by Father Robert Lauder
Fifteenth in a series
WHEN I FIRST began to read Father Michael Paul Gallagher’s Faith Maps: Ten Religious Explorers from Newman to Joseph Ratzinger (New York: Paulist Press, 2010, 158 pages, $16.95), I was surprised to find the author Flannery O’Connor’s name among the theologians whose thought Father Gallagher summarizes and explains.
O’Connor was a short story writer and also authored two novels and some essays. Ordinarily one would not categorize her as a theologian. Still Father Gallagher makes a good case for including her within his volume. He notes that more than 70 books have been written about her, that her fame has increased since her death and claims that when her essays and letters were published they showed her to be the most “theologically alert” novelist of the 20th century.
When I saw O’Connor’s name on the list of “explorers,” three memories came to mind. One was the experience I had many years ago with a friend whom I introduced to a series of Catholic novels most of which were by Graham Greene. Finally I invited my friend to read O’Connor’s short story, “A Good Man Is Hard to Find.” My friend hated it, could see nothing Catholic about it and to this day has what I think is a prejudice against the writer.
Another memory has to do with the course on philosophy and the Catholic novel that I have taught for many years at St. John’s University. For several years I included something by O’Connor in the course. When the students did not understand how her writing was Catholic, I invited my colleague, Joseph Roach, who teaches theology, to come to my class and lecture on O’Connor. For several years he came to my class and gave a magnificent lecture on her writings but still the students did not seem to appreciate her work.
The third memory concerns critic Alfred Kazin’s assessment of O’Connor. The distinguished critic thought that she would be the one 20th-century writer of religious stories who would still be read in years to come. Quite an assessment!
Father Gallagher’s chapter on O’Connor is quite good. In little more than 20 pages he gives a wonderful overview of her work.
Commenting on O’Connor’s work and quoting from some of it, Father Gallagher writes:
“She dramatizes again and again the costly transformation of vision that faith entails and the subterfuges we use for escaping its more demanding aspects. …When the surrounding culture does not share your Christian faith, ‘then you have to make your vision apparent by shock — to the hard of hearing you shout, and for the almost blind you draw large and startling figures’…Thus the wit of her fiction was often aimed at the defense mechanisms of a secular culture, or indeed of cock-sure religiousness. …She would probably have identified with this provocative statement from another Catholic novelist, Georges Bernanos: ‘The modern world needs to hear a few liberating voices, but the voices that set us free are not the tranquillizing, reassuring ones” (pp. 80-81).
Father Gallagher points out that O’Connor thought that the Church had to challenge and expand people’s imagination. Her stories showed characters having their imaginations challenged and expanded and the stories also could lead the reader toward a larger and deeper vision of reality.
Father Gallagher describes O’Connor’s stories as prophetic realism and I suspect that she thought of herself and her stories as playing a prophetic role. She wanted to help readers see what only the eyes of faith can see and one way she did that was by showing the inadequacy and shallowness of a totally secular interpretation of reality. That she wanted to jolt her readers into some sense of the mystery of the Incarnation and its implications in our lives is one reason why she frequently incorporates a violent scene in her fiction. She wants to stun the reader and help the reader expand his or her imagination to make room for mystery.
Father Gallagher comments on two of O’Connor’s stories, each dealing with a woman who has a distorted sense of spiritual purpose. The first story, O’Connor’s favorite, is “Revelation,” the other is “A Good Man Is Hard to Find,” which I think is my favorite.
Father Gallagher writes the following about the two stories:
“Both narratives, with an evocative style full of details, lead the central characters and the readers, to a climax of new vision. The ‘grotesque’ plots bring us through purgatory towards some kind of paradise. They lead to climactic confrontations with invisible mystery” (p. 84).
What I like most about “A Good Man Is Hard to Find” is that it dramatizes that God’s grace calls us to act and to change. The story is disturbing but I think that readers might be disturbed is good. I know the story disturbed me.[hr] Father Robert Lauder, a priest of the Diocese of Brooklyn and philosophy professor at St. John’s University, Jamaica, writes a weekly column for the Catholic Press.