Friday, June 28, 2013

Mystical Mentor

A quick overview of the books in Flannery O'Connor's library reveals that she did not have much of a taste for mysticism or contemplative writing.  Sure, she owned and read some of the basic texts, but it just wasn't her cup of tea (see, for example, her letter to Ted Spivey - The Habit of Being, p. 297).  She was drawn more to the theological giants of the church and read everyone from Thomas Aquinas to Romano Guardini.  Not surprisingly, a more structured prayer life also was more suited to her spiritual temperament.  She prayed the rosary, the daily office, and, of course, attended mass almost every day.  Beyond these practices, she recited formal prayers such as the Prayer to St. Raphael (see the post for May 31). When it came to silent contemplation, she felt it was better to leave that to the monks at Conyers.  There was one writer on Christian mysticism, however, she endorsed enthusiastically and whose magnum opus, The Mystical Element of Religion as Studied in Saint Catherine of Genoa and Her Friends, she encouraged others to read: Friedrich von Hugel (1852-1925).   As important and indispensable as von Hugel's book may be, it is also very, very difficult.  Take it from me, I gave this two volume doorstop a try, and finally had to throw in the towel.  More my speed is Mysticism: A Study in the Nature and Development of Man's Spiritual Consciousness.  First published in 1911, this volume by Evelyn Underhill remains the most read introduction to mysticism in the English language.  Even Flannery, who had a general distrust of Anglicans, praised this "mine of information." (The Habit of Being, p. 116).
- Mark

Friday, June 21, 2013

Better Late than Never

Did you know that Flannery O'Connor's novel, The Violent Bear It Away, has been named by America magazine's Catholic Book Club as their selection for the month of June?  This is the first time that a work by O'Connor has ever been chosen. Acknowledging this grave omission in the book club's 85-year history, editor Kevin Spinale writes "the Catholic Book Club seeks to right a wrong with this month’s selection.   Since its inception in 1928, CBC has never chosen a work by Flannery O’Connor.  This month, we will read and discuss O'Connor’s novel, The Violent Bear It Away."  My question is why this book and why now?  Wouldn't her collected short stories be more apropos to start with for readers who may have no knowledge of Flannery?  To introduce the novel, Spinale has written an engaging piece for America.  Especially interesting are some of the questions he raises based on his reading of the novel.  Take a look, too, at the full list of Catholic Book Club selections through the years.  Flannery shouldn't feel too bad not making the cut 'til 2013.  It took poor St. Augustine until 1960 to get on their list. 
- Mark

Friday, June 14, 2013

A Place Called Sickness

Most readers of this blog know that Flannery O'Connor suffered from the chronic autoimmune disease, lupus erythematosus, that eventually took her life in 1964 at the young age of 39.  O'Connor rarely talked about her illness.  One of these infrequent occasions was in a  letter she wrote to her friend Betty Hester in 1956.  Speaking of her suffering Flannery writes: "I have never been anywhere but sick.  In a sense, sickness is a place, more instructive than a long trip to Europe, and it's always a place where there's no company, where nobody can follow.  Sickness before death is a very appropriate thing and I think those who don't have it miss one of God's mercies." (The Habit of Being, p. 163).  Unless one has lived with a chronic, life-threatening disease, the reader is unlikely to empathize with the feelings Flannery discloses in this letter.  He or she has probably never experienced that kind of loneliness nor could possibly imagine how an illness can be one of God's mercies.  One man who does understand is the former editor of Poetry Magazine, Christian Wiman, who for the last few years has suffered with a nasty, aggressive form of cancer.  He writes bravely of his struggles in his new book, My Bright Abyss.  In a review of it in the New York Times Kathleen Norris characterizes the book as "urgent and daring."  Indeed! What's especially daring is Wiman's level of honesty.  Writing in a style reminiscent of Pascal, Wiman struggles to find faith as he stares into an abyss of impending loss and annihilation.  I agree with everything Kathleen Norris says in her review of this important book and strongly implore you to read My Bright Abyss.
- Mark

Friday, June 7, 2013

The Sacred Heart of Jesus

Visitors to Andalusia frequently notice the image of the Sacred Heart hanging on the stairway wall and occasionally ask if Flannery had a particular devotion to it.  Since today is the Solemnity of the Sacred Heart of Jesus on the Catholic calendar, I thought I would address that question and share what little we know about the provenance of the picture.  I haven't read anything in Flannery's letters or other writings that would suggest she was devoted in a special way to the Sacred Heart of Jesus.  At the same time, since the family worshiped at Sacred Heart Catholic Church, one would suspect that the image conveyed special meaning to the O'Connors.  The etching done by the obscure artist F. Giusto, however, is no mere decorative piece.  It is a 300 day indulgence granted by Pope Benedict XV on July 17, 1921.  There is an inscription in both Latin and English at the bottom of the print that reads: "We grant three hundred days indulgence to the Faithful who shall recite three "Gloria Patri" before one of these pictures of the Sacred Heart."  It is signed by the Pope and dated 17 July 1921.   Though the picture is original to the house, it is doubtful it was displayed in its current location.  In fact, when the FOCA Foundation was deeded the property, this image of the Sacred Heart was in what is now the gift shop where the Library of America photograph of Flannery now hangs.  If anyone knows more about the circumstances of the O'Connor's acquisition of the Sacred Heart print or where it originally was displayed please let us know. The image you see above is the actual print at Andalusia.
- Mark