In Flannery O’Connor’s novel, “Wise Blood,” the protagonist senses Jesus moving “from tree to tree in the back of his mind, a wild ragged figure.”
I fell in love with that phrase long ago, and imagined Jesus, intriguing, mysterious and persistent, flitting in and out of our consciousness, but at the end of the day, still nagging at our attention. Wild and ragged, this Christ who pursues us.
Unfortunately, that was the end of my involvement with Flannery O’Connor until my online Catholic writers’ group began to discuss her. How, I wondered, had I majored in English and not read the great Catholic writer Flannery O’Connor?
I decided to remedy that and began with two O’Connor novels. Then I took a break. O’Connor is not for the faint of heart.
This Southern writer, who died in 1964, has been in the news lately because her “Prayer Journal,” written when she was a young writer at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, has just been published. The pastor at my parish devoted his weekly bulletin column to O’Connor.
“She really didn’t write words — she punched them into the reader’s face,” he wrote.
Don’t pick up an O’Connor novel thinking you’re going to read sweet, pious Catholic stories. O’Connor’s writing is troubling, her characters grotesque. That wild ragged figure moving from tree to tree draws her subjects into conversion. Flannery O’Connor is all about Jesus, but so intense is her portrayal of that figure that you may hardly recognize him.
The stories’ main characters often come to conversion after lives of graphic violence. They are, in general, freaks whose behavior — but persistent call — leaves you gaping. I know I’m not the only one who put down my first O’Connor novel with a bit of confusion, even revulsion.
I’m told that to really understand O’Connor and her Catholicism, one must read her letters. That, and her prayer journal, are next for me.
Meanwhile, I read a 2007 lecture on O’Connor by Archbishop George H. Niederauer, the retired archbishop of San Francisco, whose accomplishments include a Ph.D. in English literature and a life as a former college English teacher who has a masterly command of O’Connor.
In his lecture, “Flannery O’Connor’s Vision of Faith, Church and Modern Consciousness,” Archbishop Niederauer said, “Flannery O’Connor expressed impatience with the kind of Catholicism — and Catholic fiction — which kept everything nice, shallow, cute and safe.”
He continued: “Genuine Catholicism, she felt, must be as radical and demanding as its Founder’s teaching.”
Like Pope Francis, O’Connor doesn’t buy into part-time Christianity. She focused on the mystery of the Incarnation. Accepting Jesus was a matter of life or death, not a Sunday morning nicety.
O’Connor famously responded to the writer Mary McCarthy, a former Catholic, who described the Eucharist as a symbol. The young O’Connor retorted, “If it’s only a symbol, to hell with it.”
It was all or nothing for O’Connor.
In a lecture entitled “The Catholic Novelist in the Protestant South,” O’Connor delivered an image that particularly appeals to me as a Catholic writer but speaks to all of us as we struggle with truth.
“The poet is traditionally a blind man,” she said, referring to a literary image. “But the Christian poet, and the storyteller as well, is like the blind man Christ touched, who looked then and saw men as if they were trees — but walking. Christ touched him again and he saw clearly. We will not see clearly until Christ touches us in death, but this first touch is the beginning of vision.”
As perhaps our greatest Catholic American writer, O’Connor deserves our attention.