A Fierce Holiness
The Terrible Speed of Mercy: A Spiritual Biography of Flannery O'Connor
reviewed by Ralph C. Wood
In 1922 G. K. Chesterton famously described the United States as "a nation with the soul of a church." Unlike virtually all European countries of his time, America had no established state church. Yet it was still founded on a creed—namely, on a set of stated Enlightenment principles that overtly acknowledged God while refusing to enforce religious tests. Though Chesterton was far from convinced that Americans had created a sure remedy against tyranny, he might have noticed what was strange about his attraction to the obstreperous and boundary-bending Walt Whitman.
It was strange because Whitman's heterodoxy is in thorough accord with the other major nineteenth-century American authors: Emerson, Thoreau, Hawthorne, Twain, Melville, Dickinson. Like Faulkner and Frost and Stevens in the twentieth century, they all had deeply religious concerns, but none of them was animated by a confessionally Christian vision. On the contrary, they found themselves ill at ease with a Christianity that closely tracked the nation's political life, such that being American and being Christian were virtually synonymous. The worship and witness of the churches offered them a challenge insufficiently distinctive for their embrace as imaginative writers.
Not until the middle years of the twentieth century did such a writer appear on the American scene, a woman who came from the margins rather than the center of the nation's churchly "soul." Flannery O'Connor was an outsider in almost every sense. She grew up in Milledgeville, a small city in middle Georgia. She was a devout Roman Catholic in an overwhelmingly Protestant region. And she created a fiction marked by such physical violence and religious vehemence that many readers find it uncongenial. Yet therein lies her revolutionary importance: her fiction goes against the grain of American moral and religious life.
O'Connor died in 1964 of disseminated lupus erythematosus at age 39, cut down in her prime. Almost half a century has lapsed since her death, and yet no satisfactory biography has emerged. Her close friend and literary executrix, Sally Fitzgerald, labored for four decades without producing her long-awaited life of O'Connor. Jean Cash came forth in 2003 with a dates-and-facts biography that fails to probe the depths of O'Connor life and work.
Paul Elie included O'Connor in The Life You Save May Be Your Own,his 2003 group portrait that included Walker Percy, Thomas Merton, and Dorothy Day. Elie does well with the three converts, but he doesn't know quite what to make of the native Catholic whose convictions were even more radical than theirs. Then in 2008 Brad Gooch, an accomplished writer and veteran biographer, turned out an interesting life of O'Connor. Yet Gooch's opacity to her Catholicism makes his Flannery: A Life of Flannery O'Connor a dissatisfying book, since her faith lay at the core of her identity. Not until William Sessions' official biography is published can we hope for a full account of the relation between O'Connor the woman and her work.
In the meantime, a little-known author of fantasy-adventures who publishes with presses notable mainly for their Bibles has given us a splendid short biography of O'Connor. Though himself a scholar of seventeenth-century literature, Jonathan Rogers brings no recondite theories or arcane interpretations to his reading of O'Connor. He offers no new biographical data, either plain or sensational. He relies entirely on the work of his predecessors, as well as his own shrewd selections from O'Connor's remarkable letters and essays. And as his subtitle indicates, he is concerned to provide a theological account of O'Connor's life, showing that it was in thorough accord with her fiction.
Disease of Sin
Though clearly an admirer, Rogers does not suggest that O'Connor was unflawed in the practice of either her art or her faith. Her stories powerfully dramatize the complex movement that leads her characters from drastic unbelief to an even more drastic belief. Yet she never takes her protagonists beyond the point of individual conversion; they end, often literally in death, at the point that might have marked their beginning—namely, their entry into the communal Christian life required to sustain their overwhelming life-reversals. Regarding the race question, the major social crisis of her region and age, O'Connor also disappoints: she remained moderate and standoffish when her corporal works of mercy could have been as radically Christian as her fiction.
Even so, Rogers demonstrates why O'Connor is this nation's most important Christian writer. Her fiction treats the disease of sin itself rather than its symptoms. Racial bigotry and social injustice are the dread fruits rather than the real bases of evil. In her stories and essays and letters alike, O'Connor names the sickness that is their source: it is nihilism.
