Flannery O’Connor and the Jesuits

About the Author: Cecilia Dupepe is a Masters in Library and Information Science student at the University of Alabama. She is a 2021 graduate of Spring Hill College who completed an archival internship on O’Connor and Spring Hill as well as a senior seminar project on O’Connor’s fiction and religious trauma. 

My first encounter with any Flannery O’Connor writing, notably, was not with any of her published works. Instead, the first of her written works that I read was with a set of ten unpublished letters between her and Father J. Franklin Murray, SJ, found in the Archives and Special Collections at Spring Hill College’s Burke Memorial Library. I was an intern in the Archives for the Fall 2020 semester of my senior year. The letters, written from December of 1959 to the following April, detailed plans leading up to Flannery O’Connor’s lecture at the college on April 4th, 1960. The letters enthralled me, and I focused my entire research internship on Flannery O’Connor and her relationship to Spring Hill College and the Jesuits she befriended there.

The letters mainly consist of event planning, including flight plans, lecture logistics, and overnight reservations. Father Murray was the director of Spring Hill College’s Lecture and Concert Series 1960 and a Jesuit priest and English professor there. Most of the letters show his unbridled fascination with O’Connor’s works as well as O’Connor’s terse and unamused responses. If one were to go my route and read these letters before reading any of her fiction, they might think O’Connor wrote with very little imagery and metaphor.

The most defining section of these letters comes from one written from Father Murray to O’Connor on March 17th, which elevates the letters from logistics to personal connection:

Mrs. McCown is most anxious to have a visit with you while you are here. It may interest you to know that Mr. William Sessions is here now. We have been talking about you for the last hour. I hope to have Mr. Sessions on my staff next year. Several of us have read your new novel The Violent Bear it Away. Father Watson has written a lengthy letter to America about it and plans to publish an article on it. Father Moody, also a colleague of mine, is preparing an exhibit of your works and commentaries on them. Dr. Boyle is acting as St. John the Baptist to prepare for your coming.[1]

These names, Sessions, McCown, and Watson, are prominent in O’Connor’s friend circle. Interestingly, they all intersect at the Jesuit community at Spring Hill College. O’Connor’s connection to the Jesuits, especially those at Spring Hill College, is expressed in these letters. The connection evident in this quote and the other letters lead me to look for the Jesuit connections in her fiction as I read it for the first time.

O’Connor and Fr. James “Hootie” McCown, at Andalusia. Photo courtesy of Spring Hill College Archives & Special Collections.

            The Jesuits exist in O’Connor’s fiction in more than just character. In fact, the only Jesuit characters mentioned in O’Connor’s fiction at all are the two Jesuits in “The Enduring Chill,” of whom one is a kindly, New York priest and the other is an unwelcoming small-town preacher. In O’Connor’s fictional works, O’Connor certainly demonstrates distinct Jesuit ideals, particularly those of being contemplatives in action, focusing on being men and women for others, and emphasizing the Jesuit motto Ad Majorem Dei Gloriam (For the Greater Glory of God).

            Being “contemplatives in action” is an essential part of Jesuit ideology. It stems from the founder of the Jesuits, Ignatius, and his focus on discernment through contemplative prayer. This aspect of the Jesuit faith is most commonly seen through the Examen that Ignatius published in his 1524 work Spiritual Exercises. Ignatius’s Examen focused on five steps: asking for God’s grace, giving thanks for the day, reviewing one’s shortcomings, repenting, and resolving to do better. O’Connor’s fiction certainly demonstrates aspects of self-examination and contemplation. The fiction itself acts as an Examen, both of herself and the characters surrounding her. Stories like “Good Country People” with characters like Joy/Hulga Hopewell that are obvious partial reflections of O’Connor show how she uses her fiction to analyze and contemplate herself. Self-contemplation through writing fiction is O’Connor putting her contemplation into action. Other characters, like Mrs. Flood in the final chapter of Wise Blood, have distinct moments of contemplation that have active impacts on their lives. While Mrs. Flood can’t save Hazel Motes in the end, her contemplation in the final chapter promotes a drastic change in character from the first time we see her in the novel to the last paragraph. O’Connor’s fiction is a vessel for O’Connor’s own contemplation in action as well as a way to emphasize this Jesuit ideal in her characters to inspire it in her readers.

