On 18 March, to mark the 50th anniversary of the death of Flannery O’Connor, the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome hosted an evening of reflection on the 20th century Catholic writer of the American South.
The event featured a presentation of A Prayer Journal, the author’s newly-released diary written when she was in her early 20s.
Born and raised in the Protestant South, O’Connor’s style is characterized by her use of comedy and the grotesque to convey deeply Catholic themes. Known primarily for her 32 short stories, she has also written two novels, as well as a series of essays. Diagnosed with Lupus in 1951, she died in August 1964 at the age of 39.
A Prayer Journal was written when, after having gone to study journalism at the University of Iowa, she discovered she wanted instead to be a fiction writer.
In an interview with ZENIT, Elena Buia Rutt, one of the evening’s presenters and author of Flannery O’Connor: il mistero e la scrittura, said the diary provides an image of O’Connor that is uncharacteristically unedited. “We are used to seeing her as a woman of iron, always in control of every situation: a sarcastic woman, full of irony, lucidity.”
“Instead, in this diary, we see [O’Connor as] much more human,” she said.
Even though O’Connor was young, Rutt said, she nevertheless demonstrates in her diary a “clear mind” with which to discern what path she was meant to take, articulating her desire not only to be a story teller, but to be an instrument of God’s story.
“Flannery does not write for herself,” she explained. “She does not write to feed her ego. Rather, she writes ad maiorum dei gloriam. She writes in the service of God.”
Speaking ahead of the gathering, Fr. Michael Paul Gallagher, SJ, PUG professor and one of the event’s presenters, told ZENIT he was at first disappointed upon reading A Prayer Journal, describing it as “immature, self-concerned, full of complaints about herself, no reference to Scripture or to Christ.”
“Then I reread it, and I found some jewels, some real pearls, and even some prophetic indications of the greatness that she would have later.”
He cites in particular references made to the French Writer Leon Bloy who O’Connor describes as an “iceburg hurled at me to break up my Titanic and I hope my Titanic will be smashed.”
“In other words,” Gallagher explained, “she felt like she was shielded against the explosion of God, and that reading somebody like this would disturb her healthily.”
Gallagher observed that, coincidentally, Bloy was cited by Pope Francis in his first homily after his election.
“I began to reread the whole thing in terms of a battle with herself,” he said. Although it is somewhat “self-worried,” it nonetheless “gives marvelous indications of the great vision that she would put into perfection later on.”
Describing the Catholicity of O’Connor’s work, Gallagher noted that the Christianity contained within O’Connor’s fiction are on the one hand hidden. “But on the other hand,” he said, “it explodes.”
Well-versed in the writings of Catholic theologians, he nonetheless describes her as a “comedian”.
“She writes comic stories. She loves making fun of pride. She loves rewriting some of the parables of the Gospel, even the Pharisee and the publican, and so on.”
“What’s great about her is this comedy of Pride, this – as she calls it – the action of Grace in the territory of the devil. She’s a demanding lady, but also marvelously comic – and that makes the demanding side so attractive.”