Flannery O’Connor and The Power of God

I am currently reading Flannery: A Life of Flannery O’Connor by Brad Gooch. I highly recommend it. Flannery O’Connor has long been my favorite author, what with her bizarre characters and weird stories that shed light on the brokenness of the human condition, only that light being a blinding spotlight from which most attempt to shield their eyes and turn their heads.

O’Connor lost her father to lupus when she was only fifteen. She would later succumb to the condition herself at the young age of 39. She rarely spoke of her father’s death, for Gooch writes that she kept most reticent about the things most important to her. She adored her father, and the adoration was mutual. Having never married, but loving her father deeply, O’Connor confided to a friend that the Christian image of Bridegroom and bride didn’t appeal to her as much as the image of God as Father and she as His child.

Two years after her father’s death, she took pen to paper and wrote a brief reflection. What Gooch describes as the “spiritually precocious” seventeen-year-old can be recognized immediately in what she has to say here. For, in O’Connor, the heart broken by the premature death of the father she adored is weighed against the providence of God. She writes:

The reality of death has come upon us and a consciousness of the power of God has broken our complacency like a bullet in the side. A sense of the dramatic, of the tragic, of the infinite, has descended upon us, filling us with grief, but even above grief, wonder. Our plans were so beautifully laid out, ready to be carried to action, but with magnificent certainty God laid them aside and said, “You have forgotten — mine?”

This is an immensely power reflection on death, on the power of God, on grief, on the plan of God for our lives.

Death comes as a messenger, in a sense. Here we are living our lives, from day to day, going along as if the most important thing, the thing that matters most, is whether we’ll have enough wine for all the guests, or whether it will rain and the game be cancelled, or whether we’ll be able to get through our shift without having to deal with you-know-who or, perhaps more profoundly, whether we’ll have enough money to get to the end of the month, or whether my spouse is still mad at me about last night, or whether my daughter will visit like she said she would.

Then death comes as a messenger of the power of God, breaking our complacency like a bullet in the side. (O’Connor was never one to mince her similes.) Death makes our hearts and minds conscious of what is truly important, all important. It’s not that the everyday concerns of life are unimportant and don’t merit our attention as we attend to our day (we don’t want to become morose, after all), but death serves to remind us of what is ultimately important, of truths that can too easily be forgotten and set aside for another day.

We are all tempted, like the man in the Zach Brown Band song “No Hurry”:

“Heaven knows that I ain’t perfect/I’ve raised a little Cain/And I plan to raise a whole lot more/Before I hear those angels sing/Gonna get right with the Lord/But there’ll be hell to pay/But I ain’t in no hurry.”

No hurry to get right with the Lord? Perhaps it makes for a good lyric to masquerade our foolishness behind bravado, but this is pure foolishness, even still. Who knows that the Lord may call you today, while you set aside your plans to “get right” with Him for another day, or even another moment, that you’ve not been promised?

Death, by raising our consciousness of the power of God, raises our awareness of the dramatic, the tragic, the infinite. How well these three accompany each other. The drama of life is made tangible mostly by the reality of death. We think we own our lives, our todays and tomorrows. But, in reality, we are not promised even the next moment. This is truly tragic, in that it is a momentous truth, one we can dismiss out of our thoughts but never avoid. The infinite stretches before us, but not an infinite reality on this temporal plane. How right it is that “temporal” and “temporary” arise from the same root, for the temporal is temporary. We are here for but a blink of an eye, and that eye doesn’t belong to us, but belongs to the One Who set all things in their place, including us, and Who calls all things, including us, to their ultimate end. That end is meant for us to be one of exultant joy, but it is an end nonetheless. It represents an end to all that we think we know for sure, only to realize, in the end, that we know little for sure.

