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Flannery O’Connor and the Horror of Sin — Vicki Burbach

June 25, 2014

FamilyTree of Sin

Take a lesson from the carpenter, who, when he wishes to drive a large nail, is not satisfied with giving it a few strokes, but continues hammering until he is sure it is firmly fastened. You must imitate him, if you would firmly implant this resolution in your soul.  Be not satisfied with renewing it from time to time, but daily take advantage of all the opportunities afforded you in meditation, in reading, in what you see or hear, to fix this horror of sin more deeply in your soul.  – The Sinner’s Guide (Chapter 29, Paragraph 14) by Venerable Louis of Grenada, A Dominican Father

Years ago, I was introduced to a story by Flannery O’Connor.  I’d love to say that I was enlightened by her literary genius.  That I was fascinated by her brilliant grasp of the mystery of grace.  That I recognized the opportunity for redemption laid before her masterly-crafted characters.

Unfortunately, I can say none of those things.

Truth be told, the first time I read one of O’Connor’s stories, I was so horrified by the graphic and violent nature of her writing that I didn’t even finish it.

Fast forward a few years.  After reading Father Barron’s book, The Strangest Way, wherein he walks through all the powerful images in O’Connor’s novel, The Violent Bear it Away, I was inspired to take another look.  So there I was, this evening, attending the second class of a brief, four-week course on Flannery O’Connor, wherein we  spent an insightful and highly stimulating hour and a half discussing her renowned short story, A Good Man is Hard to Find.

Given her knack for shocking readers through the use of the grotesque, O’Connor seems the perfect reference for a discussion regarding our “horror” of sin (or lack thereof).  Most notably, it appears that behind her use of disturbing characters and startling images rests a profound recognition regarding our relationship to sin.  Rather than abhor it, as Louis of Granada recommends, we virtually revel in it.  In fact, we are often so oblivious to its existence that we mistake it for virtue.

At one point in the story, O’Connor uses the powerful image of a monkey to illustrate the disgusting nature of our affinity for sin:

“The children ran outside into the white sunlight and looked at the monkey in the lacey chinaberry tree.  He was busy catching fleas on himself and biting each one carefully between his teeth as if it were a delicacy.”

Upon reading this passage, I was immediately struck by the notion that I was the monkey, and the fleas represented my sins.  Can you think of a more repulsive image with which to illustrate our relationship to sin? Are we really that pathetic?

Before you turn away in disgust, Louis of Granada may give you pause:

“…the first source of sin is error in the understanding, which is the natural guide and counselor of the will.  Consequently, the chief endeavor of the devil is to darken the understanding, and thus draw the will into the same error.  Thus he clothes evil with the appearance of good, and presents vice under the mask of virtue, that we may regard it as a counsel of reason rather than a temptation of the enemy.” 
The Sinner’s Guide, (Chapter 29, Paragraph 18)

O’Connor furthers this allusion through the main character in A Good Man is Hard to Find.  Like many of us, the Grandmother is a first class hypocrite.  She believes herself to be a good Christian, when in reality, she is not very likable.  Somehow, she, too, is blind to sin in her own life.

Of  this heroine, Flannery, herself, says,

“The heroine of this story, the Grandmother, is in the most significant position life offers the Christian.  She is facing death.  And to all appearances she, like the rest of us, is not too well prepared for it.  She would like to see the event postponed.  Indefinitely” (“On Her Own Work”, Mystery and Manners: Occasional Prose).

At the climax of the story, the Grandmother has the opportunity to receive grace.  “Her head clears for an instant…”  and there is a profound moment where the Grandmother is both a recipient and a conduit of grace.  There is good evidence that she accepts it, for in death she “…half sat and half lay in a puddle of blood with her legs crossed under her like a child’s and her face smiling up at a cloudless sky.”

Unfortunately, like many of us, it takes her imminent death for the Grandmother to be aware of  her need for redemption and to be open to receiving grace.  In fact, upon her death, the villain even comments,

“She would have been a good woman…if it had been somebody there to shoot her every minute of her life.” 

In other words, were we to face imminent death at every moment of our lives, we might actually flee from sin in abject horror and persevere in virtue.

Louis of Granada tells us that the only way to develop a horror of sin is to receive grace.  Not merely in the hour of death, but as often as we can.  As Christians, we must take advantage of every conduit of grace available to us to fix a horror of sin deep within our souls.  Those conduits include the sacraments, prayer and a firm resolution to keep our eyes on eternity.  He advises us,

He who desires to walk resolutely in the same path must strive to imitate them by fixing this resolution deep in his soul.  Appreciating things at their true value, he must prefer the friendship of God to all treasures of earth; he must unhesitatingly sacrifice perishable joys for delights that will be eternal.  To accomplish this must be the end of all his actions; the object of all his prayers; the fruit he seeks in frequenting the sacraments; the profit he derives from sermons and pious reading; the lesson he should learn from the beauty and harmony of the world, and from all creatures.  This will be the happy result of Our Saviour’s Passion and all the other works of love which He unceasingly performs.  They will inspire him with a horror of offending the good Master who has done so much for him.  Finally, this holy fear and firm resolution will be the mark of his progress in virtue.
The Sinner’s Guide, Ch. 29,Paragraph 13)

If we fail to follow this advice, we’ll lose our ability to recognize grace when it comes.

As O’Connor warns, “Our age not only does not have a very sharp eye for the almost imperceptible intrusions of grace, it no longer has much feeling for the nature of the violences which precede and follow them.  The devil’s greatest wile, Baudelaire had said, is to convince us that he does not exist.” 



Flannery O’Connor As A Satirist Of The Negative Way – Ralph C. Wood

October 26, 2010
A Comedian In Both The Literary And Religious Senses
The fiction of Flannery O’Connor affords a fitting comic subject for theological analysis. She is a comedian in both the literary and religious senses of the word. The most memorable scenes and lines in her work are nearly all comic. In “Good Country People,” for example, the narrator observes flatly that “Mrs. Hopewell had no bad qualities of her own but she was able to use other people’s in such a constructive way that she never felt the lack.” So wry a judgment serves not only to take us inside the mind of an extraordinarily complacent woman; it also reveals that O’Connor’s humor never exists for its own sake. Her comedy always has. a moral bite. Like a latter-day Swift, she lampoons the vices and follies of our age, especially our self-contentment.

