Faith Formation with Flannery O'Connor

Session 1: Introduction to O’Connor



Dear God, I cannot love Thee the way I want to. You are the slim crescent of a moon that I see and my self is the earth’s shadow that keeps me from seeing all the moon. The crescent is very beautiful and perhaps that is all one like I am should or could see; but what I am afraid of, dear God, is that my self shadow will grow so large that it blocks the whole moon, and that I will judge myself by the shadow that is nothing. I do not know you God because I am in the way. Please help me to push myself aside . . . Please help me to get down under things and find where you are (Prayer Journal, 3-4).


Mary Flannery O’Connor (1925-1964) was born and raised in Savannah, Georgia. In 1940, the O’Connor family moved to Milledgeville, Georgia, to live on Andalusia Farm. O’Connor graduated from Georgia State College for Women, where she drew cartoons for the student newspaper. She attended the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and worked as a writer in New York and Connecticut. Diagnosed with lupus in 1952, the same disease which took her father’s life in 1941, O’Connor returned to Andalusia to live with her mother, Regina. There she wrote, maintained an active speaking schedule and correspondences, and raised peacocks. In 1964 she died from complications from lupus. 


O’Connor’s Fiction

O’Connor wrote two novels, Wise Blood (1952) and The Violent Bear It Away (1960), and published two collections of short stories: A Good Man Is Hard to Find (1955) and Everything That Rises Must Converge (published posthumously in 1965). She also wrote essays and lectures, some of which are collected in 1969’s Mystery and Manners: Occasional Prose (henceforth: MM), in addition to book reviews. She maintained regular and wide-reaching correspondence, some of which were published in 1988 in The Habit of Being: Letters of Flannery O’Connor (Henceforth: HB).


Set in the “Christ-haunted” (MM 44) American South and featuring violence, racism, poverty, and deeply flawed characters, O’Connor’s fiction is often described as “grotesque.” Nevertheless, amidst the brokenness and sin, O’Connor proposes that her characters are candidates for divine grace, which often interrupts their lives in strange, shocking, and perplexing ways. 


In reading O’Connor’s stories, we must understand that she herself resisted attempts to reduce narratives, images, and symbols into a formulated meaning, content, or moral. For example, in a letter she recounted a story of a dinner party discussion about the Eucharist: “Mrs. Broadwater said . . . she thought of it as a symbol and implied that it was a pretty good one. I then said in a very shaky voice, ‘Well, if it’s a symbol, to hell with it’” (HB, 125). O’Connor was informed by the sacramental vision of Catholicism, the practice of seeing and recognizing the world as shot-through with the presence of God. This means that O’Connor spies God’s presence in unlikely situations, and her stories cannot be reduced to neat morals. She criticized the practice of treating literature as a “specimen to be dissected” or “problem to be solved” (MM 108).  Rather, she insists that “the whole story is the meaning, because it is an experience, not an abstraction” and the reader should “sense that it is unfolding around him” like drama (MM 73). O’Connor seeks to convey deep mystery but not in a didactic way.


Therefore, experiences of reading her stories leave us with complications, questions, and puzzles that can lead to fruitful reflection. Attentive to O’Connor’s understanding of her stories, we will approach them in a spirit of generosity, try to discern movements of grace within each, and recognize that we will be left with unresolved questions or concerns. There will be a lingering sense of mystery.


On the Use of Violence

Our age not only does not have a very sharp eye for the almost imperceptible intrusions of grace, it no longer has much feeling for the nature of the violences which precede and follow them . . . I have found that violence is strangely capable of returning my characters to reality and preparing them to accept their moment of grace . . . This idea, that reality is something to which we must be returned at considerable cost, is one which is seldom understood by the casual reader but it is one which is implicit in the Christian view of the world (MM, 112).


[Violence is] never an end in itself. It is the extreme situations that best reveal what we are essentially, and I believe these are times when writers are more interested in what we are essentially than in the tenor of our daily lives. Violence is force which can be used for good or evil, and among other things taken by it is the kingdom of God (MM, 113).


