Grace in Suffering: Flannery O’Connor and a Little Girl Named Mary Ann
Both found joy in the lives God had given them.
Mention Flannery O’Connor’s fiction, and many people will shudder. After all, her stories feature disturbing events like a child drowning, a woman being gored by a bull and a family gunned down on the roadside.
O’Connor, a faithful Catholic, shaped such shocking scenes to show how grace works in our world, which she called “territory largely held by the devil.” In her stories, moments of grace and spiritual insight often accompany horrific events, which shake people out of complacency.
Many readers don’t know about another side of O’Connor, which is revealed in her essays. She considered her introduction to A Memoir of Mary Ann the most important thing she had ever written. As she noted, “Anyone who writes anything about me is going to have to read everything I have written, in order to make legitimate criticism, even and particularly the Mary Ann piece.” O’Connor was stricken with lupus at age 25 and died 14 years later, on Aug. 3, 1964. The 58th anniversary of her death seems a fitting moment to discover why she put such emphasis on this essay.
In the spring of 1960, O’Connor received a letter from Sister Evangelist, who was in charge of Our Lady of Perpetual Help Home in Atlanta. The home was run — and to this day, still is — by the Dominican Sisters of Hawthorne, who tend to terminally ill, indigent cancer patients.
In her letter, Sister Evangelist wrote about a little girl named Mary Ann Long, who began living with the sisters in 1949, when she was 3 years old, and died nine years later. The child had been born with a disfiguring, cancerous tumor on her face, which had grown so large that one eye had been removed. Sister Evangelist said the child had a beautiful, brave spirit and asked if O’Connor would help the sisters write a book about her.
Soon, O’Connor grew intrigued with the story of this little girl, who bore the cross of cancer with tremendous grace. Her introduction to A Memoir of Mary Ann is a moving, insightful and thoroughly Catholic reflection on the salvific nature of suffering. She noted that many people use children’s suffering to discredit God’s goodness and to stop believing in him. True, Mary Ann had suffered terribly, she said, but hers was not hopeless suffering, because the sisters saw an image of Christ in the child and treated her with great tenderness.
O’Connor saw the child’s suffering as a thread woven within the fabric of believers called the Communion of Saints, which she described as “the action by which charity grows invisibly among us, entwining the living and the dead.” This quote referred to author Nathaniel Hawthorne, who had written about visiting a children’s ward in a Liverpool workhouse, where orphaned, disabled children lived. There, he encountered a “wretched, pale, half-torpid child,” who immediately repulsed him. Still, the child took a liking to him and begged to be held — and Hawthorne obliged.
“I should never have forgiven myself if I had repelled its advances,” he wrote.
His daughter, Rose Hawthorne Lathrop, called these the most important words her father ever wrote. A convert to Catholicism, Rose became a religious sister who devoted her life to caring for dying cancer patients in New York. At the time, cancer was considered contagious, and cancer victims were shunned and left to die. In 1900, Rose founded a religious order, eventually called the Dominican Sisters of Hawthorne, which ministered to these “throwaways” of society.
O’Connor saw God’s hand in Mary Ann’s life, since the child might have missed the joy of living with the sisters, had the writer Hawthorne refused to pick up that “wretched” child long ago. For O’Connor, Mary Ann represented all the imperfect human beings whom the Dominican sisters treated in a Christlike fashion. “Their work is the tree sprung from Hawthorne’s small act of Christlikeness and Mary Ann its flower.”
O’Connor never mentioned her own struggles with lupus in the introduction, but she did describe Mary Ann as facing “passive diminishments.” This term, coined by Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, referred to surrendering to God’s will and accepting suffering during the slow process of dying, which O’Connor applied to her own life. She struck a chord between herself and Mary Ann when she wrote, “The creative action of the Christian’s life is to prepare his death in Christ.”
Toward the end, the little girl knew death was near and readied herself to meet it. For example, she wanted to be a Dominican sister and asked that she be buried in the habit of this religious order. The woman writing the introduction also sensed that death was near and was preparing herself for it. As she noted, “Sickness before death is a very appropriate thing, and I think those who don’t have it miss one of God’s mercies.”
Both Mary Ann and O’Connor were stricken with chronic illnesses, and both could be labeled “grotesque” in the eyes of the world. The child was terribly deformed by cancer, while O’Connor became crippled from lupus. Both, however, found joy in the lives God had given them. O’Connor had her writing, her peacocks, her friends and her beloved mother. Mary Ann had the sisters, her pets and a self-created ministry of cheering up the other patients.
On this anniversary of O’Connor’s death, the little girl’s life stands as a passionate witness to two Catholic beliefs O’Connor cherished: All human life is precious in God’s eyes, and love always triumphs over suffering.
Lorraine Murray is the author of The Abbess of Andalusia: Flannery O’Connor’s Spiritual Journey. She writes regularly for The Georgia Bulletin, the newspaper of the Archdiocese of Atlanta, and The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.