Flannery O’Connor would have proudly owned the noun and the two adjectives most commonly associated with her name. It’s hard to imagine an “author” who could have been more “Southern” or more “Catholic,” even though she lived at a time when those two adjectives weren’t frequently combined. Given how relatively few Southern Catholics there were in the first half of the twentieth century, it’s amazing how many of them became noted authors: Eudora Welty, Walker Percy, and John Kennedy Toole, who sadly left us only one book, A Confederacy of Dunces.
The challenge comes in picking an adjective to describe the life of Flannery O’Connor. Should it be “circumscribed?” She was an only child, whose father died from Lupus early in her life, leaving her to be raised by her mother and relatives. The same disease shortened and confined O’Connor’s literary career. Shortly after her first novel Wise Blood was released, Flannery returned to live on her mother’s farm in Georgia, whose house and yard she navigated on crutches.
But should a life be called “circumscribed” that included study at the University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop and a stint at Yaddo, the writer’s colony? And the list of those whom Flannery met and with whom she corresponded reads like a Who’s Who of American Letters.
If one persists in calling her life circumscribed, what adjective does one choose for her writing? It’s all set in the South; it’s almost always chillingly gothic and surreally funny, and yet the compass of its moral and theological vision is vast. It’s as if the great minds of Catholicism—Saint Paul, Saint Augustine, Saint Thomas Aquinas, Dante and Paschal—took a weekend off in, sipped juleps, and talked turkey (if one actually uses that expression) in Milledgeville, Georgia.
And then there are the letters she wrote, six hundred pages of which were edited by her friend Sally Fitzgerald and published in 1979 under the title The Habit of Being. Many were written to Betty Hester, a woman whom O’Connor befriended by way of fan mail. She and Flannery wrote weekly, typically, not about what was happening in their lives but rather, about the meaning of life itself. Today Betty Hester might be described as “spiritual” rather than “religious.” In correspondence with her, Flannery frequently defends the Church as both a boon and burden of God.
In a January, 1956 letter, O’Connor answers a charge that what the Church calls renunciation would probably be called submission or repression by those whose lives have been informed by higher education, especially modern psychology.
Here are two paragraphs from Flannery’s response:
I don’t assume that renunciation goes with submission, or even that renunciation is good in itself. Always you renounce a lesser good for a greater; the opposite is what sin is. And along with this line, I think the phrase “naive purity” is a contradiction in terms. I don’t think purity is mere innocence. I don’t think babies and idiots possess it. I take it to be something that comes either with experience or with Grace so that it can never be naive. On the matter of purity we can never judge ourselves, much less anybody else. Anyone who thinks he’s pure is surely not.
I sent you the Sewell piece and the one on St. Thomas and Freud. The latter has the answer in it to what you call my struggle to submit, which is not struggle to submit but a struggle to accept and with passion. I mean, possibly, with joy. Picture me with my ground teeth stalking joy—fully armed too as it’s a highly dangerous quest. The other day I ran up on a wonderful quotation: “The dragon is at the side of the road watching those who pass. Take care lest he devour you! You are going to the Father of souls, but it is necessary to pass by the dragon.” That is Cyril of Jerusalem instructing catechumens.
There’s a phrase worth remembering: stalking joy. In a fallen world, it’s not a birthright, and, if the Church is correct, our own sinfulness keeps us from joy, which is why it needs to be stalked, even, as Flannery puts it, “with ground teeth.” She was writing at a time when society had begun to believe that joy could be had by any one who “let loose and lived.” To O’Connor’s mind, a lot of what would undoubtably be loosed would hardly promote a life of joy.
Joy for Flannery was something to be gained in the choices one made. “Always you renounce a lesser good for a greater; the opposite is what sin is.” What comes through in her fiction and her letters is that the enemies of joy have entrenched themselves in our society, and in our hearts. As she once put it, the subject of her fiction was “the action of grace in territory held largely by the devil.” God’s joy was something to be stalked.
Society rams us towards Christmas—we only need to race a bit harder, buy a little more—assuring us of what we patently know to be false, that the “hap, happiest time of the year” has come. At the same time, in the words of the Prophet Baruch the Church charges Jerusalem to “take off your robe of mourning and misery; put on forever the splendor of glory from God” (5:1). For Christians this should be a season for “rejoicing that they are remembered by God” (5:5).
What twains the two? The Church isn’t selling joy; she’s asking us to receive joy, to accept the gift of salvation that begins in Bethlehem and concludes in Jerusalem. But between us and joy lies our own conquered homeland, the human heart. That’s why the figure of the Baptist comes before us this Sunday “proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, as it is written in the book of the words of the prophet Isaiah:
“A voice of one crying out in the desert:
‘Prepare the way of the Lord,
make straight his paths.
Every valley shall be filled
and every mountain and hill shall be made low.
The winding roads shall be made straight,
and the rough ways made smooth,
and all flesh shall see the salvation of God’” (Lk 3-6).
Or, as Flannery’s “wonderful quotation” from Saint Cyril of Jerusalem puts it, “The dragon is a the side of the road watching those who pass. Take care lest he devour you! You are going to the Father of souls, but it is necessary to pass by the dragon.”
Funny, our electrified America seems bent on decorating every possible porch and awning with the festive lights of Christmas, while the humble little structure that truly offers the light of Bethlehem stands unadorned. This Advent, how about throwing up one more set of lights and tinsel? This time, around the confessional door.
Baruch 5: 1-9 Philippians 1: 4-6, 8-11 Luke 3: 1-6