Catholic Transcript Magazine of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Hartford Connecticut

Saturday, April 21, 2018

MsgrLiptak_TNOne of America’s finest writers, Flannery O’Connor, was the subject of a major, two-page article recently in the Vatican newspaper L’Osservatore Romano. Flannery, who died in 1964 from lupus at the age of 39, is one of the 10 "religious explorers" discussed by scholar Father Paul Gallagher, S.J., in Faith Maps: Ten religious explorers from Newman to Joseph Ratzinger (London: Darton Longman and Todd, 2010).

Flannery’s fame has "soared" since her death. Over 70 volumes, as well as countless articles, have appeared about her. Thomas Merton reportedly compared her with Sophocles (d. 406, B.C.), the Greek playwright.

In an editorial on this page recently I noted Father Gallagher’s insistence on how Flannery was never timid about emphasizing the distorting power of evil in the world. When complaints were made about her stark images of sin and its consequences, Flannery insisted that diluting the sense of evil makes us forgetful of "the price of restoration." T.S. Eliot, probably the century’s greatest poet, admitted that some of Flannery’s fiction "horrified" him despite her artistry, and that his nerves could not "take much of a disturbance." Flannery probably would have answered T.S. Eliot with her famed explanation: "You have to push as hard as the age that pushes against you."

This quotation appears in one of her letters, found in the collection, The Habit of Being, edited by her editor and confidante, Sally Fitzgerald (New York: Farrar, Straus, Giroux, 1979).

My copy of The Habit of Being, which won an unprecedented National Book Critics Circle Special Award in 1980, is annotated on almost every page – all 617 of them. The Wisdom of Catholicism shines forth on every page; Flannery read St. Thomas Aquinas every evening for at least 20 minutes, and referred to herself as a "hillbilly Thomist." (She lived with her mother on a Georgia farm, surrounded by peacocks, some ducks, some cows and a mule.)

For a few years, Flannery graced the State of Connecticut; Fairfield County, to be precise, where she stayed with the Fitzgeralds while she completed her first great work. There, she and Sally Fitzgerald went to Mass every morning before beginning her work. She loved to discuss ideas and, with ideas, solid theology, so much so that she became a rather respectable theologian, as her correspondence gives witness, let alone her literary masterpieces. As Sally observes in her Introduction to The Habit of Being:

"She [Flannery] maintained throughout her life that the Church in no way impaired her true freedom, either in the practice of her art or in her personal life… She… [held] that what the Church gave her far outweighed any demands it made in return…"

Nowhere in her works, Sally states, is there even "a hint of deviation from her orthodox position, even in her mind. She says in so many words to one correspondent that she has simply never doubted, or for a moment wanted to leave the fold."

Flannery is known especially, of course, as the artist of God’s grace. This was a difficult task to master in terms of a largely unbelieving world, but her artistry was so substantial that she was able to emphasize the reality of sin and conversion. "Her narratives," writes Father Gallagher, "work indirectly to provoke an awakening to religious possibilities…"

Flannery did all this without ever questioning the Creed. On the contrary, in a letter to Cecil Dawkins in 1959, she argued that "dogma is the guardian of mystery."

Obviously, I love reading about Flannery. I quote her often when lecturing in theology, including lecturing to seminarians. I feel privileged to have been alive in her times; when she died in 1964, I had been a priest for only 11 years. I regret never having had the opportunity to meet her, or to hear her speak, or, failing that, to have written to her.

Reading Flannery’s letters, incidentally, opens up an almost infinite corridor of the finest minds the world has yet seen and heard. Therein, in addition to Aquinas, one also meets Augustine, Dostoevsky, Pascal, Mauriac, Bernanos, Dante, Pasternak, James, Conrad, Daniel-Rops, Steinbeck, Rahner, Teilhard, Chagall, Rouault, Shakespeare, St. Catherine of Siena, O’Neill, Marcel, Cicero, Simone Weil, Rose Hawthorne, Barth, Buber, Percy, von Hügel, Maritain, Guitton, Paul Horgan, Edith Stein, Hemingway, Guardini, C.S. Lewis, Toynbee, Beckett, Péguy, St. Teresa of Jesus, Kafka, Hopkins, Undset, Waugh – and on and on. The Wisdom of Catholicism embraces countless artists, intellectuals, academicians and, supremely, saints.

Msgr. David Q. Liptak is Executive Editor of The Catholic Transcript and censor librorum for the Archdiocese of Hartford.