From the days of John the Baptist until now, the kingdom of heaven suffers violence, and the violent are taking it by force (Matt 11:12).



Christ didn’t redeem us by a direct intellectual act, but became incarnate in human form, and he speaks to us now through the mediation of a visible Church. All this may seem a long way from the subject of fiction, but it is not, for the main concern of the fiction writer is with mystery as it is incarnated in human life (MM, 176).


[T]he moral sense has been bred out of certain sections of the population, like the wings have been bred off certain chickens to produce more white meat on them. This is a generation of wingless chickens, which I suppose is what Nietzsche meant when he said God was dead (HB 190).



[My] subject in fiction is the action of grace in a territory largely held by the devil (MM 118).


[What makes a story work] is probably some action, some gesture of a character that is unlike any other in the story, one which indicates where the real heart of the story lies . . . both totally right and totally unexpected . . . both in character and beyond character . . . suggest both the world and eternity . . . a gesture which somehow made contact with mystery (MM 111).


Christian Realism

The first and most obvious characteristic of fiction is that it deals with reality through what can be seen, heard, smelt, tasted, and touched . . . It has to become a way that you habitually look at things (MM, 91-2). 



Session 2: “Revelation” (1965)



You say, dear God, to ask for grace and it will be given. I ask for it. I realize that there is more to it than that—that I have to behave like I want it. “Not those who say, Lord, Lord, but those who do the Will of My Father.” Please help me to know the will of my Father (Prayer Journal 5).


The Parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector (Luke 18:9-14)

He then addressed this parable to those who were convinced of their own righteousness and despised everyone else. “Two people went up to the temple area to pray; one was a Pharisee and the other was a tax collector. The Pharisee took up his position and spoke this prayer to himself, ‘O God, I thank you that I am not like the rest of humanity—greedy, dishonest, adulterous—or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week, and I pay tithes on my whole income.’ But the tax collector stood off at a distance and would not even raise his eyes to heaven but beat his breast and prayed, ‘O God, be merciful to me a sinner.’ I tell you, the latter went home justified, not the former; for everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and the one who humbles himself will be exalted.”


Final Judgment (Catechism of the Catholic Church §678-9)

Following in the steps of the prophets and John the Baptist, Jesus announced the judgment of the Last Day in his preaching. Then will the conduct of each one and the secrets of hearts be brought to light. Then will the culpable unbelief that counted the offer of God's grace as nothing be condemned. Our attitude to our neighbor will disclose acceptance or refusal of grace and divine love. On the Last Day Jesus will say: “Truly I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brethren, you did it to me.”


Christ is Lord of eternal life. Full right to pass definitive judgment on the works and hearts of men belongs to him as redeemer of the world. He “acquired” this right by his cross. The Father has given “all judgment to the Son.” Yet the Son did not come to judge, but to save and to give the life he has in himself. By rejecting grace in this life, one already judges oneself, receives according to one's works, and can even condemn oneself for all eternity by rejecting the Spirit of love.


The Divine Economy

Thus, the last will be first, and the first will be last (Matt 20:16).


[Christ] must increase; I must decrease (John 3:30).


Questions for Further Reflection

  1. O’Connor said that fiction “should be both canny and uncanny” (MM 79). Most of “Revelation” is set in the familiar place of a doctor’s waiting room. What aspects of the characters, setting, or action resonate with to you? What or whom do you find uncanny or startling?
  2.  How does O’Connor characterize Ruby Turpin’s way of seeing those around her? How does her way of seeing change throughout the story, and how does this shift come about?
  3. What function does violence serve in this story?
  4. Grace, O’Connor reminds us, is not “something which can be separated from nature and served to [us] raw as Instant Uplift” (MM, 165). Where is grace in this story? How does grace return Ruby to reality, and what is that reality to which she must be returned?
  5. In Ruby’s vision, “[s]he could see by their shocked and altered faces that even their virtues were being burned away.” What virtues does Ruby prize herself on having? What is virtue, really?
  6. The Book of Revelation describes a “vision of a great multitude, which no one could count, from every nation, race, people, and tongue. They stood before the throne and before the Lamb, wearing white robes,” signs of their upright life. (Revelation 7:9). How does Ruby’s vision correspond with the Book of Revelation? What does it mean to live an upright life?
  7. What puzzles you about this story? What disturbs you? What do you wonder about?



