Georgia Bulletin

The Newspaper of the Catholic Archdiocese of Atlanta

Saying ‘Yes’ To God: Flannery O’Connor And Mary Ann

By LORRAINE V. MURRAY, Commentary | Published March 17, 2011

flannery O’Connor would have turned 86 this year on March 25. And to me, it seems exquisitely fitting that a woman who repeatedly said “yes” to God came into the world on the feast of the Annunciation.

Most people know that O’Connor lived outside of Milledgeville on a farm called Andalusia and is considered one of the finest Southern writers of the 20th century. They might also know she died in 1964 when she was just 39, from complications from lupus.

But what many folks don’t know is that O’Connor had a close connection with the sisters at Our Lady of Perpetual Help Cancer Home right here in Atlanta. In fact, one example of O’Connor bowing to God’s will, involved a little girl who was cared for at the home by the Dominican Sisters of Hawthorne.

That little girl was Mary Ann Long, who arrived at the home in 1949 when she was just 3 and died when she was 12. Two years later, Sister Mary Evangelist wrote a letter to O’Connor about the child.

She told O’Connor that the girl had been born with a terribly deforming, cancerous tumor on her face. Still, despite this fact, the sister had loved the child dearly and had never considered her afflicted because of her “beautiful brave spirit.”

Sister Evangelist knew that O’Connor was an author, and she wanted to know if O’Connor would write a novel based on the child’s life. In her reply, O’Connor suggested a slightly different plan, asking the sisters to jot down their memories of Mary Ann and send them to her. She offered to edit the accounts and write a foreword to their book.

Unfortunately, the sisters were not proficient at writing, and the material they sent her was disappointing. “There was everything about the writing to make the professional writer groan,” O’Connor commented candidly to a friend. Still, she went ahead with the project, devoting many hours to polishing the sisters’ accounts.

And we are very fortunate that she said “yes” to the sisters, because her forward to this book—called “A Memoir of Mary Ann”—contains an extremely moving reflection on human suffering from a Catholic perspective.

“One of the tendencies of our age is to use the suffering of children as a way to discredit God,” she noted, “and once you have discredited His goodness, you are done with Him.”

Fortunately, O’Connor was a faithful Catholic who saw the bigger picture when it came to suffering. She was well aware that there might come a day when children like Mary Ann would not be welcomed into the world. In fact, in a remark that seems chillingly prophetic, she mentions a world “which would not ask why Mary Ann should die, but why she should be born in the first place.”

True, O’Connor said, the child’s final days were painful, but that was no reason to brand Mary Ann’s life a tragedy. In fact, the little girl thrived at the home where she created her own version of a ministry by cheering up the other patients. The sisters doted on her, filling her days with “dogs and party dresses … Coca Colas and Dagwood sandwiches.”

A few years ago, when I read “A Memoir of Mary Ann” for the first time, I noticed striking parallels between the little girl’s life and O’Connor’s. For example, they both endured great suffering, since one was deformed by cancer while the other was crippled by lupus. However, they both managed to triumph over their tragic circumstances through their Catholic faith, which stressed accepting God’s will for them.

Mary Ann’s acceptance is shown rather vividly in a scene in the book where a self-styled faith healer bellows at her: “The Lord Jesus can heal you!” The child looks at him calmly and replies, “It doesn’t make a bit of difference whether He heals me or not. That’s His business.”

O’Connor reveals her gracious acquiescence to God’s plan in many letters in “The Habit of Being,” especially one where she mentions refusing to sink into self-pity about her disease, saying it is “better to pray than to grieve.”

All these years later, the story of this brave little girl remains a passionate witness to the Catholic beliefs that O’Connor cherished. Those who love Christ can find meaning in all circumstances of life, no matter how painful. The story also shows the amazing results we can expect when we follow the example of the Blessed Mother by humbling bowing to God’s will.