Yet O’Connor is not primarily a moralist seeking to slap the world to its senses and to reform its vagrant ways. Her comic vision is far more theological than it is ethical. She cares more about belief than morality, even while appreciating their necessary relation. The murder and mayhem committed by O’Connor’s protagonists would seem to make them worthier of execution than of salvation. Almost without exception — and to the reader’s immense surprise — the criminals and egotists who populate her fiction are made into reluctant recipients of grace; indeed, they are redeemed. This does not mean that they become paragons of courage and self-sacrifice. O’Connor’s heroes are marked, on the contrary, by their failure more than their success. They are blessedly unable to suffice unto themselves, graciously incapable of denying their redemption. Their secular defeat is thus their religious victory; their human loss is their divine gain.

A Radically Negative Vision Of God’s Activity In The World
The theological key to Flannery O’Connor’s comedy lies in her thoroughly Catholic (and specifically Thomistic) conviction that grace does not destroy but completes and perfects nature. She seeks to recover, amidst the secular absence of God, the divine presence that is sacramentally at work in every living thing. Yet her natural theology is rooted in a radically negative vision of God’s activity in the world. “Grace must wound,” says O’Connor, “before it can heal. It must be dark and divisive before it can be warm and binding.”

The reason for this bleak judgment is not difficult to discern. O’Connor regards the modern age as unprecedented in its apostasy, and therefore as blinded to the positive presence of God’s grace within the human and natural order. A classic natural theology built on our native desire for God is, in O’Connor’s view, no longer possible. Our world is too far gone down the path of self-abandonment to permit anything so hopeful and positive as a traditional Christian humanism. Nothing less than a startled shock of self-recognition can awaken her characters to their desperate condition. They must approach the throne of grace through the rear door of a frustrated self -sufficiency, never through the vestibule of a native desire for God.

Her Catholic Character
The Catholic character of O’Connor’s negative natural theology must not be underestimated. Even in its fallen state, humanity has a magnetic allurement to the grace of God. Modern godlessness cannot extinguish it. Not for her John Calvin’s conviction that, apart from God’s intervening grace, the human heart remains a perpetual factory for the making of idols. O’Connor’s characters remain obsessed with God even in their denial of the Holy. They are imbued with a longing for the Transcendent that, despite their vigorous attempts to rid themselves of it, cannot finally be suppressed. The aim of O’Connor’s fiction is to plumb the depths of contemporary unbelief and to reveal, even there, the human restlessness that only the divine rest can still.

It is this paradox that explains why O’Connor’s work, for all its slam-bang humor, often ceases to be funny in the obvious sense. Her characters confront their inadequacy far too painfully, and face deaths far too gruesome, for ordinary comedy. Yet precisely amidst inward pain and outward death does O’Connor locate a deeper kind of comedy. She is a satirist of the negative way only because she believes that, in our time at least, an anguishing self-knowledge is the prime requisite for recognizing the Gospel of God. Nothing less than this glad grace is what most of her protagonists find. Albeit reluctantly, they come to hear the Voice that will not be silenced, to drink the Water that alone slakes human thirst, to eat the Bread beside which all other food is as stones. If only with their last dying breath, they beseech that Mercy whose asking is already, as Pascal said, a receiving, whose seeking means its finding.

The High Cost of Dying
Readers are sometimes shocked at the grotesque quality of Flannery O’Connor’s fiction. Her dramatis personae include a character who mutilates himself with barbed wire, quicklime, and broken glass; another who steals a wooden leg from a crippled woman and leaves her stranded in a hayloft) and still another who drowns the imbecile child he was commissioned to baptize. Such macabre creations give psychologists a virtual charter for invidious judgments about their creator Even the most generous and sympathetic of readers may rightly wonder about the author of such grotesques. The British novelist and critic Evelyn Waugh is said to have remarked — in the pre-feminist days when such a comment was considered an accolade — that O’Connor’s stories could not have been written by a woman. And yet the woman we meet in O’Connor’s letters is at once gentle and genial. Though crusty in her social and theological opinions, she is the very, opposite of an ogre. Yet there are not two Flannery O’Connors, but one: her life and work constitute, in fact, a remarkable integrity. She practiced in ordinary existence the same comic faith that she envisioned so extraordinarily in her fiction.

O’Connor’s faith is all the more impressive for having been hammered out on the anvil of sickness and confinement. Her angular and unapologetic belief is nicely figured in the response she made to a reader who was angered by O’Connor’s Christian concerns. She wrote O’Connor to object that Jesus would have been forever forgotten had he died at age eighty of athlete’s foot. O’Connor replied to her critic that she was orthodox without knowing it. Jesus did not aim at “a long and happy life” O’Connor implies. He lived preeminently for the accomplishment of his divine mission, even if it meant a passionately brief existence. It is possible to say without sacrilege that so did Flannery O’Connor live.

She agreed with Samuel Johnson that nothing can so wonderfully concentrate the mind as the verdict of death. From age twenty-five until the end came fourteen years later, O’Connor lived with the almost certain knowledge that she would die young The same lupus erythematosus that had killed her father was eventually to kill her. Knowing perhaps that she would not be able to complete her life work in leisurely fashion, she wrote with an especial intensity, making certain that no one mistook the radicality of her vision In this regard at least, O’Connor can be compared to the poet Gerard Manley Hopkins, another Catholic writer whose short life issued in a slender but impassioned body of art.

Her Comic Vision Of Reality
O’Connor’s correspondence bears impressive witness to the spiritual struggle that she transmuted into fiction. Her comic vision of reality was the source of her life no less than her art. So discerning and incisive are O’Connor’s letters that they have been compared to Keats’s. Even if such an estimate be extravagant, The Habit of Being must be read in tandem with her fiction in order to comprehend the unity of her art, her faith, and her life. The letters reveal a woman whose devout Christian faith was anything but a crutch that enabled her to limp through life. Against the callow view that Flannery O’Connor became religious after she became ill, her correspondence discloses the opposite: her faith was sorely tested by her long battle with the disease that eventually killed her.

