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Flannery O’Connor and the Art of the Holy

ISSUE:  Spring 1988

For Dorothy Tuck McFarland

Flannery O’Connor was an extraordinary person, an extraordinary thinker and writer—and she knew it. Once a student in Texas asked her why she wrote. She later told John Hawkes her reply: “”because I’m good at it,” says I.” She had meant to display disgust at shallowness and impertinence, but it also shows her quick and ready wit—and her abiding attitude. “Every serious novelist,” she wrote, “is trying to portray reality as it manifests itself in our concrete, sensual life, and he can’t do this unless he has been given the initial instrument, the talent, and unless he respects the talent, as such.” For herself, she had no doubts.

She had her reasons, of course, and, as a Catholic, a firm sense of duty and responsibility that imposed additional demands. “The poet is traditionally a blind man,” she remarked, thinking of such bards as Homer and the singer of Beowulf, “but the Christian poet, and storyteller as well, is like the blind man whom Christ touched, who looked then and saw men as if they were trees, but walking. This is the beginning of vision, and it is an invitation to deeper and stranger visions that we shall have to learn to accept if we want to realize a truly Christian literature.” So she gave us Mr. Fortune’s vision in turn in “A View of the Woods” (“On both sides of him he saw that the gaunt trees had thickened into mysterious dark files that were marching across the water and away into the distance”) and the vision of Mrs. Turpin in, appropriately enough, a late story called “Revelation” (“She saw the streak [of light] as a vast swinging bridge extending upward from the earth through a field of living fire. Upon it a vast horde of souls were rumbling toward heaven”).

And such unshakable beliefs led her to write imperishable works. From the beginning, she was sure of her talent, confident of her ideas. Her “gravest concern,” she stated at the outset—again to John Hawkes—”is always the conflict between an attraction for the Holy and the disbelief in it that we breathe in with the air of the times.” “I have found, in short, from reading my own writing, that my subject in fiction is the action of grace in territory largely held by the devil.” It is this persistent need and concern that reverberates throughout the canon, that lies just beneath the exterior of each moment of her stories, the need to

suggest both the world and eternity. The action or gesture I’m talking about would have to be on the anagogical level, that is, the level which has to do with the Divine Life and our participation in it. It would be a gesture that transcended any neat allegory that might have been intended or any pat moral categories a reader could make. It would be a gesture which somehow made contact with mystery.

She knew her talent was secure, that is, because it dominated a principled art.

She seems always to have dominated the existence of her own fictions, too, and to be able to characterize them, when called upon, with an astonishing acuity, a dazzling candor.

The novelist with Christian concerns will find in modern life distortions which are repugnant to him, and his problem will be to make these appear as distortions to an audience which is used to seeing them as natural; and he may well be forced to take ever more violent means to get his vision across to this hostile audience. When you can assume that your audience holds the same beliefs you do, you can relax a little and use more normal means of talking to it; when you have to assume that it does not, then you have to make your vision apparent by shock—to the hard of hearing you shout, and for the almost-blind you draw large and startling figures.

So she consciously developed, too, a conscious aesthetic for grotesquerie, creating an art of distortion, eccentric characters, even freaks, hoping to show how malformed the “normal” among us who sin must appear violent and deformed from the perspective of Christ. She drew on Poe and Hawthorne for models; her reading (and her library) show us too that she learned, from the start, from Gogol. Her sense of humor, once larklike and satiric, turned grim and mordant. The urgency she felt to draw boldly the queerness that marked souls deliberately turned from Christianity despite their conventional allegiances—mere mockeries, those— meant an increasingly queer art, too, one that, to her surprise, failed to communicate. Still she held firm. Her faith, in her religion and in her art, remained rocklike and hard. “When I sit down to write, a monstrous reader looms up who sits down beside me and continually mutters, “I don’t get it, I don’t see it, I don’t want it,”” she remarked in 1960 in an address at Georgia College, her alma mater. “Some writers can ignore this presence, but I have never learned how. I know that I must never let him affect my vision, must never let him gain control over my thinking, must never listen to his demands unless they accord with my conscience; yet I feel I must make him see what I have to show, even if my means of making him see have to be extreme.” Yet for all her faith in her beliefs and her fiction, the monstrous readers were too numerous for her, and her letters, filled with a stubborn disappointment at the misinterpretations, the denigrations, and the trivializations her work suffered at their hands, led to a kind of benign resignation. “I can wait fifty years, a hundred years for it to be understood. . . . It will take a while. . .for people to see what I mean.”


