Monday, April 3, 2017

Why Flannery O’Connor’s Stories are Perfect for Lent

One of my Liturgical New Year’s resolutions was to read all of Flannery O’Connor’s short stories; preferably, to read at least one story a week. Unfortunately, I have not read near as much of her work as I had planned to—so I decided that Lent would be an excellent time to jump back into action. As I’ve read many her stories over the past several weeks, I’ve been thinking about how ideal they are for this liturgical season of penance and mortification. Unsurprisingly, I’ve heard of several other people who are also reading Flannery O’Connor’s stories during. What is it about this Southern writer that fits so well during this time of year? I can’t speak for other people, but here are three reasons why I think that O’Connor’s work is ideal reading material during Lent.


1. In these stories, we meet vivid characters, and seeing their sins and struggles helps us to identify our own sins and need for improvement.

“Nothing is perfect. This was one of Mrs. Hopewell’s favorite sayings. Another was: that is life! And still another, the most important, was: well, other people have their opinions too. She would make these statements, usually at the table, in a tone of gentle insistence as if no one held them but her…” (“Good Country People” 273)
Flannery O’Connor was such a good observer of human nature! Her characters lift off the page, and I see myself in them quite often. For example, Mrs. Hopewell, from the story, “Good Country People.” The way that she paints images of herself and others and lives by them (like repeatedly telling herself that the Freemans were “good country people”) is something that I can relate with all too well. How many times have I clung to my image that I’ve created in my mind of what someone “must” be like, instead of actually being present and interacting with the person whom I’ve encountered in reality? Reading through O’Connor’s stories, and being faced with characters who embody the sins that I commonly stumble into, is very good during the penitential season of Lent.

2. In her stories, O’Connor shows the workings of grace on people who don’t understand it.  

“Mr. Guizac had probably had everything given to him all the way across Europe and over here. He had probably not had to struggle enough. She had given him a job. She didn’t know if he was grateful or not. She didn’t know anything about him except that he did the work. The truth was that he was not very real to her yet. He was a kind of miracle that she had seen happen and that she talked about but that she still didn’t believe.” (“The Displaced Person 219)
Across the pages that Flannery O’Connor wrote, there is a recurring theme of people God working among people who don’t understand or acknowledge His grace and presence. For example, Mrs. McIntyre, in “The Displaced Person.” For much of this lengthy story, Mrs. McIntyre lives for herself. She hires refugees to work on her farm, and sees them for their efficiency and economy—and not as people. Whenever the priest, who brought the refugees, comes along, Mrs. McIntyre ignores him and his love for God’s creation. Still, despite Mrs. McIntyre’s obstinacy, God continues to pour down grace in the form of the priest and the beauty that surrounds her. I think that this is a great theme to think about as we contemplate God’s sacrifice and mercy in this Lenten season. Christ died for sinners. He came to save us even as we fall, even as we ignore the ways in which He works.

3. There are also some amazing depictions of the suffering, transformation, and renewal that happens when we choose Christ.

“His head was almost clear of liquor and he observed that his dissatisfaction was gone, but he felt not quite like himself. It was as if he were himself but a stranger to himself, driving into a new country though everything he saw was familiar to him, even at night.” (“Parker’s Back”527) 
My top-favorite Flannery O’Connor story, which exhibits this transformation beautifully, is “Parker’s Back.” The main character of the story is Parker, a man who experiences purpose through obtaining tattoos. In the story, we learn about his youth, adulthood, and marriage to Sarah Ruth, the daughter of a preacher. Parker, who has no use for religious, winds up encountering Christ, and as the story demonstrates, this meeting changes him profoundly. This whole theme is excellent for Lenten reflection, as we unite ourselves to the suffering Christ and ask Him to transform us in His love and mercy.  

Reading Flannery O’Connor’s stories has been such a good way to spend this liturgical season. I have started looking at myself much more honestly, and have been thinking intently about the ways in which God manifests Himself in my life, and in the lives of others. I am so grateful for this author, who so beautifully speaks of God’s presence in the daily lives of all people. I wholeheartedly encourage all of you to dive into some of Flannery O’Connor’s work—even if it’s not Lent, her stories are gorgeously written and very relevant to our lives!

A picture of O'Connor's childhood home, from
when I visited it in 2012. 

I will caution you that Flannery O’Connor’s stories can be a bit  confusing at times. I’ve found it helpful to munch on each story slowly, underlining certain passages that I find particularly thought-provoking so that I can go back to them. There are so many different recommendations that people have for diving into Flannery O'Connor's writings, and I am not a good authority on where the best starting place is. That being said, I love her short stories because they give a good taste of her beautiful prose, they're short enough to read in a couple of sittings, and there are a lot of them to choose from! I recommend starting off with "Parker's Back," because it's amazing, but "A Good Man is Hard to Find" seems to be one of her most famous and well-loved stories, so you couldn't go wrong with that one. 

However, I know that some people recommend starting with O'Connor's novels. Also, her book of essays, Mystery and Manners, is very insightful (I haven't read the whole book, but the few parts I have read I quite enjoyed!). I also should mention A Prayer Journal, by Flannery O'Connor, which-as you may have guessed-is her prayer journal. It's very short, but it gives some beautiful insight into the spiritual life of this great author. 

Finally, if you're interested in learning more about Flannery O'Connor and her awesomeness before you start reading her stories, I recommend the Fountains of Carrots Podcast episode, "Why We Love Flannery O'Connor And You Should Too,"  Daniel Stewart's article, "Flannery O'Connor and the Violence of Christianity,"and Uncommon Grace: The Life of Flannery O'Connor (this is an hour-long documentary which gives a great introduction to Flannery's life, writings, and spirituality). 

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