“Admiring Flannery O’Connor,” an article in a recent (5 Sept.) issue of the Vatican journal L’Osservatore Romano, virtually compels reflection; I keep thinking about her contributions not only to American letters, but American spirituality. Will her cause for beatification ever be initiated?
The article, by Elena Buia Rutt, reminds us that reading Flannery – surely one of our greatest short story writers – “means looking at reality in the light of a sometimes disconcerting Christian realism that makes human limitations its strength.”
Were she alive today, Flannery would have been in her late 80s. Born in Savannah, she was visited with lupus erythematosis early in adulthood, and died at age 39. Most of us, I suspect, recall seeing photographs of her on crutches, standing before her ancestral farmhouse, among her peacocks, in Milledgeville, Ga.
One of Flannery’s finest books, Wise Blood (1952), was written here, in Connecticut’s Fairfield County, at the home of Sally Fitzgerald, her publisher and confidante. Eventually, her literary output would include 27 short stories, two novels, two honorary degrees, and the O. Henry Award (three times), as well as all of her writings in the Library of America registry. Flannery’s immense correspondence was collected in another award-winning volume, edited by Sally Fitzgerald, and entitled The Habit of Being (which I have gone through carefully, page after page, dutifully annotating paragraph after paragraph of pure wisdom). I have even called attention in graduate theology classes to what she has written concerning priests, the privilege of Holy Orders and the Eucharist. Here was a woman of profound, humble faith.
The foregoing thoughts lead to the reason for Ms. Rutt’s article about Flannery; specifically, the great author’s acceptance of severe physical suffering, occasioning her death in 1964. Despite her ever-painful, continuously weakening state of health, together with the isolation it caused her (“a hermit writer,” she called herself), she admittedly arrived (in Ms. Rutt’s words) “face to face” with the essential experience each one of us must in some way come to terms with; namely “the experience of limitation.”
Thus, Flannery “in a clear, rapid style,” Ms. Rutt argues, “delineates the borders of an extreme territory where characters are eccentric and odd but uncompromising seekers of the absolute. They are souls who are stubbornly closed in on themselves until a violent and unexpected event occurs to undermine their convictions and bonds.” This, she adds, is the only possible path to redemption and glory.
One cannot help reaching the same conclusion from Flannery’s recently published A Prayer Journal, edited by Georgia State University’s Professor W.A. Sessions, a personal friend of hers and recognized scholar of her writings. One entry (undated) reads: “Dear God, I cannot love Thee the way I want to…I do not know You God because I am in the way. Please help me to push myself aside.” Another section begins: “Please let Christian principles permeate my writing, and please let there be enough of my writing (published) for Christian principles to permeate…My mind…is prey to all sorts of intellectual quackery…” Still another reads: “Give me the grace to adore You with the excitement of the old priests when they sacrificed a lamb to You…[and] to adore You with the awe that fills your priests when they sacrifice the lamb on our altars.”
Flannery prayed repeatedly that she would never become a person who “invented” her faith to satisfy her weakness.
Flannery’s gifts to modern spirituality reflect other literary artists whose work she knew and credited. One was the French novelist, Georges Bernanos, whose The Diary of a Country Priest remains one of the 10 greatest novels ever. Another is the mystic French intellectual Leon Bloy, the self-styled “Pilgrim of the Absolute” and author of the world-famous novel, The Woman Who Was Poor. Surely Flannery belongs in their incomparable company.
Msgr. David Q. Liptak is Executive Editor of The Catholic Transcript and censor librorum for the Archdiocese of Hartford.