Session 3: “Good Country People” (1955)



My thanksgiving is never in the form of self-sacrifice—a few memorized prayers babbled once over lightly. All this disgusts me in myself but does not fill me with the poignant feeling I should have to adore You with, to be sorry with, or to thank You with. Perhaps the feeling I keep asking for, is something again selfish—something to help me feel that everything with me is all right. And yet it seems only natural but maybe being thus natural is being thus selfish. My mind is a most insecure thing, not to be depended upon. It gives me scruples at one minute and leaves me lax the next. If I must know all these things thru the mind, dear Lord, please strengthen mine. Thank you, dear God, I believe I do feel thankful for all You’ve done for me. I want to. I do. And thank my dear Mother whom I do love, Our Lady of Perpetual Help (Prayer Journal 12).


Anthropological Unity (CCC §§362, 364-5)

The human person, created in the image of God, is a being at once corporeal and spiritual. The biblical account expresses this reality in symbolic language when it affirms that “then the LORD God formed man of dust from the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living being.” Man, whole and entire, is therefore willed by God.


The human body shares in the dignity of “the image of God”: it is a human body precisely because it is animated by a spiritual soul, and it is the whole human person that is intended to become, in the body of Christ, a temple of the Spirit:


Man, though made of body and soul, is a unity. Through his very bodily condition he sums up in himself the elements of the material world. Through him they are thus brought to their highest perfection and can raise their voice in praise freely given to the Creator. For this reason man may not despise his bodily life. Rather he is obliged to regard his body as good and to hold it in honor since God has created it and will raise it up on the last day (GS 14 § 1; cf. Dan 3:57-80).


The unity of soul and body is so profound that one has to consider the soul to be the “form” of the body: i.e., it is because of its spiritual soul that the body made of matter becomes a living, human body; spirit and matter, in man, are not two natures united, but rather their union forms a single nature.


Questions for Further Reflection

  1. How does Hulga relate to her body? How does she relate to her mind and emotions? In what ways does this change throughout the story?
  2. In her story, O’Connor calls attention to seeing. In the barn, “when [Hulga’s] glasses got in his way, [Manley] took them off of her and slipped them into his pocket” (287). She “didn’t realize he had taken her glasses but this landscape could not seem exceptional to her for she seldom paid any close attention to her surroundings” (287). Hugla proclaims, “We are all damned . . . but some of us have taken off our blindfolds and see that there’s nothing to see. It’s a kind of salvation” (288). What is Hulga’s way of seeing the world, and how does this change?
  3. After stealing Hulga’s prosthetic leg, Manley says to her, “you ain’t so smart. I been believing in nothing ever since I was born” (291). How does Manley see the world? How does it compare to the way Hulga sees it, or the ways Mrs. Hopewell or Mrs. Freeman sees it?
  4. O’Connor holds that violent irruptions of grace do not disrupt the natural order but return her characters to reality. What function does violence serve in this story? What is its connection to the action of grace?
  5. What puzzles you about this story? What disturbs you? What do you wonder about?



Session 4: “A Temple of the Holy Ghost” (1955)



Give me the grace, dear God, to adore You for even this I cannot do for myself. Give me the grace to adore You with the excitement of the old priests when they sacrificed a lamb to You. Give me the grace to adore You with the awe that fills Your priests when they sacrifice the Lamb on our altars. Give me the grace to be impatient for the time when I shall see You face to face and need no stimulus than that to adore you. Give me the grace, dear God, to see the barrenness and the misery of places where You are not adored but desecrated (Prayer Journal, 8-9).


God Creates Humans Imago Dei, in the Image and Likeness of God (Genesis 1:26-31)

Then God said: Let us make human beings in our image, after our likeness. Let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, the birds of the air, the tame animals, all the wild animals, and all the creatures that crawl on the earth.


God created mankind in his image; in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.


God blessed them and God said to them: Be fertile and multiply; fill the earth and subdue it. Have dominion over the fish of the sea, the birds of the air, and all the living things that crawl on the earth. God also said: See, I give you every seed-bearing plant on all the earth and every tree that has seed-bearing fruit on it to be your food; and to all the wild animals, all the birds of the air, and all the living creatures that crawl on the earth, I give all the green plants for food. And so it happened. God looked at everything he had made, and found it very good.


The Body Is a Temple of the Holy Spirit (1 Corinthians 6:19-20)

Do you not know that your body is a temple of the holy Spirit within you, whom you have from God, and that you are not your own? For you have been purchased at a price. Therefore, glorify God in your body.


Questions for Further Reflection

  1. Who is “the child”—and why does O’Connor leave her unnamed? How is she different from her cousins?
  2. The narrator states that “[the child] could never be a saint, but she thought she could be a martyr if they killed her quick” (243). What is the child’s understanding of holiness?
  3. What are the particular moments when the child learns to see someone as a Temple of the Holy Ghost?
  4. “The sun was a huge red ball like an elevated Host drenched in blood” (248). Why does O’Connor compare the sun to the Eucharist? How does the Eucharistic imagery of the host, the Tantum Ergo, and benediction function in the story? What is the connection between the Eucharist as the Body of Christ and the hermaphrodite at the fair?
  5. What puzzles you about this story? What disturbs you? What do you wonder about?



Session 5: “A Good Man Is Hard to Find” (1953)



If I knew all of myself, dear God, if I could discover everything in me pedantic egocentric, in any way insincere, what would I be then? But what would I do about those feelings that are now fear, now joy, that lie too deep to be touched by my understanding. I am afraid of insidious hands Oh Lord which grope in the darkness of my soul. Please be my guard against them. Please be the Cover at the top of the passage (Prayer Journal 7).


Grace: God Makes the First Move (CCC §1996-98)

Grace is favor, the free and undeserved help that God gives us to respond to his call to become children of God, adoptive sons, partakers of the divine nature and of eternal life.


Grace is a participation in the life of God. It introduces us into the intimacy of Trinitarian life: by Baptism the Christian participates in the grace of Christ, the Head of his Body. As an “adopted son” he can henceforth call God “Father,” in union with the only Son. He receives the life of the Spirit who breathes charity into him and who forms the Church.


This vocation to eternal life is supernatural. It depends entirely on God's gratuitous initiative, for he alone can reveal and give himself. It surpasses the power of human intellect and will, as that of every other creature.


Questions for Further Reflection

  1. O’Connor described her “subject in fiction is the action of grace in a territory largely held by the devil” (MM 118). What is the dramatic action of grace in this story? What is revealed during this moment of grace?
  2. How does O’Connor prepare her characters for the moment of grace? Pay attention to the story’s structure, as well as the language.
  3. The grandmother calls Red Sammy a good man. What does the grandmother understand to be a good man? Does this understanding change? Consider the final scene when the grandmother reaches out to touch The Misfit.
  4. The Misfit is plagued by doubt as to the status of Jesus’s saving work, but he claims that raising the dead threw the world “off balance.” What does he mean by this? Do you identify with any of his doubts?
  5. “‘She would have been a good woman,’ The Misfit said, ‘if it had been somebody there to shot her every minute of her life’” (133). What does The Misfit mean? What realization “clicks” when she is faced with death?
  6. What puzzles you about this story? What disturbs you? What do you wonder about?



