You’ve heard of St Therese’s Little Way, which is a truly beautiful explication of the love at the heart of even the smallest detail and humblest vocation. Flannery O’Connor has developed her own Way, and it is far noisier, intensely shocking, and suffused with violence.
All this month, PBS has been airing the hour-long documentary Uncommon Grace: The Life of Flannery O’Connor. The documentary is a searching look at the life of the woman whose writing continues to exert a hold on our imaginations. What sort of a woman is capable of writing such powerful prose and possessing such a unique, fascinating ability to finely chisel away distraction until the reader is confronted with the unvarnished, plain truth about human goodness and suffering? If her writing is violent and, to apply a commonly used but appropriate adjective, grotesque, the source is not in pure imagination but in everyday experience. Life is suffering and it is violent, so overwhelming is it that we cope by voluntarily consenting to spiritual deafness. We are so practiced and immured to how tragic it all is that we numb it with mocha coffees and television, and even when we perk up for a bit and practice our religion it is a tame re-enactment, missing the present, continuing, ongoing violence and sacrifice at the heart of worship. As a priest, I often find my voice quavering and my speech halting during the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass. As O’Connor might put it, the violent bear it away and the story only begins once there is a death.
The way of life is the way of violence, and only by consenting to violence are we able to find redemption. We must not close our ears and lose the true meaning of the words that O’Connor writes, as Robert Giroux bemoans about the critical reviews of Wise Blood, “They all recognized her power but missed her point.” The point isn’t the circus of violence, or cleverness for the sake of drawing attention to her talent, or even to delight the reader with a gothic twist. The point is to rub mud in our eyes so we might see. All her life, Flannery O’Connor was an outsider, a woman whose father died of lupus when she was young, whose work couldn’t even be appreciated in her classes at the Iowa Writers Workshop unless her male professor read it aloud for her, and who, just as her career was beginning to take hold after college came down with lupus herself. Soon, her body began attacking itself and she only had energy to wake up each morning, go to mass, and write for a few hours. Because of this she concentrated on short stories and struggled with completing a second novel, but so important was it to her that when she visited Lourdes she prayed not so much for physical healing as that God would give her the strength to get it finished before she died (it was published within the year).
As an outsider afflicted by constant physical suffering, O’Connor had a genuine understanding of the way that the human being soul grows only by violence, by the hardships we endure and overcome. Her own, particular personal hell molded her very existence into a sort of living art that poured out through her typewriter. Her stories are not so much fictional as they are the story of an encounter with pain. We walk these stories as a Way of Violence, a Way of the Cross that is endured daily. In some way, it is a blessing to be offered such suffering (although I hesitate to say as much because I suspect I am too weak to bear up under it), not so much because suffering qua suffering is good, but because it alerts us to the fact that, if we suffer physically, perhaps we suffer all the more spiritually. If the former alerts us to the latter, this is grace.
Take the Misfit, who delivers grace at the barrel of a gun. For a brief moment, the impending violence of murder delivers spiritual clarity. The Misfit declares, “She would of have been a good woman if it had been somebody there to shoot her every minute of her life.” Flannery O’Connor is, as it were, “clever as hell,” possessing the insight that we only become our best selves when contemplating our own frailty and weakness, knowing that “take up your cross and follow me” isn’t a metaphor but a way of life and the avenue by which grace pours out upon a cold-hearted world. The reality of sin must be forced home to us by an act of divine violence so that our pretensions can once and for all be torn away. It is only when we can see ourselves clearly and come to a reckoning with our depravity that we make our first steps towards goodness.
In the end, love is violence that is freely chosen and endured on behalf of another. Love is sacrifice and self-gift. For this reason, the Little Way and the Way of Violence are seen to be one and the same. The Cross unites them as both the supreme, scapegoating act of violence and the most pleasing act of love that the world has ever known.
If Flannery O’Connor had been offered a different sort of life, would she have wanted it? If she could have lived longer, with less suffering? It’s impossible to know, but we do know that she inhabited her suffering in such a way that it was transformed into love, and in her writing she loves her readers by inviting them to at least a vicarious experience of violence. “Evil is not a problem to be solved. It is a mystery to be endured,” she writes. In the mystery is our hope, in the violence is God’s grace, and somehow, someway it all leads to art and beauty and love.