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Flannery O’Connor & the Horror of Sin

June 17, 2014 by  
Filed under Book Club, Vicki Burbach

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The Sinner's Guide (Week 11 of 16)

Take a lesson from the carpenter, who, when he wishes to drive a large nail, is not satisfied with giving it a few strokes, but continues hammering until he is sure it is firmly fastened. You must imitate him, if you would firmly implant this resolution in your soul. Be not satisfied with renewing it from time to time, but daily take advantage of all the opportunities afforded you in meditation, in reading, in what you see or hear, to fix this horror of sin more deeply in your soul. – The Sinner’s Guide (Chapter 29, Paragraph 14)

Horror of Sin

Years ago, I was introduced to a story by Flannery O’Connor. I’d love to say that I was enlightened by her literary genius. That I was fascinated by her brilliant grasp of the mystery of grace. That I recognized the opportunity for redemption laid before her masterly-crafted characters.

Unfortunately, I can say none of those things.

Truth be told, the first time I read one of O’Connor’s stories, I was so horrified by the graphic and violent nature of her writing that I didn’t even finish it.

Fast forward a few years. After reading Father Barron’s book, The Strangest Way, wherein he walks through all the powerful images in O'Connor's novel, The Violent Bear it Away, I was inspired to take another look. So there I was, this evening, attending the second class of a brief, four-week course on Flannery O’Connor, where we spent an insightful and highly stimulating hour and a half discussing her renowned short story, A Good Man is Hard to Find.

Given her knack for shocking readers through the use of the grotesque, O'Connor seems the perfect reference for a discussion regarding our “horror” of sin (or lack thereof). Most notably, it appears that behind her use of disturbing characters and startling images rests a profound recognition regarding our relationship to sin. Rather than abhor it, as Louis of Granada recommends, we virtually revel in it.  In fact, we are often so oblivious to its existence that we literally mistake it for virtue.

At one point in the story, O’Connor uses the powerful image of a monkey to illustrate the disgusting nature of our affinity for sin:

“The children ran outside into the white sunlight and looked at the monkey in the lacey chinaberry tree. He was busy catching fleas on himself and biting each one carefully between his teeth as if it were a delicacy.”

Upon reading this passage, I was immediately struck by the notion that I was the monkey, and the fleas represented my sins.  Can you think of a more repulsive image with which to illustrate our relationship to sin? Are we really that pathetic?

Before you turn away in disgust, Louis of Granada may give you pause:

“…the first source of sin is error in the understanding, which is the natural guide and counselor of the will.  Consequently, the chief endeavor of the devil is to darken the understanding, and thus draw the will into the same error. Thus he clothes evil with the appearance of good, and presents vice under the mask of virtue, that we may regard it as a counsel of reason rather than a temptation of the enemy.”  – The Sinner’s Guide, (Chapter 29, Paragraph 18)

O'Connor furthers this allusion through the main character in A Good Man is Hard to Find.  Like many of us, the Grandmother is a first class hypocrite. She believes herself to be a good Christian, when in reality, she is not very likable.  Somehow, she, too, is blind to the sin in her life.

Of this heroine, Flannery, herself, says,

“The heroine of this story, the Grandmother, is in the most significant position life offers the Christian. She is facing death. And to all appearances she, like the rest of us, is not too well prepared for it. She would like to see the event postponed. Indefinitely” (“On Her Own Work”, Mystery and Manners: Occasional Prose).

At the climax of the story, the Grandmother has the opportunity to receive grace. “Her head clears for an instant…” and there is a profound moment where the Grandmother is both a recipient and a conduit of grace. There is good evidence that she accepts it, for in death she “…half sat and half lay in a puddle of blood with her legs crossed under her like a child’s and her face smiling up at a cloudless sky.”

Unfortunately, like many of us, it takes her imminent death for the Grandmother to be aware of  her need for redemption and to be open to receiving God's grace. In fact, upon her death, the villain even comments,

“She would have been a good woman…if it had been somebody there to shoot her every minute of her life.” 

In other words, were we to face imminent death at every moment of our lives, we might actually flee from sin in abject horror and persevere in virtue.

Louis of Granada tells us that the only way to develop a horror of sin is to receive grace. Not merely at the hour of death, but as often as we can. As Christians, we must take advantage of every conduit of grace available to us to fix a horror of sin deep within our souls.  Those conduits include the sacraments, prayer, spiritual reading and a firm resolution to keep our eyes on eternity. He advises us,

He who desires to walk resolutely in the same path must strive to imitate them by fixing this resolution deep in his soul. Appreciating things at their true value, he must prefer the friendship of God to all treasures of earth; he must unhesitatingly sacrifice perishable joys for delights that will be eternal. To accomplish this must be the end of all his actions; the object of all his prayers; the fruit he seeks in frequenting the sacraments; the profit he derives from sermons and pious reading; the lesson he should learn from the beauty and harmony of the world, and from all creatures. This will be the happy result of Our Saviour’s Passion and all the other works of love which He unceasingly performs. They will inspire him with a horror of offending the good Master who has done so much for him. Finally, this holy fear and firm resolution will be the mark of his progress in virtue. – The Sinner’s Guide, Ch. 29,Paragraph 13)

If we fail to follow this advice, we may lose our ability to recognize grace when it comes.

As O’Connor warns,

“Our age not only does not have a very sharp eye for the almost imperceptible intrusions of grace, it no longer has much feeling for the nature of the violences which precede and follow them.  ‘The devil’s greatest wile,' Baudelaire had said, ‘is to convince us that he does not exist'.” 


Reading Assignment:

Chapter 30-33

Discussion Questions:

1. What has worked for you with respect to developing a horror of sin?  If you don't have it, why do you think that is the case?

2. Have you read any Flannery O'Connor?  Any insights to share with us as her work relates to the above quote?

Feel free to comment on anything from our assignment this past week!

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About Vicki Burbach

Vicki Burbach is a wife and homeschooling mother of six children ages four to sixteen years who relishes the calm inspiration of spiritual reading amidst the roller coaster of life. A passionate convert to the Faith, Vicki is an avid reader who started the book club so she could embark with like-minded bibliophiles on a spiritual journey through some of the greatest Catholic books ever written. She is author of the new book How to Read Your Way to Heaven - A Spiritual Reading Program for the Worst of Sinners, the Greatest of Saints, and Everyone in Between. You can also find her at

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