Stalking Joy: Flannery O'Connor and the Dangerous Quest

By Desmond, John F. | Christianity and Literature, Autumn 2010 | Go to article overview

Stalking Joy: Flannery O'Connor and the Dangerous Quest


Desmond, John F., Christianity and Literature


Abstract: A central theme in Flannery O'Connor's personal life as a believer and in her life as a writer was the theme of "stalking joy" throughout the "dangerous quest" for salvation. The concept was taken immediately from one of her favorite prayers, the "Prayer to St. Raphael." This article focuses on how the concepts of "stalking joy" and the "dangerous quest" informed both O'Connor's life and her fiction. It charts O'Connor's development of this theme in her personal life and her letters, particularly showing how she manifested them in her charitable and loving relationship with others. Using St. Thomas Aquinas and Jacques Maritain, the article explains some theological and philosophical groundings for O'Connor's theme of "stalking joy." Finally, it analyzes how O'Connor developed this theme, often ironically, in several of her stories and both novels.

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In a letter to her friend Elizabeth Hester, Flannery O'Connor used a memorable image to describe the spiritual struggles in her personal life as a believer and as a writer. "Picture me with my ground teeth stalking joy--fully armed too as it's a highly dangerous quest:' To this she added a quotation from St. Cyril of Jerusalem: '"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'" (O'Connor, Habit of Being 126). In a subsequent letter to Hester, she again mentioned the idea of stalking joy in reference to a prayer to St. Raphael, the angelic guide of Tobias, from which she borrowed a key image for her story "The Displaced Person." She told Hester: "The prayer had some imagery in it that I took over and put in The Displaced Person--the business about Mrs. Shortley looking on the frontiers of her true country. The prayer askes (sic) St. Raphael to guide us to the province of joy so that we may not be ignorant of the concerns of our true country" (Collected Works 983-84). Still later, O'Connor quoted the complete prayer to St. Raphael in a letter to Janet McKane written a few weeks before O'Connor died.

Prayer to St. Raphael

O Raphael, lead us toward those we are waiting for, those who are waiting for us: Raphael, Angel of happy meeting, lead us by the hand toward those we are looking for. May all our movements be guided by your Light and transfigured with your joy.

Angel, guide of Tobias, lay the request we now address to you at the feet of Him on whose unveiled Face you are privileged to gaze. Lonely and tired, crushed by the separations and sorrows of life, we feel the need of calling you and of pleading for the protection of your wings, so that we may not be as strangers in the province of joy, all ignorant of the concerns of our country. Remember the weak, you who are strong, you whose home lies beyond the region of thunder, in a land that is always peaceful, always serene and bright with the resplendent glory of God. (Habit 592)

O'Connor's focus on the dangerous quest and on "stalking joy" in these three letters is somewhat different. In the first letter to Hester, alluding to St. Raphael and St. Cyril, she emphasized the dangerous journey to "the Father of souls" and the need to "pass by the dragon" (i.e. Satan) in order to reach God. In the second letter, glossing the prayer to St. Raphael, O'Connor emphasized the interior quest for wisdom to perceive "the province of joy so that we may not be ignorant of the concerns of our country" (emphasis mine). The "province of joy" or supernatural dimension of reality, our "true" country, exists here and now. But that true reality is occluded by our pride and ignorance, and by the machinations of the devil, the "dragon at the side of the road" The prayer underscores the intense, moment-to-moment struggle O'Connor saw between the forces of evil and the force of divine grace acting on the soul. The person "stalking joy" is, paradoxically, double-stalked, by God and by Satan, making every life a "dangerous quest" In the entire prayer O'Connor cited in her letter to Janet McKane, the focus is broadened to emphasize the communal nature of the quest--"lead us by the hand toward those we are looking for" and "those who are waiting for us"--and to the plea for divine wisdom and spiritual transformation--"May all our movements be guided by your Light and transfigured with your joy" Finally, the prayer ends with a direct image of the heavenly goal--"a land that is always peaceful, always serene and bright with the resplendent glory of God" (1)

I cite these various references to the dangerous quest and to "stalking joy" to underscore the importance of these themes in O'Connor's personal life and in her art, which were deeply intertwined. …

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