Born in 1925, if she were still alive, she’d be 90. And given her mother’s longevity (Regina died at the age of 99 in 1995), if lupus hadn’t taken her, she might well still be alive, indeed.
I’ve written quite a bit about Flannery over the years. As far as I’m concerned she’s a saint and maybe even a doctor of the church, to really ramp up the hyperbole. When I feel befuddled and know some clarity is in order, I head in one of two directions: Flannery and Ratzinger. Sometimes both.
Some posts and writings:
Most of what O’Connor reviewed was non-fiction, and she did not like most of the fiction she did review – J.F. Powers, Paul Horgan and Julien Green being the unsurprising exceptions in the otherwise flowerly garden of pietistic fiction she endured.
The non-fiction choices are fascinating, although not a surprise to anyone familiar with the contents of O’Connor’s personal library and the scope of her reading we can discern from her letters. She was very concerned with the intellectual life of American Catholics and indeed saw what she was doing for the papers as in some way an act of charity in which readers might be encouraged to read beyond the pieties.
She was especially interested in Scripture, dismayed that Catholics did not read more of it, and quite interested in the Old Testament, especially the prophets. Again, perhaps not a surprise? She was, as is well-known, quite interested in Teilhard de Chardin, and reviewed a few books by Karl Barth, as well.
Secondly, the association of the breaking through of the Holy Ghost with coldness. A chill. An enduring chill. There are a number of ways to look at it, since the “chill” is of course a reference to fever, but this morning I couldn’t stop thinking about Flannery’s continual argument against the modern expectation that “faith” is what brings us contentment and satisfaction. In the Gospel today, Jesus says Peace be with You. But that’s after the crucifixion, you know.
Also on Asbury’s mind- primary, really – was his mother. How he blamed her for his own failure as a would-be artist, and how what he wanted to do most of all was make her see this. To give her an enduring chill that would be the result of her awareness of what she had done to him.
He would hurt her, but that was just too bad. It was what was necessary, he determined, to get her to see things as they really are. Irony, of course, comes to rest on him in the end as the Holy Ghost descends.
So I read and talked about this story about parents, children, disappointment, blame, pride and being humbled.
Then I drove up to Knoxville, alone, thinking about Asbury, about that Holy Ghost, about peace be with you and doubt no longer.
I drove up to see my father’s house for the last time and sign the papers so someone new could live there now.
Sadness that my father died six months ago, that my mother died eleven years ago, that my husband died three years ago. Sadness for my dad’s widow. But then tempered, as I stood there and surveyed the surrounding houses and realized that almost every person who lived in those houses when we first moved in, is also dead.
Remembering that forty years ago, my parents were exactly where I am now, watching the preceding generation begin to die off, absorbing their possessions, making sense of what they’d inherited – in every sense – and contemplating where to go from there.
There’s nothing unique about it. It’s called being human. Not existing for a very long time, being alive for a few minutes, and then being dead for another very long time.
And in that short time, we try. I’m not going to say “we try our best” because we don’t. It’s why we ask for mercy. Especially when we live our days under the delusion of self-sufficiency, placing our faith in ourselves and our poor, passing efforts, closed to grace…when we live like that…no, we’re not trying our best. We need it, that Divine Mercy. We need it, and as Asbury has to learn, we need it to give, not just to take. More
There is a priest in the story, the priest who brings the family (the Guizacs) to the farm, and then continues to visit Mrs. McIntyre. He is old and Irish, listens to Mrs. McIntyre’s complaints about her workers and the difficulties of her life with a nod and a raised eyebrow and then continues to talk to her about the teachings of the Church.
He is seen by the others as a doddering fool, talking about abstractions, not clued into the pressing issues of the moment, telling Mrs. McIntyre, for example, about what the Son of God has done, redeeming us, “as if he spoke of something that had happened yesterday in town….”
And at the end, as Mrs. McIntyre watches the black figure of the priest bend over a dead man ” slipping something into the crushed man’s mouth…” we see why he spoke of it that way.
It did happen yesterday in town. It happens today.
The priest, too, is the only character who recognizes transcendence. Every time he comes to the farm, he is transfixed by the peacocks (see the header on the blog today), a fascination the others think is just one more symptom of foolishness and “second childhood.”
You must be born again….
And here is the “irony.” Although steeped in Catholic faith and sensibilities, we know it is not ironic – but to the world’s eyes, it is. That the priest who expresses the mysteries in such matter-of-fact, “formulaic” ways, ways which even theologians today fret are not nuanced or postmodern enough, which they would like to dispense with in favor of…what, I am not sure, unless it is one more set of windy journal articles…this priest is, as I said, the only character who can recognize beauty and the transcendent reflected there. And the one who embodies Mercy.
Flannery O’Connor always said that she found the doctrines of the Church freeing – and this is what she means.
And the story ends:
Not many people remembered to come out to the country to see her except the old priest. He came regularly once a week with a bag of breadcrumbs and, after he had fed these to the peacock, he would come in and sit by the side of her bed and explain the doctrines of the Church.
From one of my old blogs, an account of one of my visits to Andalusia. I need to go back.
Robert Coles answered the question well when he wrote of O’Connor, “She is stalking pride.” For Flannery O’Connor, faith means essentially seeing the world as it is, which means through the Creator’s eyes. So lack of faith is a kind of blindness, and what brings on the refusal to embrace God’s vision — faith — is nothing but pride.
O’Connor’s characters are all afflicted by pride: Intellectual sons and daughters who live to set the world, primarily their ignorant parents, aright; social workers who neglect their own children, self-satisfied unthinking “good people” who rest easily in their own arrogance; the fiercely independent who will not submit their wills to God or anyone else if it kills them. And sometimes, it does.
The pride is so fierce, the blindness so dark, it takes an extreme event to shatter it, and here is the purpose of the violence. The violence that O’Connor’s characters experience, either as victims or as participants, shocks them into seeing that they are no better than the rest of the world, that they are poor, that they are in need of redemption, of the purifying purgatorial fire that is the breathtaking vision at the end of the story, “Revelation.”
The self-satisfied are attacked, those who fancy themselves as earthly saviors find themselves capable of great evil, intellectuals discover their ideas to be useless human constructs, and those bent on “freedom” find themselves left open to be controlled by evil.
What happens in her stories is often extreme, but O’Connor knew that the modern world’s blindness was so deeply engrained and habitual, extreme measures were required to startle us: “I am interested in making up a good case for distortion, as I am coming to believe it is the only way to make people see.” More
It’s ironic that a stamp issued in honor of a writer who was determined to present reality as it is – prettifies the subject to the point of making her unrecognizable.
Everybody, as far as I am concerned, is The Poor.