Monday, September 21, 2020

Adult Faith Formation, September 17th, Flannery O'Connor, Session 1 -- Introduction and Biographical Notes (Father Ryan Erlenbush, Corpus Christi Parish)

 In this series, which will go through October and possibly into November, we will read and discuss some of Father Ryan's favorite Flannery O'Connor short stories.  

Course objectives: To appreciate Flannery O’Connor as a Catholic and as a grotesque writer of the American South. To recognize her unique contribution to Catholic thought in the United States. Finally, to learn to enjoy the writings of this exquisite and strange young woman.

Listen online [here]!


Flannery O’Connor

Session 1, Introduction to the Catholic Writer of the American South


“The truth does not change according to our ability to stomach it.”


Course objectives: To appreciate Flannery O’Connor as a Catholic and as a grotesque writer of the American South. To recognize her unique contribution to Catholic thought in the United States. Finally, to learn to enjoy the writings of this exquisite and strange young woman.



I. Biographical Notes

Born 25 March 1925, Mary Flannery O’Connor in Savannah, Georgia.

Died 3 August 1964 (age 39) in Milledgeville, Georgia.

Raised as an only child in an Irish Catholic home, surrounded by the protestant south. Her father died of the autoimmune disease, lupus, in 1941 when she was only fifteen.


In 1946 (age 21), she was accepted into Iowa Writer’s Workshop at the University of Iowa, from which she received her degree in 1947. Her first short story The Geranium was published in 1946. By 1947 she had begun working on what would be her first novel, Wise Blood. Four stories which would later be incorporated into the novel were published separately in 1948 and 1949, while the novel itself was published in 1952.

Her first published collection of short stories was A Good Man is Hard to Find and Other Stories in 1955. Ultimately, she wrote two novels, thirty-two short stories, and numerous letters, essays, reviews, etc.

Flannery was diagnoses with lupus in 1950, and suffered horribly from this disease through the remaining years of her life. Because of the illness, she was ultimately forced to return home where she could receive care from her mother – she was often only able to work two or three hours a day.

Her second novel The Violent Bare It Away was published in 1960, and was the last work published before her death. In 1965, a second collection of her short stories was published under the title Everything That Rises Must Converge. In 1971, The Complete Stories of Flannery O’Connor was published, and went on to wine the National Book Award.


II. Synopsis of the stages of her literary growth

Her writing career can be divided into four five-year periods of increasing skill and ambition, 1945 to 1964:


1) Postgraduate Student: Iowa Writers' Workshop, first published stories, drafts of Wise Blood. Literary influences include Nathaniel Hawthorne, Edgar Allan Poe, Henry James

2) Early: Wise Blood completed and published. In this period, satirical elements dominate. Influences include Jacques Maritain

3) Middle: A Good Man Is Hard to Find published, The Violent Bear It Away written and published. Influences include Friedrich von Hügel. In this period, the mystical undercurrents begin to have primacy.

4) Mature: Everything That Rises Must Converge written. Influences include Pierre Teilhard de Chardin* and Mary Anne Long. In this period, the notion of grotesque is expanded to include the good as grotesque, and the grotesque as good.

*Note that de Chardin is a very bad theologian who was highly influenced by modernism and even New Age. However, Flannery shows no signs of having been misled in these ways, and even would describe herself as a conservative “13th Century Catholic.”  Her bedside reading was the Summa of St Thomas Aquinas.


III. Some of the themes of her literary works

A. Grotesque: This is the word most often used to describe the writings of Flannery O’Connor. And, that she is part of the “Southern Gothic.” She was not particularly impressed with either classification and once said, “anything that comes out of the South is going to be called grotesque by the northern reader, unless it is grotesque, in which case it is going to be called realistic.”

Her stories do focus on morally flawed and highly enigmatic or even disturbing characters. She would say of her writings, “The stories are hard but they are hard because there is nothing harder or less sentimental than Christian realism. ...When I see these stories described as horror stories I am always amused because the reviewer always has hold of the wrong horror.”


B. In her Catholic Vision of the world, she saw all reality as sacramental and pointing towards the greatness of God.  Thus, her stories are revelatory – pulling back the veil which covers the surface of experience to peer deep into the hidden workings of the human soul. 

C. Moments of grace are often accompanied by violence - for although grace is always offered, it is often rejected.  As many will say, for Flannery O’Connor grace is a violent thing. She would say, “This notion that grace is healing omits the fact that before it heals, it cuts with the sword Christ said He came to bring.” This is a strong contradiction of the Holy Roller preaching common in the South – that grace will make everything in life easy and happy. Rather, Flannery knows as a Catholic that grace means the grace to pick up the cross daily.  She says, “There is a moment of grace in most of the stories, or a moment where it is offered, and usually rejected.”


D. North-South relations, education, and progress: It becomes very clear that Flannery O’Connor is suspicious of the North, and of northerners telling southerners how to run the south.  Tied to this is the suspicion she has of city life as opposed to rural culture. Likewise, she never seems to be much impressed by college degrees, especially when an “educated” person decided he knows best how the “uneducated” should live their lives. Flanner is especially opposed to an idea of progress which would mean setting aside the faith and traditional values for the sake of modern economics or scientific advancement.  Her suspicion of the universities is seen in the answer she gave when asked whether the universities stifle writers, “I think they don’t stifle enough of them.”


E. Racial tensions: Although Flannery did advocate for racial justice and was in favor of the civil rights movement, she was of the south and was again suspicious of northerners telling the south how to handle race problems.  She was in favor of integration, but seems to have advocated a slower and more moderate approach to righting those wrongs than did the more radical civil rights leaders. Her stories occasionally make use of racial slang (including the N-word), but you will notice that the blacks in her stories are never presented as second class citizens and the white folk who are most racist are always presented in a poor light.  Still, many will criticize Flannery for how she handles some of these issues – while she is not entirely beyond all reproach, we should remember that she was ahead of her time and place, and that her writings are never easy to interpret but require great reflection.


F. Sense of humor: Flannery has a fierce sense of humor, which is often quite biting or even sarcastic. A simple quote illustrates this well, “I don’t deserve any credit for turning the other cheek, as my tongue is always in it.”


G. Note that her stories almost never deal with explicitly Catholic themes. She is writing in the protestant south, and there weren’t many Catholics there for her to write about. Three stories that have explicit reference to Catholic elements are: Temple of the Holy Ghost, The Enduring Chill, and The Displaced Person.  Still, all of her stories are filled with the Catholic Faith and the Catholic Vision of life and death.



IV. Some images that are often used by Flannery O’Connor

A. The tree line: The woods, the tree line, the forest all often stand for heaven, hell, death and judgment. They stand for the supernatural over and above the natural world.

B. Water: Water often evokes baptism and rebirth, but likewise death and burial.

C. Peacocks or other birds: Often represent Christ or the Christian Gospel.

D. The Sky: Heaven.

E. A Woman’s Hat: Often symbolizes her social status or her self-importance and pride.



V. The Faith of Flannery O’Connor

A letter to Cecil Dawkins on July 16, 1957:

“I think that the reason such Catholics are so repulsive is that they don’t really have faith but a kind of false certainty. They operate by the slide rule and the Church for them is not the body of Christ but the poor man’s insurance system. It’s never hard for them because they never think about it. Faith has to take in all the other possibilities it can…. In any case, discovering the Church is apt to be a slow procedure but it can only take place if you have a free mind and no vested interest in disbelief.”





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