Flannery O’Connor’s wingless chickens

About two-thirds of the way through Brad Gooch’s highly acclaimed new book, Flannery: A Life of Flannery O’Connor, I got the gnawing feeling that something was missing—even as I admired Gooch’s storytelling about a brilliant writer of fiction who had once said, “…there won’t be any biographies of me because … lives spent between the house and the chicken yard do not make exciting copy.” That sense of the real absence hung with me until the end, at which point I looked into the index for The Habit Of Being (the collection of Flannery O’Connor’s letters published in 1979), which contains page after page of her most effective apologetics on behalf of Catholicism. It wasn’t there.

Gooch certainly knows The Habit of Being, for he mines O’Connor’s correspondence to paint interesting portraits of her friendships with, among others, Betty Hester (known in Habit as “A”) and Maryat Lee. But of O’Connor’s efforts to explain Catholicism and its unique optic on reality and contemporary culture, he gives us very little. True, Gooch argues that critics who think Flannery O’Connor was a terrific writer despite her Catholicism are off base. But he does seem to me to miss the passion of O’Connor’s belief, as well as the keen theological insight of this self-described “hillbilly Thomist.”

For Flannery O’Connor, Catholicism was a way of seeing the world straight-on, without sentimentality. “There is nothing harder or less sentimental than Christian realism,” she once wrote, for at the heart of Christianity is God’s merciful love, the unsentimental but cleansing love of the father who restores to his wayward, prodigal son the dignity of his sonship. Christian realism taught that good and evil are objective realities, not “opinions.” Thus Christian realism applied to fiction required a painstaking description of both good and evil, especially as they interact in typically messy human lives.

This approach to the short story and the novel did not go down well everywhere. Flannery O’Connor understood why. Once, responding to a “moronic” New Yorker review of her now-famous story, “A Good Man Is Hard to Find,” she wrote Betty Hester that the review neatly demonstrated how “the 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.”

Modern culture’s insecure grasp on good and evil created a situation, O’Connor believed, in which people couldn’t get a grip on the truly horrible, which is sin and its effects in our lives. As she wrote to Betty Hester, “when I see [my] stories described as horror stories I am always amused because the reviewer always has hold of the wrong horror.” And the reviewer usually got “hold of the wrong horror” because the reviewer was the product of a culture in which “evil” had been psychologized away and the Evil One was, at best, a medieval fiction.

Flannery O’Connor’s relentless, faith-driven unsentimentality extended to the Church as well as to the world: “I think that the Church is the only thing that is going to make the terrible world we are coming to endurable; the only thing that makes the Church endurable is that it is somehow the body of Christ and on this we are fed. It seems to be a fact that you have to suffer as much from the Church as for it…” And this, mind you, was written in 1955—to certain Catholic minds, the high water mark of Catholic life in these United States. One can only imagine what Flannery O’Connor would say today.

O’Connor’s fiction is not to everyone’s taste. But her letters, and essays like “The Church and the Fiction Writer” and “The Catholic Novelist in the Protestant South” (both available in the Library of America edition of her collected works), display her talents as an apologist of honesty and genius. Gooch’s Flannery would have been a better book had he grappled with that facet of a remarkable life and a singular talent.

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.