A few days ago a friend mentioned that this August marks the fiftieth anniversary of Flannery O’Connor’s death, so I poked around the Internet to see whether this milestone is stirring up any interest. It is, but what captivated me was finding a few sites promoting the cause for her canonization and others that were fomenting a backlash against that possibility.
Flannery O’Connor is already canonized in American literature. Some of her short stories are well established in that canon and are widely read in colleges, where they stir up as much puzzlement, misinterpretation, misunderstanding, and controversy as they did when first published. This is because it is difficult to separate O’Connor the serious artist from “Blessed Flannery”—as one blog rather with tongue in cheek, calls her—the woman whose devotion to the Catholic Faith formed and informed everything she wrote. In either persona, she comes up shining.
She was a serious writer and art was her vocation. She wrote slowly and steadily every day—three hours was her usual—sometimes only sitting at the scarred table in her room waiting, waiting for the words and characters to come. When they came they were sometimes so comical she would laugh aloud as she typed.
The characters are often laugh-aloud funny, but they are often also violent or visited by violence. They seduce, deceive, murder, and steal; abandon each other, show contempt for each other, punch, vilify, and throttle each other. None of them is attractive in person, and the few children who appear are the least appealing. They have been called caricatures, but O’Connor meant them to be facsimiles of the folks she had so keenly observed growing up in Milledgeville, Georgia.
Like all great artists, she wrote about things. Her stories are filled with sunlight in trees, a bull wearing a wreath of vines in its horns, milk houses, cars shaped like coffins, abandoned barns, dusty back roads, a chinaberry tree with a monkey chained to it, pig parlors and garden hoses, turkeys and peacocks strutting in farmyards, bulldozers, broken fences and city buses, ridiculous women’s hats and newsreels—all the sad or beautiful, the lovable or broken, the sublime and silly things that give us a poet’s glimpse of the world God made and the world broken by Man.
Mankind was Flannery O’Connor’s business, and she wrote him clear. And here is where she gets into trouble with devout Catholics and skeptics alike. She is often criticized for violence, grotesque characters, and perceived immorality, to say nothing of how difficult it can be to find the anagogical meaning, the revelation, behind the earthy things she is not afraid to draw a deeper meaning from. To finally reach Truth and Beauty, we have to pass by the Dragon. What readers might forget, if they ever knew it, is that Christ himself told us that the kingdom of heaven is taken by violence. We wish it could be easier, that ditches and stumbling blocks were never in the way, but turning away will never get us over them. We have to shine a light on the rough patches to see how to get past them, and O’Connor’s stories can be that light if we have eyes to see.
I know several sweet and pious Catholic women who want to love the stories and novels by this so-called “Catholic author.” One of these ladies told me that she can’t read them because they are full of blasphemy, violence, and sexual innuendo and are “occasions of sin” for her. This points to one of the difficulties in understanding, a difficulty that exasperated the author throughout her career. On the one hand, it is true that a lover of Jesus does find it uncomfortable to read about, for example, the Church of Christ without Christ in Wise Blood or the seduction scene in “Good Country People,” but on the other, the reader must figure out why a devout Catholic is writing such horrors as a murderer calmly wiping blood from his spectacles after shooting a grandmother in the face. One reason, O’Connor says in “The Nature and Aim of Fiction,” is that “the person who aims after art in his work aims after truth” and paraphrasing Thomas Aquinas, she continues “that the artist is concerned with the good of that which is made.” Furthermore, “fiction is about everything human and we are made out of dust.”
In other words, sin is grotesque. To depict sinners and yearn for their good is difficult, maybe impossible, for a readership that does not believe in it, or for a different reading public used to a more pietistic approach to reality. O’Connor found a wonderful way to show a good, God-made world twisted out of shape by sin, and showed it without preaching, in the form of parables or fables. She cut to the heart of a painful truth, like an angel with a terrible sword. Her stories are not pleasant tales, but like Dostoevsky or Dante, she prophesied hard truths about sinful persons.
The Catholic writer who sees Christ in everything, who is concerned with truth, and who does not avoid getting a little dirt on her hands writing about the world as it is, this writer will see sin as sin, will write it true, and will draw unattractive characters because they are unattractive. A teenage girl calling a good Christian woman a warthog from hell, a wife who beats the image of Christ tattooed on her husband’s back, a woman who watches in silence while her hired man—her savior—is crushed by a tractor—these are human figures wrenched out of the shape God formed them to take. Sin is ugly, there is no getting around that, and a character whose habit is sin will be rightly painted ugly, twisted, grotesque. It is a difficult task to tell the truth about ugliness without being preachy, and only the most accomplished imagination, one that breathes through the goodness of art, could do it. Flannery O’Connor’s was this kind of imagination.
That is the writer, but the writer is inextricable from the woman because her heart was Catholic. She wore the habit of art as “an attitude or quality of mind,” an idea she learned in Jacques Maritain’s Art and Scholasticism, according to Sally Fitzgerald’s introduction to a collection of O’Connor’s letters. But along with this quality of mind and will, and perhaps more important, is that she gained what Fitzgerald calls “‘the habit of being:’ an excellence not only of action but of interior disposition.” Her letters prove her excellent disposition. She wrote to believers and agnostics with the courtesy of a saint whose care is for the good of the other. The letters published as The Habit of Being let a reader into the soul of a woman whose greatest love was Christ. Her love was free from sentimentality, and was truer and fiercer because of it. It was truth that made Flannery O’Connor free, and her way of telling it can do the same for us.
Should Rome open a cause for her canonization? I imagine she would snort at the idea, and would also leave the matter up to the experts, as I will. Anyone looking for a sweet-faced saint, eyes raised to heaven and hands folded in prayer, had better look somewhere else, although it is clear from her letters and the newly published Prayer Journal that she looked to heaven and prayed consistently with all the strength of her longing for heaven. All the works she left us, especially the letters, bare her heart and prove her a worthy model of deeply lived Christian vision and charity. I have no hesitation to stand before her fierce and luminous gaze and ask, “Flannery, pray for me.”