Faith & Thought

Shedding Light on Mystery Through Flannery O’Connor

by Father Robert Lauder

I have found reflecting on some of the insights of author Flannery O’Connor very helpful in trying to understand the relationship between good stories and religious faith.

I first read her book, “Mysteries and Manners: Occasional Prose,” selected and edited by Sally and Robert Fitzgerald (New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1961, 237 pp.), many years ago, perhaps in the 1970’s. Flannery has wonderful insights into the nature of fiction, very stimulating and provocative insights.

Apparently some of O’Connor’s insights stayed with me because as I have been writing this series of columns about the relationship between art and religious faith, Flannery has come into my mind several times. When I began to reread sections of her book a few weeks ago, I was not disappointed. Rather my appreciation of the book increased. I found the following remarks especially insightful:

“The serious fiction writer will think that any story that can be entirely explained by the adequate motivation of its characters or by a believable imitation of a way of life, or by a proper theology, will not be a large enough story for him to occupy himself with.

“This is not to say that he doesn’t have to be concerned with adequate motivation or accurate references to a right theology; he does; but he has to be concerned with these only because the meaning of his story does not begin except at a depth where these things have been exhausted.

“The fiction writer presents mystery through manners, grace through nature, but when he finishes there always has to be left over that sense of Mystery which cannot be accounted for by any human formula” (p. 153).

If Flannery’s reflections on fiction are accurate, then the artist seems to have an almost religious vocation. The Mystery that Flannery is referring to is not a mystery like the mystery that might be in a “Whodunnit” but rather the Mystery that is God and God’s involvement in the lives of people.

In a talk she gave at the University of Notre Dame, Flannery said the following:

“The Catholic sacramental view of life is one that sustains and supports at every turn the vision that the storyteller must have if he is going to write fiction of any depth” (p. 152).

I suspect that Flannery would agree with my opinion that artists have a vocation that could almost be described as a religious vocation. What are great artists doing but reflecting on God’s creation and perhaps seeing what many of us miss and then translating their insight into great works of art.

The more I think about what I have received during my life from great plays, films, novels, and other works of art the more I see that I should be deeply grateful. I cannot even guess what a positive influence artists have been in my life.

In recent years because of insights I have received from philosophers, theologians, and spiritual writers, I have become more aware of the power of art to act as grace in my life. Theologian Michael Himes expressed the ubiquity of grace well in his book, “Doing the Truth in Love: Conversations about God, Relations and Service” (New York: Paulist Press, 1995, 160 pp.). I do not think I am exaggerating when I write that the following words of Father Himes changed my life. They certainly changed my view of art:

“So grace is everywhere. This claim has very important consequences. Often we speak of the sacred as though it was a quite separate realm from the secular. What I am suggesting is that there is no secular realm, if by ‘secular’ we mean ‘ungraced’ or ’unrelated’ to the ‘agape’ of God.

“There may be many aspects of life about which we do not customarily use religious or theological language to talk about our experience, but that does not mean that those realms of experience are ungraced. Every aspect of our being is ultimately connected to where we stand in the face of the ‘agape’ of God” (pp. 103-104).

I am wondering if I should make a list of the novels, films, and plays that seem to have a powerful impact on my life. If I were to do that, it would be a nostalgia trip, but I hope it might be more than that. It might be one way of identifying the presence of God in my life.

It might be the kind of activity that a person would do during a day of recollection or at the start of a religious retreat. Being grateful to the artists who enriched my life enormously may be all I could hope for by making such a list. Perhaps we cannot count graces the way we might count other experiences. Being grateful may itself be a grace.

Father Lauder is a philosophy professor at St. John’s University, Jamaica. He presents two 15-minute talks from his lecture series on the Catholic Novel, 10:30 a.m. Monday through Friday on NET-TV.