Monday, March 25, 2013

Flannery O'Connor an Abbess? Maybe Anchorite, not Abbess

My Amazon Review of the Book: Abbess of Andalusia from December 14, 2012

The misuse of the word abbess in the title might help explain why this book doesn't totally sit right with me. This definition of abbess from Wikipedia is as good as any: "An abbess (Latin abbatissa, feminine form of abbas, abbot) is the female superior, or mother superior, of a community of nuns, often an abbey." Obviously, from this definition of the word, Flannery O'Connor was not even metaphorically an abbess. Perhaps the title was suggested by the book's editor or by the publisher. Accepting such a title, or worse yet, choosing it, indicates to me that that the author might have a bit of a tin ear when it comes to word definitions.

Anchorite might be a better word. "[S]omeone who, for religious reasons, withdraws from secular society so as to be able to lead an intensely prayer-oriented, ascetic, and--circumstances permitting--Eucharist-focused life. As a result, anchorites are usually considered to be a type of religious hermit."

But then, Flannery did not abandon the world, her illness wrested her away from it. After having some success as a writer, she had been living among the fast-living intelligentsia of her era, and perhaps she would have been influenced in the wrong direction had she stayed with them. Circumstances that forced her to return home to live with her mother in an out-of-the-way Georgia farmhouse as an invalid were perhaps her salvation. If she had a dark night of the soul as a result, she was too tough to mention it. She was a reluctant anchorite, maybe. Stolidly resigned anchorite, more likely. But that wouldn't look as good as a book title: "Resigned Anchorite--Flannery O'Conor's Spiritual Journey."

As a product of the assimilationist world of Catholic believers in which I was raised in the 1950s, I have always been astounded at O'Connor's deep conviction about the truth of the doctrines of the Catholic Church and her passion to communicate these truths through her fiction and her letters. What also amazes me is that she had these strong convictions as a resident of the mostly Protestant South. How about this as a possible title? "The Odd Catholic in Georgia: Flannery O'Connor's Spiritual Journey." I think it was Baudelaire who said that he wrote in meter because restrictions free a writer. That thought could be seen as applying to O'Connor's life too. Constrained with the limits of her life, she created an impressive body of spiritually charged work that ranks high in American and world literature.

I've read much of what has been written about Flannery O'Connor, and I didn't learn a great deal from this book that I didn't already know. However, the book includes many new details from previously unavailable sources, which are good to see. And the author makes a laudable and generally successful attempt to use the new details to illustrate how O'Connor lived out her faith and used her talents in the small ways that were available to her. I believe this book makes a unique contribution to the body of O'Connor criticism.
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