Georgia Bulletin

The Newspaper of the Catholic Archdiocese of Atlanta


Professor Enlivens Lecture With Stories Of Flannery

By REBECCA RAKOCZY, Special To The Bulletin | Published February 18, 2010

She died of lupus at age 39. During her lifetime she wrote 32 short stories and two novels, weaving Christ’s message of grace subtly through the actions of her often grotesque characters. Along the way she left an indelible mark on Catholic literature.

Even more than 45 years after her death, Georgia native and devout Catholic Flannery O’Connor continues to inspire and mystify readers of all denominations. That was evident as more than 400 people packed the sanctuary of Holy Spirit Church recently to hear her long-time friend Dr. William Sessions speak.

Sessions, who is Regents professor-emeritus at Georgia State University, is also authorized as O’Connor’s official biographer. Sessions told the audience that he has nearly completed the biography, tentatively titled, “Stalking Joy.”

“You may know Flannery O’Connor on different levels, and most of you have attitudes about her work—like or dislike, one way or another,” Sessions told the audience. His talk “Flannery O’Connor: The Language of God in the Land of Georgia,” was part of the Holy Spirit College 2009-2010 lecture series.

Sessions invited the audience to enter into the process of O’Connor’s language in her writing. He focused on how O’Connor’s deep faith was transferred to the experience of her characters through specific imagery and language and that her childhood in Savannah, listening to the bells of St. John the Baptist Catholic Church, influenced her writing career.

During the lecture, Sessions alternately read from passages of O’Connor’s stories, highlighting how the author used vivid and often biblical imagery to open the eyes of her flawed characters. In her last short story, “Revelations,” she wrote of one judgmental woman and her slow realization of how her own nature made her last to enter the heavenly kingdom.

He also read passages from his own unfinished book, honing in on his first meeting with the author, her mother, Regina—and O’Connor’s feisty peacocks—at their Milledgeville home of Andalusia. Then he read O’Connor’s own account of that meeting, written in wry form to her pen pal friend, Betty Hester.

“Flannery’s characters are not beautiful,” said Sessions. And they were often violent—but the violence was not depicted in a graphic way, he said. Still, her work has influenced writers like Cormac McCarthy, whose viscerally graphic novels, such as “No Country for Old Men,” trace their inspiration to O’Connor’s characters like the Misfit in “A Good Man is Hard to Find.”

Sessions prodded the audience to look at the Gospels of Matthew and Mark, which provided underpinning for O’Connor’s work. “When he was sending them out in the world, Jesus didn’t tell his disciples to be ‘good,’—he told them to be wise (shrewd) as serpents and innocent (harmless) as doves.”

Originally scheduled in the library of the school, the lecture was moved to Holy Spirit’s sanctuary after it became apparent that demand exceeded the space, said Paul Voss, Holy Spirit College’s provost. Attendees came from across the archdiocese, and not all were Catholic. Many came to the lecture as fans of the late author; others were admirers of Sessions.

Doug Quinlin drove from Griffin to hear the talk, joining his daughter Meghan in Atlanta so they could attend together.

“I’ve been reading a lot of fiction by Catholic authors, and when I saw this announcement in the (Georgia) Bulletin, I started reading a lot of her (O’Connor’s) work,” said Quinlin, who is a member of Sacred Heart Parish.

Louann Fisher and Frank Windler drove from Rome to hear Sessions, who had been Fisher’s English professor at Georgia State University in 1967. That was the last time she had seen him, said Fisher. But his influence as an inspiring professor remained with her, she said. The talk was an extra incentive for her to pursue her own long-dormant writing passion.

Holy Spirit’s Voss was thrilled with the tremendous response to the lecture.

“This speaks to the real hunger for intellectual and faith-based programs. Holy Spirit College sees its mission is to help serve that need,” he said.

All lectures at Holy Spirit College are free and open to the public. Upcoming lectures are posted at