’s way of encountering Christ while also ministering to others. Ellsberg’s book—well worth reading—shows that her ministry is still alive.