Monday, January 25, 2010

Things I've Learned from Flannery O'Connor ... and "The Abbess of Andalusia"

Joy in the face of suffering might seem impossible to achieve, but to avoid gloominess Flannery relied on God's grace -- a grace, she told one correspondent, that came through the sacraments. Writing to T.R. Spivey, a Protestant, she acknowledged that many things that bring Catholics grace -- going to Mass, regular fasting -- are done out of obligation, or become "merely habit." However, she believed that it was better to "be held to the Church by habit than not to be held at all." What's more, she believed that by prescribing such habitual obligations, the Church showed itself to be "mighty realistic" about human nature, since obligations provide needed structure. They also bring opportunities for grace.

Flannery believed there was something we can do to make ourselves more receptive to God's free gift of grace: "You have to practice self-denial," she told Spivey. For her that meant immersing herself in writing: "I never completely forget myself except when I am writing," she wrote to Hester. She also practiced self-denial by giving money to charity rather than spending it on herself. ...
This is a long overdue review which was delayed only by the holidays and my subsequent busy schedule, not by my enthusiasm for the work itself (generously provided by Tan for my review).

Lorraine Murray has done a splendid job of giving us a view of Flannery O'Connor which skillfully reveals the author's spiritual journey through her writing and life. Most of us are at least vaguely aware that O'Connor wrote what is often called Southern gothic stories. As such, her stories often feature the uncomfortable and grotesque, although O'Connor insisted that her stories always have a very Catholic core.

I must admit that I am one of the many who has merely dipped my toe into O'Connor's work and after finding it both difficult and uncomfortable had determined to let it strictly alone. However, this book has changed my mind. Murray does enough explication of various stories as she traces O'Connor's career that I was left interested despite myself in exploring her stories again. Believe me, this is no small accomplishment.

I also was left feeling that Flannery O'Connor and I have much more in common than I ever would have dreamed.
  • Flannery delighted in the ridiculous and her descriptions of the priest's St. Patrick day decorations left me feeling that we surely would have agreed on our amusement and dismay over much of the "dumbed down" architecture, art, music, and liturgy that is encountered in the Church today.
  • She sparred with her mother regularly while still loving and appreciating her. This is not my situation with my mother at all as we generally agree on many things, but it certainly is helpful to keep in mind when I encounter others who I really like but who sometimes drive me to distraction nonetheless.
  • Her generosity to other writers is well chronicled. Lately I have had the honor to be asked for advice in a similar way by those I do not know at all. When I thought despairingly of my busy schedule, I remembered Flannery whose schedule was limited by her physical frailty but never failed to give her best advice and support to others. Thus I attempt to do likewise.
  • Flannery seems to have had the same duality of feeling that I do about such places as Lourdes. While not overly caring about pilgrimages and steadfastly resisting a well meaning benefactor's donation of a trip to Lourdes, she finally went, viewing the entire thing as a sacrifice. That would have been me to a T. As she wrote, "It is obvious to me that faith has to be shown, acted out."
  • She never succumbed to self-pity but always presented things with a light-hearted approach. What a great example she is. This is not my tendency unfortunately. However, may I do likewise, Lord hear my prayer.
  • A disciplined schedule to accomplish is necessary if you are serious about achieving something. Here I am thinking of Flannery's set time for writing each morning, at a desk that faced a white wall so there were no distractions. That's a lesson that many of us in this twittering, facebooking, emailing, IMing world would do well to remember.
  • There is a pure enjoyment that comes to us from nature and the creatures in it which can't be found elsewhere. Flannery's love of her peacocks, chickens, mules, and other animals around the farm is a tonic, especially in a society where we are beginning to hear about Vitamin D deficiencies becoming widespread since we don't get outside enough.
  • Hand in hand with nature went Flannery's love of her friends as evidenced through the of letters she wrote and received. I am working my way very slowly through The Habit of Being which is a chronological collection of her correspondence. Her personality shines through with a great sense of humor. We can't be isolated. We need community, friends, family to be complete.
 The only thing I was missing in this book was the recommendation of a book that would help in tapping into O'Connor's stories, especially for those of us who are uninitiated into the world of critical reading and symbolism that they seem to require. However, Murray does use some key stories (with spoilers) to make points about O'Connor's spirituality and perhaps that is guide enough.

Highly recommended.

For another excerpt and the realization it gave, please click through.


  1. Now you've made ME want to read the book, you reviewer, you!

  2. I'm tellin' ya ... it's just that good!

  3. I still enjoy re-reading "The Habit of Being," the collection of O'Connor's letters published in 1979. Favorite line: in a letter to someone (I forget who), O'Connor remarked, "I sometimes think the Catholic Church's motto should be 'The Wrong Man For The Job!'"

    ...which, I figure, is where us bloggers come in!

  4. Flannery O'Connor's own advice to people reading her stories was NOT to get into symbolism - she was endlessly frustrated by bizarre interpretations of her stories. Her advice was to read them and enjoy them. It's worked for me! I recommend "A Temple of the Holy Ghost" as a good starting place.

    BTW I just found your blog the other day and it is delightful.

  5. Thank you Hilary! :-)

    My problem with reading O'Connor's stories just for themselves is that I am one of those short-sighted people who find them grotesque and horrible. If I don't look for symbolism there is nothing that will attract me to them.

  6. I hear you - I am usually turned off by grotesque writing, too. For me, Flannery is an exception; but I was afraid to read her for some time.

    "A Temple of the Holy Ghost" is not particularly grotesque. It's probably her gentlest story. She liked it and wondered why critics ignored it; I think they ignore it because it is not shocking, just a touching and profound story about a little Catholic girl struggling with her faith. Nothing bad happens to her. "The Enduring Chill" is also a rare death-free story, and very funny, though you'd never guess it from the title. At the very least, read the conversation between the deaf Irish priest who has come to the supposed deathbed of the atheist protagonist. And the last paragraph of both stories are beautiful ... and full of symbolism! :D

  7. Perhaps I am scarred because I've only heard one of her stories and it was definitely grotesque. Can't remember the name at the moment ... about the drifter who marries the handicapped daughter and then abandons her at a diner? Oy veh!

  8. UNDERSTANDING FLANNERY O'CONNOR by Margaret Whitt is a good book with short pity criticism of each story and novel.