Flannery O’Connor and Catholic realism


From this vale of tears, one can never be sure about the boundaries of acceptable behavior at the Throne of Grace. Is laughter at earthly foibles permitted? Encouraged? I like to think so. Which inclines me to believe that, this past June 3, Miss Mary Flannery O’Connor of Milledgeville, Georgia, was having herself a good cackle.

That was the day the U.S. Postal Service released a Flannery O’Connor stamp – a grand idea, unhappily executed by doing a Vogue makeover on Miss O’Connor. The iconic peacock feathers are there, but that doesn’t quite compensate for a portrait of the author that looks less like her than what someone fancied she ought to look like. And that, of course, would be another reason for Flannery O’Connor to at her stamp. For if any modern American writer was better attuned to the foolishness of the modern cult of synthetic beauty, I don’t know who he or she might be.

In her fiction, Flannery O’Connor was one of the supreme contemporary exponents of Catholic realism. Like the less-remembered Paul Horgan, she believed that story-telling ought to help modern men and women see “things as they are,” cutting through the fog of a culture that tells us that everything can be just the way we’d like it to be. And here Miss O’Connor’s fiction was deeply influenced by her profound Catholic faith (another characteristic she shared with Horgan): she knew that an ice-you-own-cupcake world was a world that had forgotten its need for redemption, and an ice-your-own-cupcake religion was incapable of calling that kind of world to recognize the reality of sin and the need for conversion.

Flannery O’Connor’s novels and short stories are not everyone’s literary cup of tea; I once received an impassioned e-mail from a Polish priest who had read “A Good Man Is Hard To Find” after learning about Miss O’Connor in the Polish edition of my Letters to a Young Catholic – and had found the story appalling. How could I promote such things? I tried to explain that Flannery O’Connor was very hard to translate. But the real problem, I suspect, was that my correspondent couldn’t quite grasp how Miss O’Connor’s genius lay in describing the work of grace (and the wickedness that grace seeks to repair) through what seems, at first blush, repellant, even horrifying.

Asked why there were so many grotesques in her fiction, Flannery O’Connor, who could be tart, responded that, in the South, “we like to think we can still recognize them.” Thus the southern sensibility she shared with writers like Walker Percy and Shelby Foote worked in tandem with her sacramentally-based Catholic realism: the South, the part of America that knew defeat and had in a certain cultural sense been formed by defeat, was instinctively realistic rather than pie-in-the-sky romantic. Mix the Catholic part of Flannery O’Connor with her Georgia roots and life, and the result was a high octane literary cocktail – too bracingly realistic for some tastes, but widely recognized by serious readers and critics as something unique and brilliant in American literature.

It’s not the Postal Service’s job to honor great Catholic apologists, but that, too, was part of the Flannery O’Connor package. Her apologetics, best displayed in her letters (gathered in The Habit of Being), are of more value now than ever, given the unrealities of 21st-century western culture. For the roots of those myriad unrealities (now made unambiguous and unmistakable by the transgender movement) can be found in what the late Father Ernest Fortin called “debonair nihilism:” a blithe disregard for the givenness of things, an insouciance that leads people to live solely by the pleasure principle because they imagine that nothing – the world, sex, relationships, beauty, history – is really of consequence.

Flannery O’Connor saw this coming in the mid-1950s, writing to a friend, “If you live today, you breathe in nihilism…it’s the gas you breathe.” The way to push back, she understood, was through the Catholic Church. Why? Because the Church teaches us that everything is of consequence, for the Son of God became incarnate, suffered, and died to redeem everything.

COMING UP: Team Samaritan cyclist goes ‘Everesting’ for the homeless and hungry

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When it comes to the daily sufferings of those who are homeless, there’s nothing like a 29,029-foot bike ride to keep things in perspective.

That’s exactly what Corbin Clement will be doing this Saturday, June 19, with a couple of his riding buddies as they attempt an “Everesting” ride to raise money for the Samaritan House homeless shelter in Denver. Starting at Witter Gulch Road in Evergreen, the three riders will climb Squaw Pass Road to a point in Clear Creek County and ride back down the hill for over eight laps, which amounts to roughly 190 miles in distance and the equivalent of the elevation of Mt. Everest in terms of vertical climbing – hence the name “Everesting.” Their goal is to complete the feat in 20 hours or less.

Oh, and they can’t sleep. It is, indeed, just as crazy as it sounds. Those who aren’t avid cyclists might be wondering, “How in the world do you train for something like this?” 
“For training, it’s been just more or less ride as much as possible,” Clement told the Denver Catholic. “The training is structured around endurance, and that’s of course what Everesting is. It’s just a lot of peddling. So, a lot of my training so far has just been trying to ride as much as possible and ride longer high elevation rides.” 

In March, an Irish cyclist set the world record for Everesting when he completed the feat in six hours and 40 minutes. Clement isn’t trying to set a record, but regardless, it’s quite a feat to undertake, even for a seasoned athlete like him, whose pedigree includes snowboarding and rock climbing. 

“Our ride will be the same thing, but it’ll be pretty different,” Clement said. “We don’t have any sort of special bikes or super focused diet or a really regimented plan or a crew that’s very well-instructed on how we’re going to tackle this. I’ve read a couple of things to just kind of make it into a party — have friends come out to support you, get people to join you on certain laps…that’s kind of the approach we’re taking.” 

Clement has already raised $5,200 for Samaritan House, with a current goal of $8,000. This is Clement’s first year riding for Team Samaritan, but his dad, Kevin, has ridden for the team for several years. When his dad offered to give him an extra kit and uniform, Clement accepted, but didn’t want to take it without doing something help the cause. He could’ve simply opted for a nice ride in the countryside, but he chose to do something a bit more challenging.  

Corbin Clement used to experience the challenges that homeless people face on a daily basis when commuting through downtown Denver to work on his bike. This Saturday, he will raise money for Samaritan House homeless shelter by “Everesting,” a 190-mile bike ride that is the equivalent of the elevation of Mt. Everest in terms of vertical climbing. (Photo provided)

“For some reason, the Everesting idea popped into my head,” he explained. “I think it’s one of those things that has a little bit of shock value for people who hear about it. It’s certainly something that’s gained more popularity and visibility in the last couple of years with endurance athletes. I wanted to choose something that would actually be a challenge for myself and something that I’d have to work towards.” 

Clement currently resides in Utah, but he used to live in Denver and commute by bike to work every day. During those rides to his office, which was located near Samaritan House, he would pass many homeless people and have conversations with them. This experience was also a motivating factor for his Everesting attempt for Team Samaritan. 

“It’s very different when you’re on a bike versus in a car because you’re right there,” Clement said. “If you stop at a stoplight and a homeless person is on the corner, whether or not they’re panhandling or something like that, you hear the conversations, or you’ll have a conversation with them. There are things you smell or you hear or you see that you just never would if you were in a car. So, it kind of made sense, too, with the biking aspect. It’s part of my community that I’ve lived and worked in for a very long time.” 

Clement’s Everesting attempt is one event in a series of endurance event’s he’s doing over the summer that culminates with the Leadville 100, a single-day mountain bike race across the Colorado Rockies. In that race, he will be riding to support young adults diagnosed with cancer by raising funds for First Descents.  

Both causes are near to Clement’s heart, and he said that while his Everesting attempt will be a form of “suffering,” it pales in comparison to what the homeless face day in and day out. This is ultimately why he’s riding and raising funds for Team Samaritan. 

“Any time we see a homeless person or people who have to live on the streets,” Clement said, “That is true suffering — true endurance — with no end in sight.” 

To learn more about Corbin’s fundraising efforts or to donate, click here.