When I visited Flannery O’Connor’s home in Milledgeville Georgia a couple of weeks ago, I bought a book that the folks at Andalusia had just published: a collection of interviews with people who knew Flannery, and who sat on the front porch of her home with her, to visit from time to time. Flannery died of lupus, in 1984, at age 39. Her contemporaries are now in their 80s, so the book is a good way to preserve some first-person stories of her.
This morning, I was arrested by a sentence in the interview with her friend, Marion Montgomery. He was talking about how Flannery was forced to return to her little hometown to live with her mother, because of her illness. As it turns out, during the last 11 years of her life, she was incredibly productive. She wrote some of the most distinctive and thought-provoking fiction of the 20th century. And her inspiration came from her life in Milledgeville and at the farm, Andalusia. Montgomery said, “So when she finally had to come back, I think she very probably thought of her lupus as somehow an act of grace.”
Wow. Can lupus be grace?
Is grace a good thing?
I remembered another clue, from one of Flannery’s letters to Cecil Dawkins,* where she wrote: “All human nature vigorously resists grace because grace changes us and the change is painful.”
I recall what I have heard and read a number of times: that, in each one of Flannery O’Connor’s stories and novels the plot turns on whether the main character receives grace when s/he encounters it. As I have read and re-read the stories and novels, I have always sagely nodded my head to myself: “Yes. I see that.” But here’s what I think. I think I have been sanitizing the concept of grace. There is grace in lupus. There was grace in my near-death from histoplasmosis. There is grace in the painful changes Flannery O’Connor’s characters are forced to make when their facades or personas crumble. There is grace in all of that. And grace becomes a good thing if we respond to such life events by becoming who God has created us to be: who we are genuinely; not who we think we should be.
I think it’s terribly hard to be genuine, to be comfortable with who we really are (rather than who we think we should be). I think we live and act and make decisions motivated by “shoulds.” Grace (if these musings are on the right track) breaks down the false self I’ve constructed out of all those “shoulds.”
What anxiety that creates! Grace does not feel like a good thing!
But what if I can continue on the journey through the anxiety, and let go of that false self, and become comfortable with the person God created me to be? Think of the energy and joy I would feel! What a good thing grace would turn out to be!
* Cecil Dawkins is also interviewed in the book, At Home With Flannery O’Connor: An Oral History