“As for biographies, there won’t be any biographies of me because, for only one reason, lives spent between the house and the chicken yard do not make exciting copy.”
I have been thinking and reading a lot the last month about the life, work and faith of Mary Flannery O’Connor. In January, I was able to attend a four day retreat on the life and work of O’Connor at the Trappist Monastery of the Holy Spirit in Conyers, Georgia. The retreat was led by Dr. Victor Kramer, retired professor of literature at Georgia State University in Atlanta. I had previously attended a retreat which Dr. Kramer led on the life and work Walker Percy (read my post about the previous retreat). Dr. Kramer is a true scholar and a Catholic gentleman.
During my pilgrimage of literary devotion to Milledgeville last year (read my previous post about my “Pilgrimage To the Shrine of Saint Flannery”), I read Lorraine Murray’s magnificent “spiritual biography,” The Abbess of Andalusia: Flannery O’Connor’s Spiritual Journey (2009).
After returning from Conyers, I was thirsty to hear more. First I read Professor Jean W. Cash’s Flannery O’Connor: A Life (2002). This morning I finished Professor Brad Gooch’s excellent biography Flannery: A Life of Flannery O’Connor (2009). As far as narrative writing skill and non-fiction as literature, Professor Gooch’s book wins the best biography writer contest hands down. In some places, Professor Cash’s book feels like reading a police report: “this and that happened and so and so witnessed it and said thus and such about it.” Gooch’s book delves more into O’Connor’s personal life and struggles while Cash’s book seems more oriented on O’Connor’s literary life. With these two books and Murray’s Abbess of Andalusia, there is no stone unturned in the short life of this great Southern Catholic author.
If I had to recommend just one book about O’Connor’s life, it would have to be Gooch’s. However, after reading all three, I feel like I have spent the afternoon sitting on the porch at Andalusia drinking Coca-Cola spiked with coffee (Yuk!, but according to Professor Gooch, Flannery liked it) and talking with Miss Mary Flannery about the great questions of life and faith.
O’Connor can be placed at the tail end of the so-called “Catholic Literary Revival,” of which her contemporary Thomas Merton was a part. O’Connor and Merton shared the same editor, Robert Giroux, and, although they never met, both admired the work of the other. Although she was one herself, Flannery derided the “Interlecshuls.” Her connections with the literati and Catholic intelligentsia of the 50's and early ‘60s is like a who's who of those “Interlecshuls.”
From a Christian and Catholic perspective, there is a tremendous amount of spiritual wisdom to be gained from a study of this life lived “between the house and the chicken yard.” This is somebody who found her God given gift and used it to the best of her ability despite her debilitating terminal illness. A strong Catholic who appears never to have wavered in her faith, she never lost her sense of humor. She remained optimistic and was still working on her stories up to the last.
Flannery obtained a prayer card with a prayer to Saint Raphael the Archangel which she prayed every day. Murray’s book contains O’Connor’s prayer to St. Raphael in the appendix:
O Raphael, lead us toward those we are waiting for, those who are waiting for us:
Raphael, Angel of happy meetings, lead us by the hand toward those we are looking for. May all our movements be guided by your Light and transfigured with your Joy.
Angel, guide of Tobias, lay the request we now address to you at the feet of Him on whose unveiled Face you are privileged to gaze.
Lonely and tired, crushed by the separations and sorrows of life, we feel the need of calling you and of pleading for the protection of your wings, so that we may not be as strangers in the province of joy, all ignorant of the concerns for our country.
Remember the weak, you who are strong, you whose home lies beyond the region of thunder, in a land that is always peaceful, always serene and bright with the resplendent glory of God.