My Summer Vacation With Flannery O’Connor
Published: July 16, 2009
This is not how I planned to spend my summer. I wanted to sit by the pool and get a break from writing. After all, I told myself, it’s time to relax: You’ve written five books in nine years!
But it doesn’t look like I will get to the pool very much this summer. So far, I’ve been hunkered down in my study, putting the finishing touches on a book about Flannery O’Connor.
I am not writing a book about her stories, but about Flannery’s practice of her Catholic faith. In college, I studied her soul-shaking fiction, such as her stories in “A Good Man Is Hard to Find,” and her novel “Wise Blood.”
But my professors studiously avoided mentioning the Catholic undercurrents, no doubt embarrassed by her devotion to Christ. And although some biographers have skimmed the surface of Flannery’s day-to-day practice of Catholicism, it seemed the right time to plunge deeper.
I have almost given up on this book numerous times. When I had the first draft mostly completed, I realized that doing the research had greatly exhausted me, and in truth, I am not really a researcher at heart.
I don’t suffer footnotes gladly. I cringe at microfilm reels. Besides, I had started writing fiction myself, and writing nonfiction makes it harder to unlock the other side of my brain, the one where fictional characters lurk, just waiting to be let loose on the page.
I stuffed the manuscript away in a closet. I told my husband I would abandon it. But this book on Flannery’s faith kept calling out to me—or was it Flannery herself?
Maybe she wants the world to know that she read daily prayers from a breviary. That St. Therese of Lisieux was a favorite saint. And that she was good friends with the Dominican Sisters of Hawthorne at Our Lady of Perpetual Help Home in Atlanta.
Her life has been dissected and probed by many critics, but her faith has been glossed over. Her stories have been taken apart, limb by limb, although many have missed the strong undercurrents of Catholicism in them.
In her day, “nice” people shuddered at the violence in her stories, and today people still complain that her tales are just a bit too unsettling, a bit too graphic for their taste.
And the stories are dark, no doubt about it. There are self-proclaimed preachers who blind themselves, children who commit suicide and families that get massacred at the roadside. But Flannery didn’t write about these folks simply for shock value, although she did want to separate the complacent from their cozy clichés and comfortable categories.
She knew she was writing for an audience that no longer believed in God, and so she had to shout into their ears and shake them by their collars to wake them up.
She did it because of her own fierce faith in what was real beneath the surface of ordinary life: the Incarnation, the crucifixion and the resurrection. If her stories are shocking, so are the Gospels with beheadings, stonings, paralytics, lepers and the demon-possessed. Shocking too is the fact of God becoming man and dying on the cross.
But without that abiding shake-up in history there would be no salvation, and so Flannery wrote to show how grace works in our lives. It often comes from our crosses. It often comes when God hits us on the head to wake us up.
In her own life, the crosses were very real: She suffered for years from the symptoms of lupus, and she died at age 39. She never married and she had no children, but she left a powerful legacy in her books.
Flannery O’Connor died in the blistering summer of 1964, on the third day in August with unfinished stories hidden beneath her pillow in the hospital. She lived at Andalusia farm in Milledgeville, not too far from Decatur where I live today.
I have felt very close to her while writing this book, and not always in a comfortable way. At times I’ve felt her clucking her tongue and prodding me to do better. “Get rid of that cliché, for heaven’s sake” and “You need to come up with something better than THAT!”
The book, “Abbess of Andalusia,” will be published by St. Benedict Press this fall, as a testimony to God’s grace working in my life. After that, I plan to, as Flannery would say, “write me” some more fiction. Let some of those pent-up characters loose on the page. No footnotes, no microfilm, but maybe some good, solid stunning moments of grace.
As for the pool, it will probably be closed, but there’s always next summer.
Lorraine Murray’s first work of fiction, “Death in the Choir,” will be published in August. She and her husband, Jef, attend St. Thomas More Church in Decatur. Readers may write Lorraine at email@example.com.