Over the years, I’ve so often heard references to Flannery O’Connor that I figured I should eventually read this southern, Roman Catholic author for myself. I even quoted her in my own book – although my quote was second hand, as she was quoted in another book. Most of the thoughtful quotes I’ve come across (about Christianity) are from her letters.
Last year I found a lovely, hardcover collected works of O’Connor for only $1 and thought, here is my chance! I read it this year. Okay…
This book put all her stories first, then came her essays/speeches, and finally her letters. (She saved copies of many letters she wrote, so this is why they are available.) I almost quit before I even finished her stories! I did not enjoy them much at all. All the characters seem bitter, angry, disturbed, and do things like murder children. I am not a pollyanna type by any means, and I could see the point behind some of the stories, but I just don’t think my life was enriched in much of any way for reading most of them.
When I finally got to some of the essays/speeches, this brought some enlightenment, as she explained why she wrote in such a grotesque way. O’Connor explains that Christian authors should have the sharpest eye for the grotesque because redemption is meaninglessness unless there is a cause for it in the actual life in which we live. In an increasingly secularized culture, people can fail to see a need for redemption, and to those so blinded an author may need to shock – to draw in large, startling figures. While these thoughts and others did bring some clarity about her stories, I still did not care for most of them. I was disturbed, not in a challenging or beneficial way, but in a negative sense.
Her writing has been described as southern gothic, but a few years ago I read some gothic stories from the late 18th and 19th centuries, and they were not like O’Connor.
If you are going to tackle O’Connor, in particular her collected works, I’d suggest starting with her essays/speeches to better prepare yourself for the stories.
Or…I might suggest reading some of her essays first, selectively reading certain stories, and then read all her letters. I so appreciated her letters and it is reading her letters that made this “collected works” worthwhile…at least for me.
Despite my critique, I did appreciate O’Connor. After reading her collected works, I felt like I got to know her, and I liked her! I even felt sad when her letters came to an end because she died of lupus at only age 39. She was a unique individual that I could relate to in various ways. I’d like to visit her house in Georgia. Oh boy, my husband is so excited by this prospect…not! (haha) I also look at peacocks in a new way! (She had a bunch of peacocks!)
The rest of this post will focus on two things. One is in light of recent events, racism, and how a reader can completely misunderstand a story – even get it totally backwards – when they lack even rudimentary knowledge of Christianity and thus miss biblical references. The second is her letters, and I will share some thoughtful excerpts about Christianity as she corresponded with folks struggling with faith.
One. I recently read an article that slammed O’Connor for being racist. Having just read her collected works, I was puzzled. Of course, she was a southerner in the old south so she can hardly not reflect that, but I just did not perceive her as this critic presented her. I am not an O’Connor expert by any stretch, but it seemed she struggled with this. She grew up with segregation, and in one sense saw it as the norm, but she also realized the conflicts with Christianity. Her short story Revelation, one that I appreciated more than most of her stories, was about a nasty white woman that looked down in a condescending way on blacks and white trash. This nasty woman thanked God she was not like them! At the end of the story, she has a vision while out at her pig barn, and she sees people marching into heaven and all the blacks and white trash are going in first and people like her are last!
Of course, this is in reference to the first shall be last and the last shall be first, found in Matthew, Mark, and Luke. So at the end, this woman is put in her place. In a letter O’Connor wrote, she joked she might sign herself in to the hospital using the name of this nasty woman in the story, and I interpreted this in a humble, self-deprecating way, O’Connor realizing she was too much like this woman.
The article that criticized O’Connor failed to even realize the biblical idea being alluded to about the last being first, and instead thought it meant that segregation would even exist in heaven and O’Connor was endorsing marching into heaven in a segregated way. Good grief! And O’Connor writing about signing herself into the hospital under the nasty woman’s name, was interpreted as her being proud to be like this woman! Ummm? This character was not portrayed in a positive light, not as someone to imitate, but as someone who needed to repent of her ways. As O’Connor says in a letter (see below, page 1144) sometimes you really have to see the selfish, sinful side of yourself in order to turn away from it.
First Things had a good reply and article about this. See here: How Flannery O’Connor Fought Racism
Two. Here are some quotes from her letters that I appreciated…read what you would like.
“Dogma can in no way limit a limitless God. The person outside the church attaches a different meaning to it than the person in. For me a dogma is only a gateway to contemplation and is an instrument of freedom and not of restriction. It preserves mystery for the human mind.” (page 943)
“Conviction without experience makes for harshness.” (page 949)
“The truth does not change according to our ability to stomach it emotionally.”
“There is a question whether faith can or is supposed to be emotionally satisfying. I must say that the thought of everyone lolling about in an emotionally satisfying faith is repugnant to me. I believe that we are ultimately directed God-ward but that this journey is often impeded by emotion.” (page 952)
From page 953:
“The first product of self-knowledge was humility.” (page 977)
“All your dissatisfaction with the church seems to me to come from an incomplete understanding of sin.” (page 1083)
“The church is founded on Peter who denied Christ three times and couldn’t walk on the water by himself. You are expecting his successors to walk on the water. All human nature vigorously resists grace because grace changes us and change is painful…To have the church be what you want it to be would require the continuous miraculous meddling of God in human affairs.” (page 1084)
“Any Catholic or Protestant either is defenseless before those who judge his religion by how well its members live up to it or are able to explain it. These things depend on too many entirely human elements. If you want to know what Catholic belief is you will have to study what the church teaches in matters of faith and morals.” (page 1102)
“I think there is no suffering greater than what is caused by the doubts of those who want to believe. I know what torment this is, but I can only see it, in myself anyway, as the process by which faith is deepened. A faith that just accepts is a child’s faith and all right for children, but eventually you have to grow religiously as every other way, though some never do. What people don’t realize is how much religion costs. They think faith is a big electric blanket, when of course it is the cross. It is much harder to believe than not to believe. If you feel you can’t believe, you must at least do this: keep an open mind. Keep it open toward faith, keep wanting it, keep asking for it, and the leave the rest to God.” (page 1110)
“When we get our spiritual house in order, we’ll be dead.”
“Don’t expect faith to clear things up for you. It is trust, not certainty.”
“In the matter of conversion, I think you are thinking about the initial conversion. I am thinking possibly about the deepening of conversion…Once the process is begun and continues you are continually turning inward toward God and away from your own egocentricity and that you have to see this selfish side of yourself in order to turn away from it.” (page 1144)
I appreciated her critique of liberal Protestantism!
“One of the effects of modern liberal Protestantism has been gradually to turn religion into poetry and therapy, to make truth vaguer and vaguer and more and more relative, to banish intellectual distinctions, to depend on feeling instead of thought, and gradually come to believe that God has no power, that he cannot communicate with us, cannot reveal himself to us, indeed has not done so, and that religion is our own sweet invention.” (page 1166)
I also liked some of her thoughts on writing, and may share those another time.
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Also, a documentary about Flannery O’Connor is about to be released: