I have a preoccupation with good stories. I love when a book or a movie pulls you into a whole new world, and you get lost in it. This is probably the main reason I’m studying English Literature right now. I get to earn my degree in stories. Some of my favourite stories I have encountered come from Flannery O’Connor. If you’ve read any of her work, you’ll know that these stories are not the ones you want to escape into. They are dark, they are complex, and they are messy. They deal with death, and deformity, and brokenness. I’m uncomfortable when I read them. Her stories take place in the Deep South, a land haunted by poverty and broken race relations, a long, long way from Camelot or Narnia.
Flannery O’Connor was a master wordsmith, who possessed a raw and humble faith, which affected all aspects of her life and work. Her faith permeates the stories she wrote. These stories are packed with wisdom, but not the sort that’s wrapped up with a neat little bow – the kind you have to dig for. Her stories, like the stories Jesus told, tell us something about the kingdom of heaven. Flannery O’Connor has become a hero of the faith for me simply for her wisdom and the way her work is steeped in what she believes. But more than that, the stories, which Flannery wrote, as well as the story that she lived, both point to The Great Story of God’s love and redemption of our broken world.
Flannery O’Connor lived a life she considered insignificant. She herself said, “There won’t be any biographies of me because, for one reason, lives spent between the house and the chicken yard do not make exciting copy.” In 1951, she was diagnosed with lupus, a disease, which had killed her father ten years earlier, when Flannery was fifteen. Flannery struggled with lupus for thirteen years, until her eventual death in 1964 at the age of thirty-nine. In many ways, this disease provided a backdrop for Flannery’s work.
Although Flannery’s disease physically limited her, she did not allow it to shut her down. She attended mass daily. She wrote letters and book reviews. She even, on occasion, stood supported by crutches behind podiums to give lectures. In this, I see an unwavering desire to know and love God, and to love and serve His people. Despite her ailments, God used (and still uses) Flannery to build His kingdom.
All of O’Connor’s published fiction was written while she was ailing. Many of O’Connor’s characters are orphaned or outcast, physically deformed or ill. The plot of a typical O’Connor story is grim and unsettling. We are led to a place where we come face to face with serial killers, con artists, sideshow freaks, tragic accidents, suicide, abuse. We are led to a place of absolute hopelessness and despair. Through her writing, O’Connor expressed not only the brokenness she felt because of the loss of her father and her own disease, but also the brokenness of a sinful humanity.
Give me the grace, dear God, to see the bareness and the misery of the places where You are not adored but desecrated.
I feel this brokenness when I read her stories. They never have happy endings. They never provide the answers. There is never that healing or restoration that is so longed for. All human efforts to remedy these defects fall pitifully short. It seems there is no hope. But just as Flannery brought us to this place of utter hopelessness, she is somehow able to point us to the source of her hope.
I think this is a fantastic picture of what it means to live as Christians in the here and now. We are sinful. We are broken. We are incomplete. But, we do have a God who is good, and who is just, and who longs to see the sick healed and outcasts drawn in even more than we do.
O’Connor wrote in her prayer journal, “Give me the grace to be impatient for the time when I shall see You face to face and need no stimulus than that to adore You. Give me the grace, dear God, to see the bareness and the misery of the places where You are not adored but desecrated.”
When we feel the emptiness and pain which plagues our human condition, which O’Connor so precisely conveys, our brokenness is perhaps even more evident. Our efforts at restoration on our own will fail. The scope of our human devotion is severely truncated. But when we allow ourselves to be used by God not just despite our weaknesses but even in our weaknesses, we find that his great story of making all things new is one that is not afraid of the real world. God is to be found between the house and the chicken yard, and God will meet us even in the dark, complex, messy world full of death, deformity, and brokenness. Because one of the pinnacles of God’s story is the desecration of Jesus on the cross. And yet from even there, God gives us the profound audacity to hope that something more is on the horizon, just as O’Connor did.
If this post has piqued your interest in O’Connor and her work, I would recommend reading some of O’Connor’s short fiction. Check out “Parker’s Back,” “The Lame Shall Enter First,” or “The River.”
If you are interested in O’Connor’s non-fiction, check out her prayer journal, which was published in 2013. It is truly a treasure, an intimate look into a raw yet beautiful devotional life. Also, her letters are amazing, full of astute practical theology and well-crafted prose. These are published in The Habit of Being: Letters of Flannery O’Connor.