Hopkins Lectures 2004

Jesuit Influence in the Life and Works of Flannery O'Connor

Patrick Samway, S.J. St. Joseph's Philadelphia, USA

Flannery O'Connor favoured French writers, theologians, poets, and novelists as Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, Yves Congar, Henri Daniel-Rops, Henri André Malraux, Jacques Maritain, François Mauriac, Emmanuel Mounier, Charles Péguy, Romano Guardini, and Gerard Manley Hopkins, whose theory of 'inscape' influenced her tremendously.

Were you to have accompanied O'Connor to Sacred Heart Church in Milledgeville, Georgia anytime after she had moved there in 1938 at age 13, you would have entered a simple, Congregationalist-looking, brick structure, topped by a steeple and surmounted with a cross. Inside you would have been struck by the rather confined, unpretentious liturgical space, which allowed for close, almost intimate, contact between the congregation and the sanctuary. To the left, behind the altar rail, stood a baptismal font, and to the right a free-standing ambo-thus visually reminding the congregation of the importance both of baptism and the proclamation of the Word of God, both of which are of major significance in O'Connor's fiction. In the center stood the main altar at which the priest celebrated Mass in Latin with his back to the congregation. As a reminder of the sacrificial nature of the Mass, he could look up to a nearly life-size, loin-cloth-draped Christus plaintively staring down on him.

O'Connor favoured French writers who interpreted Thomism for the modern world

Each time that Flannery entered Sacred Heart Church, passing by the unobtrusive confessional box, to attend Mass as a silent participant, what she saw and heard happening beyond the altar rail greatly enhanced her own spiritual life. As she prayed in this lovely church, she did so, not in a vacuum, but as someone who throughout her adult life had read and admired such French writers, theologians, poets, and novelists as Louis Bouyer, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, S.J., Yves Congar, O.P., Henri Daniel-Rops, Jean Daniélou, S.J., Henri DeLubac, S.J., Étienne Gilson, André Malraux, Jean Guitton, Jacques Maritain, François Mauriac, Emmanuel Mounier, Charles Péguy, Romano Guardini, and Gerard Manley Hopkins, S.J., whose theory of inscape influenced her tremendously, as she noted in one of her letters. (Hollandsworth, Zuber, Sessions, Kilcourse, The Habit of Being [ passim ], especially 157). These two spiritual sources-that is, the ecclesial (baptism, confession, the Mass, and belief in the mystical dimension of the Church) and the extra-ecclesial (her private reading of French writers, especially those who interpreted Thomism for the modern world)-served as a larger apperceptive background by which O'Connor could evaluate the tug-and-pull of her own immediate experiences. Like St. Augustine, who desired that his faith have an intellectual basis, O'Connor deliberately informed herself about ways of discerning and imagining God's mysteriously dramatic, eternal, and ineffable kingdom, proleptically lived in each moment of one's life but which reaches beyond the borders of one's earthly existence.

For O'Connor, faith could not be grasped by natural reason alone

Raised in a Church, like many of us here, that curiously allows only six of its seven sacraments to women, O'Connor's spiritual and liturgical world was further informed by the theological discussions of the First Vatican Council (1869-70), which was preceded by years of theological reflection, particularly concerning the often decidedly unpopular notion of papal infallibility, commonly thought of as emanating from a sense of Roman triumphalism, and the less polemical belief of the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary. Curiously her fiction never mentions either dogma. Out of this council came a mentality that opposed what were called the errors of modern rationalism, materialism, and atheism-in short, the tenets of free-thinking, uninformed by divine revelation. Rather as a practicing Catholic in the widening wake of Vatican I, O'Connor believed God creates his creatures out of nothing, manifests his perfection to them, and leads them to their intended, freely chosen destination. In asserting the relationship between faith and reason, she believed as did other Catholics of her day, following the teaching of St. Thomas Aquinas, that the full impact of the mysteries of faith could not be grasped by natural reason alone, though revealed truth would never contradict the results of reasonable investigation. As a result every assertion is false, at least in a Thomistic framework, which contradicts the truth of an enlightened faith entrusted to the Church for protection and interpretation. Miracles, of course, confirm divine revelation. Unlike the final decrees of the Second Vatican Council, not in full force during O'Connor's lifetime, those of the First Vatican Council tended to be prescriptive rather than descriptive, based on what it considered to be assured, rock-solid, absolute certainty that could easily sniff out anything to the contrary. In light of this theology, part-and-parcel of the preaching of her day, it is no wonder that Flannery O'Connor actively pursued Thomism-albeit as a "hillbilly Thomist, as she called herself" ( The Habit of Being 81)-in order to have a grounding in realistic metaphysical thinking, even if at a remove ( The Habit of Being 439). She read the Summa Theologica of St. Thomas about 20 minutes each day, just before going to bed ( The Habit of Being 93).