What she meant was conveyed—and with a fine transparency—through images whose power and significance she read about in her library. Her naturally searching, naturally syncretic mind joined theology and literature, her chief interests, as her reading now documents, in the words she marked by Aquinas and by Conrad. For her St. Thomas’s call for “the accurate naming of the things of God” allowed her to follow Conrad’s advice, in his preface to The Nigger of the “Narcissus,” to “render the highest possible justice to the visible universe.” For her, then, the secular and sensual world contains—and also requires—perceptual transpositions. Objects and events demand metamorphosis into higher apprehensions of Reality. The burning, tree which appears like Moses’ burning bush (“Parker’s Back”), the stained ceiling that descends irrevocably in the shape of the Pentecostal dove (“The Enduring Chill”), or Atlanta envisioned as an Inferno which can be transformed into Purgatory (“The Artificial Nigger”) are all, in O’Connor’s chemistry, alive with the power of the miraculous which embattles a more rational world of statistics and probabilities. And our leap of faith invites a reciprocal leap of grace. Although O’Connor views this technique of her fiction as prophetic, drawing on the events of the Bible and the acts of Old Testament prophecy, her method ironically reverses them: she starts with phenomena and only hints at the noumena which give them what power and significance, what form and function, her stories realize.

So we constantly find in her fiction, discovering in her country our own, strange juxtapositions of events, intrusions of the divine, and the effronteries of grace (not to mention its apparent gratuity) clearly designed (in imitating the ways of the Lord) to “upset the balance” of life. Mrs. McIntyre says as much in “The Displaced Person,” claiming the Christ-like Mr. Guizac upsets the stable and self-sufficient farm the Judge has left her. Such arrangements of characters and events—in “The Displaced Person” a Polish refugee displaces a peacock and both are displaced for Mrs. McIntyre who may, in turn, be the most displaced of them all in this world—are strange amalgamations, as discordant as Hazel Motes and Enoch Emery in the early novel Wise Blood, or as Tarwater and his uncle Rayber in the late novel The Violent Bear It Away. But these novels, too, the one a comic flight toward salvation, the other a tragic struggle toward it, both display Thomistic incarnations of truth despite the fact that the first was a Georgian’s synthesis of The Waste Land and Oedipus Tyrannos— like so much of her work, a book built on books—while the second transformed the revelation of St. Matthew—”From the days of John the Baptist until now, the kingdom of heaven suffereth violence, and the violent bear it away”—into a second apocalypse.

Such ironies of juxtaposition and transformation—where everything signifies something larger and deeper, something sacred—abound in O’Connor’s fiction. We find it in characters, such as fat Alonzo Myers and the freakish hermaphrodite who image holy incarnation to a girl just entering puberty in “A Temple of the Holy Ghost.” We find it in encounters such as that between a hypocritical Bible salesman and a feigned atheist in “Good Country People.” We find it also in events such as the fire set by the three boys who destroy God’s woods to prove they do not belong to Mrs. Cope, in “A Circle in the Fire.” And we find it in images such as Rufus Johnson eating pages of the Bible at the dinnertable (“The Lame Shall Enter First”). Often O’Connor intimates her ideas through implied analogies—as the arson alludes to Daniel 3:91 and the Bible-eating to Apocalypse 10:10—but some significations, such as the homosexual rapist in The Violent Bear It Away or the criminal Misfit in “A Good Man Is Hard to Find” or the drifter Mr. Shiftlet in “The Life You Save May Be Your Own,” draw surprisingly large figures while others, such as the bull that gores Mrs. May (“Greenleaf”) or the tattoo of a Byzantine Christ on Parker’s back in which the Word is literally made flesh, in which God actually gets beneath the skin of the sinner, seem downright blasphemous. For O’Connor they are all of a glorious similarity, revealing “a peculiar crossroads where time and place and eternity somehow meet.”

And that governing idea, too, stems from her reading, from the work of Mircea Eliade which she owned and admired. “It is impossible to overemphasize the paradox represented by every hierophany, even the most elementary,” Eliade writes in The Sacred and Profane (which she owned).

By manifesting the sacred, any object becomes something else, yet it continues to remain itself, for it continues to participate in its surrounding cosmic milieu. A sacred stone remains a stone; apparently (or, more precisely, from the profane point of view), nothing distinguishes it from all other stones. But for those to whom a stone reveals itself as sacred, its immediate reality is transmuted into a supernatural reality. In other words, for those who have a religious experience all nature is capable of revealing itself as cosmic sacrality. The cosmos in its entirety can become a hierophany.

