O’Connor’s religiosity is inescapable. When she was studying at Iowa, she attended morning mass daily. In her prayer journal, she clearly requests spiritual intervention to guide her craft.
While I do not gravitate towards the meditative passages and debates in her letters about her Catholicism – and often skim the most detailed and gritty aspects of her spiritual discussions – I remain wholly curious about the underpinning of her pursuit.
Perhaps this has something to do with the observation that Alice Walker makes here: “It has puzzled some of her readers and annoyed the Catholic church, that in her stories not only does good not triumph, it is not usually present.”
Maybe it’s because I feel a sort of kinship in Flannery O’Connor’s striving, in her searching, in her dedication, even though the place to which each of us returns daily is not exactly the same place. Even though it’s not that different either, as, ultimately, each of us returns to our typing daily as well.
Her detailed and attentive exchanges with ‘A’, in The Habit of Being: Letters of Flannery O’Connor (1979), are of interest to me too, including passages like this, from August 9, 1955:
“I think most people come to the Church by means the Church does not allow, else there would be no need their getting to her at all. However this is true inside as well, as the operation of the Church is entirely set up for the sinner: which creates much misunderstanding among the smug.”
Wouldn’t that make a fantastic title: Much Misunderstanding among the Smug.
Her desire to understand the relationship between evil and good, that’s what maintains my interest in these passages.
When she gets into considerable detail about doctrine, my attention wavers; but even though I am inherently interested in her writing and reading, a detailed discussion of a character in Henry James’ The Ambassadors also loses me for a spell. Perhaps I’m more interested in the way that she engages with things, than with the specific things with which she’s engaging.
There are many mentions of her lupus diagnosis and resulting condition, which are shared in a variety of ways, depending on the audience. And more general discussion with closer friends about how her wellness affects her fundamentally: “I have never been anywhere but sick. In a sense sickness is a place, more instructive than a long trip to Europe, and it’s always a place where there is no company, where nobody can follow.” (June 28, 1956)
She occasionally recounts exchanges with her mother, Regina, and with individuals on the farm at Andalusia, which include a reproduction of their speech patterns, which are sometimes humourous too. She refers to a Cathlick newspaper (when she nearly always uses Catholic, even Catholicity), the “picter show”, and she isn’t afraid of using “ain’t” between friends, for effect. There’s a playfulness to it.
Her way of looking at the world, more broadly, also makes me smile. Consider this, in response to the question of how she offers criticism on other writers’ manuscripts: “The person who teaches writing is not much more than a midwife. After you help deliver the enfant, it is ungracious to say, Madame, your child has two heads and will never grow up.” (Her answer is more concrete thereafter, in a letter from November 29, 1956.)
Beyond A Habit of Being, most of my Flannery reading has been cultivated from the public library and, now that the system is closed so we can #flattenthecurve, I may have to pause my Flannery-ing for a spell, but I hope to pick it up again before too long.
Care to reveal your favourite Flannery quotation, either from this post or from your own explorations?