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Flannery O’Connor, companion in exile

Encounters with humility and grace on a journey to the writer's Georgia home.
Arts & Culture

Before turning 13, being Catholic was easy for me. I went to a parochial school and was surrounded by a big Irish family at almost every waking moment. I knew a few “publics” who were neighbors, but most of the kids I associated with said grace before dinner; made first communions; and could kneel, stand, and respond in Mass without much thought.

But then my parents, younger sister, and I moved to the Bible Belt from Ohio. Because my dad found no Catholic schools that met his standards for academics and faith-training, I was required to become a “public,” figuring out for the first time what to wear in place of a plaid jumper and white blouse. I did not choose wisely. So, for the first time in my young life, both in fashion and in faith, I was an exile, a middle school outcast.

Like any good geek, I escaped into books, managing culture shock through full immersion in the literature of the South, perhaps hoping to find translation of a dialect that I struggled to interpret at times. I felt sure a classmate was insulting my auburn hair when in a slow drawl she called it “radish.” The synergy of my teen angst and the weirdness of Southern Gothic fiction made me become a diehard fan of William Faulkner’s dreamy abstractions, a lifelong devotee of Harper Lee’s, and a compatriot to Carson McCullers’ ambivalent characters. I stumbled upon short stories by Flannery O’Connor, but, shocked by her endings and unsure which characters to admire, I abandoned her in favor of more relatable fiction. She did, however, make a mark on me as a kindred spirit, a similarly “displaced person,” once I saw her cat-eyeglass bookishness and learned she was also a Catholic trying to navigate belief in the Protestant South.

I did not return to O’Connor’s stories until years later, after lived experience revealed the varied and often messy paths to redemption. I eschewed in my own belief system false sentimentality and empty religiosity, so I came to appreciate her clear-eyed characterizations of sanctimonious Bible-bangers and lukewarm Catholics alike, especially when empty Southern gentility and put-on piety masked terrible intent. Not until adulthood was I convinced that even the most despicable can be saved. Take the garrulous grandmother in “A Good Man Is Hard to Find,” the first story of hers I ever read and one I still recommend to first-time O’Connor readers. On a road trip to Florida, an eccentric family led by a meddlesome matriarch—who wears a dress, gloves, and hat in the event of an accident so everyone will know she is a lady—encounters an outlaw who calls himself “The Misfit.” I remember being shocked as a teenager when Grandma gibbers to the escaped convict about his inherent goodness while members of his gang lead her family into the woods to be executed. Of course, Grandma meets a gruesome end as well, but even back then I sensed her character was somehow transformed by the experience. Moments before The Misfit shoots her three times in the chest, she confesses an upwelling of compassion: “‘Why, you’re one of my babies. You’re one of my own children!’ She reached out and touched him on the shoulder.” In death, Grandma was not only humbled but also happy, “with her legs crossed under her like a child’s and her face smiling up at the cloudless sky.”

“The devil has been the unwilling instrument of grace,” O’Connor once offered to explain her shocking allegories. “I have found that violence is strangely capable of returning my characters to reality and preparing them to accept their moments of grace. Their heads are so hard that almost nothing else will do the work.” She once wrote that her brutal stories and violent endings were the only way she could get the attention of complacent believers and nonbelievers alike.

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That is why, when I finally had time to visit the place where she penned this story and many of her most famous literary works, I packed my car and made a 600+-mile pilgrimage back to the South of my youth, to Milledgeville, Georgia.

My only company on the journey was a rich roux of her stories and novels as audiobooks, interspersed with songs by another Georgia product, the band R.E.M. The combination stewed my imagination with “Christ-haunted” words and lyrics featuring eccentric characters. O’Connor’s “The Displaced Person,” for example, tells of a Catholic refugee from wars in Europe who meets discrimination—and worse—in the South as a hired farmhand in a setting closely resembling O’Connor’s family farm, Andalusia. The house and property, my primary destination, was recently designated a National Historic Landmark. My favorite listen by far, however, was a 1959 audio recording of the author reading “A Good Man Is Hard to Find,” likely to an audience hearing the mordant tale for the first time. Because the author voiced her characters’ dialogue in a droll drawl dripping with sarcasm and perfect comedic timing, I finally appreciated the satire and joined her audience in uneasy laughter.

By the time I pulled into the heart of Milledgeville, I had fully adopted a skewed viewpoint and saw O’Connor’s hometown through her eyes, not my own. On S. Wayne Street I spotted a storefront displaying coffins in the window under signs saying “Closed” and “Affordable Caskets.” Hard to get more Gothic than that, I thought.

I planned to attend Mass at Sacred Heart Catholic Church in the center of town, just as O’Connor did every morning when able. According to my research, she always sat in the same pew, fifth from the front on the right. So, at a little after noon, I knelt and said the prayer she made part of her daily offering. The offering seemed to characterize her struggle with lupus, a painful, degenerative disease that claimed the author’s father and eventually O’Connor at age 39. “O Raphael… Lonely and tired, crushed by the separations and sorrows of life, we feel the need of calling you.”

