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Flannery O’Connor and a Sacramental World

Updated: Aug 30, 2020

Flannery O’Connor is a fascinating American writer from the south of the US who brings to attention the work of God even in the darkest of situations. She wrote from around the mid 1940’s till her death in the mid 60’s. Tragically her life was cut short due to Lupus and this finally killed her in 1964 at the age of only 39.

O’Connor is an interesting figure for her time as she explores the ideas of grace and redemption from a Catholic perspective in a protestant and an ever-growing secular South. One of the very helpful things about O’Connor’s work is that much of her writing was short stories which can be read very quickly and easily. Flannery is very interested in exploring how God’s grace reaches different people in the south irrespective of their backgrounds. She explores the relationship between the objectively evil situations and the inner lives of those caught up in these encounters. In one of her most famous stories, “A good man is hard to find”, she explores the story of a sour old grandmother as she goes on a trip with her children and grandchildren. Throughout the story the grandmother is constantly chastising the others and in her pride constantly judging others. While they are travelling on their journey they get lost and the car ends up careering of the road. They wave down a passing car but to their horror the grandmother recognizes who the driver is. He is “The Misfit” a recently escaped criminal and murder.

One by one each member of her family is taken into the woods and killed. While the grandmother remains trying to plead with The Misfit. Flannery O’Connor uses this harsh and brutal situation to show how in the darkness and absence of good, grace abounds all the more. Faced with her own mortality the grandmother is shown to try and plead with the criminal and remind him of the good that still exists in him. In so doing we see a different side of this lady. In being forced to face the true evil of this murder she now sees more clearly the good in him or at least the good she wishes to grow in him. Before she struggled to do this with those nearest to her but now faced by death she recognizes how her life ultimately depends on love and the need to give and grow the goodness in others and the world.

Despite her best attempts, The Misfit still kills her and the final lines of the story convey much of this struggle. After one of the criminals says “She was a talker, wasn’t she?” The Misfit responds “She would have been a good woman, if it had been somebody there to shoot her every minute of her life.” The other criminal jokes “Some fun!” which angers The Misfit as he responds “It’s no real pleasure in life.”

Here the story ends. We are left shaken by what we have seen and perhaps even more so by what we have heard. Questions still remain and this is exactly what O’Connor wants. Most of all we are left wondering of what happens to the Grandmother. Did she truly repent or was she just trying to stop herself from dying. Would she have changed her life if she had lived. Here we see something interesting in The Misfit’s line “She would have been a good woman, if it had been somebody there to shoot her every minute of her life.” Clearly the Misfit sees that the contrast between life and death did something to the Grandmother. In medieval culture the idea of a Memento Mori played a similar role to this. A memento mori which is just Latin for “memory of death” was an item that one would own to remind oneself of their own mortality e.g. a skull. A few years ago we saw a revival of this in the popular phrase yolo which stands for You Only Live Once. The idea is in being reminded of death. The contrast better helps one see the value of life and therefore to live a good life. Here through the story Flannery O’Connor presents a Momento Mori through a modern lens. This story therefore throughout acts as a sign to point towards something else. Something that transcends it. The Misfit who feels so immersed in crime and darkness struggles to see this and says that “its no real pleasure in life” but in recognizing the goodness of the grandmother in that moment has he been touched by the grace of God. Is there hope that despite descending into the darkness now through this strange situation the grandmother has been a means by which God’s grace could reach this man.