O'Connor never consciously followed in the wake of other American writers

Out of the mainstream of Catholic writers of the late 1940's, 50's and early 60's, O'Connor never consciously followed in the wake of other American writers, particularly those who had experienced the radical shift in aesthetic and cultural sensibilities evident in art and literature during the post-World War I period, many of whom, such as T.S. Eliot, James Joyce, Virginia Woolf, W. B. Yeats, and Ezra Pound, broke with so-called Victorian bourgeois morality. In their attempt to throw off the aesthetic burden of the realistic novel, these writers were wont to introduce a variety of literary tactics and devices, including the radical disruption of the linear flow of narrative, the frustration of conventional expectations concerning unity of plot and character, and the deployment of ironic and ambiguous juxtapositions to call into question a panoply of theological, philosophical, and literary assumptions. The fragmented, non-chronological poetic forms of Eliot and Pound, for example, revolutionized poetry, and, in turn, much of the American fiction of that time period, as graphically embodied in Faulkner's 1930 novel, As I Lay Dying , particularly its cubistic structure, religious argumentation, and use of multiple narrative voices.

"Death of God" theology and the debate about deconstructionism

Moreover, certain theological and literary movements that were developing during O'Connor's lifetime-the incipient "Death of God" theology and the subsequent growing debate about deconstructionism in literature readily come to mind-grounded themselves in their own self-presence, without a discernible axis upon which everything rotates. Yet as someone who kept her eyes and heart on a definite theological center, O'Connor resisted the temptation to depict her fictive world a-linguistically and a-historically; she maintained a definite focus on the Christ-haunted American South she understood so well. And what is astonishing, at least for me, she likewise resisted enveloping her fiction in a pre-packaged Thomistic theology, popularly imagined during her lifetime as a triangle with God at the top, bishops under him, then priests, nuns, brothers under the bishops, and lastly the good, simple Catholic laity resting on the bottom. Rather, anticipating some of the dynamic thinking of Vatican II, O'Connor's characters are more than likely flawed, uninformed, or sinful ones in need of a conversion as they undertake a journey-a pilgrimage, holy or otherwise. O'Connor writes about those whom many writers of her generation repressed: the mystic, the prophetic, the marginalized-in short, she deals with otherness, difference, transgression, excess-contemporary notions (some even might say buzz words) so much part of critical parlance today. And this explains, in part, why O'Connor is so beloved to adult readers who understand her thematic preoccupations, but difficult for young adults who seek conformity, similarity, acceptance, and control of their emotional environment.

The Incarnation, aa Christification of the world that renders the human sacrosanct

More than anyone else, I believe, William Lynch, S.J. (one of my former professors well versed in Thomism and the ancient Greek playwright), whose books The Image Industries and Christ and Apollo: The Dimensions of the Literary Imagination O'Connor reviewed, helped O'Connor in validating her particular post-modernist direction (Zuber 74, 94). Father Lynch, as did Father Hopkins, served as Jesuit literary and critical exemplars, if not mentors, as O'Connor attempted to find her own literary voice. In his development of the "analogical imagination," as articulated in his 1954 essay "Theology and Imagination" in the journal Thought , which O'Connor likewise read and commented upon ( The Habit of Being 132), Lynch brings together sameness and difference, stressing that the things of this world have their own reality, but also participate, as the George Kilcourse notes in a discussion of Lynch's thought, in the larger community of being (114). For Lynch, the "analogical" is "that habit of perception which sees that different levels of being are also somehow one and can therefore be associated in the same image , in the same and single act of perception" (75). As God became incarnate in Jesus, and as Jesus often presented the other-worldly in images of the worldly, so too the human imagination probes the finite, the particular, the limited as a way of describing the mysteries of the infinite God. Thus Catholic theology at once embraces the world and renounces it, as it seeks to go from the specific to the horizon of the eternal moment. As O'Connor knew so well, the Incarnation is not a temporary blessing but a Christification of the world that renders the human sacrosanct-as depicted both in the nearly nude child Jesus in the Christmas crèche and the nearly nude Christus on a crucifix above an altar. Finite and infinite realities coalesce, for Lynch, and thus there is no need to pull together what has never been separated. "The resurrection of Christ seems the high point in the law of nature," O'Connor wrote ( The Habit of Being 100), a loaded observation underscoring much of her fiction, especially in opening the doors of the Kingdom of God to us mere mortals. For O'Connor, the mystery of God in every part of the universe undergirds the Christian imagination.

