Noting the U.S. Post Office recent release of the Flannery O’Connor stamp, Ralph C. Wood has written a nice article about Flannery O’Connor over at firstthings blog. I think she would like it. Wood says she is an “anomalous candidate for the honor because her work stands at a critical distance from the American project, both in its older and more recent iterations. Precisely in her refusal to assimilate her fiction to the national consensus, she made her most valuable gift to it. The chief evidence for this claim is to be found in two 1963 issues of the Jesuit journal America that O’Connor read and marked only a few months before her all too early death at age thirty-nine in 1964.”
…Coughlin (writer of one of those articles)… warned that the American principle separating church and state, when joined with our religious pluralism, becomes “a principle separating church and society.” It confines Christian faith to the private sphere, as if it were an inward and invisible thing. Christianity is an outward and public thing, as Chesterton called it, an unabashedly communal and thus an irreducibly political reality. The Church’s mission, therefore, is to worship the triune God and to practice its ethical life in full accord with its historic convictions. The Church is thus called to make prophetic witness against all pretensions to secular autonomy. When the nation-state pretends to such sovereignty, it is in fact no longer secular. It transforms itself into what Fr. Coughlin named as “an antireligious religion.” “To the Christian,” he cautioned in June of 1963, “secularism is a form of idolatry—the deification of man-made things.”
Flannery O’Connor resisted such idolatry. She would not be honored with a commemorative stamp if she had attuned her faith and her fiction to the national consensus. Her achievements would have been significant but not drastically important. Setting her loves in proper order, O’Connor gave her first and final loyalty, not to the United States of America, but to the incarnate and living God, the God under and to whom this nation putatively pledges its allegiance. She became the most important Christian author this nation has yet produced—T.S. Eliot the Christian poet being not an American but a British citizen—by becoming a radically unaccommodating Catholic writer.
Here are a few other passages from the article:
- We have engaged Scripture aright, O’Connor declared, when, “like Jacob, we are marked.”
O’Connor admired the backwoods believers of the American South because they were thus “mastered,” thus “marked.” She was drawn to their self-blinding street prophets and baptizing river preachers. Despite their awful failings, they spoke the language and declared the message of Scripture. These economically poor and educationally uncouth believers possessed no cultural standing or political power; indeed, polite society had passed them by on the other side. Yet she makes them the focus of her fiction, not in scorn but sympathy. Their fierce and sweated Faith enabled them to feel “the hand of God and its descent,” she confessed. “We have trembled with Abraham as he held the knife over Isaac.” Advocates of our “antireligious religion” of secular autonomy are not thus haunted. They do not fear the terrible descending hand of God. They do not walk, like Jacob, with a divinely inflicted limp. O’Connor’s characters, by contrast, are terribly afflicted, fearful, haunted. When asked why her fiction, like that of so many other Southern writers, is filled with freaks, O’Connor famously replied that Bible-drenched Southerners are still able to recognize a freak when they see one. They take the measure of themselves and others by the plumb line described by the prophet Amos. Its true Vertical exposes all deviations, whether left or right, religious or secular.
- She worried that ours is becoming an age wherein tender feelings overwhelm tough truth. Like C. S. Lewis, she feared that we are becoming people without chests—i.e., without the moral and religious sentiments of the heart and will that enable the mind rightly to rule the viscera. While earlier ages may have felt less, she said, they saw more, even though they saw with the blind, prophetical, unsentimental eye of acceptance, which is to say, of faith. In the absence of this faith now, we govern by tenderness. It is a tenderness which, since cut off from the person of Christ, is wrapped in theory. When tenderness is detached from the source of tenderness, the outcome is terror. It ends in forced labor camps and in the fumes of the gas chamber.
- Her characters learn to “see” by discerning the invisible realities that are both the cause and the cure of the world’s misery. They discover that, as O’Connor herself declared, evil is not a problem to be fixed but a mystery to be endured. Our great temptation, in an age of “antireligious religion,” is to believe that, because we can repair much of human pain by human measures, we can also mend the human soul. Thus do we also blink. We benignly yield to feelings that, at whatever cost, must not be “hurt.” We cancel our very humanity in conforming ourselves to a happiness that denies both our moral perversions and bodily limitations. It is altogether appropriate, at this particular crisis in our history, that Flannery O’Connor should be honored by a branch of our national government, the US Postal Service. Her fiction serves as a warning sign, to the nation and to the world, against what Walker Percy called our “tempestuous restructuring of human consciousness.” She saw, almost from the start of her writing career, that we Americans have been undergoing a tectonic shift in our character. The legitimate and hard-won freedoms of the Enlightenment, beneficial to democratic states and confessing churches alike, are now being construed as a call to re-fashion ourselves into whatever creatures we feel ourselves to be, thus devising a species drastically unlike anything previously known. Yet she also provided, by the indirection of art rather than the diktat of propaganda, an answer to our pandemic. Over against our invertebrate tenderness, she creates characters who learn, after the fiercest struggles, to stand upright in the conviction that we are meant to participate in the very life of God. Our official authorities may stamp Flannery O’Connor’s image on its postage, but no one can cancel her witness to the Charity that burns with purifying fire.
Even if you are not a Flannery O’Connor fan the article is worth reading.