Both her church-going and church-hating characters are devoured by a nothingness that takes spiritual no less than physical form. Thus are they made to question the most cherished features of the American dream: peace and prosperity, comfort and success, progress and development, even liberty and justice for all. For when these good things are deracinated—cut loose from their ultimate telos—they often become demonic. In O'Connor's fiction, the victims of such unconscious and unintended demonry are often children. Only when her protagonists have literally eradicated their disregard for God, tearing it out by the roots, can they confess the violence they have done to themselves and others.
O'Connor's fiction is shocking and arresting, Rogers contends, because of its inward even more than its outward violence. Mason Tarwater, the backwoods baptizer in The Violent Bear It Away, encounters God as if he had been wrestling with a wildcat. "Have you ever been torn by the Lord's eye?" he later asks. Yet the aging prophet fears a threat even greater than the fury of the violated Savior. It is a far more dreadful thing to be hounded down by Christ's forgiveness. Hence this elderly Elijah's paradoxical call to the youth who he hopes will become a new Elisha: "Go warn the children of God of the terrible speed of mercy." Searing critique, even when deserved, often leads to self-justification. Unbounded charity, especially when undeserved, can lead to divine transformation—and thus to a life of saving assaults on the precincts of Paradise.
Rogers is right to insist that O'Connor's fiction offers a sympathetic treatment of the sweated folk-Christians of the American South. Compared to the smug satisfaction that characterizes both the secular left and the religious right, their hard-edged faith is admirable indeed. She depicts her cornpone atheists and countrified believers as heroes, not as objects of condescending scorn. Yet Rogers the Evangelical scants the sacramentality of O'Connor's Catholic imagination. Baptism and Eucharist, even when they are depicted obliquely in her fiction, have efficacious results. They are performative acts and utterances, divinely achieving what they humanly enact.
This is a matter of no small consequence for the ecclesial as well as the literary life of the nation. When Christians have been decisively shaped by their Enlightenment heritage, they are not likely to discern the drastic difference between the agenda of the state and the witness of the Church. Though sometimes overlapping, they are never coterminous. The prophetic and sacramental body of Christ, as O'Connor saw from the start, will scandalize even the best political regimes.
The faith and practice of the Church are inevitably offensive because they always transcend, even while they do not always negate, the noblest human possibilities. O'Connor was not being hyperbolic, therefore, when she disturbed the cultured peace of a New York dinner-party at which a fellow guest had opined that the Eucharist can serve as a powerful literary symbol even without its religious truth being credited: "If it's a symbol," the taciturn O'Connor impolitely responded, "to hell with it." "That was all the defense I was capable of," she later added, "but I realize now that this is all I will ever be able to say about it, outside of a story, except that it is the center of existence for me; all the rest of life is expendable."
Perhaps the time has come for non-sacramental Evangelicals who eagerly appropriate the artistic riches of the Orthodox and Roman and Anglo-Catholic traditions, especially the literary riches, to recognize the centrality of the sacraments not only for the imaginative but also for the religious life. They are the distinctively divine actions that the world cannot perform, and they mark the Church as a divine institution rather than a human creation.
Without them, Christians will be unable to heed the summons of Pope Benedict XVI. He has candidly admitted that Christianity is likely to remain a minority faith in the midst of an increasingly secular and pagan world. Thus has he called believers of all sorts and conditions to form small enclaves of Christian excellence in the arts and sciences no less than in sacred things. These modest outposts of the City of God set amidst the cities of the earth should serve, the pope emeritus urges, to "let God in" where he is increasingly eclipsed. Jonathan Rogers's brief report on the spiritual integrity of Flannery O'Connor's life and art provides a fine opening. •
Ralph C. Wood is University Professor of Theology and Literature at Baylor University in Waco, Texas. His books include The Comedy of Redemption, The Gospel According to Tolkien, and Flannery O'Connor and the Christ-Haunted South.
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“A Fierce Holiness” first appeared in the May/June 2013 issue of Touchstone. If you enjoyed this article, you'll find more of the same in every issue.
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