Never does O’Connor roll her eyes heavenward in glib affirmation that her illness is another of God’s “good and perfect” gifts. To one of her last letters she adds this poignant postscript: “Prayers requested. I am sick of being sick.” O’Connor’s struggle with lupus was a destiny so harsh that she could be reconciled to it only partially. Even in acceptance, her voice remains ironic and realistic: “I can with one eye squinted take it all as a blessing. What you have to measure out, you come to observe closer, or so I tell myself.” The squinted eye and the qualified affirmation point to an unsentimental faith. So great was her revulsion for treacly piety that she went to Lourdes more in dread than in hope. “I am one of those people,” she quips, “who could die for his religion easier than take a bath for it.” Only reluctantly did O’Connor agree to wash in the Lourdes waters and to drink from the common cup shared by les malades. The real miracle of the place, she commented later, is that it does not “bring on epidemics.”

The Most Important Occasion That Life Offers A Christian
O’Connor’s tough-minded faith will not countenance the notion that religion is an easy comfort for the weak and the troubled and the sick. To a skeptic friend inclined so to think, she replies with arresting candor: “There are some of us who have to pay for our faith every step of the way…” The idea of costly grace is a theme that runs throughout O’Connor’s work. Belief in God is never something obvious and natural. Her characters are redeemed after much suffering and usually in the face of death. Yet it is not God but themselves that they are finally made to doubt. An anguished self-recognition is always the means of their salvation. Yet this radical turning of the will — away from the self and toward God—is itself enabled by grace. O’Connor agrees with Augustine that faith is a gift rather than an acquisition. Nor is it primarily an emotion, a Lawrentian palpitation of the solar plexus. Only its objective effects are discernible, and they remain an unaccountable mystery: “When I ask myself how I believe, I have no satisfactory answer, no assurance at all, no feeling at all. I can only say… Lord, I believe, help my unbelief. And all I can say about my love of God is, Lord, help me in my lack of it.”

The mystery of faith’s utter givenness enabled O’Connor to regard her disease as a strange blessing. Without it, she came to see, her life might have been a massive act of presumption. Through the confinement that illness forced upon her, she was able to prepare for the death which, in her Catholic view, is the most important occasion that life offers a Christian: “ I have never been anywhere but sick,” she writes to the anonymous “A.” “In a sense sickness is a place, more instructive than a long trip to Europe, and it’s always a place where there’s no company, where nobody can follow. Sickness before death is a very appropriate thing and I think those that don’t have it miss one of God’s mercies.”

Life Is Providentially Ordered
O’Connor never wavered in her conviction that life is providentially ordered. In an unpublished letter written in 1964 to a Catholic lay volunteer disappointed by her work in South America, O’Connor counsels her to discern God’s will even in the midst of uninviting conditions. She concludes with a testament that is all the more remarkable for having been made in the face of her own suffering and approaching death: “I have never been anywhere in my life that it wasn’t the place I was supposed to be — no matter how it looked at the time.”

Death is a brother to Flannery O’Connor’s imagination, as she liked to say. Yet the reason for this kinship is more than biographical. Death is central to O’Connor’s fiction because she regarded it as the terminus that compels us to fix the shape of our souls — whether we shall keep our lives for our own vain use, or whether we shall give them back in gratitude to God. Our attitude toward death is thus the criterion not only of life beyond the grave, but for our present existence as well: “You do not write the best you can for the sake of art,” she declares, “but for the sake of returning your talent increased to the invisible God to use or not use as he sees fit. Resignation to the will of God does not mean that you stop resisting evil or obstacles, it means that you leave the outcome out of your personal considerations. It is the most concern coupled with the least concern.”

Return To Her Native Georgia
Disease and the prospect of death forced Flannery O’Connor to face an enemy far more insidious than physical disability. The real death sentence was not her illness, she confesses, so much as it was the return to her native Georgia that it required. O’Connor had worked hard to establish her own independent existence as a writer, living first in Iowa and then later in New York and Connecticut. Such liberty of life and work was ended with the news that she would have to come back home. O’Connor admits her deep initial dread: “This is a Return I have faced and when I faced it I was roped and tied and resigned to death, and largely because I thought it would be the end of any creation, any writing, any WORK from me.”

The dread of returning home again springs from a deeper origin than mere rebellion against her small-town Georgia beginnings. On the contrary, her fictional subject matter was to be invariably Southern. She once remarked that, were she to live in Japan and to write about Oriental characters, they would all talk like Gene Talmadge, the Georgia cracker politician and populist hater of all things intellectual. Yet it is evident that O’Connor wanted to write about the South from a critical vantage point beyond it. She desired the cultural stimulus of Northern and urban life. Far more, she wanted to be freed from Southern small-mindedness.

Nowhere is its oppressiveness more evident than in the story called “Good Country People.” There a veritable avalanche of banality and triteness falls upon Hulga Hopewell, a crippled intellectual who lives at home with her mother. With mindless complacency, for instance, Hulga’s mother observes that “It’s very good we aren’t all alike.” A farm woman named Mrs. Freeman replies with a comic adage that exceeds even Mrs. Hopewell’s in its self-satisfaction: “Some people,” she says, “are more alike than others.”

Regina Cline O’Connor
It does not take a shrewd Freudian to discern that much of Flannery O’Connor’s dread of returning home had to do with her mother. There are too many stories about sickly intellectuals living resentfully at home with their parents — usually their mothers — for there to be no autobiographical element in this pattern. Neither is it difficult to establish that Regina Cline O’Connor and her daughter were at the polar antipodes of character types: the mother an affable, outgoing, hard-working widow who operated a dairy farm and purchased herd bulls with equal acumen; the daughter a reflective, inward-turning, book-reading artist whose prime focus was upon the unseen realm of the spirit.

Flannery O’Connor could usually accept this clash of personalities with a droll sense of irony. She liked to say, for example, that her function at her mother’s tea parties was to cover the stain on the sofa. But there were also times when she would burst forth in fury at her mother’s failure to comprehend the daughter’s literary vocation. Once after Mrs. O’Connor had expressed doubt whether Flannery were making the best use of her talents, seeing that so few people could read her books with enjoyment, the writer poured out her wrath to a friend: “This always leaves me shaking and speechless, raising my blood pressure 140 degrees, etc. All I can ever say is, if you have to ask you’ll never understand.”

