“I would like to write a beautiful prayer,” writes the young Flannery O’Connor. “There is a whole sensible world around me that I should be able to turn to Your praise.” Tuesday, November 12, the personal, interior life of this gifted author will be available in a new book. Fr. Damian Ference reviews the book below.
I’ve been keeping a secret for two years. I was not bound by the seal of confession, but by W.A. Sessions, a personal friend of Flannery O’Connor.
On October 6, 2011, the opening night of an O’Connor conference at Loyola University Chicago, Sessions read – for the first time in public – excerpts from a recently discovered prayer journal of Flannery O’Connor. Before he read O’Connor’s prayers, he made it very clear that we, the audience, were not permitted to record, report, or even comment upon anything that he would read. He was serious. And so were the prayers that he read to us. I took notes – lots of notes – for my own prayer and reflection. But I haven’t been able to tell anybody about them until now.
Some folks are downright shocked to discover that the same woman who wrote stories involving racism, rape, murder, an amputee, a hermaphrodite, and a mentally challenged young woman, was also a daily communicant. But it’s true. Flannery O’Connor was a devout Catholic, and the prayer journal from her time as a graduate student at the University of Iowa offers an honest, intimate, humorous, mysterious, and comforting view into the mind and heart of one of America’s greatest writers...
The human body is an offer of Divine Grace. Sure, but this body? With its flaws and aches and less-than-perfect aesthetic value? Yup, that very one. Word on Fire contributor Ellyn von Huben draws upon the great lessons and legacy of Flannery O'Connor to illuminate just what it is about the body that works to reveal that most sacred gift.
Domestic violence is not entertaining. And I don’t spend my time scanning news sites looking for more sadness than that which usually jumps out at me when I check the Chicago Tribune each morning. But… there was an incident that caught my eye on a popular news/chat/gossip site a few days ago. And my first response was to send it to a friend with the brief comment, “Hulga’s revenge?”
Flannery O’Connor fans know who Hulga is. A joyless woman, possessed of a degree in philosophy but little common sense, Hulga - née Joy - lost a leg in a childhood accident. She lives with her mother on the family farm, where her position is, in today’s parlance, resident “Debbie Downer.” In a tragi-comical turn of events, Hulga seduces a Bible salesman whom she takes to be an innocent rube, and instead winds up as his victim. The Bible salesman is not what he appeared to be and Hulga, in her haste to shame him, allows herself to be shamed. Not only is Hulga shamed, she is left in the loft of the barn while salesman takes quick leave of her – carrying her prosthetic leg as a trophy. (This is better told by Flannery herself. If you don’t have a copy of her collected works I would advise that you find one. And make “Good Country People” one of your first choices.)
How could Hulga not come to mind when I read of a woman in South Carolina who stabbed her boyfriend and then threw his prosthetic leg into the yard to keep him from chasing her? And this woman was thorough! She didn’t just through his leg out in the yard; she tossed his spare leg, too. I wonder if any other fans of Flannery and “Good Country People” also saw it as some sort of turnabout on Hulga’s tale. (That is all I know of this sad story, except that it coincidentally took place in the south, reminding me of what the great author said about that, “Anything that comes out of the South is going to be called grotesque by the northern reader, unless it is grotesque, in which case it is going to be called realistic.”)
The frailties of the human body show up frequently in Flannery’s work. As a Catholic, she knew the importance of the human body as being an offer of Divine Grace. Each human body. In the Resurrection, it will be our bodies, glorified, that will rise. God himself became human, incarnated in a body of flesh and blood – bones, tendons, corpuscles and muscles. It is easy to see to make a connection to the divine if one looks upon a body in its prime – adorable babies, Olympic athletes at the peak of their fitness, gorgeous women on the covers of popular magazines, men so good looking they must be deported...
We all could use a good distraction at times. But what happens when the intended distraction becomes a course in elevated thinking and deeper contemplation? Word on Fire contributor Ellyn von Huben tells us how she stumbled upon one such distraction: the little-known TV show "The Booth at the End."
TV is often used like a drug. Something to take you out of the doldrums; away from the laundry, barking dogs, unsorted bills. I resort to this drug myself. There are times I am too tired to read, too unmotivated to write, clean, walk, or even do a craft project. But I still look for a diversion. There was a rainy Saturday afternoon like that. Bored with the thought of watching "Arrested Development" or "Malcolm in the Middle" reruns, I toyed with the Hulu+ selections to see if there was anything I had missed. It is usually comedy that I seek and the more absurd the better. But this time my eye was caught by something new: “The Booth At The End.” This was billed as Sci-Fi, which is a genre that I tend to avoid like to a proverbial plague. In my estimation, Sci-Fi is a plague of misshapen space creatures possessing unpronounceable names set in preposterous situations. I have been blessed with many gifts; willful suspension of disbelief is not one of them.
But “The Booth At The End” caught my eye and held my attention for way more than the usual three minutes I take before I bail on a show. That was probably because the characters were regular humans, with pedestrian names and the setting was a coffee shop not unlike the twenty-four hour a day place that I frequented in my college days. Whether we were visiting for a study break during an all-nighter or converging for sustenance after a night at the bars, I never saw a man in a back booth waiting to help those who approached to make their wishes come true. This special “Man” idling in the last booth is what makes the show’s coffee shop different. Xander Berkeley portrays the Man in a very low key way; deftly combining sang froid and compassion to give us a character who is fascinating to watch and almost impossible to read. (In season 2 he has moved to a different coffee shop. Maybe even a very special man can only loiter so long in any one establishment.)
“I heard the pastrami sandwich here is good.” (Eeew – never had pastrami. The thought of just saying the word might be a deal breaker right there for me. I’m not sure what pastrami actually is; it just sounds wrong to me.) That is the code that lets the man in the booth know that someone is there to make a deal. Word of mouth is the Man’s only promotional tool. The motivations of those who come to make a deal are diverse. Some are driven by love of a child, parent, or spouse. Others are compelled by vanity and lust...
Have you ever been asked to cite your favorite bible verse? Rozann Carter has. But, in throwing out the conversation stopper that is 2 Kings 2:23-25, she has discovered that there is more to that passage than meets the eye... or descends from the woods. Rozann reminds us not to miss the forest for the she-bears.
A reading from the Second Book of Kings.
“From there, Elisha went up to Bethel. While he was on the way, some small boys came out of the city and jeered at him. ‘Go up, baldhead,’ they shouted, ‘go up, baldhead!’ The prophet turned and saw them, and he cursed them in the name of the Lord. Then two she-bears came out of the woods and tore forty-two of the children to pieces. From there, he went to Mount Carmel, and thence he returned to Samaria.”
The Word of the Lord.
Wait a minute.
The Word of the Lord? Our Lord? How is this series of verses—featuring the comical insult “baldhead,” a holy prophet cursing small children for a seemingly innocuous affront to his physical appearance, a pack of rabid she-bears, and a final return to casual, whistling normalcy strolling through the surrounding lands of Mount Carmel— how is this a valid passage in the written account of salvation history? How did it get past centuries of scribes and canon-compilers? What could God possibly have been attempting to convey in this pericope, hidden within the otherwise coherent text of Second Kings? Ah, but there it is. 2 Kings 2: 23-25— a legitimate verse in sacred canon, compiled and propagated under the guidance of the Holy Spirit...