Of Flannery O’Connor and the Mystery of the Ordinary
by Hilary Sherratt ('09–'10)
I had dreamt about this house for years, ever since I first read “Good Country People” in JAF and pictured Hulga clambering up into a hayloft, followed by a Bible salesman swinging a briefcase. I had imagined what it might be like to sit on her front porch. I think I had even said at one point there was nothing I would like more than to see Andalusia. This woman taught me more about writing, calling and the violence of grace than anyone else; what would it be like to walk along the path from her house to the pond, dreaming about characters and redemption?
My heart beat faster as we walked towards the front door. It wasn’t at all what I had imagined—the red tin roof, the deep porch and the rocking chairs creaking with the late morning breeze. The hill sloped down towards a pond where I could see dragonflies skimming the surface. Around everything there was that gentle hum of summer—bees and flies tripping through the air, the rustle of tall grasses growing up the sides of the house. Our group wandered up the steps, and I found myself exchanging looks of glee with Libby and Lindsey. “We’re here!” I whispered. They smiled back, feeling their feet resting in the doorway of her bedroom.
It was the humility of the house that astounded me. Perhaps in my admiration of Flannery O’Connor I had assumed that her house would mirror grandeur, hint at her influence and power as a writer. But it is ultimately a simple house. The woman who changed literature forever, who painted grace in unexpected and violent colors, lived on a farm in the middle of Georgia. She lived among peacocks and ponds, in the high heat of summer. She and her mother bickered. They went to Mass in a small church in town, ate Southern food. She kept a prayer book by her bed, and sat at the same typewriter every day for three or four hours, writing. I peeked in corners and wandered outside towards the big barn, looking for some sign of the miraculous and extraordinary, the unexpected. Where did those stories come from, if she lived such an ordinary life? How did she write “Parker’s Back” and “The Enduring Chill” if she lived with fifty peacocks and her mother Regina on a dairy farm in Milledgeville, Georgia?
Strange as it may sound, I found the answer to this question in a hotel conference room in Savannah, Georgia. Our JAF group was gathered, pens and well-worn books at the ready, to discuss two of O’Connor’s short stories: “Revelation” and “Parker’s Back.” Dr. Howard leaned forward in his chair, his eyes wide. “What do we do with this woman? What do we do with this story?” A long silence as we looked at each other, mystified. What do we do with the violence of Sarah Ruth beating Parker? With the tractor and the shoes on fire? With Mrs. Turpin, who thinks she is better than the world and is hit over the eye with a book called Human Development? Short stories have a way of ripping the carpet out from under you just at the moment you begin to think you understand what’s going on. As we shuffled pages, and sipped our water, I realized that there was a larger point to Flannery’s work and Dr. Howard’s question: the truth is far more mysterious than we realize. The truth told boldly, without gentle disguises, is a Mystery.
Flannery O’Connor understood this. She wrote from the ordinary because it already has mystery in it. Grace and redemption appear in stories of haylofts and hog pens, in tattoo parlors and down country roads. Andalusia seemed too ordinary for the mystery, extraordinary Flannery O’Connor. But now I realize that her dairy farm was precisely the place for her creativity to blossom. It was the heart of the ordinary, of the real—and therefore, of the mysterious.
“But you don’t write fiction with assumptions. The things we see, hear, smell, and touch affect us long before we believe anything at all… By the time we are able to use our imaginations for fiction, we find that our senses have responded irrevocably to a certain reality” (“The Catholic Writer in the Protestant South,” 197). I wandered through the meadow down to the pond in the last ten minutes of our time at Andalusia, wondering about this idea. Flannery O’Connor said often in her essays that fiction is limited by reality, limited by making characters who are believable, who appear as real to the reader. What is the relationship between mystery and reality, anyway? What seems ordinary in an O’Connor story is most often the vehicle of mystery: a blue and yellow shirt in “A Good Man is Hard to Find,” or a tattoo in “Parker’s Back.” I turned back to look at the house, feeling the heat of the Georgia sun on my shoulders, and I realized the lesson hidden in this trip to Andalusia, the lesson hidden in our hours of discussion of the same elusive passages, the lesson of this JAF trip to the South: if we want to draw nearer to the truth, we must be attentive to the ordinary.
This is, in itself, a calling. The word “calling” has been overused and underappreciated in many Christian communities, our own nonwithstanding. We are quick to ask if we feel “called” to this or that church, small group, job, bowling club, relationship. We are anxious about God’s calling, thinking if we haven’t heard a voice tell us, Thou shalt be a financial planner at Liberty Mutual, we must be missing something.
Flannery O’Connor and the JAF trip reminds me that the greatest calling we experience is not to job, to marriage, or to parenthood (noble and right as those things are). The greatest calling is to the truth. We are called to bear witness to it, to love it, and to live in it. We are called to be “children of the light.” We are indeed called to be in particular relationships, called to places and to careers. But our first calling has always been to be followers of Jesus. In this, we are called to a life spent encountering the mystery of grace hidden in the ordinary life.
“The writer should never be ashamed of staring. There is nothing that does not require his attention,” Flannery O’Connor wrote in one of her essays on writing. This is true for us all, whether we be writers, lawyers, neuroscientists or electricians. If indeed our most important calling is to live according to the truth, it is our responsibility to draw nearer to the ordinary, the family farm, the stranger on the subway. We are to observe, to ponder, to wonder. In the ordinary world we are so quick to dismiss as not worthy of our attention, O’Connor is a sharp reminder of how much mystery is contained in manners. She reminds us that the things we see, hear, smell, and touch – in a word, the ordinary – are in fact avenues of grace and transformation.
It is the white farmhouse with its red tin roof and deep front porch that re-presents the mystery of writing and calling to me. It is a hotel conference room and smudged blue pen along the side of my left hand that tell the story of hours spent grappling with short stories and the meaning of grace.
Flannery O’Connor wrote, “The fiction writer finds in time, if not at once, that he cannot proceed at all if he cuts himself off from the sights and sounds that have developed a life of their own in his senses. The novelist is concerned with the mystery of personality, and you cannot say much that is significant about this mystery unless the characters you create exist with the marks of a believable society about them” (198).
As with the fiction writer, so with us all. We are concerned with the mystery of personality, and to say anything significant about this mystery, everything demands our attention. Especially a simple white farmhouse in Milledgeville, Georgia.
O’Connor, Flannery. Mystery and Manners: Occasional Prose (ed. Sally and Robert Fitzgerald). New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1961.