Like many who enter the Catholic Church in America, I went through a phase in my journey which was all EWTN all the time. Whatever flaws there may be in the administration of EWTN at the present moment, they still are an excellent and inspiring resource for those seeking the Truth of the Orthodox Faith. My favorite original EWTN programming was and is still Marcus Grodi’s (honestly, could you think of a lovelier, more heartfelt man?) The Journey Home, an hour-long interview-style talk show detailing the conversion stories of various converts from numerous backgrounds. Converts love to listen to other converts (most of the time).
Probably close to four years ago now I tuned in to The Journey Home and what ensued was a long discussion about the Seven Sacraments. An unmemorable episode to say the least. I cannot for the life of me remember who the guest was or what else they talked about*, but one point of discussion piqued my interest. Marcus and his guest brought up Catholic literature and its relationship to the Sacraments. All this bored me greatly since Catholic literature nowadays is for the most part a sorry collection of sentimental, pious morality fables. But then Marcus supplied a name I had never heard before. I could hardly make it out since both Marcus and his guest were determined to mumble and abuse it beyond all recognition, but it sounded to my ears like “Flannery O’Connor”.
Flannery O’Connor? thought I. Flannery was certainly not a Christian name I’d ever come across, but O’Connor was reasonable enough. Marcus and his guest explained how her stories reflected the Sacraments, particularly Baptism, in shocking and often cryptic ways. My ears perked up when Marcus described one such tale about a family who goes off on a road trip and is subsequently murdered by a band of convicts. Now that’s a story, I said to myself. Having an affection for the morbid and violent, this name, this Flannery O’Connor, stuck in my head, though of course I never had the sense to do any research on her.
This name hovered in the back of my head for some months, though I am not sure how long precisely. In the Fall of that same year, I went through a short-story phase, inspired by “The Scarlet Ibis” by James Hurst and “After Twenty Years” by O. Henry. I was struck with the profound mystery of the short story as a medium. Many people would be apt to say that in literature, the novel is akin to the feature film and the short story is analogous to the short film. This is not so. A novel is closer to a television show or serial. The short story, because it must have a contained plot and is not dependent on outside context, is really far more cinematic. This discovery, though I perhaps could not have explained it so eloquently at the time, intrigued me. Hungry for more, I decided I must find some more short stories to occupy my time.
I did a Google search for the best short storied I could find and the name I kept seeing over and over, along with O. Henry, Edgar Alan Poe, and Hemingway, was Flannery O’Connor. I of course remembered my experience with The Journey Home and finally did some checking up on this mysterious artist. I found she was devoutly Catholic (very strange for an American writer), was from the South (my obsession with Southern fiction had already begun with my first reading of To Kill a Mockingbird), and died of a debilitating illness at a young age, like some kind of Marian visionary. So, being cheap as usual, I went down to the library and picked up a copy of A Good Man is Hard to Find.
The copy I borrowed was a weathered red hardcover that smelled as all old books smell of the distant past. It even had a few basic illustrations. That night I read the first story in the collection, the one Marcus Grodi was talking about, “A Good Man is Hard to Find”. I was both appalled and exhilarated by its fleshy prose and transfigurated violence. Needless to say, I didn’t get it. I couldn’t see anything Christian about it one way or another. I had to look it up on Wikipedia to get any sense of what it was about. It grabbed my attention, though, like all good literature and I knew I had to read more.
The next day was Christmas and we headed out to see the relatives. Becoming bored with the night’s doings, I crept upstairs and read through “The River”, which is possibly more horrific than “A Good Man is Hard to Find”. The impact and meaning of these stories started to settle in, however, and I sped through the rest of the book in a week. Joy of joys, I thought, this is exactly what I’ve been looking for. A Catholic author of Orthodox belief who not only understands the demands of art, but also knows how art relates tot he truths of the Faith. This was like discovering gold in the Sacramento River. Absolutely brilliant. I couldn’t get enough.
I read her first novel, Wise Blood, next, and then made my way through another collection of short stories called Everything That Rises Must Converge. I could see everything I loved about the films I adored, from the Coen brothers to John Huston to Billy Wilder, alive in her text. Possibly her best work, a second novel with a dynamite name (The Violent Bear it Away), remained out of my reach for a while, but I finally managed to get my hands on a copy and was enchanted by its power and its gore. Glory and gore go hand in hand, right?
Needless to say, Flannery O’Connor has become a lot more than simply a favorite author. In many ways I feel a great amount of kinship with her artistically and religiously. Her love of violence and grace in fiction, her disgust with the so-called “Parochial aesthetic” in much religious fiction. Far from the happy-go-lucky jingoism of most Christian fiction, O’Connor, like the Catholic Church in a general sense, is a writer who is well-equipped to deal with the mysteries of the darker side of life. She understands suffering and its relationship with grace. She understands the violent explosions of grace around us every day. She was no vague believer indeed.
She is also a patron of mine, always alongside St. Columba (my real patron saint) in my litanies of intercessions. Of course this blog is dedicated to her. If I were a man of more influence I would be badgering the Archdiocese of Atlanta to open her cause for canonization. We need more artist saints.