I happened across a photograph of Flannery O'Connor the other day. She stood against some wintry landscape in a barren Iowa while there working towards her degree in creative writing or some such thing. Sheep mill in the background chewing whatever they could find, but she stood there, visibly uncomfortable in the frozen surroundings. Something about the photograph haunted my dreams the night I saw it; a woman wild with creativity against a horizon so seemingly void of anything worth noting.
A couple weeks ago a young student came to me with tears in his eyes to tell me his father had been diagnosed with cancer. The tears, I noted, were not those of sadness or worry, even, but tears of growing up for the first time. Tears that had, in some way, bid farewell to the joyful ambivalence of the innocence of youth. He was, I think, grieving for something of himself that was dying before his very eyes. I was brought to tears, too, not because of his father and his sad predicament but because of the memories of my own loss of youth.
When she felt the first strong urge that she might make some contribution to the world of literature, Flannery was forced to face the inevitable fact that she had lupus, a disease that took her father in his prime and would, in the end, take her in the peak of her imaginative prowess. I wonder what tears she shed behind those typewritten pages on a farm in Georgia; I wonder what she thought as she looked out across a field of peafowl she hatched and raised, those magnificent feathers symbolized by so many ancients. I wonder if she cried at her own loss, or instead flung head-on into her writing.
We tread through the barren landscape of an Iowa that is Advent. We are - despite the liturgical settings to the contrary - unsure of where we are headed. I stand in front of classes full of young people who smash me against the board with their intense desire for meaning, a desire which transcends their ever-limited ability to express it.
When she died in her late 30s, Flannery was a fairly well-known writer but one consistently misunderstood. Her focus was on the stranger among us, the freak, the one from whom we hide our faces. Her stories can be brutal and full of shocking employment of language. They unnerve the reader. Her stories do not make for good bedtime tales.
Perhaps it is the stranger she writes of we are wandering through this overcast muck to find. Not in some nicely wrapped package or embrace of a loved one at Christmas, but in the tear-stained, the stinking wretch we make a habit of avoiding. In that wooden crate that smells of animal breath and spittle we come to find the outcast who has pierced through every fortress we have created within ourselves.
Flannery's stories, and ours, are ultimately those of perpetual Advent: of coming ever closer to the posture of prostration in the dank hay of a world we have sought so long to avoid, but a world we altogether can no longer avoid. We welcome this stranger in our midst because we have found ourselves aimless without him. We laugh - the tears subside - because we cannot believe, though we must, that in the presence of this outcast all the complexities of life have been made simple, all the regret and scorn and rage, lost forever in the sleeping face of the Holy Child.