Sunday, August 28, 2011

THE ABBESS OF ANDALUSIA


I have just re-read The Abbess of Andalusia, by Lorraine V. Murray, about the letters and life of Flannery O'Connor, and have been moved, mystified and inspired all over again. The intro by Joseph Pearce is first-rate: "It is the suffering of God Himself," for example, "that makes sense of all suffering, and it is through Christ's suffering that Christians find meaning and purpose in their own." The selected quotes from Flannery's letters, stories, and essays are uniformly gems. And Lorraine, who's an online friend, gets what many other biographers have not (amazingly, because if you miss this, you miss everything) that Catholicism was the fuse that drove O'Connor's writing and life.

But I think what distinguishes this book from some of the others that have been written about F.O. is love. Love for Flannery, love for her faith, love for her genius,  love for her lack of self-pity, love for her suffering, love for her loneliness: the loneliness of a rural dairy farm, of the Catholic writer in a resolutely secular culture, of success, of the lupus that increasingly disfigured and debilitated her and from which she died at the tender age of 39.

FLANNERY O'CONNOR'S WRITING DESK AND CRUTCHES
There are sections on, among other subjects, Flannery's interior life, her ministry of writing, her conversion of heart, and the action of grace, including "A Reluctant Pilgrim: The Journey to Lourdes," "Genuine Works of the Lord: Andalusia's Birds and Beasts," and "Grace in Suffering: The Cross of Lupus."

On Flannery's writing routine:
She opened her day with prayer, spent a few hours pounding out her fiction on a manual typewriter, and spent the afternoons writing letters and reading. Her letters reveal, however, that there was an extraordinary spiritual life beneath the deceptively ordinary surface. It was anchored in prayer and a solid faith in the teachings of the Catholic Church. p. xxix

On making a living with writing:
“There’s no money in it and little consolation except that it looks good when you have to fill out a form…And a year later you will get a few letters from your friends saying they say your book for 33 cents on a remainder table." She added plaintively: "At least this is what is always happening to me.”

Flannery continued to write her fiction, however, because it was the one thing she felt she could do well, the one talent that she clearly could see coming from God. She also believed that writing fiction was her way to glorify God in return. Following the principles of St. Thomas Aquinas, she held that a good work of fiction doesn’t exist to reform or convert someone, but is rather “a good in and of itself.” A story or novel needn’t have any utilitarian value at all, because “what is good in itself glorifies God because it reflects God.”

Along this line of thinking, it’s clear that other aspects of her writing, whether it was corresponding with friends or writing for Catholic publications, also proceeded from her belief that she was heeding God’s calling, and that this was a good thing to do, in and of itself. Thus, even when she wrote reviews that the editor failed to publish, gave friends tips on stories that never saw the light of day, or wrote for an audience shoe maturity she suspected to match the level of teen-agers, she persevered, because it was all part of her vocation: the reason God made her.
p. 115

"For her, truly worrisome offenses in fiction
had to do with moral errors, 'when right is held up as wrong,
or wrong as right.' "
On Catholic literature:
[Flannery observed:]"The novel is an art form and when you use it for anything other than art, you pervert it"...Perhaps she had in mind certain Catholic reviewers who had harshly criticized her books because they'd wanted her to champion her faith by promoting explicitly Catholic messages and populating her stories with Catholic characters.

As an author who showed the effects of grace in her fiction, Flannery would have been well aware of Thomas Aquinas's insights on this topic. St. Thomas delineated two kinds of grace: there is the habitual kind, quietly coming from reception of the sacraments and giving us spiritual strength, and another, more dramatic, form that involves God's intervention in human actions. In her fictional worlds, Flannery often portrays the vivid effects of Aquinas's second type of grace. Divine intervention occurs in a shocking way to illuminate dramatically how one of her characters either accepts or rejects this divine gift.
p. 25

O'Connor has got to be one of the most quotable authors on record, and Lorraine Murray has collated some beauties:

"[A]nything the human being touches, even Christian truth, he deforms slightly to his own image."

"The Church can't be put forward by anybody but God and one is apt to do great damage by trying."

"The creative action of the Christian's life is to prepare his death in Christ."

"Life without [the Blessed Virgin Mary] would be equivalent to me to life without sleep, and as she contained Christ for a time, she seems to contain our sleep for a time, so that we are able to wake up in peace."


I couldn't help thinking of my own favorite lines from a Flannery letter:

"We are not judged by what we are basically. We are judged by how hard we use what we have been given. Success means nothing to the Lord, nor gracefulness."

Thanks to Lorraine V. Murray for this wonderful book on one of the patron saints of Catholic, which is to say of all, literature.
"I can never describe my heart as 'burning'
to the Lord (who knows better)
without snickering."

5 comments:

  1. I have the privilege of being a friend and neighbor of Lorraine Murray, and as good a writer as she is, she is twenty times better as a friend and human being. Lorraine has also written some neat, light, novels about life, and murder in a parish that is strikingly similar to the one to which our families both belong, "Death of a Liturgist" and "Death in the Choir." I get to be an online friend of Heather King, and an actual friend of Lorraine Murray. Life is good. If one wants a fantastic primer to Flannery, one of Georgia's best kept secrets, and woefully under-promoted in our state, read, The Abbess of Andulusia. This book is the perfect gateway into the incredible richness that is Flannery O'Connor, and it will makes everything else one reads by or about her, much, much more meaningful.

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  2. Amen!! Lorraine also sounds like an incredible cook which I personally feel must rate highly in the sainthood ledger.

    Thanks and good to hear from you, Chris...

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  3. Still my favorite Flannery O'Connor quote --

    I was once, five or six years ago, taken by some friends to have dinner with Mary McCarthy and her husband, Mr. Broadwater. (She just wrote that book, A Charmed Life.) She departed the Church at the age of 15 and is a Big Intellectual. We went at eight and at one, I hadn't opened my mouth once, there being nothing for me in such company to say.... Having me there was like having a dog present who had been trained to say a few words but overcome with inadequacy had forgotten them.

    Well, toward morning the conversation turned on the Eucharist, which I, being the Catholic, was obviously supposed to defend. Mrs. Broadwater 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.

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  4. It's an excellent book. What makes it excellent in my view is that it's balance. After all O'Connor did put into the mouth of one of her characters, "She could never be a saint, but she thought she could be a martyr if they killed her quick" and I'd say O'Conner might have said it of herself.

    I doubt Flannery would abide a biography that was full of gloss,warsh (trying for a southern pronunciation there), or purple hagiography therefore my guess is she'd give this one the writer's thumbs up.

    Speaking of books Heather, will your next one be available in an e-book format?

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  5. Thanks, Owen, Lorraine's book really is special, and my own will in fact be available in e-form. For some reason, they, or my publisher, waits until the hard copy has been out a few weeks. And the hard copy should be out a few weeks from now...everything got pushed back but it's a-coming!...

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