For O’Connor, Eliade is at one with Aquinas (and Conrad); her crossroads were not so much the interruption of opposed lines of traffic as meeting places of the concrete and the eternal. Hazel Motes’ self-blinding is meant to relate him to Oedipus but also to Tiresias—and to Asa Hawks whom he would expose and to Christ’s story of a man who was blind but (because he was blind) could see; the Greenleaf bull takes us toward Zeus and Dionysus—and also toward the Greenleafs; and Mrs. May’s stricken look in that story recalls the agonized ecstasy on Bernini’s statue of St. Teresa. “The Life You Save May Be Your Own” is a commonplace highway sign (even in the story); it is also an echo of the gospel according to Matthew: “He that findeth his life, shall lose it; and he that shall lose his life for me, shall find it” (Matthew 10:39). Like Christ, O’Connor found in paradox the drama of reality as well as the truth of it. In such a world, it is natural that a peacock reify the Transfiguration (“The Displaced Person”) and the setting sun should become a blood-drenched Host (“A Temple of the Holy Ghost”). Nor can we any longer be astonished that what Melvin J. Friedman calls her “chaste, unimposing sentences” can survive such burdens. For the pressures of perceptual transformation causes her to witness to the world as, essentially, opportunities and acts for inward and outward conversion of mind and soul.


But to an incarnational writer like Flannery O’Connor, the greatest possibility of art, its greatest appeal and its greatest mystery, was the reification of the prototypical Incarnation: the awareness that all of us are, actually or potentially, temples of the Holy Ghost. It is ourselves, stout bulwarks of pride and passion, that must withstand the assaults of grace, the daily wars with mercy which serve, insistently, as telling exposures of our inadequacies. The city of Taulkinham—its streets and moviehouses, boardinghouses, zoos, and filling stations, its Frosty Bottle, Paris Diner, and Slade’s Used Car Lot—is not only ugly and empty of meaning, a dusty reminder of living death like the mummy disintegrating in its case, but it is also ridiculous. Its hollowness is telling. Indeed, such a sight can even lead the steadfastly unregenerate Hazel Motes to his first sense of loss, informing his patched-up, urgent initial response in Wise Blood: a street gospel that proclaims “”there was no Fall because there was nothing to fall from and no Redemption because there was no Fall and no Judgment because there wasn’t the first two.”” Pilgrim souls become moral derelicts in Taulkinham not because they lack the capacity to believe but because they see, rightly, only a city of ashes. The waste land of Eliot— whose books O’Connor collected over the years, one by one—epitomizes the landscapes of many of her characters, forcing them to a total, evangelical commitment to the Lord or to a total repudiation of Him and all He represents. The harsh self-sufficiency of her people, their rigidity of spirit and their willingness to suffer for a sense of glory, born of strict propriety of the self, leads them inexorably to a sense of painful alienation, a radical sense of estrangement.

“Almost everywhere in her fiction,” Friedman contends, “some person is trying to fulfill a mission in unfamiliar surroundings.” But her maimed souls and mutilated consciousnesses, turned self-styled prophets, are mirrors of the ragged figures that pass between ominous silences in her work, fallen counterparts of the tattered alter-ego that lurks behind every tree Hazel Motes seems to pass. Their ancestors are the Old Testament prophets who speak to someone like young Hazel Motes, whose wise blood is not so easily beckoned as Enoch Emery’s but instead struggles to surface. Their oracular pronouncements are divided between the threats of Ecclesiasticus—

They that forsake God shall fall into [hell], and it shall burn in them, and shall not be quenched, and it shall be sent upon them as a lion, and as a leopard it shall tear them (28:27)—

and the commands of Isaias—

Wash yourselves, be clean, take away the evil of your devices from my eyes: cease to do perversely (1:16).

It is a tradition of fear and trembling, with ancient pedigree, that threatens Hazel Motes and his successors, the great-uncle and great-nephew Tarwater, while it hurtles them toward some awful, perhaps final confrontation with God. Their biographies bear witness to life as an endless field of struggle, seemingly without armistice.

