Flannery O'Connor, Benedict XVI, and the Divine Eros

By Wood, Ralph C. | Christianity and Literature, Autumn 2010 | Go to article overview

Flannery O'Connor, Benedict XVI, and the Divine Eros


Wood, Ralph C., Christianity and Literature


Abstract: The violence lying at the core of Flannery O'Connor's fiction does not constitute, as it seems, a gross divine invasion of human autonomy. On the contrary, her work has a deep congruence with the theology of Benedict XVI and its claim that the natural order is never autonomous but always and already graced. Divine love is not only agape, therefore, but also eros: God is not only the self-giving Beloved but also the other-pursuing Lover. Thus do O'Connor's characters find their graciously implanted (but sinfully suppressed) longings erupting within them, as their holy Lover seeks and finds his own beloved.

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It would seem that Flannery O'Connor's devotion to the theology of Thomas Aquinas was largely confined to matters of artistic form rather than religious substance. On the one hand, she hailed Thomas's definition of art as "reason in making"--"a very cold and very beautiful definition" as she called it (Mystery and Manners 82). John Sykes, Susan Srigley, and Christina Bieber Lake have all shown that O'Connor derived her understanding of artistic form from St. Thomas, as his theological aesthetic was mediated to her by Jacques Maritain.

The single virtue of the practical intellect required of a fiction writer, Aquinas taught her, is mastery of the craft of fiction: plot and character and point of view, scene and setting and atmosphere. When these are properly apportioned and integrated--with no hectoring message or sentimental sympathy--the result is an artistic whole that redounds to the good of both God and man. (1) On the other hand, O'Connor confessed that her deepest theological loyalties did not lie with the serene Christian humanism of St. Thomas, with its profound conviction that the realms of nature and grace are almost seamlessly joined. On the contrary, her fiction appears to be concerned primarily with violent divine invasions of the natural and the human, so as to confront her characters with the drastic requirements of grace. Hence O'Connor's confession of theological sympathy not with Thomistic humanism but with the contrarian tradition of Pascal:

[A]ll my own experience has been that of the writer who believes, ... in Pascal's words, in the "God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob and not of the philosophers and scholars" This is an unlimited God and one who has revealed himself specifically. It is one who became man and who rose from the dead. It is one who confounds the senses and sensibilities, one known early on as a stumbling block. There is no way to gloss over this specification or to make it more acceptable to modern thought. (Mystery 160)

The aim of this article is to argue that the apparent divide between O'Connor's artistic principles and her theological convictions is exaggerated at best, wrong at worst. To make this case, I will have recourse to the work of Pope Benedict XVI and what I will be calling his theology of the divine eros. The former Cardinal Ratzinger has long been loyal to the Thomistic watchword: gratia non destruit naturam, sed elevat et perficit (grace does not destroy but completes and perfects nature). His Holiness construes this relation in a drastically modified manner, however--in a scandalous manner that echoes the fiction of Flannery O'Connor. In both Benedict and O'Connor, the realms of nature and grace do indeed penetrate and interlock so as to form a perfected whole, but they do so in a radically surprising way. Both the pope and the writer retain the real offense of the Gospel by envisioning the love of God as eros no less than agape. The divine love not only gives itself in oblation for the world's sin, it also burns and pierces the myriad hosts of its beloved, erupting into their lives so as to prevent, if possible, their being lost to false lovers and false loves.

The essay is divided into five parts: (1) a brief description of the alleged Jansenist and Gnostic quality of Flannery O'Connor's fiction, where her characters often appear to be virtually obliterated by divine grace, their freedom seemingly coerced into obedience and submission; (2) a longer account of the theological movement that is formative for the work of Benedict XVI--namely, la nouvelle theologie; (3) an examination of the present pope's first encyclical, Deus Caritas Est, and its treatment of the divine eros as having special relevance to the fiction of Flannery O'Connor; (4) a treatment of particular characters and scenes in her work that, far from being Jansenist and freedom-denying, deeply cohere with the teaching of Benedict XVI concerning the divine eros; and (5) a "Benedictine" reading of the closing scenes of O'Connor's allegedly most God-dominated and will-crushing work, The Violent Bear It Away. …

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