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Monday, September 21, 2009

Selah: Flannery O'Connor

If you’ve read any Psalms, you’ve noticed the word selah. Hebrew—roughly translated, stop and listen. Let those with eyes, see, and with ears, hear.

Far too often, we're busy tuning out. Our eyes glaze, and we don’t see. The dramatic wisdom of untold centuries rushes over our feet, fresh and cool and invisible.

But it only takes a moment to step onto the shoulders of a literary giant. To pursue wisdom. Seriously, why read Noel De Vries when you could be reading, say, Flannery O'Connor?

Here she is, from her brilliant book Mystery and Manners: Occasional Prose. Enjoy the view. And selah.

The Catholic novelist frequently becomes so entranced with his Christian state that he forgets his nature as a fiction writer. This is all right, this is fine, if he stops writing fiction, but most of the time he doesn’t stop writing it, and he makes … [a] spectacle of himself…

We are not content to stay within our limitations and make something that is simply good in and by itself…. Yet what is good in itself glorifies God because it reflects God. The artist has his hands full and does his duty if he attends to his art. He can safely leave evangelizing to the evangelists.

The Catholic novelist doesn’t have to be a saint; he doesn’t even have to be a Catholic; he does, unfortunately, have to be a novelist.

…what we call the Catholic novel is not necessarily about a Christianized or Catholicized world, but simply that it is one in which the truth as Christians know it has been used as a light to see the world by. This may or may not be a Catholic world, and it may or may not have been seen by a Catholic.

We see people distorting their talents in the name of God for reasons that they think are good—to reform or to teach or to lead people to the Church. And it is much less easy to say that this is reprehensible. None of us is able to judge such people themselves, but we must, for the sake of truth, judge the products they make.

Poorly written novels—no matter how pious and edifying the behavior of the characters—are not good in themselves and are therefore not really edifying.

… the novelist who is a Catholic may feel some friction between what he is supposed to do as a novelist and what he is supposed to do as a Catholic …. Is he supposed to change what he sees and make it, instead of what it is, what in the light of faith he thinks it ought to be? Is he, as Baron von Hugal has said, supposed to “tidy up reality?”

When the Catholic novelist closes his own eyes and tries to see with the eyes of the Church, the result is another addition to that large body of pious trash for which we have so long been famous.

The tensions of being a Catholic novelist are probably never balanced for the writer until the Church becomes so much a part of his personality that he can forget about her—in the same sense that when he writes, he forgets about himself.

…the conscientious novelist works at the limits of his power and within what his imagination can apprehend. He does not decide what would be good for the Christian body and proceed to deliver it. Like a very doubtful Jacob, he confronts what stands in his path…

The poet is traditionally a blind man, but the Christian poet, and storyteller as well, is like the blind man whom Christ touched, who looked then and saw men as if they were trees, but walking.

We reflect the Church in everything we do, and those who can see clearly that our judgment is false in matters of art cannot be blamed for suspecting our judgment in matters of religion.

Noel De Vries is a youth librarian percolating her second novel, a YA märchen set in 17th-century Holland. Visit Noel at Never Jam Today.


  1. Wow! Thank you. Something powerful to aspire to.

  2. There's a few things I can agree with there, but most of it I think Ms. O'Connor, despite her legacy, just didn't get it. Beauty means nothing when it is done for its own purpose, but only when it is used to edify something greater than it. A novelist is being far too modest when she determines that it is not her place to go deeper than merely to present a worldview. There is nothing I find edifying about reading a novel that is well written, but does not convey a greater message.

    Perhaps others are different though...

    God Bless,

  3. David, I completely agree that there is nothing edifying about a novel that is well written but does not contain deeper meaning. I think O’Connor would agree, as well.

    Nowhere do I see her advocating an empty shell of beauty. Quite the opposite. As a Christian, her worldview demands deeper meaning—in fiction, as well as in the universe.

    She is urging Christians toward a fiction that mirrors the Psalmist’s words: “The heavens declare the glory of God.” We cannot compel suspicious readers with a message, no matter how great it is. Only with His glory, which is always present in true beauty.

  4. Oh, I love "Mystery and Manners." This is an amazing challenge to all Christian artists in any medium.

    Thanks for bringing it to the attention of more people.

  5. Brilliant, thank you for sharing this.

  6. A timely post for these days ...

    Thank you


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