This coming Aug. 3 will mark the golden anniversary of Flannery O’Connor’s “Passover,” to adopt the biblical image John Paul II used to describe the Christian journey through death to eternal life. In the 50 years since lupus erythematosus claimed her at age 39, O’Connor’s literary genius has been widely celebrated. Then, with the 1979 publication of The Habit of Being, her collected letters, another facet of Miss O’Connor’s genius came into focus: Mary Flannery O’Connor was an exceptionally gifted apologist, an explicator of Catholic faith who combined remarkable insight into the mysteries of the Creed with deep and unsentimental piety, unblinking realism about the Church in its human aspect, puckish humor—and a mordant appreciation of the soul-withering acids of modern secularism.
Insofar as I’m aware, there’s never been an effort to initiate a beatification cause for Flannery O’Connor. If such a cause should ever be introduced, The Habit of Being (and the lectures found in the Library of America edition of her collected works) should be the principal documentary evidence for considering her an exemplar of heroic virtue, worthy to be commended to the whole Church.
Miss O’Connor’s sense that ours is an age of nihilism—an age suffering from by a crabbed sourness about the mystery of being itself—makes her an especially apt apologist for today: not least because she also understood the evangelical sterility of the smiley-face, cheap-grace, balloons-and-banners Catholicism that would become rampant shortly after her death. In a 1955 letter to her friend Betty Hester, Flannery O’Connor looked straight into the dark mystery of Good Friday and, in four sentences explained why the late modern world often finds it hard to believe:
“The truth does not change according to our ability to stomach it emotionally. A higher paradox confounds emotion as well as reason and there are long periods in the lives of all of us, and of the saints, when the truth as revealed by faith is hideous, emotionally disturbing, downright repulsive. Witness the dark night of the soul in individual saints. Right now the whole world seems to be going through a dark night of the soul.”
That darkness is rendered darker still by late modernity’s refusal to recognize its own deepest need. For as Miss O’Connor put it in a 1957 lecture, “Redemption is meaningless unless there is cause for it in the actual life we live, and for the last few centuries there has been operating in our culture the secular belief that there is no such cause.”
A world indifferent to its need for redemption is not indifferent to the possibility of redemption; it’s a world hostile to that possibility. Down the centuries, the mockery endured by Christ on the cross may stand as the paradigmatic expression of that hostility.
The Church meets this hostility by doubling down on its conviction that the truths it professes are really true, and in fact reveal the deepest truth of the human condition. Flannery O’Connor again:
“…the virgin birth, the incarnation, the resurrection…are the true laws of the flesh and the physical. Death, decay, destruction are the suspension of those laws….[It] would never have occurred to human consciousness to conceive of purity if we were not to look forward to a resurrection of the body, which will be flesh and spirit united in peace, in the way they were in Christ. The resurrection of Christ seems the high point in the law of nature.”
You can’t get much more countercultural than that. Yet what Miss O’Connor wrote speculatively in 1955 what was the Fathers of the Second Vatican Council solemnly affirmed a decade later, in the Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World: “…in the mystery of the word made flesh…the mystery of man truly becomes clear…Christ the Lord, Christ the new Adam…fully reveals man to himself and brings to light his most high calling.”
Our age habitually thinks low. Easter bids us to think high: very high. For Christ is risen, and so shall his faithful people be.