Session 6: “Parker’s Back” (1965)



The intellectual and artistic delights God gives us are visions and like visions we pay for them; and the thirst for the vision doesn’t necessarily carry with it a thirst for the attendant suffering. Looking back I have suffered, not my share, but enough to call it that but there’s a terrific balance due. Dear God please send me Your grace (Prayer Journal 28).


God’s Self-Revelation to Moses (Exodus 3:1-6)

Meanwhile Moses was tending the flock of his father-in-law Jethro, the priest of Midian. Leading the flock beyond the wilderness, he came to the mountain of God, Horeb. There the angel of the LORD appeared to him as fire flaming out of a bush. When he looked, although the bush was on fire, it was not being consumed. So Moses decided, “I must turn aside to look at this remarkable sight. Why does the bush not burn up?” When the LORD saw that he had turned aside to look, God called out to him from the bush: Moses! Moses! He answered, “Here I am.” God said: Do not come near! Remove your sandals from your feet, for the place where you stand is holy ground. I am the God of your father, he continued, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob. Moses hid his face, for he was afraid to look at God.


I AM WHO AM (CCC §§203-4, 206-7)


God revealed himself to his people Israel by making his name known to them. A name expresses a person's essence and identity and the meaning of this person's life. God has a name; he is not an anonymous force. To disclose one's name is to make oneself known to others; in a way it is to hand oneself over by becoming accessible, capable of being known more intimately and addressed personally.


God revealed himself progressively and under different names to his people, but the revelation that proved to be the fundamental one for both the Old and the New Covenants was the revelation of the divine name to Moses in the theophany of the burning bush, on the threshold of the Exodus and of the covenant on Sinai.


In revealing his mysterious name, YHWH (“I AM HE WHO IS,” “I AM WHO AM” or "I AM WHO I AM"), God says who he is and by what name he is to be called. This divine name is mysterious just as God is mystery. It is at once a name revealed and something like the refusal of a name, and hence it better expresses God as what he is - infinitely above everything that we can understand or say: he is the “hidden God”, his name is ineffable, and he is the God who makes himself close to men.


By revealing his name God at the same time reveals his faithfulness which is from everlasting to everlasting, valid for the past (“I am the God of your father”), as for the future (“I will be with you”). God, who reveals his name as “I AM”, reveals himself as the God who is always there, present to his people in order to save them.


Jesus Christ is the Image of the Father (Colossians 1:15)

He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation.


Conversion (CCC §1428)

Christ's call to conversion continues to resound in the lives of Christians. This second conversion is an uninterrupted task for the whole Church who, “clasping sinners to her bosom, [is] at once holy and always in need of purification, [and] follows constantly the path of penance and renewal.” This endeavor of conversion is not just a human work. It is the movement of a “contrite heart,” drawn and moved by grace to respond to the merciful love of God who loved us first.


Questions for Further Reflection

  1. In a letter, O’Connor wrote, “Sarah Ruth was the heretic—the notion that you can worship in pure spirit” (HB, 594). How does O’Connor characterize Sarah Ruth, and what is her reaction to Parker’s tattoo? How is her way of seeing deficient?
  2. How does Parker feel upon seeing the tattoo of the man at the fair?
  3. What happens to Parker while he is driving the tractor? What connections do you see between what happens to him and Moses’ encounter with God in Exodus 3?
  4. For Parker, “[t]he eyes that were now forever on his back were eyes to be obeyed” (517). Parker often feels driven to action by some force acting on his will. In what ways does O’Connor depict Parker as the one who receives and responds to what is given him?
  5. Parker “bent down and put his mouth near the stuffed keyhole. ‘Obadiah,’ he whispered and all at once he felt the light pouring through him, turning his spider web soul into a perfect arabesque of colors, a garden of trees and birds and beasts. ‘Obadiah Elihue!’ he whispered” (528). When Parker tells Sarah Ruth his full name, he feels himself transfigured. His soul, which was once “something haphazard and botched” like the tattoos on his body but is now radiantly transfigured into a beautifully cohesive whole (514).What is the role of names in the story, especially O.E. Parker and the name of God? How do names reveal a deeper truth?
  6. What is the connection between art, such as Parker’s tattoo, and the Incarnation?
  7. What puzzles you about this story? What disturbs you? What do you wonder about?



