Faith & Thought

The Challenge of Mystery From Talented Authors

by Father Robert Lauder 

Rereading Flannery O’Connor’s wonderful book, “Mystery & Manners: Occasional Prose,” selected and edited by Sally and Robert Fitzgerald (New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1957, 237 pp.) has helped me to appreciate anew the gift that talented novelists are to us. I have difficulty understanding some of O’Connor’s short stories but I accept the judgment of others who know more about literature than I do.

Some critics think she is one of the great Catholic authors of the 20th century. While I have trouble grasping some religious themes in her stories, I find her insights into literature as expressed in “Mystery & Manners” both interesting and provocative. Flannery writes the following: 

“People are always complaining that the modern novelist has no hope and that the picture he paints of the world is unbearable. The only answer to this is that people without hope do not write novels. Writing a novel is a terrible experience, during which the hair often falls out and the teeth decay. I’m always highly irritated by people who imply that writing fiction is an escape from reality. It is a plunge into reality and it’s very shocking to the system. … 

“People without hope not only don’t write novels, but what is more to the point, they don’t read them. They don’t take long looks at anything, because they lack the courage. The way to despair is to refuse to have any kind of experience, and the novel, of course, is a way to have experience” (pp. 77-78). 

My understanding of Flannery’s comments is that good novels deal with mystery, and mysteries can both frighten us and enlighten us. Great novels can force us to take long looks at reality. Those long looks, at least in Flannery’s view, will lead us to take long looks at mystery, for example the mystery of the human person and perhaps at least indirectly the mystery of God. 

Years ago I heard a lecture by a theologian who confessed that in the first theology course she ever taught, she used novels to lead the students to encounter theological mysteries. I thought that was a great idea. I would have loved to attend some of her classes. When I was a student in the major seminary we were discouraged from reading novels. I believe that the rationale behind that approach was that if we were going to read, we should be reading theology. I understand the thinking behind that approach, but I think we should have been encouraged to read some novels, novels that would help us indirectly in our study of theology. 

Flannery thought that the type of mind that can understand good fiction is not necessarily the educated mind, but the type of mind that can have its sense of mystery deepened by its contact with reality and its sense of reality deepened by its contact with mystery. Reading Flannery’s reflections on literature reveal how seriously she took her vocation as a writer. I suppose that I should not be surprised that in a book entitled “Mystery & Manners” that the author should so often refer to mystery, but I think that it is precisely because the author of fiction deals with mystery that Flannery took her vocation so seriously. 

O’Connor described herself as “a hillbilly Thomist,” and her comments on St. Thomas seem right on target. She wrote the following: 

“St. Thomas called art ‘reason in the making.’ This is a very cold and very beautiful definition, and if unpopular today, this is because reason has lost ground among us. As race and nature have been separated, so imagination and reason have been separated, and this always means an end to art. The artist uses his reason to discover an answering reason in everything he sees. For him, to be reasonable is to find, in the object, in the situation, in the sequence, the spirit which makes it itself. This is not an easy or simple thing to do. It is to intrude upon the timeless, and that is only done by the violence of a single minded respect for the truth. … If a writer is any good, what he makes will have its source in a realm much larger than that which his conscious mind can encompass and will always be a greater surprise to him than it can ever be to the reader” (pp. 82-83). 

What a wonderful vision of the artist’s vocation. As Flannery stressed that the artist has to look carefully and seriously at reality and seek to know it as deeply as possible, she has linked the artist’s vocation to the philosopher’s and the theologian’s. 

Whether they realize it or not, artists are looking for God’s messages in creating reality. The great artist grasps the message and then presents it in a novel or painting or poem or film or piece of music to the rest of us. I think there is a religious dimension to all art, even if the artist is not aware of that dimension. 

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.