Certainly this fills us with grief. Our grief is founded in our sense of loss, loss of the time we felt we should have had, felt we were owed, with our loved ones who are now gone. But, mostly, grief over the loss of what we thought we knew for sure. For the Christian, and O’Connor was thoroughly Christian, we are filled not only with grief, but with the wonder that transcends grief. If we’ve lost what we thought we knew for sure, there must be more! That is the promise of Jesus: that there is more to life than what this world has to offer. What wonders await us, as St. Paul says, “Eye has not seen, ear has not heard…” The fact that there is not the slightest sense of anger at God in O’Connor’s reflection suggests an unusually mature understanding of God’s providence and His desire for our salvation above all else.

The last sentence of O’Connor’s reflection is the most powerful. We only think we plan our lives. Like the foolish man who raises Cain and plans “to raise a whole lot more before I hear those angels sing,” we make our plans as if we think we’re the one’s in charge. It’s good to make plans, don’t get me wrong. It’s good to set your eyes on the prize and to shoot for the goal. But, it’s also good and wise to keep in mind that we are not the one’s in control, that the next moment is not promised to us, and that at any moment we must be prepared for God setting our plans aside for His almighty plan.

This submission to God’s plan, to His divine will, is not made manifest only in our acceptance of death. It’s every moment of every day. There are so many aspects of life over which we have no control. So many people with plans that contradict our own, some of their agendas even being hostile to ours. I’ve tried to teach my daughters over the years that they cannot always choose the circumstances they have to face, but they can always choose how they will respond to those circumstances. I’ve tried to remind myself of the same lesson, often failing. I get frustrated when computers don’t work, when people don’t work, over bureaucrats who are not invested in my life but somehow hold my life hostage with their paperwork, when the car needs new brakes at the worst possible time, etc… I don’t need to go on with examples because every one of us is aware of so many examples.

This brings me to another book I am reading: Trustful Surrender to Divine Providence, The Secret of Peace and Happiness by Fr. Jean Baptiste Saint-Jure, SJ and Bl. Claude de la Colombiere, SJ. A brief excerpt:

Our sanctification is God’s aim in all His dealings with us. What would He not do for His own honor and our good if we would only let Him! The heavens make no resistance to the spirits that guide them and their motion is magnificent, orderly and useful; they declare aloud the glory of God and preserve order in the universe by their influence and the invariable succession of day and night. If they resisted this guidance and instead of following the motion set for them they followed a different one, they would soon fall into the utmost confusion and destroy the world. It is the same when the will of man lets itself be guided by God’s will. Then all that is in this microcosm, this “little world,” all the faculties of the soul and members of the body are in the most perfect harmony and regular motion. But man quickly loses all these advantages and falls into the utmost confusion once he opposes his will to God’s and turns aside from it.

We like to think of ourselves as rugged individuals, setting our own course, defying the madding crowd by walking to the beat of our own drum. This is all well and good, except that nearly every moment of every day reminds us that there is so little over which we have actual control. And, if the little reminders of every day fail to raise our consciousness to this fact, than death will do so, like a bullet in the side. Submission to God’s will is neither weakness nor a rejection of our uniqueness as individual persons. Rather, it is for the purpose of fulfilling our unique mission in God’s eyes. “The glory of God,” St. Irenaeus said, “is man, fully human, fully alive!” To be all that we were meant to be is God’s desire for each of us, His will for each of us. Given that He made us, it makes sense that He would know what that means for us, even better than we do. So, submission to God’s will is for the sake of our becoming all that we were meant to be, not an obstacle to it.

“The fool says in his heart, ‘There is no God'” (Ps 14:1). The fool says, too, that while there may be a God, there’s no reason I cannot make my own plans for my life, chart my own destiny, set my own course, without serious consideration of His plans for me. For this fool is saying basically the same thing as the fool who says there is no God, because he says there is no God of consequence. “I did it my way” is the national anthem of hell.

Be Christ for all. Bring Christ to all. See Christ in all.

2 thoughts on “Flannery O’Connor and The Power of God

  1. Powerful essay. Thank you. Love this: “This submission to God’s plan, to His divine will, is not made manifest only in our acceptance of death. It’s every moment of every day.” Amen!

    Liked by 1 person

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