Thoughts on "Grace and Necessity" [Part 3]

Welcome back for the third installment of my journey with Rowan William’s Grace and Necessity. Chapter Three focused on the work of Flannery O’Connor.

This is the Cathedral of Saint John the Baptist in Savannah, Georgia. Flannery O'Connor grew up just a block away from here and regularly attended mass here with her parents. 

Flannery O’Connor was an American writer who lived in the South in the 20th century. She grew up Catholic and was a defender of orthodox Catholic tradition throughout her life. At the age of 15 her father died of lupus and ten years later she began to show symptoms of the same chronic autoimmune disease. This caused her to spend the rest of her life living with her mother on a farm. 

She would spend her morning writing and the rest of her day taking care of her birds (including peacocks!). She saw the peacock as her personal symbol. The peacock was also a symbol for Christ in the middle ages! In a way the peacocks sort of resemble her stories – awkward birds that reveal so much beauty when they open their tail feathers. 

Here is a fun video of her as a young child with a chicken that she trained to walk backwards! 

At the young age of 39, O’Connor passed away from lupus. Over the course of her short life, she wrote 2 short novels, essays, and short stories. Ralph C. Wood (author of Flannery O’Connor and the Christ-Haunted South) called her the only great Christian writer this nation has produced. 

In class, we were able to dive into one of her short stories, Parker’s Back. (See some of my sketches from class below). This was her last published short story. Apparently she would work on it in her hospital bed and she hid her notebook under her pillow so the doctor wouldn’t take it away from her! Some scholars say that writing is what kept her alive in her final years.

There were several stand out quotes from this weeks reading, but I will try to keep my reflections on just a few here. As we talked about in class, Flannery O’Connor’s work seems to be an honest mirror to life without removing any of the harsh realities that may sometimes be easier to just ignore. Williams writes “the irony is that the gift of life is the gift of daily ‘terror’, the terror of being aware of reality in the light of God” (121). As artists of faith we have the ability to help the world take an honest look at how the world really is, and not just how we want it to be. 

Photo by Glen Dahlman. CC 2.0

O’Connor wrote “Many well-grounded complaints have been made about religious literature on the score that it tends to minimize the importance and dignity of life here and now in favor of life in the next world or in favor of miraculous manifestations of grace.” Of course it seems so natural and easy to gravitate towards the happy parts of the world that light of God shines on. This is apparent in the popularity of Thomas Kinkade’s paintings. 

Reflecting on this, I realize that finding wholeness or Shalom in reality, doesn’t necessarily mean that everyone is happy. I like what O’Connor wrote in The Church and the Fiction Writer, “It is when the individual’s faith is weak, not when it is strong, that he will be afraid of an honest fictional representation of life.” In our search for wholeness in this world, we must have strong faith so that we can see what is really happening before our eyes.

In closing, I will leave you with a final quote from Flannery O’Connor:

When people have told me that because I am a Catholic, I cannot be an artist, I have had to reply, ruefully, that because I am a Catholic I cannot afford to be less than an artist.
— Flannery O'Connor, The Church and the Fiction Writer

Barry MoserFlannery O’Connor (detail). Wood engraving. See the original at moser-pennyroyal.com.

Sources

Grace and Necessity: reflections on art and love, by Rowan Williams. Pages 93–132.

The Church and the Fiction Writer, by Flannery O’Connor. March 30, 1957. From http://americamagazine.org/node/148496

Video: Flannery O’Connor. November 20, 2009. From http://www.pbs.org/wnet/religionandethics/2009/11/20/november-20-2009-flannery-oconnor/5043/

About Flannery O’Connor. From development.andalusiafarm.org