Friday, July 25, 2014

Flannery O’Connor and the Little Flower

On my most recent visit to Andalusia I noticed for the first time a small image of St. Thérèse of Lisieux (1873-1897), the “Little Flower,” hanging next to a doorway in the back of the house. As is typical, the saint is portrayed in her Carmelite habit holding two items. The first is a crucifix, which indicates her intimacy with Christ’s suffering through her own struggle with tuberculosis. This ended in her death when she was just twenty-four. The second is a bouquet of roses, which refers to the saint’s promise to provide a shower of roses—miracles, favors—from heaven. Such miracles began to be reported even before Thérèse was buried.

Given her own serious health struggles, Flannery O’Connor surely identified with this suffering saint whose spirituality Thérèse called the “little way.” St. Thérèse believed that everyone is able to grow in the spiritual life by focusing on God’s transforming love. Her famous image for this spiritual program is an elevator to God that allows the believer to avoid an arduous climb up the steep stairs to heaven. This simple plan belies the saint’s subtle intellect, another trait that she shared with O’Connor. Thérèse’s theological incisiveness is evident in her letters and especially her autobiography, The Story of a Soul, published posthumously. She was named a Doctor or official theologian of the Catholic Church by Pope John Paul II in 1997.

Curious about the life of Thérèse O’Connor read Etienne Robo’s biography Two Portraits of St. Therese of Lisieux (1955) and found a kindred spirit in its pages. The book describes the sanctity of Thérèse but also explores her character defects. It is notable that O’Connor marked a passage in the book that describes the airbrushing of photos of the saint by members of her religious community shortly after her death. These ostensibly improved images became the basis for portraits, icons, and statues. Robo argues that a similar airbrushing of Thérèse’s life often downplayed her “strong and inflexible, strict and stern” side.

O’Connor recorded her reaction to this book in a letter that she wrote to her spiritual director, Fr. McCown: “I have just read a very funny book by a priest named Fr. Robo—on St. Theresa of Lisieux…. He has managed (by some not entirely crooked means) to get hold of a photograph of her that the Carmelites have not ‘touched up’ which shows her to be a round-faced, determined, rather comical-looking girl. He does away with all the roses, little flowers, and other icing. The book has greatly increased my devotion to her.”

Robo’s biography suggests that in heaven Thérèse might have smiled at the prettiness her fellow nuns inflicted upon her in the touched-up images because for them “her real face was not presentable.” This prettified version of the saint is the one familiar to the vast majority of Catholics throughout the world. O’Connor must have been amused by Robo’s insight, especially when she realized that the image of Thérèse at Andalusia was based on an airbrushed version of the real woman.

Indeed O’Connor herself might smile now at the attempts of many admirers to prettify and even sanctify her, to forget, for example, her biting wit, which regularly features in letters to many friends. What O’Connor discovered in her reading about Thérèse was not only the sanctity of the French nun and the significance of her theological vision, but also her humanness—flaws, shortcomings, blemishes and all.

--(Fr.) George Piggford, C.S.C.
Associate Professor of English, Stonehill College, Easton, MA 

Our guest blogger was among 24 scholars attending "Reconsidering Flannery O'Connor" a Summer Institute funded by the National Endowment for the Humanities and held at Georgia College in July 2014. For more information about the institute, please visit

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