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In anticipation of the fiftieth anniversary of Flannery O’Connor’s death Crisis yesterday published three articles discussing her life and works. One of these was a criticism of her writings and prior to my making time to read through it The Lame Housewife forwarded it to me (Thanks L!). The author of this piece criticized, and not unfairly, Flannery’s penchant for using violence and ugliness to tell her stories.
… the proper ground of my disappointment with Flannery O’Connor is best expressed in the frequent artlessness and crudity of her style—of her need to rest upon the crutches of sensational violence, depression, and fear, to tell a decent story and make a valid point. In fairness to her admirers, I agree that O’Connor possessed an uncommon ability to grasp the matter of human suffering, especially psychological pain and regret. Nevertheless, there are many different ways of treating of such delicate subjects, and not all are equally successful or commendable in the world of literature.
I was going to rewrite and expand upon my initial thoughts contained in my email back to L but decided to just run with it here:
Hoo boy. I received the links in my daily Crisis subscription this morning but hadn’t gotten around to this one yet. I can’t say that I entirely disagree with him as Flannery certainly isn’t for everyone and she is more than capable of making me squirm. The first time I read A Hard Man Is Good To Find I was shocked when I figured out where she was going, and I thought Wise Blood fascinatingly odd. While I am a huge proponent of beauty and the need for more of it in our lives, we do live in a fallen world and sometimes need to look through the lens darkly in order to find and ultimately appreciate the light. Overused though the saying may be, one doesn’t get the beauty of Easter Sunday without going through the ugliness of the Passion and Good Friday.
“You shall know the truth and the truth shall make you odd.” – Flannery
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I admit that it’s difficult to read Flannery. As a rule I generally read a story, then take time off before reading another. She makes you uncomfortable, but she is taking us on a journey towards a hard grace. Compared to the gratuitous and senseless torture porn of the Saw movies (as just one of many examples) there is a purpose to her storytelling.
Among the many wonderful paradoxes of Christianity are the graces born through suffering. You do not get the beautiful and inspirational story of Blessed Mother Teresa without her going among the poorest of the poor in the ghettos of Calcutta. Christianity is not 3-piece suits, Sunday dresses and potluck dinners in our little air-conditioned churches among only our closest friends and neighbors. Christianity is dirty, gritty, and can be an offense to our senses when we realize the places and people to whom we are called to serve. There is no comfort zone or a place for the soft. It is the Church Militant. We are the arms, legs, hands and feet of Christ on earth. Christ dined with the sinners and went among the poor and the ugly. We have work to do, and it’s not always pretty.
In fact it’s gloriously beautiful.
I’ve told the story before, but one of the most beautiful experiences I had at Mass occurred at St. Mary’s in Lincoln. The 12:10pm Mass is short, usually 35 minutes, and the church resides downtown and just a block or two from the state capital, federal buildings and the financial district. Our downtown is also populated by the homeless and destitute. One cold November day I found myself kneeling between two people. To my left was a man dressed in a beautiful long coat, sharp business suit and tie, well-groomed and wearing cologne. To my right was a woman dressed in a tattered coat, with knit fingerless gloves, straggled hair, a dirty face and who smelled of sweat and urine. Together we three prayed the Mass and were fed at the table of Our Lord.
I’ll never forget that.
A final thought: Much as an athlete trains up his body through hours of exercise and workouts to prepare himself for what may be something as brief as a 100m sprint, I train myself up every time I attend Mass, pray the Divine Office or the Rosary, or even by crossing myself and saying grace before meals. These prepare me for the ugliness of life. If I believe in nothing and consume the endless sewage piped to me by the culture of this world then yeah…things would be bleak and devoid of hope. I’d see no purpose for myself or for humanity. I would feel isolated, bitter and cynical.
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A few quotes from what has become one of my favorite books, The Ragamuffin Gospel by Brennan Manning. Rarely have I taken a pen and highlighted to a book and attacked it with such gusto as I have this one.
To be alive is to be broken. And to be broken is to stand in need of grace. – p. 86
Counterfeit grace is as commonplace as fake furs, phony antiques, paste jewelry, and sawdust hot dogs. The temptation of the age is to look good without being good. … The dichotomy between what we say and what we do is so pervasive in the church and in society that we actually come to believe our illusions and rationalizations and clutch them to our hearts like favorite teddy bears. – p. 126
You know, in spite of the fact that Christianity speaks of the cross, redemption, and sin, we’re unwilling to admit failure in our own lives. Why? Partly because it’s human nature’s defense mechanism against its own inadequacies. But even more so, it’s because of the successful image our culture demands of us. There are some real problems with projecting the perfect image. First of all, it’s simply not true—we are not always happy, optimistic, in command. Second, projecting the flawless image keeps us from reaching people who feel we just wouldn’t understand them. And third, even if we could live a life with no conflict, suffering, or mistakes, it would be a shallow existence. The Christian with depth is the person who has failed and who has learned to live with it. – p.175-6
A few more from another favorite book:
For this slight momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, because we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen; for the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal. (2 Corinthians 4:17-18)
Finally, brethren, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is gracious, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. What you have learned and received and heard and seen in me, do; and the God of peace will be with you. (Philippians 4:8-9)
When set against the backdrop of eternity our time on earth is but a “momentary affliction”. There is purpose. Looking toward the eternal and not dwelling on the temporal is what gives us hope, the ability to endure, and the strength to lift others. By thinking about these things we will experience the peace of God and make our time amongst the suffering more bearable.
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To echo the excerpts above: In a New York Times interview author Dean Koontz was asked “What book should every American read?” His response:
“The Complete Stories,” by Flannery O’Connor. No one has written better about the reality of evil. Few have written as well, with such sharp-edged compassion, about the weaknesses and follies of humanity, about the operation of grace in our lives and about the necessity of humility. Her stories — her intelligence and passion — can restore reason to minds unhinged by our fame-obsessed, technology-obsessed culture that by so many mechanisms isolates more and more people even as it holds forth the (false) promise of a universal community.
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I’ll close with a glimpse of the beauty that resides close to home followed by something I read only this morning called “The Temple of Beauty”. Our local PBS affiliate has produced a special “NEBRASKA Land & Sky” that features breathtaking high definition aerial and ground views of Nebraska’s unique landscapes, animals, and places.
The Temple of Beauty
Beauty is an all-pervading presence. It unfolds to the numberless flowers of the Spring; it waves in the branches of the trees and in the green blades of grass; it haunts the depths of the earth and the sea, and gleams out in the hues of the shell and the precious stone. And not only these minute objects, but the ocean, the mountains, the clouds, the heavens, the stars, the rising and the setting sun, all overflow with beauty. The universe is its temple; and those men who are alive to it cannot lift their eyes without feeling themselves encompassed with it on every side. Now, this beauty is so precious, the enjoyment it gives so refined and pure, so congenial and so akin to worship, that it is pain living in the midst of it, and living almost as blind to it, as if, instead of this fair earth and glorious sky, they were tenants of a dungeon. An infinite joy is lost to the world by the want of culture of this spiritual endowment. The greatest truths are wronged if not linked with beauty, and they win their way most surely and deeply into the soul when arrayed in this their natural and fit attire. – W.E. Channing