Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Rowan Williams on Flannery O'Connor.

"Rowan Williams" and "Flannery O'Connor" are two names I never expected to write in the same sentence. Nonetheless, I wasn't entirely surprised to discover that the present Archbishop of Canterbury once gave a lecture on O'Connor's work. A published poet as well as a theologian, the spiritual head of the Anglican Communion is well-versed in the Catholic spiritual and theological tradition and has done a fair amount of reflection on the relationship between art and faith. Thus, the idea of Rowan Williams writing about Flannery O'Connor isn't nearly as random as, say, the Patriarch of Moscow writing about Walker Percy.

Rowan Williams lectured on Flannery O'Connor in February 2005 as part of the Clark Lectures given annually at Trinity College, Cambridge. Williams' Clark Lectures were later published in the book Grace and Necessity: Reflections on Art and Love. In his lecture on O'Connor, the Archbishop examines how his subject's reading of Jacques Maritain influenced her work and, in a broader way, how her writing was shaped by an intensely Catholic worldview. To provide a small sample, here's what Williams says about O'Connor's perception of her particular role as a Catholic writer of fiction:
So: the fiction writer is out to 'do justice' to the world, in a phrase of Conrad's which O'Connor obviously liked . . . but to believe nothing is to see nothing, and every artist, like it or not, works within a framework of assumptions about humanity and its world. The visible appearances that are the indispensable building blocks of the writer's work are already organised in this way or that; and the claim of Catholic doctrine is that it offers the most comprehensive, least selective way of reading the world that could be imagined because it identifies the real finally with the good . . . in the strongest possible sense - the sense for which the good must be the lovable, or perhaps is good because it is loved. Doing justice to the visible world is reflecting the love of God for it, the fact that this world is worth dying for in God's eyes. The tightrope that the Catholic writer must walk is to forget or ignore nothing of the visually, morally, humanly sordid world, making nothing easy for the reader, while doing so in the name of a radical conviction that depends on the world being interrupted and transfigured by revelation. The event that disrupts and questions and changes the world is precisely what obliges the artist not to try and recreate it from scratch. Irony is going to be unavoidable in the exercise.

It is not a word we have encountered much so far in this discussion. For O'Connor, the artist takes the risk of uncovering the world within the world of visible things as a way of 'doing justice,' confident because of her commitment that what is uncovered will be the 'reason' in things, a consonance that is well beyond any felt harmony or system of explanation but is simply a coherence and connectedness always more than can be seen or expressed. Because of this trust, she can push towards the limits of what is thinkable and 'acceptable,' let alone edifying. She is always taking for granted that God is possible even in the most grotesque and empty or cruel situations; she pursues the unacceptable in the ironic faith that the pursuit will vindicate God, at least to the extent that God is intrinsic to whatever is uncovered in the work of writing. . . .
If you'd like to read the rest, click here. AMDG.


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