In the novelist’s case, prophecy is a matter of seeing near things with their extensions of meaning and thus of seeing far things close up. The prophet is a realist of distances, and it is this kind of realism that you find in the best modern instances of the grotesque. -- Flannery O’Connor
What are the “far things” O’Connor is talking about? She is concerned with the connection between close-up realism on Earth and a higher spiritual Truth. God’s incarnate presence in the world, and our relationship with it, however weak or strong or strange: this is what O’Connor writes about. As an author, this is what I strive to write about, too.
A writer who wants to bring far things close up often creates characters and situations that are strange, outlandish, or evil. O’Connor called it the "grotesque." Fifty years ago, when she wrote, not only the South, but most other areas recognized the outlandish as just that. But today, the rules concerning what is strange, and actually evil, have changed. Some of them have become almost normal. Yet God hasn’t changed, and He is just as apparent in our world, so the time is ripe for more of Flannery O’Connor-like stories of grace at work in the grotesque.
Most readers have a desire for some redemptive act in a novel or story, the same as many of us yearn for a chance of restoration in our personal lives—a moment of grace that will turn us, or better us, or lift us up to higher place in our own eyes and in the eyes of those we love. But what is that mysterious moment of grace coming out of evil?
Take the old lady in "A Good Man is Hard to Find."
The old lady's gross imperfections are opportunities for grace, just as are our own imperfections, because they offer a person a choice, by way of free will, to choose to act otherwise. In the Catholic Church's view, there are two kinds of Grace--Sanctifying Grace and Actual Grace. Sanctifying Grace, inherited from the God who made us, lives in the soul and stays in the soul—it’s what gives us our dignity as human beings. By contrast, Actual Grace doesn’t live in the soul. Rather, throughout a lifetime, it acts in the soul as divine pushes from God toward His goodness—often when a character, or a person for that matter, is far from goodness. These fallible human opportunities can be our push toward God. However, those pushes must be noticed, and must require cooperation, as happens with both the Misfit and the old lady. A Catholic imagination like O'Connor's translates that tenet of grace in fiction.
The following is from Flannery O'Connor to John Hawkes, April, 1960:
"Perhaps it is a difference in theology, or rather the difference that ingrained theology makes in the sensibility. Grace, to the Catholic way of thinking, can and does use as its medium the imperfect, purely human, and even hypocritical. Cutting yourself off from Grace is a very decided matter, requiring a real choice, act of will, and affecting the very ground of the soul. The Misfit is touched by the Grace that comes through the old lady when she recognizes him as her child, as she has been touched by him in his particular suffering. His shooting her is a recoil, a horror at her humanness, but after he has done it and cleaned his glasses, the Grace has worked in him and he pronounces his judgment: she would have been a good woman if he had been there every moment of her life. True enough. In the Protestant view, I think Grace and nature don't have much to do with each other. The old lady, because of her hypocrisy and humanness and banality couldn't be a medium for Grace. In the sense that I see things the other way, I'm a Catholic writer."
We often forget that the price of restoration sometimes takes the grotesqueness of a crucifixion. And that means suffering. Just as God’s grace in our lives is a mystery, the suffering we sometimes endure is mysterious as well. We cannot figure out the why of it, same as the old lady in "A Good Man is Hard to Find."
The old lady was a Christian, a follower of Christ. But Jesus Christ was crucified. Does it mean we, or a character we write about, will be crucified, too? It may. At the least, we will surely suffer; life sees to it. And realism in writing will mimic that suffering.
At times, we cause our own suffering by the bad choices we make, like the old lady. Other times, another person, or a circumstance out of our control, may cause it—like the Misfit. But that moment of grace is available. The faith that grace is available is key in the writing of Flannery O’Connor and others who have a Catholic world view. Her faith empowered Flannery to live in the midst of suffering and yet recognize grace and its ability to restore. So why wouldn’t her writing express it as well?
Kaye Park Hinckley is the author of the novel A Hunger in the Heart, short story collection Birds of a Feather, and novelette, Mary’s Mountain. She frequently speaks about her writing in venues such as keynote speaker for the 2015 Saint Louis Marian Conference, St. Louis, MO., and most recently, a guest lecturer for the Christus Series at Spring Hill College in Mobile, AL. Her daily blog is www.aworldontheedge.com. Her books may be found here.