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A Treasury of Arkansas Writers Discussing the Catholic Faith
Official Website of the
Catholic Diocese of Little Rock
Published: September 11, 2021
By Katie Karp
Ozark Catholic Academy
“What people don’t realize is how much religion costs. They think faith is a big electric blanket when of course, it is the cross.” -- Flannery O’Connor
Flannery O’Connor, renowned Southern gothic author and devout Catholic, includes these words in one of her many letters. Perhaps a high school or college English class introduced you to her memorable, jarring and sometimes gruesome short stories. Flannery writes to the lukewarm Christian with this simple message: We are all urgently in need of God’s grace. Flannery is insistent upon the confrontation of our own sin we must make to accept the love that awaits us at the cross. Here are three reasons Catholics should still be reading Flannery O’Connor.
It is good to embrace discomfort. There is no doubt that these stories are challenging. A criminal holding up a helpless family on a road trip, a bull stabbing a woman straight in the heart, a man getting crushed by a tractor, the list goes on. Surprisingly, what I find more uncomfortable are the flawed characters Flannery writes for us to recognize ourselves in: The prideful intellectual, the judgemental mother, the dead-beat husband, even the two-faced salesman. The urgency of the circumstances Flannery places her characters in provides opportunities for them to reckon with their flawed nature -- the same way that reading these stories can awaken us to our flawed nature. Flannery’s stories are intended to act as a sort of purgatorial fire. As uncomfortable as it might be, it can be a necessary purge of the dirt on our souls. In one of her letters, she writes, “All human nature vigorously resists grace because grace changes us, and the change is painful.” With an awareness of the difficulty of recognizing our disordered ways and our urgent need for grace, she writes stories that beg us not to look away so that we might be able to receive the grace we so desperately need.
As Catholics, we know that conversion can happen in the most unlikely places, even at death. We believe that Christ can work on the hardest of hearts, that even the greatest of tragedies can become a vehicle for grace.
As Catholics, we need to read Flannery in light of the resurrection. If one were to study these stories from a purely secular perspective, the impression at the end would be disturbing and dismal. However, as Catholics, we know that conversion can happen in the most unlikely places, even at death. We believe that Christ can work on the hardest of hearts, that even the greatest of tragedies can become a vehicle for grace. Sometimes these stories seem to end on a “good Friday,” what appears to be a loss or defeat, but we have to remember what comes afterward, even if it isn’t printed on the page. Reading things like this presents a challenge for us -- acknowledging the reality of the resurrection even in the midst of the strange, violent and sinful.
Memento mori. It is easy to put off change until tomorrow. It is tempting to remain ignorant to the depth of our pride and stubbornness. These stories are a brutal but necessary reminder that our time to accept grace is finite. Christ extends his loving hand every day, and often we are too caught up to recognize it. Flannery tries to wake us up before it is too late. She offers us an opportunity to acknowledge our need for grace and our mortality, which creates an urgency for us now. It isn’t a warm fuzzy God, but a great, awe-inspiring God that we often forget. Despite their dissonance, Flannery’s works can act as a vehicle for grace.
Katie Karp holds a master’s degree in education from Franciscan University of Steubenville and a bachelor’s degree in English from the University of Central Arkansas. She currently teaches Humane Letters and theology at Ozark Catholic Academy in Tontitown.