Flannery O’Connor’s Disruptive Grace

Colleen Carroll Campbell

When I first discovered Flannery O’Connor’s fiction, I was both fascinated and disturbed. Her shrewd wit, insights into the human psyche, and sense of place captivated me. Yet her crank characters and violent plots puzzled me. I admired her gift for short stories but considered the tales too unsettling to claim as favorites.

Among the most unsettling was “A Temple of the Holy Ghost.” Tracking the adventures of two boy-crazed teenage sisters from the perspective of their precocious younger cousin known only as “the child,” it is a peculiar parable even by O’Connor’s standards. The sisters, refugees from a convent school, attend a circus where they encounter a hermaphrodite. They share their discovery with the unusually thoughtful child, who ponders the mystery of this deformity during benediction. When the priest elevates the Host, she recalls the hermaphrodite’s reminder to the audience that a circus freak was created by God just as they were. The story closes with the child gazing at a sunset that reminds her of an elevated Host.

A plot summary hardly does this story justice, as its symbolic keys are buried within O’Connor’s sparse and powerful prose. I have returned often to this haunting tale. It has all the O’Connor hallmarks: striking religious imagery that disrupts our easy ideas about God and ourselves, a narrator whose moment of revelation becomes our own, and explosions of grace mediated through people typically dismissed as grotesque.

“The reader wants his grace warm and binding, not dark and disruptive,” O’Connor once wrote. Yet disruptive grace, which jolts us out of our indifference and makes us reconsider the meaning of the Incarnation and the reality of redemption, may be exactly what our secular age needs. O’Connor knew this. And readers are blessed that she acted on her unusual inspiration.

Colleen Carroll Campbell, a fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, is a columnist, television host, former speechwriter to President George W. Bush, and author of The New Faithful: Why Young Adults Are Embracing Christian Orthodoxy (Loyola, 2002).