Flannery O’Connor: Apostle to the Blind

For Those Who Believe God is Dead

When I was a freshman in college I took a required course called “Man’s Search for Meaning.” One of the assigned readings was the Gospel of Matthew. It was the first time I had ever sat down and read one of the Gospels from start to finish. Unlike books such as Siddhartha, 1984, or Plato’s Apology, I could not imagine how we would discuss it. After all, I thought, most of the people in the class had heard these stories countless times at Sunday Mass, or, as I had, throughout 12 years of Catholic education.

When the professor came into the classroom that day, he began by asking us simply, “So, the word ‘Gospel’ means ‘Good News.’ What’s the good news?” Imagine my surprise when I realized that I did not have a clue. After a few moments of uncomfortable silence, one woman in the class did have the presence of mind to volunteer, “Well, the Good News is that we’re saved.” The professor lifted one eyebrow and said, “Saved from what?” We were stymied again. The statement, “you are saved” does not mean very much to someone who feels no danger.

No longer a freshman in college, I am now a philosophy professor at a Catholic liberal arts college for women. Each day I confront young women as ignorant of their faith and starved for meaning as I once was. Unlike them, however, I was among the first children affected by the reforms of Vatican II. I was in religion class one day learning the Baltimore Catechism, and the next day I was sitting on pillows listening to Simon and Garfunkel tunes. But the generation I teach seems even more lost: last week I mentioned “transubstantiation” and not one woman in a class of 36 could remember having heard the word before.

In my course on philosophy and literature I have my students read a great deal of Walker Percy and Flannery O’Connor. The student response is overwhelmingly positive; they sense, without quite being able to articulate why, that these writers offer them something substantial. My experience was the same. Through these authors, especially O’Connor, I came to love and understand the Catholic faith into which I had been born. It was in O’Connor’s letters, for example, where I read my first discussion of the Catholic understanding of the relationship between grace and nature; where I first saw the word “magisterium”; and it was because of her letters that I understood, finally, the meaning of apostolic succession.

Although O’Connor suffered from lupus erythematosus, the disease that killed her father when she was 16 and would kill her when she was 39, her letters reveal her to be a woman who is far from an invalid. She is revealed, in fact, as a woman who is strong, sane, and very funny. Her letters give the reader a good sense of her personality, her command of language, her intelligence, and above all, her sense of humor.

In a letter, addressed to “A,” dated January 17, 1956, O’Connor discusses her earliest experiences with angels:

I don’t want to be any angel but my relations with them have improved over a period of time. They weren’t always even speakable. I went to the Sisters to school for the first six years or so . . . at their hands I developed something the Freudians have not named — anti-angel aggression, call it. From 8 to 12 years it was my habit to seclude myself in a locked room every so often and with a fierce (and evil) face, whirl around in a circle with my fists knotted, socking the angel. This was the guardian angel with which the Sisters assured us we were all equipped. He never left you. My dislike of him was poisonous. I’m sure I even kicked at him and landed on the floor. You couldn’t hurt an angel but I would have been happy to know I had dirtied his feathers — I conceived of him in feathers. Anyway, the Lord removed this fixation from me by His Merciful Kindness, and I have not been troubled by it since.

The next letter mentions some early influences on the foundation of O’Connor’s character; again it is from a letter to “A,” dated August 9, 1955:

I suppose I read Aristotle in college but not to know I was doing it; the same with Plato. I don’t have the kind of mind that can carry such beyond the actual reading, i.e., total non-retention has kept my education from being a burden to me. So I couldn’t make any judgment on the Summa, except to say this: I read it for about twenty minutes every night before I go to bed. If my mother were to come in during this process and say, “Turn off that light. It’s late,” I with lifted finger and broad bland beatific expression, would reply, “On the contrary, I answer that the light, being eternal and limitless, cannot be turned off. Shut your eyes,” or some such thing. In any case, I feel I can personally guarantee that St. Thomas loved God because for the life of me I cannot help loving St. Thomas. His brothers didn’t want him to waste himself being a Dominican and so locked him up in a tower and introduced a prostitute into his apartment; her he ran out with a red-hot poker. It would be fashionable today to be in sympathy with the woman, but I am in sympathy with St. Thomas.

One cannot read these letters without coming to know a woman for whom the Church is no crutch, no weakness, but rather a source of enduring challenge and strength.

In yet another letter to “A,” dated September 15, 1955, O’Connor asserts a truth that has distinguished Catholicism from its surrounding culture since the beginning of the Church. These words seem especially pertinent in contemporary Catholic society. Just recently, my students read a statement by a Catholic theologian in their college newspaper, arguing that no Church teaching is binding on the faithful unless the faithful agree with it. This would not have made a whole lot of sense to O’Connor, as the following letter attests:

When I call myself a Catholic with a modern consciousness I don’t mean what might be implied in the phrase “modern Catholic,” which doesn’t make sense. If you’re a Catholic you believe what the Church teaches and the climate makes no difference. What I mean is that I am conscious in a general way of the world’s present historical position, which according to Jung is unhistorical. I am afraid I got this concept from his book, Modern Man in Search of a Soul — and am applying it in a different way.