For O’Connor, Hazel and the Tarwaters are souls in extremis but not, for all that, misrepresentative. On a subtler level, Julian (“Everything That Rises Must Converge”) and Joy/Hulga (“Good Country People”), the grandmother (“A Good Man Is Hard to Find”) and the boy Harry Ashfield/Bevel (“The River”) also face life as dissatisfying and unfulfilling and come to realize, in studied alterations of circumstances, the contingencies of the human condition which create a perpetually endangered species. What many of O’Connor’s story protagonists share, in more commonplace guises than the protagonists of the novels, is an estrangement from God’s plenitude, and thus a false, deluded sense of freedom which is in fact, O’Connor warns us, a desperate state of self-bondage. Liberty and captivity are central issues as her “more normal” characters fashion their roads of life as misconceived pathways to salvation. It takes, instead, something considerably less easy and pleasant than passive acquiescence to arrive at atonement in our dark and bloody land, to respond to the violence by which the grace of God can seize us. O’Connor owned the Douay translation of the Holy Scriptures, which, upon occasion, she marked; she also owned Ronald Knox’s translation, which she did not. Knox may have mistranslated the verse from Matthew that serves as the title of her late novel: “Ever since John the Baptist’s time,” Knox has it, “the kingdom of heaven has opened to force; and the forceful are even now making it their prize.” Either way, force and destruction or else prolonged alienation and suffering are the means—we can break the seven seals of our fates—and Julian’s mother suffers a stroke, Joy/Hulga has her leg removed and stolen; the grandmother is shot, the boy drowned. The road to glory is not merely awesome but painful and dangerous. The intensification of conflict which John the Baptist, Christ, and Matthew envision at the arrival of the Messianic kingdom is shadowed forth in the visions, actions, and deaths in O’Connor’s fictional kingdom. They, too, then, are deliberately conceived as incarnational acts.

These ideas are what many books in Flannery O’Connor’s personal library—her theological works, her lives of the saints—taught her. “There are long periods in the lives of all of us, and of the saints,” she writes to her anonymous friend “A.,” “when the truth as revealed by faith is hideous, emotionally disturbing, downright repulsive.” “Remember the wrath that shall be at the last day, and the time of repaying when he shall turn away his face,” she adds, recalling Ecclesiasticus again (18:24). This sense of the apocalyptic is what O’Connor transfers into the more commonplace continuum of our humdrum lives. For while those lives could lurch her into the comic and the farcical (Hazel Motes’ glare blue suit with the price tag of $11.98 still stapled to it; Mrs. Wally Bee Hitchcock heavy and pink, in a pink wrapper with her knobs of hair resembling toadstools; characters named Hoover Shoats and Red Sammy Butts, Leora Watts and Sally Poker Sash), her fiction was really designed to lead away from the conventional, to show, in fact, how grotesque conventionality itself is, in a fiction of extraordinary moments, those far more precious, far more revelatory moments that record the death of complacency. In the end, this time through radio rather than through books, she was drawn to the shouting, berating indefatigable Protestant preachers whose messages of Doomsday characterized the Bible Belt where her long illness caused her to reside all her adult life. Like her, they recognized hard realities; and they saw life, as she did, as transient, vulnerable, inescapably subject to the heaven or hellfire that awaited in an existence beyond. Indeed, the itinerant Baptist preacher’s most reiterated cry (as it was Scripture on most billboards populating her countryside, both then and now) was that “The wages of sin is death. But the grace of God, life everlasting, [is] in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 6:23)—an absolute and final choice which is terrifying because it is absolute and final: everything is in jeopardy.

Such a warning, laundered for most of us into a harmless cliche, remained for O’Connor a dreadful and violent truth which informed her Bible, her faith, and her library even as it informs her fiction. “I came not to send peace, but the sword,” Matthew announces (10:34). Isaias sees the wrongdoing of Judah and Jerusalem as a violence which insures violence in turn: “Woe to the sinful nation, a people laden with iniquity, a wicked seed, ungracious children: they have forsaken the Lord, they have blasphemed the Holy One of Israel, they are gone away backwards” (1:4). Amos speaks of God’s denunciation of Israel: “in every street there shall be wailing. . . . I will turn your feasts into mourning, and all your songs into lamentation” (5:16, 8:10). Jeremías has the same message for the Jews: “Thy own wickedness shall reprove thee, and thy apostacy shall rebuke thee. Know thou, and see that it is an evil and a bitter thing for thee, to have left the Lord thy God” (2:19). Even the prophet Micheas, speaking of Samaria, carries the identical message: “I will make Samaria as a heap of stones in the field when a vineyard is planted: and I will bring down the stones thereof into the valley, and will lay her foundations bare” (1:6). Such threats, so O’Connor must have reasoned, were delivered to God’s chosen people: what, then, would be the fate of her own? Suffering and blessing as indivisible experiences were a direct consequence of the intrusion of God into the consciousness of men. Such intrusions disturb Hazel Motes and Francis Marion Tarwater, who insist they do not need God; such an intrusion leads to the deformed, ugly, and painful thoughts of Hulga and to the disturbingly sweet innocent love of God by Bevel. And self-crucifixions like Hulga’s or self-redemptions like Bevel’s (who is escaping Mr. Paradise!) lead us, with our own habits of being, into what Julian senses as a world of guilt and sorrow. His story (“Everything That Rises Must Converge”), like all their stories, is one of a suffering human being as a potential alter Christus for the rest of us, if not for himself.


