Lorraine V. Murray, The Abbess of Andalusia Flannery O’Connor’s Spiritual Journey (Saint Benedict Press, 2009) 233 pages $16.95
Mary Flannery O’Connor (1925-1964) is at once perhaps one of the best known and yet most widely misunderstood of modern, Southern short-story writers. In her own lifetime, reviewers and her own family members found Miss O’Connor’s works too dark and difficult to understand. She further confounded them by refusing to assert one interpretation for her own works (other than perhaps that they were very funny). Born in Savannah, Georgia in 1925, Flannery O’Connor was born into one of the rare old Catholic families of the area and lost her father to Lupus, the disease that would eventually kill her as well, at an early age. Flannery and her mother lived her last years on the family farm of Andalusia in Milledgeville, where she kept peacocks, chickens, ducks, and burros among other beloved animals
Murray’s book, The Abbess of Andalusia presents a unique attempt in seeking to understand Flannery and, by extension, her stories. The book is not a typical biography of Flannery’s life, nor is it standard literary criticism or deconstruction of her works. As the subtitle of the book says, it is a story of Flannery O’Connor’s spiritual journey. That an author who wrote of Hazel Motes’ “church of truth without Jesus Christ Crucified” and psychotic murderers from an isolated Georgia farm in a town which she gleefully described as having no bookstore, but the largest mental institution in the world might be difficult for some to understand. This, of course, shows the value of a book like Murray’s for a popular audience.
O’Connor wrote short stories and novels, for which she is best known, but she also was a prolific letter writer and good friend to many to whom she offered assistance in both writing and the spiritual life. The Abbess of Andalusia draws heavily from Flannery’s letters to provide a picture of a woman who saw her writing, all of it, as her vocation. Crippled by Lupus, particularly in the later years of her life, Flannery saw writing as the last remaining way for her to perform the corporal works of mercy. Just as writing was central to her faith, her faith was central to her writing; as O’Connor herself said, “I write the way I do because and only because I am a Catholic.”
Flannery was a devout Catholic, and as the title suggests, her life was monastic in its strict regimen of prayer and writing. In addition to hearing daily prayers from the monastic breviary, Flannery spent time each day writing her fiction as well as letters to friends and book reviews for the Catholic press. Her bedroom in Andalusia reveals her as no fan of frills when it came to decorating, although her writings and her love for peacocks make it clear that she knew and loved beauty. As a Catholic, the Mass and the Eucharist played a central role in her life until her last days providing her with a special link with the beauty that is the Creator.
Murray notes that O’Connor strongly disliked biographies and stories of saints that portrayed them as saccharine and unapproachably holy. Fittingly, this spiritual biography makes no attempts in any such direction and shows O’Connor to be a devoted Catholic who was also human. She could be upset at priests and bishops, and detested St. Patrick’s Day celebrations. Yet, it is her human side and her ability to maintain her focus on her vocation that makes her sanctity shine through.
Murray proposes that there are a number of similarities between St. Therese Lisieux (a saint that Flannery herself admired) and Flannery O’Connor that might not at first be suspected. After all, how similar to each other could the cloistered Carmelite known as the “Little Flower” have much in common with the outspoken O’Connor who wrote extensively for a broad and all too secular audience? Both showed a strong personal devotion to the Eucharist, and died at young ages seemingly with much potential left unused, but it was in their common search for Christ in all creation and in their own lives following His example that provides the best link between the pair.
St. Therese offered everything she did for Christ including her illness and the stresses of daily life in the convent. O’Connor saw writing as her vocation and a way to offer her work to God, in particular her writings for the Catholic press (which she considered a particularly valuable mortification). Her sufferings during her own years of decreasing health combined with her continued dedication to writing and assisting friends through letters or personal visits provided Flannery opportunities to experience the redemptive value of suffering. Therese’s writings deal deeply with the love of God for all creation and how it was her goal to share in this love. For her part, Flannery created stories of misfits and grotesque characters that were still able to show the grace of God active in the world. O’Connor did not allow criticism of her writing as shocking or un-Catholic, even from family members who were shocked by her works (in particular Wise Blood), to sway her into writing the often preachy devotional fiction, which was common among her contemporary Catholic writers. Flannery wrote about a world that was indeed fallen and yet where God’s love still shown through.
In addition to her fiction and book reviews, Flannery’s vocation of writing also extended to personal interaction. Murray discusses in-depth the role that Flannery played as a type of spiritual director and source of encouragement to friends in her (sometimes weekly) letters to them. Troubled by life, religious longings, or trouble writing, Flannery took time out of what she knew was her severely limited time on Earth to show her deep love for them. This facet of her life is perhaps best shown by Murray’s description of the role O’Connor played helping the Atlanta house of the Dominican Sisters of Hawthorn (founded by the daughter of Nathaniel Hawthorne) commemorate a young girl who was raised by the nuns while suffering from disfiguring and fatal cancer. The book, which she originally believed would be a wreck, became A Memoir of Mary Ann for which she provided extensive editorial assistance as well as an introduction. This one example shows not only her immense patience and care for those who asked for her help, but also yet another way that she showed the true beauty of the grotesque and the ways which God works through them.
O’Connor herself refused to allow people to talk of her as a saint during her life (another trait she shares with St. Therese), but Murray’s book shows her life, like her writings, was Christ-centered and an example to follow. Flannery’s ability to maintain her humor, love, and dedication to her vocation as a writer throughout the pain of her illnesses shows her to be a woman of heroic virtue. It is fitting that the woman who despised tales of saints that made them seem impossible to imitate, and filled her works with characters all too human, is remembered in a book like Murray’s. When Flannery’s Cause for Canonization is opened, it seems likely that this book will prove of great benefit for a large audience who know little about O’Connor beyond her stories.