So splenetic a confession may seem to justify the psychoanalytic view that Flannery O’Connor suffered from an Electra complex – that she hated her mother, that she sought to commit matricide in her fiction, and that her violent depictions of death reveal a deep sexual frustration underlying the entirety of her work.’ O’Connor’s letters lay to permanent rest such reductionist suspicions, but not without acknowledging their partial truth. It is clear that O’Connor’s illness ended whatever hopes she may have had for marriage. When an Atlanta woman complained that there is no “love” in O’Connor’s books, the author candidly agreed. “You can’t write about love when you haven’t had it, least wise the [romantic] kind she’s talking about. I never had any.” “Marriages are always a shock to me,”14 she writes in strange response to a friend who had announced her engagement. This is not to say that O’Connor herself did not desire married love. There is no literary evidence that she was either a determined spinster or a closet lesbian, It was her illness and confinement, not her scorn for men, that left her unmarried. In one of her most affecting letters, O’Connor confesses her early discovery that she was not meant to be an isolé. (Fr: isolated, remote) She traces her need for intimate friendship to her father’s affectionate nature. But whereas he wanted such close relationships and found them, O’Connor confesses, “I wanted them and didn’t.” In this simple but wrenching declaration lies the essential disappointment of Flannery O’Connor’s life.

Great must have been the temptation to both rancor and self-pity No wonder that so many of her characters succumb to it. Yet the enticement O’Connor admits in her fiction is the one she avoided in her life. Unlike her parent-hating Hulga Hopewells and Asbury Foxes, she remained truly devoted to her mother. Nor did her filial piety issue from a mere grudging sense of obligation. O’Connor’s affection for her mother ran all the deeper because she knew that, despite sharing the local view of Flannery’s work as grim and nasty, Mrs. O’Connor supported her daughter without stint. Hence the author’s bemused observation of the mother’s slow progress through The Violent Bear It Away: “All the time she is reading,” writes the daughter, “I know she would like to be in the yard digging. I think the reason I am a short story writer is so my mother can read my work in one sitting.”

Having no notable mastery of the world herself, O’Connor admired her mother’s savoir-faire. When a Catholic visitor to the O’Connor farm joined Flannery for a late-afternoon veneration of the Host, she shared his amusement at Mrs. O’Connor’s parting declaration upon depositing daughter and guest in front of the parish church: “Y’all go pray while I buy the groceries.”’ Nor is the writer put off by her mother’s strictures against a companion who fancied herself a mystic. The friend had stretched herself out upon the cold November ground, staring up at the sky in the hope, she said, of getting a more “sacramental” perspective on the world. Mrs. O’Connor admonished the guest to get up from there in a hurry, lest she catch a death of cold: “Can’t you look at things standing up?” In two days’ time the visitor had indeed fallen ill, prompting Flannery to remark approvingly, “You can’t get ahead of mother.”

This comic affirmation of both her mother and her confinement makes Flannery O’Connor’s personal triumph very impressive. Even when the end was at hand, she resisted all self-pity. She would not countenance the notion that her pain was to be compared with Christ’s. “I haven’t suffered to speak of in my life and I don’t know any more about the redemption than anybody else.” Such humility enabled her to discern humor even in her adversity. Rendered weak and giddy by the loss of blood, and thinking herself to be dying, O’Connor reports that she heard the idiotic lines of a folk song rather than the celestial choruses of Palestrina: “Wooden boxes without topses. They were shoes for Clementine.” A nurse who looked and talked like Ruby Turpin in “Revelation” — life thus imitating art — caused O’Connor to laugh so hard that she could not decide “whether the Lord is giving me a reward or a punishment.” The high cost of dying thus proved to be a strange kind of bargain. Despite her early dread of returning to Milledgeville, convinced that she would be a productive writer only at several removes from home, O’Connor came to pay splendid tribute to her mother and her town: “The best of my writing has been done here.”

A Roman Catholic in the Protestant South
Flannery O’Connor did not conceive of herself as a Catholic writer in the narrow sense. She strove, on the contrary to embody an ecumenical vision in her art. Like C. S. Lewis’ “mere” Christianity. O’Connor’s faith is based on the bedrock beliefs shared by all Christians: the uniqueness of Jesus as the incarnate Son of God and Lord of all reality the radical sinfulness and hopelessness of humanity apart from Christ’s saving grace, the final authority of the Scriptures as testaments to God’s reconciling action in history and the indispensable importance of the church as the body of Christ wherein the Holy Spirit gathers the faithful and summons the world to its redemption.

O’Connor’s grand, all-inclusive Christian vision accounts for the near-absence of overtly Catholic characters and situations in her fiction. Priests and nuns make brief appearances in “The Enduring Chill,” “The Displaced Person,” and “A Temple of the Holy Ghost.” Only in the last of these stories is the main character a professed Catholic, and her schoolgirl struggle with pride knows no denominational bounds. Unlike a fellow Catholic writer such as J. F Powers, O’Connor never appeals to an “inside” audience who would need to know about rosaries and novenas, monasteries and abbeys, popes and encyclicals.

Though once the most notoriously anti-Catholic region of the country the South served strangely to reinforce O’Connor’s Catholic ecumenism. She was drawn to the Bible Belt for the same reason that H. L. Mencken was repelled by it — because most Southerners still take seriously the God whom the smart secular world has largely dismissed. O’Connor’s affection for the primitive Protestantism of her region runs deep. Her God-drunk, self-ordained, wool-hat prophets are not the objects of her scornful satire, as early reviewers thought; they are figures whose concern with ultimate matters O’Connor profoundly shares. Hazel Motes and Francis Marion Tarwater may be grotesque and reluctant servants of God, but they are servants of God nonetheless.

O’Connor agrees with Gustave Weigel’s judgment that Catholics are doctrinally closer to their bigoted enemies than to their enlightened friends. So close is the kinship between Catholic orthodoxy and Protestant fundamentalism that O’Connor sees the one as the successor to the other. “The day may come,” she prophesies, “when Catholics will be the ones who maintain the spiritual traditions of the South.” Hence the surprising accord between O’Connor’s Catholic Christianity and her Southern Protestant milieu. “The only thing that keeps me from being a regional writer,” she declares in a letter, “is being a Catholic, and the only thing that keeps me from being a Catholic writer (in the small “c” sense) is being a Southerner.”