But more is at stake, I believe. The Manichean temptation for the imagination, as Lynch notes, is "to win its freedom by seeking quick infinities through the rapid and clever manipulation of the finite" rather than passing through "all the rigors, density, limitations, and decisions of the actual" ("Theology and Imagination II" 545). In a telling fashion, O'Connor says that Lynch "describes the true nature of the literary imagination as found on [in] a penetration of the finite and the limited.. In genuine tragedy and comedy, the definite is explored to its extremity and man is shown to be the limited creature he is, and it is at this point of greatest penetration of the limited that the artist finds insight. Much modern so-called tragedy avoids this penetration and makes a leap toward transcendence," resulting in an unearned and specious resolution of the work (Zuber 94). Though O'Connor did not ascribe to the entirety of Lynch's thesis, she did agree with his general theory, developed in three other essays in Thought , since she realized its enormous potential for explaining the Christic imagination.

Communicating a religious vision

O'Connor often wrote about communicating a religious vision to those for whom the phrase was almost meaningless; in order to do that, however, she needed to lead her reader through the thicket of her fiction, often by means of religious code words, phrases, incidents, and situations. My argument concerning a specific way in which O'Connor as author communicates with her reader builds on the thesis clearly developed by John Desmond in his book Risen Sons , in that I recognize the O'Connor's use of the analogical principle in the act of writing to create a sense of mystery, but I am intent on indicating an additional mode of communication not explicitly developed by other critics. In doing so, I do not mean to provide a reductionist critique of her fiction, but rather to show but another dimension of her art that builds close readings of her texts. In mentioning, for example, "A Temple of the Holy Ghost," Desmond notes that in this story O'Connor "creates vision implicitly through the details of the passage-the Host, the freak, the nun's crucifix, Alonzo's pig ears, the sun, the trees. O'Connor preserves the mystery of the scene by leaving it to the reader to envision the 'connection' between the literary details and the hierophany, and she thereby respects both the created fictional world and the reader" (23). I would go one step further, and add that O'Connor actually helps the reader to the hierophany by planting verbal signposts along the way, in the spirit of Walker Percy, who believed that a novelist takes a stranger into a strange, fictive land and teaches him or her to read carefully the signs that are there.

Flannery O'Connor's References to Gerard Manley Hopkins

One specific aspect of my more generalized argument about how O'Connor uses religious codes, words, phrases, incidents, and situations can be seen, however obliquely, in her references to and appropriation of Hopkins. In her story "A Good Man is Hard to Find," O'Connor writes "The trees were full of silver-white sunlight and the meanest of them sparkled," though, in fact, none of the protagonists seem to notice, unaware that God's redeeming mercy can occur even after an haphazard encounter with radical evil. These mean sparkling trees that the author depicts are reminders, if you will, of Duns Scotus's haecceitas , "the pure thisness -and-not-thatness.in all things," as flamboyantly and lavishly explored in Hopkins's "Pied Beauty"-as Sarah Gordon notes (144-60). The grandeur of God sparkles even in the lowest of the most threatening of trees. Likewise in "The River," the story of a young boy who returns to a river where he has previously been brought by a family caretaker, Mrs. Connin, to be baptized. Through these waters the revival minister had assured him that he would enter the Kingdom of God. The boy's logic is clear, simple, direct, at least in his unnuanced spiritual economy. If, as the boy feels, his parents do not want him, then where should he go, but "home" to God's Kingdom. O'Connor describes Mrs. Connin as a "speckled skeleton in a long pea-green coat and felt helmet." In addition her own children who likewise accompany her are identified as having "identical speckled faces." The unusual word in both cases is not graphically far from Hopkins's "fickle" and "freckled." Such an interpretation is reinforced by a phrase O'Connor employs when noting that Mrs. Connin and the children with her cross "a field stippled with purple weeds." As the boy drowns in the waters of his previous baptism, we can only but imaging him floating in the arms of a waiting savior, much in harmony with Christ's injunction: "Suffer the little children to come to me, and forbid them not; for of such is the kingdom of God" (Mark 10:14). Furthermore O'Connor writes "At the bottom of the hill, the woods opened suddenly onto a pasture dotted here and there with black and white cows and sloping down, tier after tier, to a broad orange stream where the reflection of the sun set like a diamond." Who among us here would deny that her image of the sun setting like a diamond is a direct allusion to the concluding image of "That Nature is a Heraclitean Fire and of the Comfort of the Resurrection?" Beyond the river, O'Connor notes "There was a low red and gold grove of sassafras with hills of dark blue trees behind it and an occasional pine jutting over the skyline." These brinded cows set in a plotted and pieced landscape are eloquent testimony to God's handiwork. Though O'Connor seems reluctant "to praise God in the manner of Hopkins' extravagance", she nevertheless acknowledges in her own way the veracity of his judgment (Gordon 150). And it really is no wonder, I believe, that two months before her death she savored the "golden grove unleaving" of Hopkins's "Spring and Fall" ( The Habit of Being 596).

