Flannery O'Connor was a master short-story writer, dark humorist, and astute cultural observer. Nearly 40 years after her death, her often-violent yet amusing fiction still attracts both secular readers who would be repelled by O'Connor's devout Catholicism and believers who are ecstatic to find "Christian" fiction that is as odd and rough as real life. To be fair, her fiction also repels many a believer and nonbeliever alike.
With Flannery O'Connor: Spiritual Writings, the latest offering in Orbis' Modern Spiritual Masters series, Robert Ellsberg has distilled and compiled the essentials of O'Connor's musings in fiction and nonfiction about faith and the world. In doing so, he illuminates how intrinsic an informal but in-depth study and practice of theology and spirituality was to O'Connor's fiction and her life. From the age of 25, when she was diagnosed with lupus, until her death at age 39, O'Connor's health usually confined her to her mother's Georgia farm. While illness imposed limits, it seemed to only enhance the discipline of her writing and reading. Familiar with the works of many of the leading Catholic and Protestant thinkers of the mid-20th century, she cogently analyzed the role of Christianity in a modern, materialistic culture that tended to be either hostile to faith or intent on neutralizing it with vague, sentimental platitudes and motivational self-help programs. In letters to friends and acquaintances, occasional essays and reviews, and of course in her short stories, O'Connor eloquently brought reason and artistic skill to bear on those things that she ultimately placed beyond intellect into the realm of mystery: the sacramental presence of God in the world, the movement of grace, and suffering as a source for knowledge of and relationship with God. "I find it reasonable to believe," she wrote, "even though these beliefs are beyond reason."
A SUBSTANTIAL essay by Fordham University English professor Richard Giannone opens this collection and helpfully places O'Connor in the context of her times, biography, and influences. Excerpts from O'Connor's writings are then clustered into four chapters, each focused on a key theme in O'Connor's life and thought: Christian realism, the Catholic church, her vocation to write, and grace in the midst of illness and suffering. "Revelation," possibly her quintessential short story, is reprinted in its entirety at the center of the collection. Ellsberg could not have chosen a more appropriate axis to this book: O'Connor was wary of the label "spiritual writer," but her confidence that her calling was to write stories did not waver, nor did her belief that fiction could incarnate what nonfiction explications of faith could only gesture toward.
That said, her essays and letters are often nothing less than profound. Her correspondence reveals a warm, witty woman who counsels and support friends and acquaintances both within and outside of the faith. Her discourses on theology, the moral demands of fiction, or society pull no punches—she is searing in her opinions, persistent and persuasive in her arguments. Yet O'Connor is as humble about her own spiritual life as she is confident in her thinking, insisting that she is neither a mystic nor particularly holy, just dogged in her prayer and reading. As she wrote to a friend, "Don't expect faith to clear things up for you. It is trust, not certainty."
Occasionally O'Connor's references to Catholic structures or doctrines might leave a non-Catholic reader (at least this one) a touch confused or troubled. But overall this is an accessible introduction to O'Connor for those unfamiliar with her work and a welcome, portable distillation of her perspectives on spirituality for those who already count her as a guiding saint.
Julie Polter is an associate editor of Sojourners.