This article was originally published in The Catholic News Herald of the diocese of Charlotte.
Only recently have I become a devotee of the Catholic writer Flannery O’Connor, although her collection of short stories sat on my bookshelf for many years.
I was aware that she was an important figure, both as a writer and as a Catholic. Her short story “A Good Man is Hard to Find” is studied at various levels in academia, and she was certainly a master at her craft. Yet, when I tried to dip into her work previously, I never found it particularly appealing. Her characters are rarely likable, and the situations that they are in are rarely pleasant. There is often violence, as well as despair; it does not make for light reading and can be challenging on both an intellectual and spiritual level.
However, the other thing that I noticed about her stories when I did read them was that I couldn’t let them go. I would always be left thinking about them, drawn back to read them a second or even a third time. There was something about them that kept working on me. It was only when I read the collection of her prose essays, Mystery and Manners, that O’Connor herself gave me the answer to the riddle of her work and the power of it.
Born in Savannah, Ga., in 1925 to a Catholic family, O’Connor seems never to have swerved or deviated in her commitment to the faith. She also was dedicated to the art and craft of fiction writing. Though she died from lupus at the young age of 39, she left such an impact on the world that she is featured as one of Bishop Robert Barron’s “Pivotal Players” in his video series of that name.
Her faith was the bedrock of all that she did and the light by which she saw the whole world, including her own work as a writer and storyteller. Growing up and living in the Protestant South as a Roman Catholic gave her a unique perspective and a certain coloring to her stories; for while her own beliefs were firmly grounded in Rome, those of her characters reflect much more the culture that surrounded her. She describes the South as being “Christ-haunted” even if not always “Christ-centered”; however, her own life was always fixed firmly on the Lord. She saw her talent and skill solely as a gift given her by God, and therefore her career as a writer was to her a vocation and a calling.
Through her essays and the collection of her letters, The Habit of Being, I gained a new appreciation of O’Connor and her work from her own words. O’Connor was dedicated to the purity of art. As she said, “All I mean by art is writing something that is valuable in itself and that works in itself. The basis of art is truth, both in matter and in mode.” The only conscious agenda she had in writing her stories was to write truthful and well-crafted stories, and she loathed the idea of writers who used their talents to write propaganda or wrote simply for profit.
Her own strong faith imbued everything she did and certainly could not be kept out of her image of reality. She discusses in various essays and letters how it makes a difference to a writer’s work whether the writer believes that the world was created intentionally by God or that the world is all just random, meaningless happenstance. One has only to compare such works as The Lord of the Rings and Game of Thrones to see the difference that an author’s worldview can make, even when both are very skilled.
Though she believed completely in the mercy and goodness of God, O’Connor was not one to see the world through a lens of sentimentality. She wrote, “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.”
She looked unflinchingly at humanity in light of the Fall and original sin, and she did not shy away from depicting in her fiction what it was that she saw. O’Connor’s stories are uncomfortable to read because she is holding up a mirror and reflecting back our own image as fallen creatures. Writing in the South in the 1950s, her stories contain all the atmosphere that surrounded her – the lingering prejudice and charged emotions around integration and the civil-rights movement, as well as the loosening of morals and increased scorn for traditional values.
O’Connor herself was a strong supporter of civil rights, but she didn’t use her skills as a writer to preach or to stand on a figurative soapbox. She simply told stories that reflected the world as accurately as she could, and who could be surprised that those reflections are not always particularly pleasant?
Though she saw the world with clear vision, O’Connor was not without hope or trust in God’s mercy. She said of her work, “I have found, in short, from reading my own writing, that my subject in fiction is the action of grace in territory held largely by the devil.” She was very aware of the fallen nature of this world, but what she was most interested in were those moments of offered grace and whether those offers were accepted or not.
We don’t always have to look very hard to see our own image in many of O’Connor’s characters, but it’s important to also look at the choices that those characters make and use it for contemplation about the choices we make in our own lives. Are we being Christ-haunted because we refuse to let Him into our lives? Have we hardened our hearts to the people around us, in our community or in our family? Have we swelled ourselves with pride and false piety?
The work of Flannery O’Connor can be challenging at times, but it is a challenge well worth the effort. Whether you start with her short stories or one of her novels, her prose essays, collected letters or her Prayer Journal, I believe there is a path for anyone who is interested in getting to know her better.