Beyond the prolific writing career, the fascinating personal life, and the peacocks (lots of peacocks) Flannery O'Connor was a devout and inspirational Catholic. Word on Fire contributor Father Damian Ference takes a look at the writer today on the Word on Fire blog.
One of the greatest disciples of the twentieth century was neither a priest, nor a religious, nor a married person. She was a celibate, single woman who spent the last 13 years of her life battling lupus while writing some of the best fiction the world has ever known—all while living on a 544-acre dairy farm in Milledgeville, Ga. with her mother, her books, and forty-four peacocks. Her name was Flannery O’Connor.
Mary Flannery O’Connor, the only child of Edward O’Connor and Regina Cline O’Connor, was born and baptized in Savannah, Ga in 1925. She was raised in a strong Catholic circle, as she literally grew up in the shadow of the Church, the Cathedral of St. John the Baptist, which was a stone’s throw from the O’Connor home, impossible to miss from the family room window and her parents’ second-floor bedroom. Edward and Regina sent Flannery to Catholic school, but were themselves her first and best teachers in the ways of faith, as they promised at her baptism.
O’Connor went to high school and college in Georgia, but left the South to enroll in the Writers’ Workshop at the University of Iowa, where she earned her master’s degree. From there she moved to New York and then Connecticut, which is where she thought she would stay as her writing career developed. But around Christmas of 1950 she became very ill and moved back to Georgia and was eventually diagnosed with lupus, the same disease that took her father’s life when she was a teenager. She and her mother moved to an old family farm in Milledgeville which Flannery named "Andalusia."
Although Flannery O’Connor was a faithful Catholic her entire life, she really entered into the Paschal Mystery of Jesus when she had to come back to Georgia and move in with her mother. No doubt O’Connor had other plans and dreams for herself as a writer in the North, but she had to deny her plans, take up the cross (and crutches) of her illness, and follow the Lord. In other words, she had to die to self—which she did.
O’Connor knew that her primary vocation was to be a disciple, to follow Jesus. But she also knew that her particular vocation was to be a writer. Someone once asked her, “Miss O’Connor, why do you write?” She quipped, “Because I’m good at it.” O’Connor wasn’t being cocky or arrogant – she was telling the truth. O’Connor had a gift for writing and she worked very hard to develop her gift. She explained, “There is no excuse for anyone to write fiction for public consumption unless he has been called to do so by the presence of a gift.” She also knew that since her ability to write was a gift, she needed to glorify God with her writing.
Like anyone who takes her vocation seriously, O’Connor lived a fairly structured life. She began most mornings with Mass, followed by a small breakfast, and then wrote for three straight hours every day, without any interruption, until lunch. After lunch she would receive visitors, read, feed her peacocks, and write letters. Following dinner she would read some more and would normally retire by 9:00pm, but not before she read the Summa of St. Thomas Aquinas for twenty minutes and prayed her night prayers.
At first glance, O’Connor’s writing may not seem very Catholic. Her grotesque stories are mostly set in the Protestant South and are filled with wild, hilarious and often bigoted characters who take the Lord’s name in vain, steal, murder and rape. Such content doesn’t seem to match the lifestyle of a daily communicant and admirer of Thomas Aquinas. Yet that is precisely what makes O’Connor so good.
Flannery O’Connor had no intention of writing “Catholic novels” or “Catholic stories.” Rather, she wanted to write good novels and good stories, and she trusted that if she was a good Catholic, her worldview would manifest itself in her work. O’Connor professed, “I see from the standpoint of Christian orthodoxy. This means that for me the meaning of life is centered in our redemption by Christ and what I see in the world I see in relation to that.” In other words, O’Connor was not interested in writing stories about parish priests, Marian apparitions, or Catholic boarding schools. Such topics might be easier to digest for the average Catholic reader, but O’Connor was convinced that the average Catholic reader was far below average, and she wasn’t just writing for Catholics. She observed, “It is popular to suppose that anyone who can read the telephone book can read a short story or a novel.” O’Connor wrote stories which, at their core, all deal with the fallen nature of humanity and our need for a Savior, and the majority of her readers didn’t believe in God, sin or redemption. O’Connor herself said that every one of her stories contains a moment when grace is offered to a fallen character, although it is usually rejected.
One reason so many readers fail to understand O’Connor’s project is because they fail to understand how she uses distortion and violence. For example, there are two situations in her fiction where she depicts the drowning of a child. A reader can easily take such drownings at face value and dismiss O’Connor as sensational, rather than looking deeper into O’Connor’s commentary on the nature of baptism. O’Connor explains, “When I write a novel in which the central action is baptism, I am very well aware that for a majority of my readers, baptism is a meaningless rite, and so in my novel I have to see that this baptism carries enough awe and mystery to jar the reader into some kind of emotional recognition of its significance.” In other words, O’Connor uses distortion and violence in her fiction to reveal, not to destroy. Perhaps she described her work best when she insisted that “to the hard of hearing you shout, and for the almost-blind you draw large startling figures.”
Flannery O’Connor knew that not everyone would or could understand her work. She once received a letter from someone who told her that her book left a bad taste in her mouth. O’Connor wrote back, “You weren’t supposed to eat it.” And it is true that her fiction takes a great deal of time, attention and effort to understand. But she also knew that her vocation would not allow her to dumb down her art.
O’Connor wasn’t out to write “Catholic novels and stories” as much as she was about writing stories and novels that were Catholic—to the core—stories that all dealt on the deepest level with the problem of Original Sin and our need for a Savior. Her stories flowed out of her Catholic living. They grew out of her active liturgical life, her personal prayer life, and her daily disciplines. Her writing was the fruit of her fidelity to her vocation.
Flannery O’Connor was not a theologian, but she was theological. She was no philosopher, but she was philosophical. She was, however, a faithful, disciplined, well-read, hard-working, good-humored, confident, humble and gifted Catholic. She answered her primary vocation of holiness, and she also answered her particular vocation as a writer, and the Church and the world are better for it.
Today, atheists, agnostics and believers alike hail O’Connor’s work as great. That’s the sign of excellent art—all walks of life are able to recognize its beauty, goodness and truth. Yet O’Connor admits that she wouldn’t be a great artist if it weren’t for her faith. She explains, “When people have told me that because I am a Catholic, I cannot be an artist, I have had to reply, ruefully, that because I am Catholic, I cannot afford to be less than an artist.” Would that we all took our vocations as seriously.
Mary Flannery O’Connor, ora pro nobis.
Rev. Damian J. Ference, pictured here on the porch of Andalusia (O'Connor's home) in the summer of 2010, is a priest of the diocese of Cleveland. He is an Assistant Professor of Philosophy and a member of the formation faculty at Borromeo Seminary in Wickliffe, Ohio. He is also a lifetime member of the Flannery O’Connor Society.