10 July 2013

The Road

The red dust crisscrossed its way over a crumbled road leading to Andalusia, the home of Flannery O’Connor. The cloudless sky provided no refuge for the traveler. She was sick, terribly sick. Her mother met me at the front door and explained her daughter was in her period of writing and so could not be disturbed. I sat on the porch swing and waited, anxiously, hearing the siren call of the peafowl about the farm.

The tired door swung open with a creak and out came, first with metal limbs, the simple frame of the writer. She looked at me and, with a drawl I daresay few could decipher, told me not to swing so hard, that the springs attached to the ceiling were worn. I sprung to my feet and greeted her with extended hand. She delicately shook it, winced, and we sat down.

Flannery O’Connor died before the Second Vatican Council ended. I was born nearly twenty years after it concluded. We never met. I was introduced to her writing some time ago by a well-intentioned professor who hoped we’d find some avant-garde slant in her writing. I didn’t care about that. I was immersed in her characters and soon became immersed in her person. I devoured every letter she wrote, every fragment of a conversation and experience, hoping to find a a near soul mate. And so I did.

I’ve written many papers about her, read innumerable biographies and accounts of her and, of course, have cast myself headlong into her stories. She was the centerpiece of my graduate studies, though I didn’t know how obvious my flirtations had become. At the end of my trying oral exam, a professor said, “Don’t you see what you’re doing here? Your whole career and studies have been focused on grace.” It was a lightning bolt , a clear and profound reference to Flannery, whose writing spoke nothing of grace, and the wreckage we can so easily become.

Today, a great many issues are at the fore: marriage, human rights, healthcare and all else. As the occasional follower of such things, I can hardly make sense of any of it. I know what the Catholic bishops of this country proclaim, in their reams and reams of explanation and defense; I think I know what the anti-Catholic culture teaches in its committed reams and reams of argument to the contrary. It all flies up in the whirling wind while the red dirt swirls beneath.

I wonder what Flannery would think of the current state of things. I am in no position to force words into her mouth – she was famously chagrined at any such attempt – but I think she’d find the whole thing sort of comic, a kind of tragic setting for an engrossing story.

What’s engrossing is our vaulted notion that we have the right and wherewithal to define – and if need be, redefine – what is. That is, to define and redefine and re-describe the swirling red dust and the peacocks parading proudly. I suspect, in all humility, that she would balk at such contentious debate today. She would balk because the precise point is being missed in all this dust-kicking, that is, that we belong to God and our machinations to disprove this through any and all complicated and sad items remains: she read the great Doctors not because they bolstered piety (she was repulsed by piety) but because they spoke the truth to the human condition, timeless, irrespective of the polis and the power, that our hearts are restless till they rest in You. The atheist clacks and calls, be she would stand, braces and all, resolute.

Finally, I suspect on a limb, that she would find our contemporary hysteria not much different than what was going on in her own tumultuous, Southern day, beyond the particulars, that we belong to one that does not bend with the age, and grace opens our eyes to this, and our noses and brains and all other senses, and the many characters she wrote about and the many still characters she wrote to, were all based on this fundamental premise: the love of God will take no equal. We can only fall in.

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