O’Connor’s regard for her Protestant region is nowhere better  evinced than in her explanation for the prevalence of freaks in Southern fiction. Southern authors write about grotesques, O’Connor notes wryly, because they can still recognize a freak when they see one- Nothing less than an ultimate criterion can enable one to detect fundamental distortions and perversions of human nature. Though the South is surely not a Christ-centered region — witness the Southern treatment of Negroes — O’Connor insists that it is “most certainly Christ-haunted.” Southerners share Hazel Motes’s inability to rid himself of, “the wild ragged figure” of the Nazarene who moves “from tree to tree in the back of his mind…motioning for him to turn around and come off into the dark where he was not sure of his footing, where he might be walking on water and not know it and then suddenly know it and. drown.”

The Summons To Belief
This startling image suggests that the summons to belief is a perilous thing. It alerts us to the danger no less than to the wonder of our deliverance from damnation. The forgiveness of sins engenders a water-walking faith that is able to traverse both the river of despondency and the lake of woe. So great a salvation, as the Book of Hebrews calls it, also creates unprecedented peril: to neglect it is to fall into the abyss of divine abandonment called hell. God’s grace, far from being a thing of easy comfort, puts its recipients at ultimate risk. It is this sense of both divine danger and deliverance that, according to Flannery O’Connor, Southern Protestants have been blessedly unable to escape. Even the Southerner whose faith is uncertain still fears, she says, “that he may have been armed in the image and likeness of God.”

The Intensity Of Her Catholic Vision
O’Connor’s profound affinity for Southern Protestant Christianity no way lessened the intensity of her Catholic vision. We learn from her letters that, throughout her adult life, she attended Mass frequently, said her daily prayers out of the Missal, and read from the theology of Thomas Aquinas for twenty minutes every night before bed. Her deeply sacramental Catholicism made her critical, therefore, of the fierce faith that she otherwise admired. Without the sacraments, she lamented, Southern Protestants have nothing to guide their belief or curb their heresies. What remains is only “a do-it-yourself religion…which I as a Catholic find painful and touching and grimly comic.” Yet it was finally sympathy and not disdain that O’Connor felt for these untutored and unsacramental cousins in Christ. She wrote to a fellow Catholic that her theological differences with literal-minded Southern Protestants were “on the nature of the church, not on the nature of God or our obligation to him.”

The most significant accord between O’Connor’s Catholic orthodoxy and Southern fundamentalist faith is to be found in their common understanding of the divine activity in its relation to human freedom. They share the mutual conviction that God’s prevenient grace can become efficacious only with our freely willed acceptance of it There is a synergistic union between the divine self-offering and our human acceptance of it: “God rescues us from ourselves, if we want him to.”

Conversion is the name for this all determining decision. For the backwoods prophet or the small-town Protestant preacher, the call to repentance and salvation is addressed primarily to the unconverted. For O’Connor the Catholic, it is the already-baptized Christian who must constantly be converted to absolute reliance on the mercy of God. ‘All voluntary baptisms are a miracles” she writes, “and stop my mouth as much as if I had just seen Lazarus walk out of the tomb.” She explains why: “I suppose it’s because I know that [baptism} had to be given me before the age of reason, or I wouldn’t have used any reason to find it.” Yet the Catholic O’Connor agrees with the revivalist Protestant that grace is far from irresistible, and that the saints persevere only by faith’s constant renewal through drastic decision.

For the Catholic O’Connor no less than for the Protestant evangelist, the inevitability of death provides the inescapable summons to this final choice In their encounter with life’s ultimate limit, her characters are made to discern how their own souls are weighed in the divine balances and their eternal destinies finally fixed. The stakes are not mere1y high; they are absolute. In that last earthly assize (A decree or edict rendered at a session of a court) , O’Connor believes, we return to God the gifts that we have multiplied by faith, thus trusting that he will receive us into his glory or else we admit to having squandered our talent and wasted our substance, thus facing the pain of absolute loss.

In “A Good Man Is Hard to Find,” the murderous Misfit speaks the comic truth when he says (of the self-regarding Grandmother he has just killed) that “she would of been a good woman — if it had been somebody there to shoot her every minute of her life.” Had death been perennially present to remind the Grandmother of her total dependence on God, she would have trusted in his grace rather than her own gentility.

The conviction that the ultimate issue of our lives depends on our own reception or rejection of God’s grace is the central premise of Flannery O’Connor’s work. In one of her very last book reviews, she declares that the chief mission of the church is to ensure “salvation for every person who does not refuse it.” More arresting still is her insistence that “man is so free that with his last breath he can say No!” In unison with the entire Catholic tradition, O’Connor affirms that the efficacy of God’s grace depends, in a radical way, upon our own receiving or rejecting of it. Henri de Lubac’s work is a typical example of the synergistic theology which O’Connor espouses:

If God had willed to save us without our own co-operation, Christ’s sacrifice by itself would have sufficed. But does not the very existence of our Savior presuppose a lengthy period of collaboration on man’s part? Moreover, salvation on such terms would not have been worthy of the persons God willed us to be. God did not desire to save mankind as a wreck is salvaged he meant to raise up within it a life, his own life. The law of redemption is here a reproduction of the law of creation: man’s co-operation was always necessary if his exalted destiny was to be reached, and his co-operation is necessary now for his redemption. Christ did not come to take our place — or rather this aspect of substitution refers only to the first stage of his work — but to enable us to raise ourselves through him to God.
Henri de Lubac, Catholicism

For all her stress upon our human cooperation with divine grace, Flannery O’Connor cannot be construed as a Pelagian. Not one of her characters makes an autonomous decision for or against the grace of God — as if the summons to belief were something one could take up or lay aside at one’s own convenience. With Augustine and the central tradition of Western theology she knows that the act of faith is itself enabled by prevenient grace. Indeed, the divine pressure weighs so heavily upon a character like Francis Marion Tarwater (in The Violent Bear It Away) that his will appears to have been coerced. The boy makes a final defiance of God by drowning the imbecile child he had been commissioned to baptize.