Although I was again a stranger in a Deep South town, familiar was the fact I was joined by just a handful of mostly retirement-aged congregants. The rite was reassuringly familiar, reminding me of another favorite O’Connor story. “A Temple of the Holy Ghost” features a 12-year-old protagonist with a fascination for freaks at the local fair. Her innocence and outsider status allow her to appreciate the deep holiness of the Mass in a way even adults in the story do not:

The child knelt down between her mother and the nun and they were well into the “Tantum Ergo” before her ugly thoughts stopped and she began to realize that she was in the presence of God. . . . Her mind began to get quiet and then empty but when the priest raised the monstrance with the Host shining ivory-colored in the center of it, she was thinking of the tent at the fair that had the freak in it.

In the last 10 years of her life, O’Connor received communion almost every day. “Understand, though, like the child,” she once wrote about “A Temple of the Holy Ghost,” “I believe the Host is actually the body and blood of Christ. . . . It is the center of existence for me; all the rest of life is expendable.” She famously corrected once Catholic novelist Mary McCarthy who called the Eucharist a nice “symbol” by saying, “If it’s just a symbol, then to hell with it.”

Outside after Mass I fully expected to see a blood-red sun as did the protagonist in “A Temple of the Holy Ghost,” imagining it as a blood-covered host raised at benediction. Disappointingly, the Southern sun glared white-hot as usual.

While the author spent most of her adulthood in her hometown and was therefore a product of its culture—both good and bad—I was displaced in the South for only a few years. Back then I simply accepted that my high school’s mascot was a rebel soldier. I hardly noticed that the handful of Black students in the football bleachers failed to join in the choruses of “Dixie” after touchdowns as Confederate flags waved above their heads. Only within the last year did my alma mater cow to public pressure and change all the above. Also recently, O’Connor’s own racist beliefs were exposed by a scholar studying her archived letters and journals. The ensuing Twitter firestorm resulted in some high-minded Catholic organizations cancelling associations with O’Connor’s name. While it was sadly disappointing to learn that a writer who created some of the most powerful antiracist parables in American literature was as imperfect as her characters, I will never forget my own discoveries in her personal archive at Emory University’s Stuart A. Rose Manuscript, Archives, and Rare Book Library.

I went in search of the deep faith found in her fiction and published letters, but it was oddly absent from two house museums I visited as part of my pilgrimage. The re-creation of her childhood home in Savannah, Georgia was completely devoid of her devout family’s crucifixes and devotional objects, while the bedroom of her home in Milledgeville displayed a scant few saint statues, holy cards, and religious medals in the bedroom where she died in 1964. I sensed that the Catholic writer’s complex life story had been airbrushed so as not to offend visitors turned off by open displays of religiosity, making her still an outsider because of her beliefs.

In the library’s 40 boxes of records, journals, papers, and letters, there were certainly expressions of racist feelings typical of O’Connor’s time and place, but those sentiments were by no means in the majority. In fact, personal correspondence to close friends and admirers very often included confessions of such sins and honest admission of struggle to eradicate them. I discovered a treasure trove of religious objects, including well-worn breviaries with her own prayers and notes penned in the margins; holy cards featuring peacocks, her favorite symbols of the resurrection; crucifixes; and rosaries galore. It was a delight to read the journal she kept in her 20s, famous for this humble prayer: “O Lord… I am a cheese, make me a mystic, immediately.” Best of all was box 14, which seemed to include every first communion gift and greeting card she received, all lovingly retained and maintained. I held between my thumbs and forefingers a few beads of a child’s crystal rosary, surreptitiously reciting the Lord’s Prayer and a few Hail Marys before the librarians supervising my search noticed. In her archive I found not hatred but love, not empty piety but authentic devotion.

After moving back to the Midwest during college, I was rarely again an exile. Yet I worked hard to retain the empathy I learned as an outsider, a self-effacement O’Connor always possessed even as her critical acclaim grew. She freely admitted status as a sinner. “When I ask myself how I know I believe,” she wrote in 1955, “I have no satisfactory answer at all, no assurance at all, no feeling at all. I can only say with Peter, Lord I believe, help my unbelief. And all I can say about my love of God, is, Lord help me in my lack of it. I distrust pious phrases, particularly when they issue from my mouth.”

My favorite discovery in the O’Connor archive was a handwritten prayer, one I’ve never seen published anywhere. Scribbled inside the front cover of a small prayer book with a blue fountain pen was the author’s own plea, featuring characteristic bad spelling, authentic abjection, and shameless supplication. I snapped a photo of it, which now sits in a frame on my writing desk as a reminder that God walks alongside the stranger, the faithless, and the humble. In that way, none of us are ever in fact displaced.

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Oh, dear God, from thy great fountain of inspiration, grant me but a drop. That I may express man’s emptiness without Thee; that I may put into my work Thy greatness, Thy goodness, Thy mercy, so that it may echoe (sic) Thee and let the disconsolate know that Thou art with them.

And when I am the disconsolate, Oh Lord, when I am the faithless, the indifferent, the bewildered, as is my usual condition, let me know, dear God, that Thou are with me. Let me feel, and love, and want. And please, dear God, let me get.


Image: Wikimedia Commons/Charles Cameron Macauley [CC BY-SA 4.0]

About the author

Jean P. Kelly

Jean P. Kelly is the host of the podcast about lectio divina, “Read. Pray. Write. Searching for Answers, Finding Grace.” She is currently a novice Benedictine oblate at the St. Meinrad Archabbey.

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