The Abbess of Andalusia
By Lorraine V. Murray
TAN Books, 2009
256 pp., $16.95
Knowing Flannery O’Connor’s lifelong resistance to being dubbed “holy,” Lorraine Murray shows great daring in producing what amounts to almost a hagiography of the self-named “Sour Sage of Sugar Creek.” One imagines the resistant scowl growing on the authorial countenance. “I wish to put this to rest at once,” she raps out, as she did once when Robert Lowell, in the throes of a fraught reconversion and on the brink of mental illness, was tearing around Manhattan canonizing Flannery from the rooftops.
Or does she? While no cause may yet be open for her official canonization (I welcome correction on this point), many fiction writers who are Catholics treat Flannery as a sort of unofficial patron saint. I count myself among these. And I certainly think that Flannery, smiling down at least from Purgatory if not yet from Heaven, must love us as she unfailingly loved the younger writers who clamored for her help and attention while she lived here below. And assuming that she now knows her soul for what it is before the face of God—as saints do—then we can guess that she also sees the glorious joke of calling any human holy, and can appreciate it in her own case.
Such is the drift of The Abbess of Andalusia. In twelve chapters Murray traces out the subtle inroads and broad thoroughfares Catholicism paved in Flannery’s character and writing. Through this lens of the Catholic influence, Murray explores Flannery’s friendships, home life, daily routines, and personal devotions. She also addresses some of the writer’s larger social relationships: as a lay Catholic to the clergy, and as a white woman in the segregated South to her black neighbors. There is a chapter on how Flannery grew in holiness through the “passive diminishment” of disease, and—seemingly just for fun—a chapter on Flannery’s Franciscan penchant for raising birds and beasts, particularly peafowl.
Murray’s instinct coincides with Lowell’s in identifying Flannery’s kinship with St. Therese of Lisieux. This may come as a surprise, since few styles of writing are farther apart: Therese’s simple, emotional, dainty; Flannery’s layered, cerebral, grotesque. Yet on examination, Murray finds that the two women’s lives shared striking similarities: confinement in most of life to one spot; a deep devotion to the Eucharist; a striving to perform charity by little acts of patience and acceptance toward others; illness that tests and refines the soul; and, finally, early death. Even their writing shares this in common: both are consumed by a singleness of purpose and a common goal, though Therese’s words drive straight for the goal as she sees it, while Flannery’s words deftly enable others to see it by describing the disguises it wears.
In this perception of Flannery as a model of the Little Way, Murray’s book differs from any other contemporary account of Flannery’s life, even those with religious under- or overtones. In The Life You Save May Be Your Own, Paul Elie identifies Flannery’s whole adult life, not just her brief weeks en route to Lourdes, as a time of pilgrimage. Murray’s framing of her as an “abbess” (one is tempted to edit this to read “anchoress,” since, if Andalusia had a Mother Superior, it was certainly Regina O’Connor) creates a contrasting portrait of stillness, not activity; receptiveness, not seeking; leisure, not restlessness. In this Murray perhaps strikes closer to Flannery’s own vision of her life as one lived “between the house and the chicken yard.”
A temptation accompanies this greater literality. Where Elie, positing Flannery-as-pilgrim, needed to show her weak points and emphasize her human failings, Murray in her project needs to defend Flannery-as-spiritual-leader from the devil’s advocate. The result veers toward the “tone of the Sacred Heart Messenger” at a few points—though only a few. Murray takes on the risk of using pious language in order to lend force and momentum to her case for Flannery’s excellence as a Catholic. The overall effect amounts to a loving and respectful tribute (as I said above, The Abbess of Andalusia is “almost” a hagiography, not thoroughly one). It reminds me of the flowering branches the young MFA students brought to Flannery in Iowa after she gave them a reading, “carefully selecting only the most beautiful,” as is recalled in Brad Gooch’s Flannery. Only, instead of literary, the tribute here is personal.
The great value of The Abbess of Andalusia is in its defending Flannery’s virtues and claiming Flannery definitively for an exemplary member of the Catholic family. It will add little to the factual knowledge, but much to the understanding, of the serious scholar of Flannery’s life and work. And for the neophyte, especially the Catholic who would like to make Flannery’s acquaintance, this brief introduction is plain-spoken and pleasing, like Flannery herself.
The Abbess of Andalusia does not replace a comprehensive biography like Gooch’s recent, indispensable Flannery. Still less does it stand in for the long, leisurely lingering over Flannery’s letters in The Habit of Being. (For those with little time for such an undertaking, I highly recommend Orbis Press’s extractions from the letters and essays, published under the title of Flannery O’Connor: Spiritual Writings. That book would make a lovely complement to The Abbess of Andalusia; consider giving your favorite Catholic philistine both volumes as a gift). But it re-presents Flannery under the aspect of her faith like no other book before it, and for this we can be grateful.
Katy Carl, the editor-in-chief of Dappled Things, works as a writer and editor in the Washington, D.C., metro area, where she lives with her husband and son.