The Late, Great, Flannery O’Connor

I’m not normally a fan of fiction, but I love Flannery O’Connor. I just bought a book of her short stories. They’re fiction in the sense that Jesus’ parables were “fiction.” Untrue stories which reveal deeper truths in an inviting way. As she put it:

“Part of the difficulty of all this is that you write for an audience who doesn’t know what grace is and don’t recognize it when they see it. All my stories are about the action of grace on a character who is not very willing to support it, but most people think of these stories as hard, hopeless, brutal, etc.”

Seeing her step away from that format to discuss her Catholicism directly is interesting, and Habit of Being has this really moving section on the Eucharist:

“Well, toward morning the conversation turned on the Eucharist, which I, being the Catholic, was obviously supposed to defend. [Mary McCarthy] said when she was a child and received the Host, she thought of it as the Holy Ghost, He being the ‘most portable’ person of the Trinity; now she thought of it as a symbol and implied that it was a pretty good one. I then said, in a very shaky voice, ‘Well, if it’s a symbol, to hell with it.’ That was all the defense I was capable of but I realize now that this is all I will ever be able to say about it, outside of a story, except that it is the center of existence for me; all the rest of life is expendable.”

Read this. It needs no further introduction:

To Dr. T.R. Spivey

18 July 1959


We mean entirely different things when we each say we believe the Church is Divine. You mean the invisible Church with somehow related to it many forms, whereas I mean one and one only visible Church. It is not logical to the Catholic to believe that Christ teaches through many visible forms all teaching contrary doctrine. You speak of the well-known facts of Christ’s life – but these facts are hotly contested – the virgin birth, the resurrection, the very divinity of Christ. For us the one visible Church pronounces on these matters infallibly and we receive her doctrine whether subjectively it fits in with our surmises or not. We believe that Christ left the Church to speak for him, that it speaks with his voice, that he is the head and we are the members.

If Christ actually teaches through many forms then for fifteen centuries, he taught that the Eucharist was his actual body and blood and thereafter he taught part of his
people that it was only a symbol. The Catholic can’t live with this contradiction. I have seen it said that the Catholic is more interested in truth and the Protestant in goodness, but I don’t think too much of the formula except that it suggests a partial truth.

The Catholic finds it easier to understand the atheist than the Protestant, but easier to love the Protestant than the atheist. The fact is though now that the fundamental Protestants, as far as doctrine goes, are closer to their traditional enemy, the Church of Rome, than they are to the advanced elements of Protestantism. You can know where I stand, what I believe because I am a practicing Catholic, but I can’t know what you believe unless I ask you. You are right that enjoy is not exactly the right
word for our talking about religion. As far as I know, it hurts like nothing else. We are at least together in the pain we share in this terrible division. It’s the Catholic Church who calls you “separated brethren,” she who feels the awful loss.


— Flannery O’Connor

Pretty great stuff, right?

If you want to know more about the late Ms. O’Connor, the Jewel of the South, here’s a Washington Post blurb about her. Or check out her (really dark) stories The Life You Save May Be Your Own (maybe her most famous story), The Geranium (her first short story), or… well, any number of other great choices.

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