Flannery O'Connor: foremost Catholic author of the American South
THE ABBESS OF ANDALUSIA:
Flannery O'Connor's Spiritual Journey
by Lorraine Murray
(Saint Benedict Press, 2009, 233pp, $23.00. ISBN: 978-1-935302-16-2. Available from Freedom Publishing)
When I saw this book on offer in the basket of "books to be reviewed" I was intrigued. Who was this "Abbess" and was "Andalusia" the region called Andalucia in the south of Spain? I have travelled there, so it caught my attention. Then I read the subtitle, "Flannery O'Connor's Spiritual Journey", and I was hooked.
I am an inveterate reader and collect names of books and authors, like a bower bird, for future reading. I heard of Flannery O'Connor when I was at university and picked up one of her books once but didn't get around to reading it. All I knew was that she was from the American South.
A few years ago I was wondering about the role of the Church in the US South. Where was the Church in all the racial violence that had happened there? Where was the Church in the southern culture based on slavery? My brother pointed out that Flannery O'Connor was a native of and wrote about the American South, and that she was a Catholic.
I borrowed a volume of her short stories but found I couldn't persevere reading them. The harshness and violence of the protagonists' lives and characters, their bone-jarring physical and emotional poverty, and what I saw as their moral deformity, left me depressed.
Recently I posed the same question about the Catholic Church in the American South to my son who is an aficionado of all things American and knows a bit about American history.
He replied that the Church was not in a position to have much of a profile in the southern states as Catholics made up a very small proportion of the population. (Catholics were not even allowed to settle in Georgia before the American War of Independence).
Along with negroes and Jews they were marginalised and despised, the particular targets of the Ku Klux Klan.
So, when I had the opportunity to read a spiritual biography of this Catholic author of the American South I thought it might shed some light on how a devout and practising Catholic experienced living in such a hostile and systemically unjust society and how she made sense of a time and place which claimed itself to be deeply Christian yet in word, deed and action exhibited such hatred of the "other".
Chapter 9 deals specifically with racism and examines openly whether O'Connor was racist. The author concludes that although she at times used what today would be considered racist language, O'Connor, as all of us are, was steeped in the pervasive social mores and language of the time which she would not have seen as racist but as simply describing what "was".
In her work and in her opinions she was certainly not racist. In her story "The Artificial Nigger" (from the collection entitled A Good Man is Hard to Find) a broken garden statue of a "nigger" holding a water-melon awakens in the bigoted Mr Head the first feelings of sympathy for what blacks had endured in the South.
From the same collection the story entitled "The Displaced Person" tells of the tragic outcome of racial bigotry. A Polish Catholic worker and his family had been brought by the local Catholic priest to the farm of local landowner Mrs McIntyre to help them settle in to a new life in America and to help her as farm workers were scarce due to the war.
Mrs McIntyre was wary of the Polish family as they were foreign and Catholic. However it was learning that the Polish man was trying to bring his cousin over from a Polish refugee camp to marry one of her black farm workers that tipped Mrs McIntyre over the edge into remaining mute and watching a tractor run over him and crush him to death, rather than warning him to get out of the way. These are a mere two illustrations of how O'Connor exposed the ugly underbelly of racism in her work.
"Everything that rises Must Converge", from the collection of stories bearing that title, and "Revelation" from the same collect-ion, are two more.
Civil rights movement
O'Connor also made public statements supporting the civil rights movement and improvements in black-white relations. She did not support premature, provocative act-ion in these matters as she saw the consequences for those who had to face the reactions of ignorant, bigoted backwoodsmen.
Civil rights workers could come into a small southern town and stir up the local blacks to demand integration and then leave before the local backwoodsmen arrived brandishing their switch blade knives and before the local Klan came out to burn crosses in front of the properties of those they wished to intimidate.
She believed the change of heart needed before blacks and whites in the South could live together with mutual tolerance could not be forced by changes to the law or by protests or sit-ins which turned violent. It would only come about quietly, with acceptance over time. This did not make her a racist.
The other great hatred of the South was hatred of Catholicism. Again O'Connor exposed the ugliness of this in her stories. In "The Displaced Person", as explained above, she showed how they could go hand in hand. In her novel Wise Blood the self-appointed preacher Hoover Shoates, aka Onnie Jay Holy, assures the listeners at one of his "preaching sessions" that there is "nothing foreign" about his church, beautifully conveying his own bigotry, and/or his understanding of the deep bigotry of his audience, towards the Church of "Rome".
He further reassures his listeners that his church is "based on the Bible. Yes, sir! It's based on your own personal interpitation of the Bible, friends. You can sit at home and interpit your own Bible however you feel in your heart it ought to be interpited. … just the way Jesus would have done it. …".
I couldn't resist providing the full quote as it had me in stitches. It is of course another rejection of Catholicism.
The ignorant Mrs Shortly in "The Displaced Person" also expresses her rejection of Catholicism as a religion that goes back "a thousand years" and has never "advanced or reformed."
Flannery O'Connor was only 39 when she died on 3 August 1964. When she was 25 she was struck down with lupus, a then-terminal, auto immune disorder that had taken her father a few years earlier. She had to go home to Milledgeville in Georgia to be cared for by her mother on the family farm, Andalusia, hence the Andalusia of the title.
She had already shown great promise as a writer by this time and been away from home for five years, several of them in New York. So it would have been a great blow to have her life so curtailed.
Flannery O'Connor however accepted her cross and, as a "shut-in", followed the "little way" of St Thérèse of Lisieux. From Andalusia her prayers went up every day, and she made this a priority in her life. Her prayers were an act of charity, as was her generous mentoring of writer friends to help them in their work. She also encouraged a number of non-Catholic friends to enter the Church and showed great generosity in the time and effort she put into answering their questions and supporting them when they were unsure or confused.
She took the development of her gifts as a writer very seriously as God's will for her and worked hard at it as the quality and amount of her output, despite her short life, attest. She was also very generous in using her gifts for worthy causes.
She edited the story of Mary Anne Long for the Dominican Sisters of Hawthorne at their request when they wanted the world to know about this saintly child. Mary Anne had been born with a cancerous tumour on her face which disfigured her terribly and grew so large that one eye had to be surgically removed. She was cared for by the sisters from the age of three until her death nine years later.
Mary Anne had a huge spirit so that the enormous cross she bore did not weigh on those who met her but rather they remembered her joy in life and courage. Flannery O'Connor, be-cause she responded with generosity to the nuns' request, was able to meet this remarkable child, al-though after her death, through their memories of her. Goodness is its own reward.
The last chapter in the book describes Flannery's acceptance of the final stages of her illness and it is here that one meets the real person, facing that final passage through death into life that each of us must face. It is where the soul's mettle is tested — and Flannery O'Connor, by this account, passed with flying colours.
Terri Kelleher is a former solicitor who has been active in the pro-life cause and produced materials for home schooling.