Yet even as Tarwater immerses the child in the waters of death, he finds himself — to his surprise and fury — uttering the baptismal formula — against his most fundamental freedom of will, it may seem, he has been made to do the will of God. For O’Connor, this imperious urgency at work on young Tarwater is but the universal presence of God that pervades all of human and natural life. It may encircle but it does not cancel his freedom. Indeed, it is the boy’s deeper and truer will that, in performing the baptism, triumphs over his merely superficial (but still murderous) self-will.

From the classic Catholic tradition of natural theology O’Connor derives her unswerving conviction that humanity is inevitably inclined toward God. Original sin and the Edenic Fall have distorted and perverted, but not extinguished, humanity’s God-hungering and Godthirsting nature. Hence O’Connor’s allegiance to the ancient theology of exitus et reditus—the inexorable procession of all things from God, and their equally ineluctable return to him.

God is at once the Archer and the Target of all creation. The cosmos is the arrow which God flings primordially out of himself and eschatologically back unto himself. The arc of God’s grace describes a gigantic circle wherein the divine goodness encompasses everything. Sin is the free deflection of life’s true trajectory causing the will to turn in upon itself (incurvatus in Se) in hideous parody of the divine circularity. Salvation, by contrast, is to will what God wills. By the grace made available through Christ, we are enjoined to align our lives with the pattern of the universe itself.

To conform the sinful human economy to the graceful heavenly order is to undertake a gradual and disciplined process of obedience and sacrifice. It is a lifelong penance for the individual, and a history-long endeavor for the race. As the creek-preacher says in O’Connor’s story called “The River,” the blood of Jesus is a great Stream “full of pain itself, pain itself, moving toward the Kingdom of Christ, to be washed away, slow, you people, slow as this here old red river water around my feet.” The vain little schoolgirl in ‘A Temple of the Holy Ghost” embodies the problem of patient faith more comically: “She could never be a saint, but she thought she could be a martyr if they killed her quick.”

Divine Grace Must First Manifest Itself Destructively Before Its Recipients Can Respond To It Positively
So to speak is to declare the real difference between Flannery O’Connor’s Catholicism and the Protestantism of the classic Reformers. For both Luther and Calvin, salvation is the divine assurance from which the forgiven sinner lives by grace. For O’Connor, by contrast, it is the goal toward which the struggling soul journeys in fear and trembling. The quandary of salvation gives her stories their real plot interest. One comes to expect that, sooner or later, the protagonists will be laid low by the whammy of grace. Yet their response — embittered like Hulga Hopewell’s, astonished like Ruby Turpin’s, grateful like O. E. Parker’s — is never predictable. The one sure thing is that divine grace must first manifest itself destructively before its recipients can respond to it positively. The fact that God’s mercy shatters before it rebuilds gives Flannery O’Connor a deep affinity with Southern fundamentalist Protestantism; it also causes her to modify classic Catholic thought into her own kind of negative natural theology. More about that in another post.

Baylor University Professor of Theology and Literature, Ralph C. Wood looks at Flannery OConnor and her Catholic faith. A reading selection from his 1988 classic, “The Comedy of Redemption.”


Reading Selections From Flannery O’Connor’s Spiritual Writings by Robert Ellsberg (Editor)

September 21, 2010

Flannery O'Connor

Flannery O Connor (1925-1964) is widely regarded as one of the great American writers of the twentieth century. Only in 1979, however, with the publication of her collected letters, could the public fully see the depth of her personal faith and her wisdom as a spiritual guide. Drawing from all her work Robert Ellsberg has put together an anthology  that highlights as never before O Connor s distinctive voice as a spiritual writer, covering such topics as Christian Realism, the Church, the relation between faith and art, sin and grace, and the role of suffering in the life of a Christian. Three previous readings from the same anthology I had posted before. Some reading selections follow:

I Am Chary Of Using The Word Love
I don’t think as you seem to suppose that to be a true Christian you believe that mutual interdependence is a conceit. This is far from Catholic doctrine; in fact it strikes me as highly Protestant, a sort of justification by faith. God became not only a man but Man. This is a mystery of the Redemption and our salvation is worked out on earth according as we love one another, see Christ in one another, etc., by works. This is one reason I am chary of using the word, love, loosely. I prefer to use it in its practical forms, such as prayer, almsgiving, visiting the sick and burying the dead and so forth….

Christian Faith Sharpens The Eye For The Grotesque, The Perverse, And The Unacceptable
In the greatest fiction, the writer’s moral sense coincides with his dramatic sense, and I see no way for it to do this unless his moral judgment is part of the very act of seeing, and he is free to use it.  I have heard it said that belief in Christian dogma is a hindrance to the writer, but I myself have found nothing further from the truth. Actually it frees the storyteller to observe. It is not a set of rules which fixes what he sees in the world. It affects his writing primarily by guaranteeing his respect for mystery…

My own feeling is that writers who see by the light of their Christian faith will have, in these times, the sharpest eyes for the grotesque, for the perverse, and for the unacceptable. In some cases, these writers may be unconsciously infected with the Manichean spirit of the times and suffer the much–discussed distinction between sensibility and belief, but I think that more often the reason for this attention to the perverse is the difference between their beliefs and the beliefs of their audience. Redemption is meaningless unless there is a cause for it in the actual life we live, and for the last few centuries there has been operating in our culture the secular belief that there is no such cause.

The novelist with Christian concerns will find in modern life distortions which are repugnant to him, and his problem will be to make these appear as distortions to an audience which is used to seeing them as natural; and he may well be forced to take ever more violent means to get his vision across to this hostile audience. When you can assume that your audience holds the same beliefs you do you can relax a little and use more normal means of talking to it; when you have to assume that it does not, then you have to make your vision apparent by shock — to the hard of hearing you shout, and for the almost blind you draw large and startling figures.

