Vigen Guroian has a great article up on the Flanner O'Connor over at The Clarion Review.
Flannery O’Connor did not use paint to make icons. However, she was an “iconographer” with words. For she embraced the Incarnation with utter seriousness in her life and in her fiction. To her close friend whom we know through their correspondence only as “A,” O’Connor writes in September of 1955, “God became not only a man, but Man. This is the mystery of Redemption.”1
Some years later, in another letter to “A,” O’Connor explains how this belief in the Incarnation ran up against the secularity of her audience as she was challenged to lend fresh expression to the Christian vision of life.
The setting in which most modern fiction takes place is exactly a setting in which nothing is so little felt to be true as the reality of a faith in Christ. I know what you mean here but you haven’t said what you mean. Fiction may deal with faith implicitly but explicitly it deals only with faith-in-a-person, or persons. What must be unquestionable is what is implicitly implied as the author’s attitude, and to do this the writer has to succeed in making the divinity of Christ seem consistent with the structure of all reality.
This has to be got across implicitly in spite of a world that doesn’t feel it, in spite of characters that don’t live it.2
The ancient defenders of icons said essentially the same about paintings and the Incarnation. The icon made the divinity of Christ seem consistent with the structure of all reality, and most especially human existence. Icons of Christ and the saints testified to the real potential of human life, exceeding even the highest expectations of pagan humanism. God became man and made it possible for man to become God—not, of course, by nature God, but most assuredly by grace that transfigures life. The Incarnation made it possible for all believers in Jesus Christ “to be partakers of the divine nature” (2 Peter 1:4). Christian humanism introduced the ideas of Creation, Incarnation, and the sanctification of life, while at the same time rejecting the strong prejudice of Hellenic culture that spirit is opposed to matter and that, therefore, God, who is spirit, would never enter the material world. In light of the Incarnation, bodily Resurrection, and Ascension of Jesus Christ, human salvation could no longer be thought of as a captive soul escaping from the prison of the body. The early Church condemned as heresies Docetism and Manicheanism, two gnostic movements within Christianity, precisely because they embraced this dualism of matter and spirit. In her day, Flannery O’Connor combatted what she viewed as modern incarnations of these ancient gnostic heresies. She detected the gnosticism in currents of contemporary spirituality that thrived even within the Christian churches. In her essay “The Nature and Aim of Fiction,” O’Connor names the enemy:
The Manicheans separated spirit and matter. To them all material things were evil. They sought pure spirit and tried to approach the infinite directly without any mediation of matter. This is also pretty much the modern spirit, and for the sensibility infected with it, fiction is hard if not impossible to write because fiction is so very much an incarnational art.3
Thus, when modern people turn to religion, they often look for release from this syndrome in a flight from the body and materialism to peace of mind by the quickest means available. A plethora of mysticisms, transcendental religions, and New Age spiritualities compete for the attention of the people. O’Connor writes: “Today’s reader, if he believes in grace at all, sees it as something which can be separated from nature and served to him raw as instant Uplift.”5
As Frederick Asals has observed so wisely in his study of O’Connor’s craft: “The central thrust in all of Flannery O’Connor’s later fiction is to explode this . . . escapism or pseudotranscendence by insisting again and again that existence can only be in the body, in matter, whatever the horrors that may entail.”6 Even this astute assessment falls short of naming all that is at stake for O’Connor in her defense of incarnate being. Nature does not end in orgasm, a full stomach, or owning a late model luxury vehicle. Nature is both a window into and a path to the supernatural. O’Connor understands the special challenges that a secular age poses for a writer of fiction with orthodox Christian convictions and a sacramental vision of life. Even the “average Catholic reader” is smitten with the Gnostic spirit, she observes. “By separating nature and grace as much as possible, he has reduced his conception of the supernatural to pious cliché”7 and nature is emptied of grace.
In a discussion of O’Connor’s fiction, Peter S. Hawkins concludes that “what is distinctive about the modern era is that the conflict between nature and grace has been resolved by the elimination of the notion of grace altogether.”8 This may be an exaggeration. O’Connor did not believe that the modern person dismisses grace entirely. However, she does conclude that when modern people entertain grace as a possibility in their lives, they are inclined to think of it as a divine utility, not as a sacramental presence. Grace is an extra, alien ingredient added to nature by God, conjured up by priests and prayers, useful but not present under ordinary circumstances. What is more, this instrumentalist view of grace makes it “almost impossible to write about supernatural Grace,” says O’Connor. Supernatural grace is not magic; it is not subject to human manipulation, or restricted to human needs. In an effort to impress this upon her readers, O’Connor says that in her fiction she approaches grace “almost negatively.”9 In practical terms this means that the majority of her protagonists strenuously resist the action of God upon them. The lesson they learn, often through suffering, is that grace is God’s own free doing and can come upon anyone even in the face of his or her disbelief.
Although Thomas Aquinas and Catherine of Sienna may have helped shape her religious imagination, O’Connor felt acutely how different her location in life was from theirs. She recognized that the vast majority of people for whom she was writing lacked a vision of a unified world that comes from the hand of God, is fallen but redeemed by the Creator-Word, and is indwelt by the Holy Spirit. She assayed that only a small minority of her readers, and even fewer of her reviewers, shared her incarnational faith: even many Catholics did not take the Incarnation with seriousness as a rule for their lives, nor truly believe in the resurrection of the body. Nevertheless, O’Connor made it her task to show her readers that the world is surrounded by mystery and that the physical creation is itself an icon and a window into that mystery. In her essay “Novelist and Believer” she explains that the Christian novelist will reject the influence “of those Manichean-type theologies which . . . [see] the natural world as unworthy of penetration,” because he knows that the infinite cannot be approached directly in his art. Rather, “he must penetrate the natural human world as it is,” without an ideological formula or hardened preconceptions of what lies behind it. “The more sacramental [the writer’s] theology, the more encouragement he will get from it to do just that.” With these prerequisites of belief the Christian writer of fiction seeks “to penetrate the concrete world” with a confidence that he may catch a glimpse of “the image of the source, the image of ultimate reality.” 1011
Thus in Flannery O’Connor’s stories, a pigpen momentarily becomes the place from whence Jacob’s ladder reaches into the heavens and bears the saints upward; a line of tree tops may be experienced as the protecting wall of an Edenic garden sanctuary; and a water stain on a bedroom ceiling takes flight as a bird of pentecostal grace to cure one rebellious youth of his spiritual blindness. Much like the icon painter, O’Connor turns to inverted perspective and distorted form in order to impress upon her reader that the ordinary may be revelatory, that the natural bears the image of the supernatural. And just as the icon painter’s art, O’Connor’s art is figural and typological. The images she paints with words and the mysteries that are revealed to her protagonists join the biblical world and its events with theirs. Just as the iconographer paints his gospel scenes in such a manner that the Old Testament prefigurements of the New Testament events are gathered up in icons of Christ’s birth and baptism or his transfiguration. In other words, for O’Connor fiction truly is an incarnational art...."