The importance of the transcendent that exists beyond and through reality is important throughout O’Connor’s writing and we see it often in her descriptive passages. In each of her short stories she often describes the moment of grace offered and sadly often rejected to help us recognize the grace being offered to us now by God so that we might not rejected it as we have so often done before. The grace offered does not come just from within though it is often revealed through the world. One could say sacramentally i.e. as a sign. The Catholic faith understands creation as a generous and freely created gift from God. As such we also see that the world points back to God as the creator. This means that actions and objects in the world exist not in conflict with God but as means by which we might come to know him. The clearest examples of this is the 7 Sacraments. The most regularly experience example of this is of course the Eucharist in which bread and wine really become the body and blood of Christ. While they retain accidental resemblance to bread they substantially change and act as a sign directing us back towards God. Analogously in Flannery O’Connor’s work we often see actions or objects which “substantially” change in her stories through the work of the Holy Spirit. These changes aren’t quite the same as what goes on in the consecration of the host but bear an analogous relationship in as much as through the work of the holy spirit their relationship to the individual changes and is orientated towards God.

We see a wonderful example of this in the story “The Partridge Festival”. Here a young man called Calhoun comes back home during the town festival. Wishing to disconnect from his family especially his father who he detests he searches out a man recently arrested for murder. Calhoun hates his father because he sees him as week and pathetic. Unable to liberate himself from societal norms and only ever doing what was expected of him. Instead Calhoun wishes to find the murder who he admires since he was so powerful and in control of his life he wouldn’t let anyone tell him what to do, even to the point of killing someone. In the process of searching for the murder he finds a like minded girl to join him on the quest. At the end of the book he finally visits the murder and we see all his conceptions of who this man is come tumbling down. Faced with the reality of his evil he recognizes that all that he was searching for cannot be found here. He flees the building and drives away with the girl. Finally stopping at the side of the road from exhaustion we read the final lines of the story.

“They sat silently, looking at nothing until finally they turned and looked at each other. There each saw at once the likeness of their kinsman and flinched. They looked away and then back, as if with concentration they might find a more tolerable image. To Calhoun, the girl’s face seemed to mirror the nakedness of the sky. In despair he leaned closer until he was stopped by a miniature visage which rose incorrigibly in her spectacles and fixed him where he was. Round, innocent, undistinguished as an iron link, it was the face whose gift of life had pushed straight forward to the future to raise festival after festival. Like a master salesman, it seemed to have been waiting three from all time to claim him.”

These final lines display how the girls ordinary glasses become the means by which Calhoun is opened up to God’s grace. Throughout the story he has been running from the festival which he thinks is stupid and his great-grandfather founded many years ago. Here after running for so long throughout the story to try and escape the reality of who his father is. He is finally caught up with. He sees here that all he truly was looking for that was good and admirable, strong and powerful was found in the goodness of his grandfather and his descendants not in the mind of a mad murderess criminal. O’Connor describes wonderfully here the moment at which finally Calhoun is hit by that realization and God’s grace is offered to him. The story ends here and we are left like Calhoun having to decide what we do with this. Do we accept the grace offered by God despite the demands it puts on us or do we continue to run and deny his love.

Again and again Flannery O’Connor explores these themes. Fascinated at the sacramental nature of creation. At how everything in the world can be an instrument of God’s grace. Flannery really brings alive the philosophy of the middle ages into a modern southern setting. It was for this reason that she once described herself as a “Hillbilly Thomist”. This is the call that all Christians are made to live out. To come to accept the transcendental truths of reality found in God and to present those to people a new through their lives in the world. In so doing we help to sanctify the world and once again to allow God to speak out to us through it.

Deo Gratias!

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James McKee
James McKee
Aug 30, 2020

Thanks for pointing that out. I've corrected the mistake! I agree completely her ability to tell moral stories without imposing the moral message on the reader is impressive and allows the reader to freely come to understand what she wishes to express through her stories.


Ruth Bushell
Ruth Bushell
Aug 29, 2020

Love Flannery O Connor and these are some great reflections on her work. She's very good at telling a moralistic story without being remotely moralizing. The message is there but never spelled out or dictated to the reader, it is our choice how to interpret her metaphors and symbols just as it is man's choice to decide how to respond to the graces of God as revealed in his creation. P.S sorry to be a pedant but in paragraph 5 you refer to the Eucharist as bread and water instead of bread and wine...

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