Flannery O’Connor and Dostoevsky Offer a Lens into a Life of Holiness

COMMENTARY: When we read stories of holiness, we live vicariously through those stories, and then we body them forth in our reality.

‘The Scandal of Holiness: Renewing Your Imagination in the Company of Literary Saints’
‘The Scandal of Holiness: Renewing Your Imagination in the Company of Literary Saints’ (photo: Brazos Press)

“I want to be a saint.” 

I’ve been making that claim for almost a decade now, each day realizing more what it means. I grew up in a church tradition that could make neither heads nor tails of saints. Although the veneration of saints was discarded by most Protestants in the Reformation, the call to sanctity should not have been a casualty of this dismissal. Nor, in the Catholic Church, should the vocation of holiness be relegated to the privileged few; it is a universal call. 

St. Paul addresses his letter to the Romans, “beloved of God, called to be saints” (1:7 NKJV); to the Corinthians: “To those who are sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints” (1:2 NKJV); to the Ephesians, the “saints … and faithful in Christ Jesus” and so on. We see the word only once in the Gospels, following Jesus’ crucifixion, when the “bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised” (Matthew 27:52 NKJV). When Jesus overcomes the grave, he institutes a new season of God’s story. If Season 1 is the Old Testament and Season 2 is the New, we the church are Season 3 until the second coming of Christ. 

To pursue this adventure of sanctity, as George Bernanos refers to it, we must imagine what it looks like to follow Jesus. We have saints’ lives that reveal to us what it has looked like in the fourth century — St. Augustine — or in the 12th century — Hildegard of Bingen — or in the 20th century — Maria Skobtsova, who died in the Ravensbrück concentration camp and has been canonized a saint in the Eastern Orthodox Church. We need stories such as these Christian heroes to cultivate our imaginations, that we might live similar stories. If we cannot create a set of rules to live by that would guide our path to sanctity, we may instead dwell in a congregation of narratives that reveal to our hearts how to be saints. In addition to those hagiographies of biographical saints, we can populate our imagination with friends from literature who show us how to pursue holiness. We can be sharpened by the company we keep — the communion of saints in heaven, among us, and in our imaginations. 

When we read stories of holiness, we live vicariously through those stories, and then we body them forth in our reality. The models become part of our imagination, our way of seeing how to live a holy life. For me, when I try to imagine how to be holy, I have a cloud of witnesses, from Dostoevsky’s Father Zosima, to Walker Percy’s Father Smith, to Willa Cather’s Archbishop Latour, to Toni Morrison’s Baby Suggs. Reading these literary accounts of sanctity provides an antidote to our preoccupation with our autonomous selves. We live through another’s eyes and experience their struggles and victories following Jesus Christ. We fill our hearts with stories of holy exemplars with whom we relate, love and make friends: Flannery O’Connor’s crazy prophets, Eugene Vodolazkin’s holy fool in Laurus, Zora Neale Hurston’s Moses and Georges Bernanos’ faithful country priest. These stories of holiness may not be real in the empirical sense of the word, but they are more true than some of our knowledge of history or science. Their holiness attracts us and trains our imagination.

In The Scandal of Holiness, I try to see God at work in the lives of these fictional characters; that, by finding glimmers of the Lord’s presence, I might know him better. My teacher Ralph Wood once said in an interview, “The saints are the odd wads who have stood out from society — cultures they would have been predicted to conform to.” When I read Laurus, I see what it looks like to be crazy in the eyes of the world. What does it mean to stand apart from culture, to be such an oddball that people recognize your holiness, and thus, they recognize God’s grace emanating in your story? These are the questions that novel inspires.

Or, in Ernest Gaines’ A Lesson Before Dying, I consider how to die well. In our culture, we have forgotten the ars moriendi, and we push death out of view, away from our senses. This novel shows a character named Jefferson who faces death from the beginning of the book to his execution at the end, and we experience alongside him the question about how to die like Jesus. Even though the author was not a believer, the story reflects the Gospel. 

There are many virtues that the world agrees are good for their utilitarian value. It is better for society if we are kind and civil toward one another. There are lots of songs about love and goodness, which even the greatest atheists try to avow. Most people agree that personal liberty, global justice and worldwide peace are worth striving for and keeping, though they cannot articulate why. 

Yet the Christian faith pushes these values to the test. Would you die for your neighbor? Would you forego your own happiness for that of your lover? Instead of an autonomous individual seeking self-fulfillment and improvement, how might community be needed for a holy life? In what ways could suffering be an instrumental good? 

In The Scandal of Holiness, I highlight the scandal of the Christian vocation. I examine the lives of those that scandalize the world with their nonconformity. These saints challenge the status quo and refuse to accept a mediocre life of self-satisfaction. Instead, the literary figures that I discuss do weird things like take pilgrimages, pray in secret and go without comforts such as food and warm beds. These saints love the earth and submit to their meek place in its story. And every single one of them dies as he or she lived; they finish well the race. 

By reading the fictional stories of these characters who chased after God — or were chased by God — may we be strengthened in our love for such a path. Might we be fellow sojourners through our time in these pages, but even more so, may we close the book and live lives that embody the great story. Praise God that we are not the authors of our own tales, but that we inhabit a much larger, more beautiful story than we could have devised — one that begins in the beginning and ends in the Book of Life


Editor’s Note: A few sentences are taken from the introductory chapter of The Scandal of Holiness, which is found online here