A Lesson From Flannery O'Connor

A Lesson From Flannery O'Connor
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By Emma Restuccia

Everyone is familiar with those days when nothing is right with the world: headlines are tragic, family members are ill, dinner is burned…the list goes on. It is easy to become discouraged by the rebelliousness and nihilism of society and the waywardness and doubt of our own hearts.

But the great American Southern Catholic author Flannery O’Connor lived in a similar time, and to her own culture she responded in like fashion — grotesquely. Let me explain.  

O’Connor’s writings include everything from murder, mutation, and sickness to redemption, restoration, and grace. She was familiar with suffering and grotesqueness in her own life. She suffered from lupus, a disease which claimed her life at the age of 39.

First-time readers of O’Connor are usually shocked at her imagery: an escaped and blood-thirsty convict, a graphically tattooed man, a mocked hermaphrodite, and many other repulsive characters. And seldom (or never?) do her stories leave the reader with a happy ending. She’s the opposite of the Hallmark Channel.

But O’Connor wrote famously that she uses such language, such art, to shock the reader to a realization: “to the hard of hearing you shout, and for the almost blind, you draw large and startling figures” (The Fiction Writer and His Country, Collected Works).

O’Connor fought the ugly with the ugly — but ugliness that was always pointed to and stirred by grace. Through this kind of narrative, O’Connor was able to get through to a world that already spoke the language of the grotesque and to our world today. She was holding a mirror to the world and allowing it to see into itself.

Catholicism is strange and repulsive to many today. But it is precisely in these 'quirks' that the deepest beauties are revealed. The earthly life of our savior didn’t, seemingly, have a 'happy ending.' His life was one of suffering, and he was “one from whom men hide their faces” (Is. 53:3). But as Catholics, we rejoice in the folly of the cross, in consuming the flesh and blood of our Beloved, and in our chance to be fools for Him. The Catholic life revolves around these very mysteries and paradoxes.

O’Connor’s art is a call for us to embrace the grotesque as a mode for grace, as a chance to preach the grace that can only change us by disrupting us. Christ wants all of our grotesqueness. In fact, that is His great desire. Seeing our own perversity is repulsive, as it should be, but not for the sake of shame. For the sake of grace. Examining our consciences, confession, bearing out our darkest places to Christ, is the very means by which we receive the greatest graces. Because, where sin gluts, grace flourishes (Rom. 5:20). Grace, not sin, is the end of O’Connor’s stories, and it must be the end of our stories as well.

Like O’Connor’s, our world is one that is hard of hearing and almost blind to authentic beauty and conversion. Let us have eyes to see and ears to hear how grace is at work, even in the darkest parts of life, and the courage to preach this grace. The world, and perhaps our own hearts, are desperately in need of this shock right now — the shock of freakish compassion, magnified truth, and absurd charity.