The Abbess of Andalusia: Flannery O’Connor’s Spiritual Journey by Lorraine Murray was a great read and one that immediately got-to-the-point. I would certainly recommend it to all readers of O’Connor’s fiction who desire to better grasp the sometimes complex Catholic components which comprise her assorted works; this book in particular is definitely a superb contribution to the scholarly and critical canon of Flannery O’Connor studies. After reading Murray’s work, it secured my sincere appreciation for Flannery O’Connor as a person as well as reaffirmed my already held respect for her stunning literary works. There is a kind of awe and personal kinship that I feel when reading O’Connor, and The Abbess of Andalusia only heightened that respect.
I enjoyed this book, because it eschewed the Catholic sentimentality that some readers have toward Flannery O’Connor as being above and beyond the human realm. She is conveyed in this work as a sharp intellectual wit who embraced her Catholic orthodoxy (to the best of her ability) while still maintaing the independence of the literary artist. Her independence came from her Catholic faith, and she was able to weave that thread of her faith fabric into her literary output, for as she herself commented, she would not be a writer if she did not have her faith, for it was-in her understanding-a literary vocation from God.
Off and on, O’Connor suffered from the debilitating effects of Lupis, the ‘wolf’s’ disease that would, as it did her father before her, claim the author’s life. But in her journey of suffering, she did not make a big deal about it. Instead, she wrote, she wrote stories, novels (often misunderstood), literary criticism, book reviews (albeit reluctantly) and an abundance of letters. To try to increase her financial revenue, she lectured at colleges and universities. Book reviewing and the lecture circuit seemed to be her least favorite of all things to do, but she offered it all up to God as an act of charity and sometimes as a form of penance. Her sarcastic remarks in referencing these additional vocations within the larger context of her literary vocation are quite humorous and truly do not paint a holier-than-thou, plaster-cast saint wannabe. Indeed, she shuddered at the thought. Rather, she preferred her writing, her peafowl, her sundry lot of animals at her Andalusia farm and the vast array of guests who visited her there, including but not limited to, priests and nuns.
Murray’s work offers a nice spiritual framework of the author and of her life, detailing specifically Flannery’s own suffering and her acts of charity towards her friends, especially towards Betty Hester, known as “A” in The Habit of Being; she also helped shape, edit and write an introduction to a memoir of Mary Ann Long, a saintly child who was a patient at the Our Lady of Perpetual Help Home in Atlanta, run by The Dominican Sisters of Hawthorne, a religious order devoted to the care of terminally ill and oftentimes indigent cancer patients. All the while, however, Flannery O’Connor kept her rigid schedule in tact and that was two sold hours of writing every day, seeing to her animals, answering letters and encouraging writers and friends. Because she was herself physically limited, she adhered to a strict structure of prayer and writing and referred to her spare writing and bedroom as her cell. With meticulousness, Murray offers an excellent summary of not simply O’Connor’s works but of the author herself. In understanding Flannery O’Connor as a person as well as her thinking and faith, it really dose provide information about the literary southern grotesque fiction that O’Connor was so adept at churning out, characters who were Southern Bible Belt Protestants yet who were guided, influenced and directed Catholic orthodoxy. Her work seems so contrary in respects to her environment, but then again, that’s what makes her work so unique and interesting. And O’Connor made it work.
While The Abbess of Andalusia: Flannery O’Connor’s Spiritual Journey was, for me, a witty, analytical and thorough study, I did have a rather difficult time assenting to the belief that Flannery O’Connor was a Catholic saint. I would love it, however, if the Church would look deeper into her life and make a ruling either for or against that possibility. Murray goes even further in stating that O’Connnor should be considered a Doctor of the Church. Sometimes an appreciation for an author, even a Catholic one, can be a little over-the-top. I can only imagine Flannery O’Connor in Heaven smirking all sarcastic-like and quipping that she’d better not be dollied up all churchy-like with lilies and halos around her, frustrated and weary that such an unrealistic image would only detract perspective readers from her Godly work, a vocation that for her was her true labor of love, for she was a literary artist in His name.
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