Vintage Saints and Sinners
By Karen Wright Marsh
One cannot get through a Flannery O’Connor story without encountering the strangeness of God. As she said, the greatest dramas involve the salvation or loss of the soul. Her short story “Revelation” startles with its final vision of a field of living fire. The vast hordes of souls rumbling toward heaven, the battalions of freaks and lunatics shouting and clapping and leaping like frogs, are a queerly beautiful sight. And then the words, “In the woods around her the invisible cricket choruses had struck up, but what she heard were the voices of the souls climbing upward into the starry field and shouting hallelujah.” Here is a spiritual reality, glorious and disturbing, which my comfortable Christian categories cannot contain.
Where do I experience the shock of mystery in my everyday life? Flannery lamented that our secular society understands the religious mind less and less, that people who believe vigorously in Christ are wholly odd to most readers. It becomes more and more difficult in America to make belief believable, yet this is what she wanted to do. To create fictional examples of radical faith, Flannery went to the old Southern Bible Belt where such people were once taken for granted.
Flannery wrote from what she called a “typical Southern sense of reality.” My husband’s parents are from Jackson, Mississippi. Charles’s mother is lightning quick to assure you that not a single person she’s ever known is remotely like any of Flannery’s fictional characters, the folks with missing limbs, mysterious bulges, wooden legs, and faces blue with acne. Heavens, no. Yet there they are on the page: Flannery’s warthogs from hell, misfits and so-called white trash—the peculiar Southerners who lead us to God.
Charles has always been a Flannery O’Connor fan, and he introduced me to her personal correspondence. Flannery’s letters reveal a warm, witty, probing woman—nothing like the stern author I’d imagined from her violent stories. She discusses manuscripts she’s rewriting, the books she’s reading, a funny encounter with the telephone repairman, a promise to send more peacock feathers, news of Cousin Katie, complaints about the “idiot legislature” and an account of a funeral. Throughout the 596 pages, there is a great deal of theology. Flannery insists that she is not a mystic and does not lead a holy life, yet she unapologetically displays her faith: a life of continually turning away from egocentricity and toward God.
In Flannery’s letters, I find themes that are familiar to my native Reformed Christian clan: sin and grace. Fall and redemption. And the ultimate reality, God revealed in the incarnation. Flannery says other things, Catholic kinds of things I suppose, that I never heard in my Sunday school class. She calls for the abandonment of the self: “I measure God by everything I’m not.” She embraces suffering, insisting that before grace can heal “it cuts with the sword Christ said he came to bring.” While many casual believers think that faith is a big electric blanket, she says, of course it is a cross. Her Christian faith is a demanding one.
And then there’s that word mystery again, one of her favorites. She never tosses it around in the way of fuzzy spirituality. Flannery’s mystery is a rich and complex thing; it’s the ground of her spiritual life, and it explains everything, though I’m still struggling to understand what she means by it. I do know what while we contemporary readers strip the cosmos of religious meaning, Flannery aims to return us to mystery, where the unseen ordering of the world speaks of God the Creator. “This is the central Christian mystery,” Flannery says. “Life has, for all its horror, been found by God to be worth dying for.”
Nearly fifty years after Flannery’s death, I hold a slender Sterling marbled composition book. It is Flannery’s private prayer journal, written when she was nineteen years old and a student in Iowa. It’s been recently discovered and published, complete with a facsimile of her own handwriting on lined pages.
“Dear God,” the teenager begins in the first entry. “I cannot love Thee the way I want to. You are the slim crescent of a moon that I see and my self is the earth’s shadow that keeps me from seeing all the moon.” Flannery prays to know God. She asks to succeed with what she wants to do in the world. Flannery’s journal is filled with questions. Will I ever know anything? How can I live—how shall I live? Can’t anyone teach me how to pray? Am I keeping my faith out of laziness, dear God? Over the course of nearly two years, Flannery attends mass every morning, goes to class and privately journals her prayers, her battles, her hopes. At the last she blurts, “Oh Lord, make me a mystic, immediately.”
Help me get down under things and find where you are. When I read her modest petition, I feel, at last, the meaning of mystery for Flannery. I may lay aside the scholarly editions of her fiction, the analytical essays, the underlined commentary. She has handed me a precious key to herself. She once said that fiction is the concrete expression of mystery—mystery that is lived. For Flannery, mystery is about getting down under things to find where God is, illuminating the divine foundation of all that is, seen and unseen.
Of all of O’Connor’s writings, the words I’ll remember best come from this yearning, young Flannery, the wavering believer who wrote, “I don’t want to be doomed to mediocrity in my feeling for Christ. I want to feel. I want to love. Take me, dear Lord, and set me in the direction I am to go.” In the pages of her journal, she reminds me of my high school self, the girl who grew up in the church, comfortable with its firm teachings and routines, yet who sensed a wildness beyond. Back then, when I was a teenager, Flannery found me, a disoriented, displaced Yankee, and she shook me up with shocking, hilarious, perplexing stories of the South—and of the Spirit. I want to keep on walking with Flannery: to feel, to love, to follow, to get down under things and find where God is.
Taken from Vintage Saints and Sinners by Karen Wright Marsh. Copyright (c) 2017 by Karen Wright Marsh. Published by InterVarsity Press, Downers Grove, IL. www.ivpress.com