August 3 — Flannery O’Connor

Flannery O'Connor

Today’s Bible reading

Therefore, since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have obtained access to this grace in which we stand; and we boast in our hope of sharing the glory of God. And not only that, but we also boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance,  and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.

For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. Indeed, rarely will anyone die for a righteous person—though perhaps for a good person someone might actually dare to die. But God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us. Much more surely then, now that we have been justified by his blood, will we be saved through him from the wrath of God. For if while we were enemies, we were reconciled to God through the death of his Son, much more surely, having been reconciled, will we be saved by his life. But more than that, we even boast in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received reconciliation. – Romans 5:1-11

More thoughts for meditation about Flannery O’Connor (1925-1964)

Mary Flannery O’Connor was an American novelist, short story writer and essayist. She wrote two novels and thirty-two short stories, as well as a number of reviews and commentaries. She is considered one of America’s greatest fiction writers and one of the strongest apologists for Christian faith (especially the Roman Catholic branch) in the twentieth century. Her small but impressive body of fiction presents the soul’s struggle with what she called the “stinking mad shadow of Jesus.”

She was the only daughter of the marriage of two of Georgia’s oldest Catholic families, born on March 25, 1925 in Savannah, Georgia. She grew up under live oaks and Spanish moss, across the square from the cathedral where she was immersed in ritual, sacraments, and daily mass, sheltered by Sisters of Mercy—a coherent cosmos of faith. Even when her family moved from Savannah to a Milledgeville, Georgia, dairy farm so isolated that it was reached only “by bus or buzzard,” Flannery’s life centered around God.

After graduating from a nearby women’s college, Flannery went to the renowned Writers’ Workshop at the University of Iowa. Although she claimed that she didn’t know a short story from an ad in the newspaper, Flannery, wholly given to her writing, quickly became a sensation. Though Flannery hardly looked the part, the fiction editor of Esquire put her at the red-hot center of his Literary Establishment chart of 1963.

As Flannery’s cultural star was on the rise, she was stricken by lupus, an incurable, debilitating disease that sapped her energy and forced her return to the “very muddy and manurey” farm back in Georgia. Confined there, dependent on her mother’s care, she wrote only as her diminishing strength permitted—for two hours every morning.

Before her death at 39, Flannery predicted that nobody would write her biography, since lives spent between the house and the chicken yard do not make exciting copy. Yet her outsized spiritual dramas enacted on a Southern stage—told through short stories, novels, and many letters—ensure her place among the greatest American writers.

The body of O’Connor’s work resists conventional description. Although many of her narratives begin in a familiar world—on a family vacation or in a doctor’s waiting room, for example—they are not, finally, realistic. Furthermore, although O’Connor’s work was written during a time of great social change in the South, those changes—and the relationships among blacks and whites—were not at the center of her fiction. O’Connor made frequent use of violence and shock tactics. She argued that she wrote for an audience who, for all its Sunday piety, did not share her belief in the fall of humanity and its need for redemption. “To the hard of hearing,” she explained, “[Christian writers] shout, and for the… almost-blind [they] draw large and startling figures”—a statement that has become a succinct and popular explanation of O’Connor’s conscious intent as a writer.

One cannot get through a Flannery O’Connor story without encountering the strangeness of God. As she said, the greatest dramas involve the salvation or loss of the soul. Her short story “Revelation” startles with its final vision of a field of living fire. The vast hordes of souls rumbling toward heaven, the battalions of freaks and lunatics shouting and clapping and leaping like frogs, are a queerly beautiful sight. And then the words, “In the woods around her the invisible cricket choruses had struck up, but what she heard were the voices of the souls climbing upward into the starry field and shouting hallelujah.”

Flannery lamented that our secular society understands the religious mind less and less, that people who believe vigorously in Christ are wholly odd to most readers. It becomes more and more difficult in America to make belief believable, yet this is what she wanted to do. Flannery insisted that she was not a mystic and did not lead a holy life, yet she unapologetically displayed her faith: a life of continually turning away from egocentricity and toward God.

O’Connor’s letters are full of sin and grace, fall and redemption, and the ultimate reality, God revealed in the Incarnation. She calls for the abandonment of the self: “I measure God by everything I’m not.” She embraces suffering, insisting that before grace can heal “it cuts with the sword Christ said he came to bring.” While many casual believers think that faith is a big electric blanket, she says, of course it is a cross. Her Christian faith is a demanding one.

The word mystery is one of her favorites. She never tosses it around in the way of fuzzy spirituality. Flannery’s mystery is a rich and complex thing; it’s the ground of her spiritual life, and it explains everything. People often strip the cosmos of religious meaning these days. O’Connor aims to return us to mystery, where the unseen ordering of the world speaks of God the Creator. “This is the central Christian mystery,” Flannery says. “Life has, for all its horror, been found by God to be worth dying for.”

In her journal we can find this prayer: “Help me get down under things and find where you are.” This may be the meaning of mystery for Flannery. She once said that fiction is the concrete expression of mystery—mystery that is lived. For O’Connor, mystery is about getting down under things to find where God is, illuminating the divine foundation of all that is, seen and unseen. Elsewhere in the journals there is the yearning, young Flannery, the wavering believer who wrote, “I don’t want to be doomed to mediocrity in my feeling for Christ. I want to feel. I want to love. Take me, dear Lord, and set me in the direction I am to go.”

An early 1964 surgery for a fibroid tumor reactivated O’Connor’s lupus, which had been in remission, and her health worsened during the following months. On August 3, 1964, after several days in a coma, she died in the Baldwin County Hospital. She is buried beside her father in Memory Hill Cemetery in Milledgeville. At the time of her death, the Atlanta Journal observed that O’Connor’s “deep spirituality qualified her to speak with a forcefulness not often matched in American literature.”


PBS bio

Flannery O’Connor reads “A Good Man Is Hard to Find”

Her works at the fan site.

How Racist was Flannery O’Connor? from the New Yorker.

Suggestions for action

Even stricken with lupus, Flannery O’Connor kept digging down under her normality to get in touch with the mystery occluded by an oppressive secular world. We present these great examples of faith to help us stop and ponder and imitate. So that is the suggestion, stop and dig down.

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