Drawing Large Pictures for Those going Blind

In the final analysis where should one go to begin an understanding of O'Connor's fiction? A difficult question, which one could likewise ask about Hopkins's poetry. In the case of Hopkins, one might look carefully at the two times he made the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius of Loyola. And what about O'Connor? Maybe one place to begin seeking an answer would be to follow her back to the young woman praying almost daily in Sacred Heart Church in Milledgeville, back to this Southerner, who, as she knelt before the Blessed Sacrament, roamed the many byways of her creative imagination, back to this artist who knew she needed to shout to the deaf and draw large pictures for those going blind, back to this writer who had so much to tell those willing to see and learn and understand.


Desmond, John. Risen Sons: Flannery O'Connor's Vision of History. Athens: U of Georgia P, 1987.

Faulkner, William. As I Lay Dying . New York: Jonathan Cape & Harrison Smith, 1930.

Gordon, Sarah. Flannery O'Connor: The Obedient Imagination . Athens: U of Georgia P, 2000.

Hollandsworth, Linda. "'Sophisticated acts': The Friendship of Flannery O'Connor and William Sessions." Southern Quarterly 38:4 (Summer 2000): 93-100.

Kilcourse, George A., Jr. Flannery O'Connor's Religious Imagination . Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 2001.

Lynch, William, S.J. Christ and Apollo: The Dimensions of the Literary Imagination . New York: Sheed & Ward, 1960.

-----. The Image Industries . New York: Sheed & Ward, 1959.

-----. "Theology and Imagination." Thought 29: 112 (Spring 1954): 61-86; "Theology and Imagination II: The Evocative Symbol." Thought 29: 115 (Winter 1954-55): 529-54; "Theology and Imagination III: The Problem of Comedy." Thought 30: 116 (Spring 1955): 18-36; "The Imagination and the Finite." Thought 33: 129 (Summer 1958): 205-28.

O'Connor, Flannery. Collected Works . Selected by Sally Fitzgerald. New York: The Library of America, 1988.

-----. Everything That Rises Must Converge . Introduction by Robert Fitzgerald. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1965.

-----. The Habit of Being : Letters of Flannery O'Connor . Edited by Sally Fitzgerald. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1979.

-----. Mystery and Manners . Selected and edited by Sally and Robert Fitzgerald. New York: Noonday Press, 1962.

-----. The Presence of Grace and Other Book Reviews. C ompiled by Leo J. Zuber and edited with an introduction by Carter W. Martin. Athens: U of Georgia P, 1983.

Two pictures (interior and exterior views) of Sacred Heart Church can be found in Flannery O'Connor: Images of Grace , by Harold Fickett and Douglas R. Gilbert (William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, Grand Rapids, Michigan, 1986), p. 38.

Prior to attending Sacred Heart Church, Flannery had been a parishioner at the Cathedral of St. John the Baptist in Savannah, except for less than a half-year when she lived in Atlanta. I have focused on Sacred Heart Church, since this was O'Connor's parish church throughout her discerning teenage years, and also during her adult years when she lived in Milledgeville. Mr. and Mrs. Hugh Donnelly Treanor, Flannery's great-grandparents, donated the land on which Sacred Heart Church (completed in April 1874) was built.

For an analysis of O'Connor's views of Thomism, see "A Thomist's Letters to 'A," by Helen R. Andretta, an essay developed from a paper presented at the American Literature Association's Conference, 30 May 1998, in San Diego, CA. I am grateful to Professor Andretta for sending me a copy of her essay.

Read Patrick Samway S.J. on Walker Percy
Flannery O'Connor, Hopkins and Silence (Hank Edmondson 111)
Theological View of Hopkins Poetry
Review of Norman White Biographies of Gerard Manley Hopkins