Session 7: Conclusion



Dear Lord please make me want You. It would be the greatest bliss. Not just to want You when I think about You but to want You all the time, to think about You all the time, to have the want driving in me (Prayer Journal 36).


Truth, Beauty, and Art (CCC §2501)

Created “in the image of God,” man also expresses the truth of his relationship with God the Creator by the beauty of his artistic works. Indeed, art is a distinctively human form of expression; beyond the search for the necessities of life which is common to all living creatures, art is a freely given superabundance of the human being's inner riches. Arising from talent given by the Creator and from man's own effort, art is a form of practical wisdom, uniting knowledge and skill, to give form to the truth of reality in a language accessible to sight or hearing. To the extent that it is inspired by truth and love of beings, art bears a certain likeness to God's activity in what he has created. Like any other human activity, art is not an absolute end in itself, but is ordered to and ennobled by the ultimate end of man.


Questions for Further Reflection

  1. In light of reading O’Connor, how do you reflect on the relationship between truth, beauty, and art?
  2. “If only it were all so simple! If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?” (Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn). How does O’Connor expose how “the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being”? How does she indicate hope of Christ’s redemption?
  3. Recall that O’Connor diagnosed modernity as devoid of moral sense, like “wingless chickens” (HB 190). Looking back on her stories, how do you see this diagnosis as relating to her writing strategy?
  4. In light of reading and conversation, how would you now reflect on grace in O’Connor’s stories?
  5. O’Connor’s stories are inexhaustibly rich, like parables. How has reading O’Connor made you a better reader of Scripture? What are ways in which reading O’Connor has made you more attentive to the particularities of people in your own lives, particularly those who challenge your charity?
  6. How has the practice of reading of reading O’Connor disturbed and challenged how you look at things? What ways of struggling have borne fruit spiritually?


Suggestions for Further Reading


Primary Sources  

O’Connor, Flannery, The Complete Stories. New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 1946.  Recommended short stories include “Everything That Rises Must Converge,” “The Life You Save May Be Your Own,” “Greenleaf.”

-----. A Prayer Journal. Edited and with an introduction by W.A. Sessions. New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2013.

-----. Mystery and Manners: Occasional Prose. Edited by Sally and Robert Fitzgerald. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1962.

-----. Presence of Grace and Other Book Reviews. Compiled by Leo Zuber and edited by Carter Martin. Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press, 1983.

-----. The Habit of Being: Letters of Flannery O’Connor. Edited by Sally Fitzgerald. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1979.


Secondary Sources

Bosco, Mark, S.J., and Brent Little, eds. Revelation and Convergence: Flannery O’Connor and the Catholic Intellectual Tradition. Washington, D.C.: The Catholic University of America Press, 2017.

Lake, Christina Bieber. The Incarnational Art of Flannery O’Connor. Macon, GA: Mercer University Press, 2005.

Srigley, Susan. Flannery O’Connor’s Sacramental Art. Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 2005.

Wood, Ralph C. Flannery O’Connor and the Christ-Haunted South. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2004.

Featured Image: Thomas Bresson, Blue Peacock, 17 April 2013; Source: Wikimedia Commons, CC BY 3.0.


Stephanie Reuter

Stephanie Reuter studies systematic theology in Notre Dame's Master of Theological Studies program. She graduated from Notre Dame in 2018 with a BA in the Program of Liberal Studies and served as a mentor with Notre Dame Vision in 2016 and 2018.

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