The Mean Grace of Flannery O’Connor
“All human nature vigorously resists grace because grace changes us and the change is painful.”
- Flannery O’Connor
I didn’t care for it the first time I read it. No – let me rephrase that. The first time I read it, I was repulsed by it. Flannery O’Connor’s writing had been recommended to me from a close friend. A southern Catholic fiction writer, Mary Flannery O’Connor lived with her mother, raised peacocks while writing two novels and just over two dozen short stories. It would be forty-five years after her death that I found myself reading her iconic and harrowing short story, “A Good Man Is Hard to Find”.
But don’t let the title of her stories, the bespectacled innocence of her photograph, or the reclusive, respectable life she led in the home with her mother fool you. Flannery O’Connor’s writing could be downright vicious and raw. Her characters are often crude, unkempt and ill-educated. Bereft of redeeming qualities and brimming with flaws, it is easy to repelled by them and the path their lives are taking. And yet, with writing that is so vivid, so animated, so…real, it is difficult to release yourself from its grip. So it is at this time, with her reader duly ensnared, that Flannery unleashes her power. In the case of “A Good Man is Hard to Find” (spoiler alert…), Flannery stuns with the slaughter of a thoughtlessly chattering grandmother and her family by a fugitive killer known as the Misfit. It hit me right between the eyes – and, frankly, I didn’t like it. Gratuitous violence. Irredeemable characters. Pointless plot. I was not impressed.
That said, it was in 2008 that Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia was interviewed by Lesley Stahl on 60 Minutes. Justice Scalia relayed a high school anecdote that has stuck with me since I first heard it.
“I have – one teacher I remember was an elderly Jesuit at Xavier (high school in New York City) from Boston. He had a Boston accent. Father Tom Matthews, and he taught me a lesson that I’ve recounted in some of my speeches. He taught me what I refer to as the Shakespeare principle.
The class was reading one of the Shakespeare plays, ‘Hamlet’ or whatever, and one of my classmates or whatever, sort of smart aleck kid, John Antonelli, as I recall. It’s ridiculous I would remember his name. But [John] made some really smart aleck sophomoric criticism of the play, and Father Matthews looked down at him and he said, with his Boston accent, ‘Mister, when you read Shakespeare, Shakespeare’s not on trial. You are.’”
And so it was for me and Flannery O’Connor. As I read her work, Flannery O’Connor was not on trial. I was. Sheepishly, I have to admit that I had similarly grossly misjudged the great G.K. Chesterton in the past (see my previous post “Finding My Way to Orthodoxy” ). The work of Flannery O’Connor could be harsh, violent and discomfiting. And yet it is also thick with truth, grace and redemption. To the superficial reader, a yarn filled with unattractive figures on ill-fated endeavors may be all that is perceived. But to those willing to consider her work more deeply, powerful themes of deeply religious truths become apparent. Perhaps the greatest and most pervasive of these truths in Flannery’s stories is the pain, suffering and “meanness” that often accompanies the beautiful grace of God.
But how is it that I came to the realization of the depth and quality of this once-scorned (by me) writer? First, conversations with my good friend kindly encouraged me that I may be wrong in my initial dislike of Flannery. Effectively, he reminded me that Flannery is not on trial – I am. Second, reading the writings of Flannery in the form of a posthumously published collection of correspondence titled “The Habit of Being” captivated me. These letters to friends and associates, never intended by the author to be released, are a masterpiece of deep thinking, religious conviction and endearing wit. Without pretense or puffery, Flannery shows a clarity of thought on the most human of concerns that is gripping in its sage-like quality. Particularly impressive to me is her insight on suffering and grace – not only how it figured into “A Good Man is Hard to Find”, but how it figures into our every day life. When Flannery O’Connor explains her novel, I am interested. When she explains her faith, I am entranced. On suffering and grace, she writes,
“I think there is no suffering greater than what is caused by the doubts of those who want to believe. I know what torment this is, but I can only see it, in myself anyway, as the process by which faith is deepened. A faith that just accepts is a child’s faith and all right for children, but eventually you have to grow religiously as every other way, though some never do. What people don’t realize is how much religion costs. They think faith is a big electric blanket, when of course it is the cross. It is much harder to believe than not to believe. If you feel you can’t believe, you must at least do this: keep an open mind. Keep it open toward faith, keep wanting it, keep asking for it, and leave the rest to God.”
“This notion that grace is healing omits the fact that before it heals, it cuts with the sword Christ said He came to bring.”
“[The trendy "beat" writers] call themselves holy but holiness costs and so far as I can see they pay nothing. It’s true that grace is the free gift of God but in order to put yourself in the way of being receptive to it you have to practice self-denial.”
And when explaining (what I considered incomprehensible) “A Good Man is Hard to Find” to a friend,
“There is a moment of grace in most of the stories, or a moment where it is offered, and usually rejected. Like when the Grandmother recognizes the Misfit as one of her children (a child of God) and reaches out to touch him. It’s the moment of grace for her anyway – a silly old woman – but it leads him to shoot her. This moment of grace excites the devil to frenzy.”
The frequent pairing of suffering and grace was captured in a moment between a violent Misfit and a cackling old woman. Suddenly, what I failed to understand became clear and the story had a significant impact on me. After all, aren’t the greatest stories we encounter in our Faith ones riddled with suffering (the taunting of Noah, the slavery of Moses, the guilty infidelity and murder perpetrated by David, the lonely pregnancy of Mary and the Passion of the Christ) and subsequent grace (the deliverance of the Ark, the arrival at the Promised Land, the redemption of David, the Assumption of Mary and the Resurrection and Reign of Christ)? And yet, so often while the suffering is painfully apparent, we often are blind to moments of extreme and beautiful grace in our faith and in our lives. These are moments which Flannery O’Connor shares with us again and again.
One last question may be posed before a person would embark upon reading the raw and challenging works of Flannery O’Connor. What did she know about suffering and grace? At the age of twenty-six, Flannery would be diagnosed (like her father before her) with systemic lupus erythematosus (“lupus”), a disabling rheumatologic condition. Through chronic pain, recurrent illnesses and medication side effects, Flannery would write with keen insight, acerbic wit and devout Catholic faith. Thirteen years later, she would die. She was only thirty-nine years old. Flannery O’Connor knew suffering and she knew grace – a mean grace.