St Cyril of Jerusalem, in instructing catechumens, wrote: “The dragon sits by the side of the road, watching those who pass. Beware lest he devour you. We go to the Father of Souls, but it is necessary to pass by the dragon.” No matter what form the dragon may take, it is of this mysterious passage passed him, or into his jaws, that stories of any depth will always be concerned to tell, and this being the case, it requires considerable courage at any time, in any country, not to turn away from the storyteller.

Two Devils
There is a difference between our two devils. My Devil has a name, a history and a definite plan. His name is Lucifer, he’s a fallen angel, his sin is pride, and his aim is the destruction of the Divine plan. Now I judge that your Devil is co-equal to God, not his creature, that pride is his virtue, not his sin; and that his aim is not to destroy the Divine plan because there isn’t any Divine plan to destroy. My Devil is objective and yours is subjective. You say one becomes “evil” when one leaves the herd; I say that depends entirely on what the herd is doing.
The herd has been known to be right in which case the one who leaves it is doing evil. When the herd is wrong, the one who leaves it is not doing evil but the right thing. If I remember rightly, you put that word, evil in quotation marks which means the standards you judge it by there are relative; in fact you would be looking at it there with the eyes of the herd.

A Generation Of Wingless Chickens
The notice in the New Yorker was not only moronic, it was unsigned. It was a case in which it is easy to see that the moral sense has been bred out of certain sections of the population like the wings have been bred off certain chickens to produce more white meat on them. This is a generation of wingless chickens, which I suppose is what Nietzsche meant when he said God was dead.

The Return Of Modern People To A Sense Of The Holy Spirit
I suppose what bothers us so much about writing about the return of modern people to a sense of the Holy Spirit is that the religious sense seems to be bred out of them in the kind of society we’ve lived in since the 19th century. And its bred out of them double quick now by the religious substitutes for religion. There’s nowhere to latch on to, in the characters, or the audience. If there were in the public just a slight sense of ordinary theology (much less crisis theology), if they only believed at least that God has the power to do certain things.

There is no sense of the power of God that could produce the Incarnation and the Resurrection. They are so busy explaining away the virgin birth and such things, reducing everything to human proportions that in time they lose even the sense of the human itself, what they were aiming to reduce everything to. As for fiction, the meaning of a piece of fiction only begins where everything psychological and sociological has been explained.

The South Vs The Liberal Approach
The notion of the perfectibility for man came about at the time of Enlightenment in the 18th century. This is what the South has traditionally opposed. “How far we have fallen” means the fall of Adam, the fall from innocence, from sanctifying grace. The South, in other words, still believes that man has fallen and that he is only perfectible by God’s grace, not by his own unaided efforts. The Liberal approach is that man has never fallen, never incurred guilt, and is ultimately perfectible by his own efforts. Therefore evil in this light is a problem of better housing, sanitation, health, etc, and all mysteries will eventually be cleared up. Judgment is out of place because man is not responsible. Of course there are degrees of adherence to this, all sorts of mixtures, but it is the direction the modern heads toward. Some syntax…

The Reaches Of Reality
St Augustine wrote that the things of the world pour forth from God in a double way: intellectually into the minds of the angels and physically into the world of things. To the person who believes this—as the western world did up until a few centuries ago – this physical, sensible world is good because it proceeds from a divine source. The artist usually knows this by instinct; his senses, which are used to penetrating the concrete, tell him so. When Conrad said that his aim as an artist was to render the highest possible justice to the visible universe, he was speaking with the novelist’s surest instinct. The artist penetrates the concrete world in order to find at its depths the image of its source, the image of ultimate reality. This in no way hinders his perceptions of evil but rather sharpens it, for only when the natural world is seen as good does evil become intelligible as a destructive force and necessary result of our freedom.
For the last few centuries we have lived in a world which has been increasingly convinced that the reaches of reality end very close to the surface, that there is no ultimate divine source, that the things of the world do not pour forth from God in a double way, or at all. For nearly two centuries the popular spirit of each succeeding generation has tended more and more to the view that the mysteries of life will eventually fall before the mind of man. Many modern novelists have been more concerned with the processes of consciousness than with the objective world outside the mind. In twentieth century fiction it increasingly happens that a meaningless, absurd world impinges upon the sacred consciousness of the author or character; author and character seldom now go out to explore and penetrate a world in which the sacred is reflected.

Types Of Modern Man
We live in an unbelieving age but one which is markedly and lopsidedly spiritual, There is one type of modern man who recognizes spirit in himself and who fails to recognize a being outside himself whom he can adore as Creator and Lord; consequently he has become his own ultimate concern…

There is another type of modern man who recognizes a divine being not himself, but who does not believe that this being can be known analogically or defined dogmatically or received sacramentally…

And there is another type of modern man who can neither believe nor contain himself in unbelief and who searches desperately, feeling about in all experience for the lost God.

At its best our age is an age of searchers and discoverers and at its worst, an age that has domesticated despair and learned to live with it happily. The fictions which celebrates this last state will be the least likely to transcend its limitation, for when the religious need is banished successfully, it usually atrophies, even in the novelist. The sense of mystery vanishes. A kind of reverse evolution takes place, and the whole range of feeling is dulled.

The searchers are another matter. Pascal wrote in his notebook, “If I had not known you, I would not have found you.” These unbelieving searchers have their effect even upon those of us who do believe. We begin to examine our own religious notions, to sound them for genuineness, to purify them in the heat of our unbelieving neighbor’s anguish. What Christian novelist would compare his concern to Camus? We have to look in much of the fiction of our time for a kind of sub-religion which expresses its ultimate concern in images that have not yet broken through to show any recognition of a God who has revealed himself…

The Maximum Amount Of Seriousness Admits The Maximum Amount Of Comedy
Drama usually bases itself on the bedrock of original sin, whether the writer thinks in theological terms or not. Then, too, any character in a serious novel is supposed to carry a burden of meaning larger than himself, The novelist doesn’t write about people in a vacuum; he writes about people in a world where something is obviously lacking, where there is the general mystery of incompleteness and the particular tragedy of our own times to be demonstrated, and the novelist tries to give you, within the form of the book, a total experience of human nature at any time.

For this reason, the greatest dramas naturally involve the salvation or loss of the soul. Where there is no belief in the soul, there is very little drama. The Christian novelist is distinguished from his pagan colleagues by recognizing sin as sin. According to his heritage, he sees it not as a sickness or an accident of the environment, but as a responsible choice of offense against God which involves his eternal future. Either one is serious about salvation or one is not.

