Thoughts and Prayers for the Faithful: Flannery O’Connor and the power of God

The drama of life is made tangible by the reality of death

by Bob Hunt

Flannery O’Connor has long been my favorite author, with her bizarre characters and weird stories that shed light on the brokenness of the human condition and the potential for redemption. The light she shines is a blinding spotlight from which most attempt to shield their eyes.

O’Connor lost her father to lupus when she was only 15. She rarely spoke of her father’s death, keeping reticent about the things most important to her. She adored her father, and he adored her. Having never married, but loving her father deeply, the image of God that naturally appealed to her was that of God as Father and her as His child.

Two years after her father’s death, she took pen to paper and wrote a brief reflection. The spiritually precocious teenager can be recognized immediately in what she wrote. For, in O’Connor, the heart broken by the premature death of the father she adored is weighed against the providence of God. She wrote:

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?’”

Here we are living our lives, from day to day, going along as if 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 canceled, or whether we’ll be able to get through our shift at work without having to deal with you-know-who or, 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. Yet, death serves to remind us of what is ultimately important, of truths that can too easily be forgotten or set aside for another time.

The drama of life is made tangible by the reality of death. We think we own our lives, but, in reality, we’re 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 entirely avoid. How right it is that “temporal” and “temporary” arise from the same root, for the temporal is temporary. We are here but for a blink of an eye, and that eye doesn’t belong to us. It 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 we think we know for sure, only to realize that we know little for sure.

Certainly, this fills us with grief. Even so, as Christians, we are filled not only with grief but also with the wonder that transcends grief. For the promise of Jesus is that there is more to life than what this world has to offer.

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. Submission to God’s will, to His plans for us as they are revealed through the ordinary circumstances of our lives, even the tragic circumstances of our lives, is neither weakness nor a rejection of our uniqueness as individual persons. Rather, it is for the purpose of fulfilling our unique mission according to God’s plans.

When God’s plans are made known to us, may David’s prayer be our prayer: “My heart is ready, O God, my heart is ready” (Psalm 57:8).

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

 

Bob Hunt is a husband, father, and parishioner at All Saints Church in Knoxville.

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