Fans of Catholic author Flannery O’Connor, and even those who do not enjoy her flair for the grotesque, will find much to savor in The Abbess of Andalusia , a compelling portrait of her spiritual life.

Lorraine V. Murray, the author of Grace Notes and Confessions of an Ex-Feminist, reveals much about the woman behind such works as “A Good Man Is Hard to Find” and The Violent Bear It Away, through an examination of O’Connor’s life and letters that deals with her habits of prayer, the spiritual friendships she nurtured, and how her faith influenced her writing.

Although many are familiar with some of the essential details of O’Connor’s biography, including the fact that she died of lupus at the age of 39, Murray takes this and lesser-known facts and weaves them into an engaging, frank account of the author’s path over a terrain made increasingly difficult by her illness.

As part of her research for the book, Murray visited Andalusia, the Georgia farm where O’Connor lived for 13 years until her death in 1964. There, in a two-story white farmhouse, O’Connor worked each morning in a small room furnished with a bed, bookshelves, desk and manual typewriter — reminiscent, Murray writes, of a cell in a monastery of which O’Connor might be considered the abbess. Hence, the apt title of her book.

Murray tells us that O’Connor did indeed live something of a monastic life, adhering to a strict regimen in which she started each day with prayer, followed by two hours of writing. O’Connor wrote letters later in the day, and through them, dispensed counsel to aspiring writers and spiritual seekers of various stripes.

Even as her disease placed limitations on her and narrowed the scope of her daily life, Murray writes, ultimately this brought “a deeper devotion to writing and less time wasted on diversions.”

Still, O’Connor found writing difficult. Murray says she would sometimes write for months and then tear up everything. However, she never believed she had wasted her time and refused to let anything interfere with the two hours she marked out for writing each day. In advising Cecil Dawkins to adopt her habit of writing at the same time and place daily, she insisted in a letter that he must do so without reading, talking or cooking: “No nothing, but you sit there.”

Although her secluded life was a byproduct of her illness, O’Connor seems to have reveled in it. She was “no fan of teeming cities,” Murray writes, and thanked God she was “a hermit novelist.”

Yet, through her letters, she maintained a network of friends. Among these was Hazel Elizabeth “Betty” Hester, an Atlanta clerk who first wrote to O’Connor to offer insights into her work. As the two formed a friendship, O’Connor became a kind of a spiritual director to Hester, who later converted to Catholicism. Murray attempts to clarify the nature of the nine-year relationship between the two women, which some have suggested was romantic. She believes that the world has misjudged their deep affection for one another and writes that, although Hester struggled with sexual attraction to women, her letters make clear she was committed to overcoming them. As for O’Connor, Murray says, the inscription in a book given to Hester seems to sum up their relationship. It reads simply, “To Betty Hester, my adopted kin.”

In spiritual practice, O’Connor was devout and faithful to the Church, yet squeamish about pious devotions. She went reluctantly on a pilgrimage to Lourdes after a cousin offered to pay for the trip and dreaded the prospect of bathing in the healing waters, confessing she did so only to avoid feeling guilty later and to satisfy her traveling companions.

For O’Connor, writing “Catholic fiction” did not mean advancing a religious agenda or trying to convert her readers, but, as Joseph Pearce says in the preface to Murray’s book, using the truth of Christianity as a light by which to see the world.

In writing The Abbess of Andalusia, Murray has taken on the tough questions about the author’s life and answered them with grace, creating a rendering of O’Connor that is as honest as the woman herself.

Judy Roberts writes from Graytown, Ohio.


Flannery O’Connor’s Spiritual Journey

By Lorraine V. Murray

Saint Benedict Press, 2009

272 pages, $16.95

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