And it is well to realize that the maximum amount of seriousness admits the maximum amount of comedy. Only if we are secure in our beliefs can we see the comical side of the universe. One reason a great deal of our contemporary fictions is humorless is because so many of these writers are relativists and have to be continually justifying the actions of their characters on a sliding scale of values.

Great Religious Fiction
I don’t believe we will have great religious fiction until we have again that happy combination of believing artist and believing society. Until that time, the novelist will have to do the best he can in travail with the world he has. He may find in the end that instead of reflecting the image at the heart of things, he has only reflected our broken condition and, through it, the face of the devil we are possessed by. This is a modest achievement, but perhaps a necessary one.

The Church
I think the Church is the only thing that is going to make the terrible world we are coming to endurable; the only thing that makes the Church endurable is is that it is somehow the body of Christ and on this we are fed.

If I Were Not A Catholic
I feel that if I were not a Catholic, I would have no reason to write, no reason to see, no reason ever to feel horrified or even to enjoy anything.

Grace to the Catholic way of thinking can and does use as its medium the imperfect, purely human, and even hypocritical. Cutting yourself off from Grace is a very decided matter, requiring a real choice, act of will, and affecting the very ground of the soul….This notion that grace is healing omits the fact that before it heals, it cuts with the sword Christ said he came to bring.

Reconciliation in The Artificial Nigger
Mr. Head stood very still and felt the action of mercy touch him again but this time he knew that there were no words in the world that could name it. He understood that it grew out of agony, which is not denied to anyone and which is given in strange ways to children. He understood it was all a man could carry into death to give his Maker and he suddenly burned with shame that he had so little of it to take with him He stood appalled, judging himself with the thoroughness of God, while action of mercy covered his pride like a flame and consumed it. He had never thought himself a great sinner before but he saw now that his true depravity had been hidden from him lest it cause him despair. He realized he was forgiven for sins from the beginning of time when he had conceived in his own heart the sin of Adam, until the present, when he had denied poor Nelson. He saw that no sin was to monstrous for him to claim as his own and since God loved in proportion as He forgave, he felt ready at that instant to enter Paradise.

The Reasons For The Use Of So Much Violence
Our age not only does not have a very sharp eye for the almost imperceptible intrusions of grace, it no longer has much feeling for the nature of the violences which precede and follow them. The devil’s greatest vile, Baudelaire has said, is to convince us that he does not exist.
I suppose the reasons for the use of so much violence in modern fiction will differ with each writer who uses it but in my own stories I have found that violence is strangely capable of returning characters to reality and preparing them to accept their moment of grace. Their heads are so hard that almost nothing else will do the work. This idea, that reality is something to which we must be returned at considerable cost, is one which is seldom understood by the casual reader, but it is one which is implicit in the Christian view of the world.

The Setting Of Modern Fiction
The setting in which most modern fiction takes place is exactly a setting in which nothing is so little felt to be true as the reality of a faith in Christ…Fiction may deal with faith implicitly but explicitly it deals only with faith-in-a-person, or persons . What must be unquestionable is what is implicitly implied as he author’s attitude, and to do this the writer has to succeed in making the divinity of Christ seem consistent with the structure of all reality. This has got be got across implicitly in spite of a world that doesn’t feel it , in spite of characters who don’t live it.


Three Selections From Flannery O’Connor’s Spiritual Writings

May 15, 2009

Flannery O'Connor

Beliefs Of The Modern Secular World
The modern secular world does not believe in sin, or in the value that suffering can have, or in eternal responsibility, and since we live in a world that since the sixteenth century has been increasingly dominated by secular thought, the Catholic writer often finds himself writing in and for a world that is unprepared and unwilling to see the meaning of life as he sees it. The means frequently that he may resort to violent literary means to get is vision across to a hostile audience, and the images and actions he creates may seem distorted and exaggerated to the Catholic mind….The stories are hard but they are hard because there is nothing harder or less sentimental than Christian realism. I believe that there are many rough beasts now slouching toward Bethlehem to be born and that I have reported the progress of a few of them, and when I see these stories described as horror stories I am always amused because the reviewer always has hold of the wrong horror.

Does Truth Have To Satisfy Emotionally?
I can never agree with you that the Incarnation, or any truth, has to satisfy emotionally to be right (and I would not agree that for the natural man the Incarnation does not satisfy emotionally). It does not satisfy emotionally for the person brought up under many forms of false intellectual discipline such as 19th century mechanism, for instance. Leaving the Incarnation aside, the very notion of God’s existence is not emotionally satisfactory anymore for great numbers of people, which does not mean the God ceases to exist. M. Jean-Paul Sartre finds God emotionally unsatisfactory in the extreme, as do most of my friends of less stature than he. The truth does not change according to our ability to stomach it emotionally. A higher paradox confounds emotion as well as reason and there are long periods in the lives of all of us, and of the saints, when the truth as revealed by faith is hideous, emotionally disturbing, downright repulsive… Witness the dark night of the soul in individual saints. Right now the whole world seems to be going through a dark night of the soul.

The Incarnation: A Suspension Of The Laws Of The Flesh And The Physical?
To see Christ as God and man is probably no more difficult today than it has always been even if today there seem to be more reasons to doubt. For you it may be a matter of not being able to accept what you call a suspension of the laws of the flesh and the physical, but for my part I think that when I know what the laws of the flesh and physical really are, then I will know what God is. We know them as we see them, not as God sees them. For me, it is the virgin birth, the Incarnation, the resurrection which are the true laws of the flesh and physical. Death, decay, destruction are the suspension of these laws, I am always astonished at the emphasis the Church puts on the body. It is not the soul she says that will rise but the body, glorified. I have always thought that purity was the most mysterious of the virtues, but it occurs to me that it would never have entered the human consciousness to conceive of purity if we were not to look forward to a resurrection of the body, which will be flesh and spirit united in peace the way they were in Christ. The resurrection of Christ seems the high point in the law of nature.
From “Flannery O’Connor Spiritual Writings” – Robert Ellsberg (Editor)


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