So, wondrously like grace, there is imbedded in the heart of her violence not only the frustration that grotesque fallen souls embody but the fact of conversion: there is theological point and purpose even to her use of the sinning, the deformed, and the damned as subjects fleeing or searching for redemption. “It seems to me,” Jacques Maritain wrote Maurice Coindreau, the French translator of O’Connor’s novel Wise Blood,

It seems to me that the critics have a poor understanding of her. Yes, doubtless she hated these wild prophets, but they fascinated her. Am I wrong in thinking that to her they were like saints of the devil stripped of everything by him, as real saints are stripped by God, and really poor miserable men in whom she saw a certain greatness? It was the devil she hated. As for them, she pitied them and I think that deep down she loved them.

Precisely. For O’Connor, this was a holy kind of horror which aroused and earned her compassion because she was their prophet, realizing the ignored truths they themselves faltered in communicating to a world larger than their own backwoods congregations. She shared with them a sense of vocation, a calling from and to God.

For the other side of fear is love, and the other side of violence is peace. Her basic theme, first and always, is the separation of nature and grace, the curving arc of her fictions the convergence and divergence of the two. Her displaced persons are displaced, as her mentor Caroline Gordon knew and said, because they choose to live in spheres outside the state of grace; but in Flannery O’Connor’s traditional and persistent taxonomy this, too, can be promising: “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom” (Eccleasiasticus 1:16). Her characters’ stumbling spiritual growth, their faltering or mistaken gestures, give her fiction its sense of pain, her characters’ rigid refusal of spiritual growth its contour of violence. But “With the serious writer,” she said, “violence is never an end in itself. It is the extreme situation that best reveals what we are essentially, and I believe these are times when writers are more interested in what we are essentially than in the tenor of our daily lives.” So spiritually moribund did she find her monstrous readers, suffering interminably in losses unawares, that only a radical view of human suffering and a dark reading of the human soul could invade their vulgar present and startle them into an awareness sufficient to cleanse and purify their intentions and acts. Her endless parade of needy souls, her Christian (or proto-Christian) wayfarers marching, trudging, struggling, or slouching toward Bethlehem to be reborn led to portraits pained by the intensities of beliefs. “And I saw, when he had opened the sixth seal, and behold there was a great earthquake, and the sun became black as sackcloth of hair: and the whole moon became as blood” (Apocalypse 6:12). This revelation, which the adolescent protagonist of “A Temple of the Holy Ghost” shares with St. John, is the work of a modern-day prophet laboring for our cognition. “Truth—the living God—is a terrifying vision, to be faced only by the stout of heart,” Father Leonard Mayhew, an Atlanta priest, wrote of her in Commonweal by way of eulogy; “Flannery O’Connor was [herself] such a seer, of stout heart and hope.” She shared this vision, too, with Francis Marion Tarwater, who learned its weight of terror, responsibility, and fear of the Lord in The Violent Bear It Away: “Go warn the children of God of the terrible speed of mercy,” as she tells us, for she had set for herself an identical purpose: she, too, set her face “toward the dark city, where the children of God lay sleeping.”


Yet what moves us still so intensely in her work is not merely the fear and trembling which, sharing, she writes of so feelingly; it is the awesome uncertainty, the insecurity of human life that is the corollary. Her fiction, which can simultaneously be howlingly funny and awesomely close to the bone, finds further reinforcement in her sense of the fragility of life, of her own life, in fact. Her father died when she was 16 of a rare, nonhereditary disease, then always fatal, lupus erythematosus; suddenly, when she was 25, she had it too. The last 14 years of her life—she died just short of her 40th birthday—she fought a losing battle of passion, body, and even spirit against it. Near the end she told C. Ross Mullins in an interview that “I’m a born Catholic and death has always been brother to my imagination.” She had attended daily Mass whenever she could, receiving the sacraments, watching in the Eucharist the daily death of the Lord Himself, Christ crucified, and so “I can’t imagine a story that doesn’t properly end in it or in its foreshadowings.” Five years earlier, in somewhat better health, the idea of death and its significance was still at the center of her thought. Having finished a novel by Boris Pasternak that was once part of her library, she wrote with unaccustomed enthusiasm to Dr. T.R. Spivey, a professor of English at Georgia College, that Dr. Zhivago “is a great book. At one point [Pasternak] has Dr. Zhivago say: “Art has two constants, two unending concerns: it always meditates on death and thus creates life.” All great, genuine art resembles and continues the Revelation of St. John.”

