THIRTY YEARS AGO, THE FINE THEOLOGIAN John Shea, teaching a course on redemption, introduced me to Flannery O'Connor's fiction. I found her stories violent, shocking, funny, and awfully readable--but they left me, as a young student without a great deal of real life experience, confused about what exactly the stories had to do with redemption.
These were dark dramas with ugly characters and gloomy endings. There was a lot more Good Friday to these tales than Easter Sunday. For me, a story about redemption ought to have a happy ending. It should not so much be about an escaped con who murders an entire family out on a country drive, or about a traveling Bible salesman who steals a young woman's wooden leg.
What's so Christian about this? Before redemption there is sin, Shea explained. You can't get to Easter Sunday without going through Good Friday. He quoted O'Connor: "Evil is not a problem to be solved but a mystery to be endured." She has been in my blood since.
A CRADLE CATHOLIC, FLANNERY O'CONNOR DWELLED in the depths of the Protestant South for most of her life, living with her mother on her family's dairy farm in Milledgeville, Georgia. There she wrote her most memorable stories and raised peacocks because the "king of the birds" fascinated her.
She attended Mass daily at Sacred Heart Church in town and traveled to universities to lecture as her fame grew. Her mobility was limited when she was diagnosed with lupus in 1950 at age 25. It was the same disease that killed her father a month before her 16th birthday.
The affliction hardly limited her writing and provided no basis for self-pity. An extensive collection of published personal letters she wrote to friends and literary correspondents reveals what she really cared about--her work--and minimizes her disease with a comical, self-effacing manner.
Working furiously from her deathbed, she completed Everything That Rises Must Converge, a collection of short stories many critics consider her finest work. "I have drug another out of myself and I enclose it," she wrote a friend on July 15, 1964. Just two weeks later, at 39, Flannery O'Connor died.
Her interest in chickens, and later peafowl, revealed something about the characters she created. "I favored those with one green eye and one orange or with over-long necks and crooked combs. I wanted one with three legs or three wings." She had an eye for the freak, the monstrous, the twisted--not altogether different from the type of company our Lord kept.
The rural Southern Bible Belt provided a fertile crop of these studies, whom she exaggerated …