Friday, February 24, 2012

Remember that you are dust...

With the the start of Lent on Wednesday, many of us have begun a season of fasting and penance where we reflect on our mortality and the fleeting nature of human life. Earlier this week I had a visitor ask me if I thought Flannery's lupus contributed to her rather dark outlook on human nature. It's hard to say to what, if any, extent it did. However, I believe that the diagnosis of the lupus and the disclosure of that diagnosis had much to do with her choice of literary themes. When Flannery came down with the disease she was only 25 years old, an age when most young people (especially these days) still think they're invincible. Death isn't even on the radar. Not so for Flannery O'Connor. Since her father died of lupus nearly a decade earlier, the diagnosis was withheld from her as it was thought at the time to be the kind thing to do. It was during a return trip to Connecticut in June of 1952, however, that her friend Sally Fitzgerald told her the exact nature of her illness (Brad Gooch: Flannery: A Life of Flannery O'Connor, pp. 214-216). Realizing that her life was going to be cut short, Flannery went to work at once writing so many stories where death is a major theme - be it physical death (e.g. Greenleaf), spiritual death (e.g. The Life You Save May Be Your Own), or both (e.g. A View of the Woods). This post is not the place to delve into a topic that could be the subject of a book, but it is clear to me that O'Connor's acute awareness of her impending mortality profoundly affected her writing. Flannery, however, was not one to indulge in a glum moroseness. Instead, her stories reflect an artistic vision that is ultimately comic. She makes us laugh, yes, but also, and more importantly, O'Connor affirms that the human drama is a divine comedy. In the end, as the visionary Julian of Norwich said, "All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well."
- Mark

Friday, February 17, 2012

Censor Liborum

As luck would have it, during my retreat at the Monastery of the Holy Spirit last week I met a fellow retreatant who had actually known Fr. Paul Bourne, the monk who was the subject of last week's post. He shared with me some of his memories of Fr. Paul. For example, few knew (including this man) that Fr. Paul was chief censor for the Trappist order in America and was thus responsible for reviewing the manuscripts of writers like Thomas Merton prior to publication. According to one of the monks at Holy Spirit, "Paul Bourne was strict on Merton. He was finicky about any sexual stuff, and said that he had gotten some 'whining and complaining letters' from Merton. He taught us Church history on Tuesday mornings, was a litterateur, not a liberal, and had read all of Flannery's stuff. I think she saw in him a kindred spirit." (Brad Gooch, Flannery: A Life of Flannery O'Connor, p. 327) Fr. Bourne may have been Merton's bete noire, but he was such a humble man that he didn't think his holding such a distinguished position in the order as censor liborum was worth mentioning even to friends. As the above citation makes clear, and what my friend at the monastery reiterated, was Paul Bourne's enthusiasm for Flannery. Though he may have been taciturn by nature, when it came to O'Connor Fr. Paul wasn't a bit shy in telling others about Flannery O'Connor. He thought the girl from Milledgeville was the bomb.
- Mark

Thursday, February 9, 2012

Bonsai Master

I'm posting early this week as I will be heading up to Conyers tomorrow for a week-end retreat at the Monastery of the Holy Spirit. Flannery O'Connor and her mother visited this Cistercian monastery just outside Atlanta fairly frequently and became good friends with the abbot, Dom Augustine Moore and many of the monks including Fr. Paul Bourne and Bro. Pius. During the early 1960s Abbot Moore and Fr. Bourne were regular visitors at Andalusia. A spiritual bond must have developed between Flannery and the monks for at the time of her death, Abbot Moore was asked to administer last rites. He and Fr. Bourne were also invited to participate in the funeral mass at Sacred Heart Catholic Church on August 4, 1964. While Flannery enjoyed the friendship of a number of monks at Holy Spirit, she was particularly close to Fr. Bourne (1908-95). According to a monk who knew him, Fr. Bourne "had read all of Flannery's stuff. I think she saw in him a kindred spirit." (Brad Gooch; Flannery: A Life of Flannery O'Connor, p. 327) Besides his friendship with Flannery, Fr. Bourne is remembered as being the monk who started the fabulous bonsai nursery at the monastery. According to the monastery's website:
Cistercian monks of the Monastery of the Holy Spirit have been crafting classic bonsai with an American influence for over thirty-five years. Begun in the mid-1960's by Father Paul Bourne, OCSO (May 2, 1908 - July 10, 1995), the Monastery Greenhouse became one of the first nurseries in the southeast to offer bonsai to the public. The centerpiece of the monastery's bonsai collection is a Kingsville boxwood (photo at right), one of the original eight trees of this strain developed during the 1930's. During his lifetime, Brother Paul (as he liked to be called) earned the reputation of being a true American Bonsai Master. His quarter century of highly creative bonsai art made him well known nationally and internationally. Born in Seattle, he early on established a lifelong love of horticulture. As a child of eight he saw his first bonsai trees while visiting a Japanese friend whose father had a small collection. Later he received an MA of Fine Arts from Yale University. He was an artist in many mediums including paint and sculpture as well as bonsai. His second exposure to bonsai was in Mainland China and Japan in the late 1920's where he visited as a student. With a love of both art and plants, perhaps it was inevitable that he should express that love in bonsai, which he always emphasized was a true art form in the most classic sense. At the monastery in 1963, Brother Paul built a glass and wood-framed greenhouse to house orchids, which he grew and displayed as a hobby. He also began puttering around making bonsai, although he had no formal training. The first "sale" of a tree happened one day while Brother Paul was away from the greenhouse. Upon his return, Brother Pius, who ran the small monastic gift shop, confessed that he had sold one of the "little plants" to an insistent customer. It was Br. Paul's favorite and Brother Pius had charged all of $5.00 for it. From this unlikely start the bonsai business began.For over thirty years Br. Paul sat quietly in the greenhouse, usually by the cash register, where he went about crafting beautiful bonsai. To any and all who stopped to look and ask he spoke of this lovely art form of creating miniature trees in a pot. Over the years he launched many, many people into the wonder of bonsai. Though formally untrained, he brought considerable natural talent and the ears and eyes of an always-inquiring student. Over the years he became a friend of most of the great American Bonsai Masters like John Naka, Yugi Yoshimura, and more recently the much younger Zhao of China. They received him as one of their own and visited here regularly to see and share their uncommon passion for the art of bonsai. It is an honor for the monks to carry on Brother Paul's legacy.
- Mark

Friday, February 3, 2012

Fordham Symposium & February Lectures

Many readers of this blog are aware that 2012 marks the 60th anniversary of the publication of Flannery O'Connor's first novel, Wise Blood. In celebration of this landmark in American literature, Fordham University will be hosting a one-day symposium on March 24th from 2-6 p.m. The symposium will consist of two panels with such notable O'Connor scholars as Susan Srigley, Richard Giannone, and Paul Elie. Unlike other conferences where the attendee must choose between many presentations, the format of this one makes it possible for one to attend both panels and hear all the speakers. At the conclusion of the symposium there will be a screening of John Huston's 1979 film adaptation of Wise Blood. For more information on this event and how to register, click on this link'Connor.shtml
Wise Blood isn't the only major novel celebrating a birthday in 2012. This year is also the 30th anniversary of the publication of Alice Walker's masterpiece, The Color Purple. In honor of this event our popular February Lecture Series kicks off Sunday with a talk from Dr. Carol Andrews, associate professor of English at Armstrong Atlantic State University. Dr. Andrews will compare and contrast the work of Flannery O'Connor and Alice Walker. This lecture is free and open to the public and starts at 3:00 in the Andalusia dining room.
- Mark