In a letter dated 14 June, 1958, Flannery O’Connor wrote about a man who had committed suicide, “His tragedy was I suppose that he didn’t know what to do with his suffering.” For many, O’Connor (1925-1964) is the Mozart of American fiction; acclaimed in her brief life, her writings have merited a volume in the handsome Library of America series. Her native Catholicism informed her stories, and for some they hold profound philosophical allure, while for others they are simply sweaty and grotesque.
After college, she studied at the prestigious Writers’ Workshop in Iowa, where one of her instructors was Paul Horgan. Years later she recalled, “Once he found forty things wrong with a story of mine and I thought him a fine teacher.” Both distinguished regional writers, Horgan is the Haydn to O’Connor’s Mozart: the older Catholic artist, spare and elegant; the younger, vivid and vivacious.
The Catholicism of Horgan and O’Connor gave them insights into human nature, and in O’Connor’s case, her faith also gave her a way to understand her own long struggle with illness, primarily lupus. She wrote in a letter of 9 August, 1957, that she disagreed with Evelyn Waugh’s definition that a Catholic novel deals with “the problem of the faith.” To her it was “a Catholic mind looking at anything, making the category generous enough to include myself.” Two years later (6 October, 1959) she wrote that, depending on who was asking her, she might identify herself as a Catholic writer. “Actually,” she explained, “the question seems so remote from what I am doing when I am doing it, that it doesn’t bother me at all.”
Here one finds a clue to her appeal: She did not set about self-consciously to write a Catholic story. She had an aversion to piety on parade, one example being her preference for a breviary instead of popular books of prayers. “I am a long-standing avoider of May processions and such-like nun-inspired doings,” she wrote on 1 June, 1958, adding, “I am always thankful the Church doesn’t teach those things are necessary.”
Rather, while privately praying her breviary and often going to daily Mass, her approach to her faith was deeply intellectual. In addition to poring over the fiction of Catholic authors from Graham Greene to Georges Bernanos, Walker Percy to Evelyn Waugh, she delved into works by theologians ranging from Saint Thomas Aquinas to Friedrich von Hügel, Romano Guardini to Teilhard de Chardin. She also read Church history, saying of Monsignor Philip Hughes’s The Reformation in England, “I feel like I was at it.”
Her vast Catholic reading percolated into her fiction. One of her short stories, “A Temple of the Holy Ghost,” first appearing in the May, 1954, Harper’s Bazaar and published the next year in her collection A Good Man is Hard to Find, depicts a rural Southern person with a rare affliction. The affliction is being what in the 1950s was still called a hermaphrodite, and, wearing a blue dress, this person makes a living by being on display at fairs and carnivals.
As he (O’Connor consistently uses “it”) undrapes, his statement to the spectators is even more revealing: “God made me thisaway and if you laugh He may strike you the same way. This is the way He wanted me to be and I ain’t disputing His way. I’m showing you because I got to make the best of it. I expect you to act like ladies and gentlemen. I never done it to myself nor had a thing to do with it but I’m making the best of it. I don’t dispute hit.”
On 13 September, 1954, O’Connor replied to a lady who had written to complain about this story. O’Connor told her that the hermaphrodite was based on one at the previous summer’s local fair, and the assertion that God had made him that way was nearly a verbatim quote from the fair. “Any freak so inspired,” O’Connor wrote, “could say the same and I could have used any freak but there is certainly a more poignant element of suffering in this than in anything else one could find at a fair.” O’Connor went on: “The point is of course in the resignation to suffering, which is one of the fruits of the Holy Ghost; not to any element of sex or sexlessness.”
Resignation can mean to some people mere passivity, collapsing internally in the face of a grave permanent obstacle. Another kind of resignation to fate was the hallmark of old Roman Stoics, expecting little from life and getting it. Either way, suffering is only pain and has no redemptive value.
For O’Connor, though, resignation to suffering meant recognizing a fact of life and moving on, or in the words of the carnival freak, making the best of it. She had in mind Saint Paul saying that a fruit of the Holy Spirit is, in the words of the Douay-Rheims translation, “patience”; in the King James Version, “longsuffering” (Gal 5:22).
Suffering may become prolonged, even life-long, as with the hermaphrodite (or intersex) not fitting into any standard category. For O’Connor, the tragedy was not in the suffering but in being stymied by it. She wrote that her mother said to the wife of that man who had committed suicide that “she didn’t see how anybody with any faith in God could do such a thing.” According to O’Connor, the widow replied that “she was sure he had faith in God, but he didn’t have any faith in people.” O’Connor, instead of apologizing for her mother’s tactlessness or praising the widow’s presence of mind, wrote that the widow’s assurance was the same as “to accuse him of the great asininity.”
Whatever “the great asininity” may be, something will always occur to restore one’s lack of faith in human nature. In Paul Horgan’s novel Things as They Are (1964), the narrator’s twenty-something uncle commits suicide. The uncle had been a Catholic seminarian but left seminary for reasons no one ever discussed; his imperious father, certain his son was destined to become a bishop, was enraged and never spoke to his son again. Alas, a hermaphrodite’s gentlemanly behavior was lacking. The father refused to attend the funeral but went to his own church to pray for the repose of his son’s soul. No word on whether anyone prayed for the father.
Daniel J. Heisey, O. S. B, is a Benedictine monk of Saint Vincent Archabbey, Latrobe, Pennsylvania, where he is known as Brother Bruno. He teaches Church History at Saint Vincent Seminary.