This clear eye she fixed on her own condition matched the clear vision she had about what she attempted in her fiction. An autodidact, she disciplined her writing as consciously and carefully as she understood the discipline of the liturgical hours, turning her cramped bed-sitting room at the dairy farm outside Milledgeville, Andalusia, into a convent of one. It had taken her 2,000 pages of trial and error to produce 150 pages of Wise Blood over five years; it took her now seven more to write her second novel. And still neither one satisfied her. “Our souls are restless till they find rest in Thee,” Augustine says in his Confessions (she owned a 1952 paperback edition), but through her searching, she heard, as Tarwater hears in the end, a voice that speaks with no human sound or syntax yet tells what one must stay and do. She surrendered no sense of the horror of sin nor the grotesquerie of those whose lives are tattered or in shambles, although in the end, it seems, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin replaced Augustine in her consciousness; she collected his work, praised it in letters, and gathered commentary on it for review. To Augustine’s sense of dissatisfaction, Teilhard added a sense of amelioration that now evidently also appealed to her. “Remain true to yourselves, but move ever upward toward greater consciousness and greater love!” Teilhard advocates in The Phenomenon of Man (also in her library). “At the summit you will find yourselves united with all those who, from every direction, have made the same ascent. For everything that rises must converge.” Grace as a condition which is not in time but which unites all time is behind Mr. Fortune’s vision of walking trees, behind Mrs. Turpin’s vision of a classless society, and behind Flannery O’Connor’s final missionary sense of fiction. “The type of mind that can understand good fiction is not necessarily the educated mind,” she pronounced, “but it is at all times the kind of mind that is willing to have its sense of mystery deepened by contact with reality, and its sense of reality deepened by contact with mystery.”

The integrity of this vision, realized through all the stages of her work, is what grows out of her reading, her library and her theology, her faith. The “encounter with Him” which, says Robert Drake, “is the one story she keeps telling over and over again,” pursued her, as it pursues us, as relentlessly as the hound of heaven. “There is nothing sweet or sentimental about Him,” Drake adds, “and He terrifies before He can bless.” Yet not until her final years do O’Connor’s tales of God’s Kingdom and man’s kingdoms suggest Teilhard’s Omega point of universal convergence; and, even then, convergence is redefined as collision. “The other day I ran up on a wonderful quotation,” she writes her close anonymous friend “A.” in January 1956.

The other day I ran up on a wonderful quotation. “The dragon is at the side of the road watching those who pass. Take care lest he devour you! You are going to the Father of souls, but it is necessary to pass by the dragon.” That is Cyril of Jerusalem instructing catechumens.

The idea of life and of faith as apparently antagonistic, of existence as a kind of coincidentia oppositorium was, says Robert Coles (who knew her slightly), an idea that haunted her. “She would never tell a story, write a novel, without tapping her readers forcefully on the shoulder with that message [of Cyril], worked into country talk, country description, country manners.” For all its horror, the journey by the dragon, however, would always lead directly to the Father of souls; and Kierkegaard’s sense of religion (which she studied) as infinite passion and Tillich’s more cerebral sense of it (which she knew too) as an ultimate concern were at one for her, as her fiction was at one with them as both a secular ritual and a sacred revelation. Her final rage then was to undistort, to make whole and perfect the deformed man reformed i Christ. Her art was in terror and pain and rage, but a rage for the holy. In this way, her habit of art became her habit of being (in the Thomistic sense of habit). And like them the mystery of being—of mystery and being—made the Satanic avenger (Rufus, the Misfit, Julian) and the prophetic savior, in the end, indistinguishable. Thus she, like the letter writer St. Paul, would see through the glass, if darkly, her letters, her fictions, serving as works of imperishable illumination— now dim, now dazzling in their brightness—in which the holy in art and the art of the holy convert and become one.


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