My experiences in teaching O’Connor to college women convinces me that her impact on me was not an isolated experience. I am not sure that most people have any idea how little of basic Catholic theology is taught to young people today, and how hungry for it they are. My students in my ethics class love reading articles from the Summa Theologiœ on the natural law. More than one of them has exclaimed, “So that’s why the Church forbids artificial contraception, or divorce/remarriage, or premarital sex! I never knew they had an argument for it!

O’Connor understood theology, not as well as the theologians she so often read (and she knew it), but better than some of the theologians teaching in Catholic colleges today. Although she referred to herself as a “hillbilly Thomist,” she understood the central mysteries of the Church and had a knack of explaining those mysteries in ways that untutored Catholics could understand. The following is yet another letter to “A” and exemplifies this well:

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 the 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 the 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 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, in the way they were in Christ. The resurrection of Christ seems the high point of the law of nature.

Though Catholicism informed O’Connor’s writing, she knew, however, that this would certainly not be the case with her audience. Not only would a great many people who read her stories not even be Catholic, but even the Catholics would often not grasp what she was really “up to.” She knew that she was writing for people who were “deaf and blind.” She once said that one of the greatest difficulties of being a writer was that most people did not understand her work. Any person who could read the telephone book, she once complained, fancies that he can read.

Part of the problem, as O’Connor knew, and as Walker Percy points out in one of his essays on language, is that we live in a world.where words no longer signify. This is especially true when the words in question are words about Christianity. The contemporary culture screams these truths from its bumper stickers and tee shirts: Jesus Saves; Love is the Answer; Smile!; God Loves You. The louder such words are shouted, the less they mean.

O’Connor grappled with this problem of an exhausted vocabulary: How to write about grace and nature to an audience that does not even know what these words mean, and in all likelihood, does not care to find out? As she puts it in another letter to “A”:

I believe too that there is only one reality and that is the end of it, but the term, “Christian Realism” has become necessary for me, perhaps in a purely academic way, because I find myself in a world where everybody has his compartment, puts you in yours, shuts the door and departs. One of the awful things about writing when you are a Christian is that for you the ultimate reality is the Incarnation, the present reality is the Incarnation, and nobody believes in the Incarnation; that is, nobody in your audience. My audience are the people who believe God is dead. At least these are the people I am conscious of writing for.

The sacraments are, for a Catholic, central moments of grace. Not so for the modern world, or, all too often, for the modern Catholic. In such a world, O’Connor needed to deal with the problem of how to make her readers feel the impact of grace, and to recognize the terrible power and awesome ecstasy of the sacraments. Take, for example, the Eucharist. In O’Connor’s short story, “The Lame Shall Enter First,” she takes on the task of writing a story about the central mystery of the Catholic faith, and yet the story, on the face of it, is about something altogether different.

The story she mentions is about Sheppard, a psychologist whose wife has recently died, and his son, Norton. Sheppard does not believe in God or an afterlife, and considers such beliefs a crutch that intelligent people simply do not need; his son’s abject neediness disgusts him. He is much more taken with a boy he encounters in the course of his work, a boy named Rufus Johnson who has a clubfoot and a very high IQ. Sheppard takes Rufus on as his special project, intending to rehabilitate him, convinced that all he needs is a new shoe and some attention from a professional to set him on the right path. Rufus, on the other hand, does not see his problem as one of having a club foot and a bad attitude. He informs Sheppard that he is bad because he is good at being bad, because he likes to be bad, and that the Devil has him in his power. Sheppard is disgusted with what he sees as Rufus’s unnecessary reliance on supernatural explanations for what psychology can explain perfectly well. At one point in the story, Sheppard, his son Norton, and Rufus are seated at the dinner table, and Rufus has just opened his Bible to read from it; nothing infuriates and frustrates Sheppard more, and Rufus knows it:

“Put that Bible up!” Sheppard shouted.

The boy stopped and looked up. His expression was startled but pleased.

“That book is something for you to hide behind,” Sheppard said. “It’s for cowards, people who are afraid to stand on their own two feet and figure things out for themselves.”

Johnson’s eyes snapped. He backed his chair a little way from the table. “Satan has you in his power,” he said. “Not only me. You, too.”

Sheppard reached across the table to grab the book but Johnson snatched it and put it in his lap.

Sheppard laughed. “You don’t believe in that book and you know you don’t believe in it!”

“I believe it!” Johnson said. “You don’t know what I believe and what I don’t.”

