It’s often said that Flannery O’Connor is one of, if not the best Catholic writer of the twentieth century. In her thirty-nine years before dying of lupus, she published two novels, thirty-two short stories, and a number of essays and reviews.
And yet, after “Catholic,” the word most commonly used to describe O’Connor’s work is probably “grotesque.” Her characters aren’t saints, far from it. Ugly people do ugly things. Nothing is tied up with a neat little bow, to say the least.
O’Connor knew that her fiction isn’t exactly beach reading. She recognized that her work would require a certain amount of training to appreciate. But that’s the first thing I love about her. She wasn’t writing to please the masses. She wrote to shed light on reality, to show how things really are and, in effect, to help us wake up.
Mystery and Manners
If you’ve tried to get into O’Connor’s fiction and struggled, let me assure you that you are not alone. However, that doesn’t mean that there is to be no Flannery in your life. Mystery and Manners is a dynamite collection of essays, speeches, and other occasional prose that will convince you that this bespectacled Southern woman is all she’s cracked up to be.
Writing about Writing
The essays that first interested me were those on writing. It’s immediately apparent that this is a woman who knows what she is about and that Christ is the center of her life. (In a recent trip to her childhood home in Savannah, I attended Mass at the cathedral which she often looked at through her parents’ bedroom window. She attended Mass there daily.)
When she writes about writing, she’s dealing with so much more: what forms the writer’s worldview, the human condition, and the significance of vocation. Take this, from “The Fiction Writer and His Country”:
The writer can choose what he writes about but he cannot choose what he is able to make live, and so far as he is concerned, a living deformed character is acceptable and a dead whole one is not. The Christian writer particularly will feel that whatever his initial gift is, it comes from God; and no matter how minor a gift it is, he will not be willing to destroy it by trying to use it outside its proper limits.
I love the term “proper limits”—what a game changer. What if we understood that the trying situations we find ourselves in are not intended to impede us from what we want so much as to guide us to what God needs of us? A rejection letter is less of a “no” and more of “that’s not quite right; try again.”
As a writer, this encourages me. As a human, even more so. With a heart centered on Christ and willing to see the realities of my own faults and my need for mercy, Heaven is a possibility.
Challenging the Culture
How many times have you flipped through the channels or offerings on your favored streaming service and bemoaned the lack of anything worth watching? Our gal Flannery would be appalled at a good deal of what’s out there. But she wouldn’t be surprised. In the same essay, she writes:
Redemption is meaningless unless there is cause for it in the actual life we live, and for the last few centuries there has been operating in our culture the secular belief that there is no such cause.
If O’Connor’s writing is grotesque, it’s because she saw humanity with a clearer lens than most of us do. There wasn’t any sugarcoating, but not because she was cynical or intentionally disparaging. For O’Connor (again from this essay), “the meaning of life is centered in our Redemption by Christ and what I see in the world I see in its relation to that.”
We need grace because we’re fallen. It’s often said that there’s no Easter Sunday without Good Friday. O’Connor was willing to look at things that too many of us shy away from. Things that are ugly, things that don’t make us feel warm and fuzzy inside, things that culture today neglects to acknowledge for what they are. But these things are real consequences of the Fall. And more importantly, they are the places from which we reach for grace. In them we have the opportunity to accept redemption through Christ.If O’Connor’s writing is grotesque, it’s because she saw humanity with a clearer lens than most of us do. #BISblog // Click To Tweet
From Birds to Books
The other essays in this collection approach a variety of topics, from education to her beloved birds. There is a distinct voice, a clear intention, and a woman I really wish I’d had the chance to high five.
If you’re a writer, I’d recommend reading these essays for the clarity of O’Connor’s vision. If you’re an artist, read them to appreciate the gift of your craft as an opportunity to give God the glory. Even if you’re neither, I beg you to read these pages for their honesty, humor, and humility.
In order to build the Kingdom, we need a realistic view. Mystery and Manners offers that, as well as hope that all is not lost, as it sometimes may seem.
Have you read Mystery and Manners? What did you think?Mystery and Manners Review #BISblog // Click To Tweet
Lindsay Schlegel is a daughter of God, wife, mother, writer, and editor. She lives in New Jersey with her high-school-sweetheart-turned-husband and their kids. You can find out more about her here.