letters, and eventually continuing with her novels and prayer journal.
Comments on the comment thread
Here's an article I wrote that was published on the Cardinal Newman Society website about what inspired me to start this book club.
This was the most amazing class I ever taught.
And it was the one I was most worried about teaching!
For three years now, I have been teaching online courses for Homeschool Connections, a wonderful organization that allows students to take either live or recorded courses from anywhere in the world via the internet. The instructors are on webcams and the students may interact with them; the course content is challenging, seriously Catholic and faithful to the teachings of the Magisterium; and the courses themselves are fascinating. Just some of the courses I’ve taught (just myself - there are a ton of high profile Catholic authors and educators who offer courses through Homeschool Connections) include the following …
- The Big Picture: Connecting the Dots in Salvation History
- Love and the Meaning of Life
- The Spirituality of JRR Tolkien
- Drama and the Human Spirit
- Science and Faith
… and many more.
And this summer I decided to offer a course entitled The Stories, Essays and Letters of Flannery O’Connor.
I was worried about this course. Flannery’s stories are deeply Catholic - but shocking and sometimes violent - and deliberately so, since at the very least, Flannery O’Connor is trying to get her readers’ attention. As she wrote to a friend …
One of the awful things about writing when you are a Christian is that for you the ultimate reality is the Incarnation, the present reality is the Incarnation, nobody believes in the Incarnation; that is, nobody in your audience. My audience are the people who think God is dead. At least these are the people I am conscious of writing for.
And while every Flannery O’Connor story is about the transformative power of God’s grace (and also about how all of us stubbornly resist God’s grace), how do you point that out to a group of homeschooled high school students who may be too shocked by the stories to go any deeper? In fact, two mothers of students who were enrolled in the course actually read a story or two on their own and contacted me, voicing their concerns.
And so I was prepared for push-back. I was prepared for confusion. I was prepared to fail. I did not know if I could do justice to Flannery O’Connor and her visionary art.
And yet, much to my surprise, nothing I have ever taught over the years was as effective as Flannery’s writing in reaching my students. These kids loved this class!
A few comments from my students …
Because of these stories, I have more often been contemplating this question: Am I living my faith and taking it as seriously as I should, or am I putting my faith aside and living only a shadow of me, not the best version of myself? I am disturbed by this question, still wrestling with it and the grace that is offered to me.
I can relate to Flannery in many ways and if she was still alive I would want to be friends with her. I understand her stories in a way I don’t know how to describe.
I honestly think that these stories are really good for you. Good for your humanity, and good for your soul.
Her life and work have inspired me in my own life. O’Connor’s daily focus on Mass,
theology, and writing is the kind of life that I aspire towards. Because of her essay that we read, I now fully understand how I can make my own stories Catholic without filling them with devout characters and keeping them completely inoffensive. It has lifted the illusion that to be a Catholic writer is to be limited in what you can appropriately portray.
I have found a new favorite writer!
In our first class I was blown away. The things we talked about -- I had read them before and missed all that was now being explained to me.
I think that these stories and our discussions about them have honestly changed the way I see the world
These stories have shown me that God’s Grace isn’t just a gentle clean wind whispering in your ear, but can be a tornado, a dusty, gritty tornado which grabs hold of you, and if you let it, flings you in the right direction. The ride will not always be pleasant, nor will the landing. But where your soul ends up will always be worth it.
This class was not my idea. My mother wanted me to take a summer literature course and branch out in my literature experience. I flat out told her “no” and resisted like a mule every step of the course registration. I did not expect anything exciting from this course, and certainly not the profound insights that Flannery O’Connor had on the Faith and Catholic life. … but these stories and letters of Flannery O’Connor are more profound and faith-filled than I ever thought they would be.
And these are just a few sample comments that will give you some idea of the impact O’Connor had on these young people.
My question is: why? I have taught Tolkien, Shakespeare, Lewis, Chesterton, Belloc, Plato, papal encyclicals and more. And no writer has had this kind of impact on my students.
I think there are a few answers to this mystery.
First, Flannery’s prose is relatively simple and straight forward. For all of the boldness in her fiction, she’s easy to read.
Second, we read not only some of Flannery’s stories, but also selections from her letters and essays as well - and she communicates very intelligently and intimately in her non-fiction and in her correspondence. It’s obvious when reading Flannery as Flannery that she was a devout, caring and fully Catholic woman. It reminds me of something CS Lewis said about how reading GK Chesterton affected him when he (Lewis) was still an atheist. And that is that even though Lewis often disagreed with Chesterton, “I liked him for his goodness,” he said.
And this is the real solution to the mystery of why Flannery O’Connor, of all people, touched the hearts and minds of high school students from all over the U.S. and Canada who were taking this short summer course online from Homeschool Connections. She touched them with her sanctity.
The art we make - in fact, everything that we do - all of our “works” - are a product of who we are. And who we are is broken, but re-shaped by God’s grace - even though we resist this re-formation every step of the way. Or, as Flannery aptly and briefly noted in a letter to a friend, "God rescues us from ourselves if we want Him to."
And Flannery wanted Him to. Whatever she wrote, she wrote as a deeply formed and faithful Catholic. And it’s God’s grace in her that so captivated my students.
And now what? Well, I’m teaching more courses at Homeschool Connections, which you can find out about here - www.homeschoolconnections.com.
And I’m offering an ongoing Flannery O’Connor Book Club! We will read Flannery’s stories, essays and letters and discuss them in a fun and casual way, and I will do my best to show how her stories illustrate the incredible and awesome effects of God’s grace. The club will be open not only to my students - but to everybody! So join us at www.flanneryoconnorbookclub.com!