            Contemplation in action isn’t the only way that O’Connor’s fiction demonstrates Jesuit ideologies. The phrase “men and women for others” is used by the Jesuits to demonstrate their dedication to servitude towards others, specifically those on the margins of society. When Ignatius Loyola created the Jesuits, he chose for them to remain uncloistered so they could focus on education and social justice towards the marginalized. While physical ailments prevented her from actually visiting and working with the marginalized, O’Connor chose to aid them in a different way: by writing about them. Almost every O’Connor character is a grotesque, marginalized member of society, or as O’Connor likes to put it, a “freak.”[2] Instead of portraying these rare, freakish people on the margins as one-dimensional and completely immoral, she focuses on the grandeur and humanity of them.

Even the people with the harshest and grossest souls in her fiction are given depth, grace, and humanity. Francis Tarwater, an orphan, redneck, and murderer, is also a prophet. Before being shot by the Misfit, the cranky and judgmental Grandmother is blessed with a moment of grace. Even racist, ugly Mrs. Turpin is given divine revelation at the end. O’Connor writes about these people not to make them seem moral. Instead, she writes these “freaks” so we can see the freakishness within herself; and, through understanding ourselves as freaks, we also know that we, too, are deserving of moments of depth, grace, and humanity. By shedding light on our marginalizing qualities and freakishness, she provides a way for her readers to experience the vital self-reflection and contemplation discussed earlier. In this way, O’Connor provides a service to her readers and is a true woman for others.

            The final and perhaps most obvious way O’Connor integrates Jesuit ideologies into her fiction is through the term Ad Maiorem Dei Gloriam (AMDG) which is Latin meaning “For the Greater Glory of God.” This phrase, one of most important phrases in Jesuit thought, means that everything that is done should be done to glorify God. The religious themes that are so abundant in O’Connor’s fiction are just the first step in her quest to glorify God. After all, it takes more than just mentioning God to praise him. Instead, the deep thought, contemplation, and self-examination O’Connor intentionally inspires in her readers through her fiction is the most glorifying. After all, by Jesuit standards, these contemplative ideas are what is the most important to God. Glorifying God in every single work of fiction in a way that inspires others down the path of also glorifying him is perhaps the most Jesuit act O’Connor could ever do.

O’Connor answering questions from the English faculty and students during her visit to Spring Hill College on April 4, 1960. Photo courtesy of Spring Hill College Archives & Special Collections.

            This May, I graduated from a Jesuit institution and ended my O’Connor research for the time being. As I closed the Jesuit and O’Connor chapters of my life, a quote from one of the archived letters I was studying stuck with me: ““I don’t have a title for my lecture, but if you have to call it something, you can call it ‘Outlook for a Southern Catholic Literature.’ (This just means we are out looking, not that we necessarily find anything).”[3] The Jesuit ideals found in O’Connor’s fiction are not the end all be all of understanding her spirituality. In fact, she may not have even been using the Jesuit ideals intentionally. Instead, finding these ideals in her work demonstrates to me that she was a woman of complex faith who with every story was striving harder to reach some sort of understanding of herself, of others, and of God. While it may be that Flannery and I never do find anything resembling a complete and perfect faith through these Jesuit values, I find comfort in the fact that there is beauty and art to be found when we are out looking.

[1] Spring Hill College, Flannery O’Connor, Letter 7.

[2] Flannery O’Connor, Mystery and Manners, (New York: Farrar Strauss, & Giroux).

[3] Spring Hill College, Flannery O’Connor, Letter 8.

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