Sheppard shook his head. “You don’t believe it. You’re too intelligent.”

“I ain’t too intelligent,” the boy muttered. “You don’t know nothing about me. Even if I didn’t believe it, it would still be true.”

“You don’t believe it!” Sheppard said. His face was a taunt.

“I believe it!” Johnson said breathlessly. “I’ll show you I believe it!” He opened the book in his lap and tore out a page of it and thrust it into his mouth. He fixed his eyes on Sheppard. His jaws worked furiously and the paper crackled as he chewed it.

“Stop this,” Sheppard said in a dry, burnt-out voice. “Stop it.”

The boy raised the Bible and tore out a page with his teeth and began grinding it in his mouth, his eyes burning.

Sheppard reached across the table and knocked the book out of his hand. “Leave the table,” he said coldly.

Johnson swallowed what was in his mouth. His eyes widened as if a vision of splendor were opening up before him. “I’ve eaten it!” he breathed. “I’ve eaten it like Ezekiel and it was honey in my mouth!”

When I teach this story in my class, I always read this passage aloud and ask my students for their initial reaction. Recently, I got these comments in return:

“He must really believe it!”

“It’s repulsive.”

“Awesome!”

“I thought it was kind of scary.”

“It was kind of neat.”

“It was like eating God” (italics added).

Were O’Connor to hear these comments, she would be satisfied that the story was a success. They express, she would no doubt say, precisely what the Eucharist should, and often no longer does, make us feel.

“The Lame Shall Enter First” is just one of several stories in which O’Connor immerses herself in the mystery of the Eucharist; even if her readers know nothing of what the Eucharist is or what it is supposed to be, she believed that the symbolism of the story would work for them and in them on several different levels. That, she thought, was one of the functions of art. Even more than at the time she wrote them, stories such as “The Lame Shall Enter First” have to work on the reader in an unconscious way, because most of her readers are not even aware of realities such as the Eucharist on a conscious level at all.

The Eucharist was not the only mystery that O’Connor struggled with in her fiction. She also thought a great deal about Baptism. One short story in which she tries to come to terms with Baptism is called “The River.” In “The River,” the main character, Bevel, is a lonely and often neglected young boy. His very sophisticated parents are constant party-goers and probably alcoholics. Mrs. Connin, a woman who cares for him and takes him under her wing, is a born-again type Christian, and takes Bevel to a healing. At the healing, the preacher speaks of Baptism:

“Have you ever been Baptized?” the preacher asked.

“What’s that?” he murmured.

“If I Baptize you,” the preacher said, “you’ll be able to go to the Kingdom of Christ. You’ll be washed in the river of suffering, son, and you’ll go by the deep river of life. Do you want that?”

“Yes,” the child said, and thought, I won’t go back to the apartment then, I’ll go under the river.

“You won’t be the same again,” the preacher said. “You’ll count.”

Bevel goes home that day, only to find his mother hung-over and uninterested in her son. Bevel puts himself to bed, but after a while, he gets up and goes back to the river. Bevel wants to count.

When he arrives at the river, Bevel goes in:

In a second he began to gasp and sputter and his head reappeared on the surface; he started under again and the same thing happened. The river wouldn’t have him. He tried again and came up, choking. This was the way it had been when the preacher held him under — he had had to fight with something that pushed him back in the face. He stopped and thought suddenly: it’s another joke, it’s just another joke! He thought how far he had come for nothing and he began to hit and splash and kick the filthy river. His feet were already treading on nothing. He gave one low cry of pain and indignation . . . He plunged under once and this time, the waiting current caught him like a long gentle hand and pulled him swiftly forward and down. For an instant he was overcome with surprise; then since he was moving quickly and knew that he was getting somewhere, all his fury and his fear left him.

Bevel, of course, had drowned. O’Connor said later, after writing the story, that the only way to make her readers feel what baptism is — the terrible, scary, but ultimately worthwhile act that it is, the act through which we are changed forever — was to have this child drown. To write a story about a literal Baptism would be ludicrous, because what has Baptism become in our contemporary Catholic culture, after all? You dress up, you go to church, you come home, you eat some ham.

When our first child was to be baptized, my husband and I went to the class for parents. The seminarian who was running the class asked each set of parents why they were planning to have their child baptized. Each couple responded with a variation of “we want to welcome our child to the Christian community.” My husband was the only person who said “so that our child will have the graces of the sacrament, and have the stain of original sin removed from his soul.” Everyone, including the seminarian, looked at us as if we had just uttered an expletive, or grown horns. O’Connor knew that people like that seminarian and the other couples in the room were her audience; for the deaf, she would no doubt say, you have to shout.

Anne Maloney

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Anne Maloney is Associate Professor of Philosophy at the College of St. Catherine in St Paul, Minnesota.

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