The Abbess of Andalusia - Flannery O'Connor's Spiritual Journey

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Category: Contemporary
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Date Published: October 1, 2009
Number of Pages: 233
Print Price: $16.95
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Unless the reader happens to notice the subtitle of this new book about Flannery O’Connor, a cursory glance would probably lead him to think that it’s another biography—or yet another critical volume. But Lorraine Murray’s The Abbess of Andalusia is much more than biography or criticism, and that “more” is contained in the subtitle of the book: Flannery O’Connor’s Spiritual Journey.

This is not a narrative; it’s an explication. Moreover, it’s not chronologically arranged, as you’d expect a biography to be, but presents its material by topic. Following an enlightening preface by Joseph Pearce, the book is divided into five parts: I. Her Spiritual Life; II. Spiritual Director by Mail; III. A Ministry of Writing; IV. Conversion of Heart; and V. The Action of Grace. There are appendices: the prayer to St. Raphael, which apparently played such a major role in O’Connor’s life, a very impressive bibliography and comprehensive notes.

Each of the book’s parts is further divided into titled chapters, with subheadings identifying the sections within each chapter. It is beautifully organized for different readers – the casual reader who may appreciate being able to read only a section or two at a time, and the researcher who will find the organization masterfully designed for reference.

Just as it would be difficult to imagine any serious study of O’Connor’s work without touching on her deep faith, it is now even more difficult to imagine any such study without reference to this book. It should be –and likely, it will be –on the shelf of every scholar of modern American literature.

How does one fill over two hundred pages of text focusing on only the spiritual life of an author one has never met? Murray is probably one of the best and most thorough researchers I’ve ever read. She has at her disposal, she admits, an enormous amount of personal correspondence, but clearly more than that, she has her own tenacity, and she tracks down the details of a correspondent’s life, not just the letters themselves. Murray also explains the grounds of the conclusions she draws from that correspondence; she doesn’t simply impose those conclusions on the reader, as though her own personal exposure in itself constituted authority.

The section on correspondent Betty Hester is an example of how Murray researches her material, the conclusions she draws from that research, and finally, how she chooses to present her findings. The story of Betty Hester is fascinating. Emotionally unstable, the would-be writer clung to O’Connor in a dependence that clearly went beyond her writing aspirations. O’Connor’s sensitive responsiveness reveals her genuine concern, especially as Hester prepares for reception into the Church. Finally, it appears that Hester’s resentment of her own dependence, despite O’Connor’s sensitivity, destroys the friendship. Murray’s deft handling of the tragic story is exemplary of how she handles the details of all O’Connor’s relationships with many different types of correspondents. (I particularly enjoyed O’Connor’s comments on “Cathlick” literature!)

Although I’ve read interesting anecdotes about Flannery O’Connor, I’ve never been one of the thousands of fans of her fiction. And although I enjoy biographies, in general, a book on a single aspect of a writer’s life – particularly, a writer who is not a “favorite” – would not normally appeal to me. But the fact is that I simply couldn’t put this book down.

I’m still not a fan of O’Connor’s fiction, but I’m an avid admirer of the woman herself. Every detail of her spiritual life, the nature and pervasive depth of her Catholic faith, her genuine sensitivity to others – coupled with her low tolerance for nonsense – make me feel that I not only know her very well but also that I like her very much.

I’m also now a fan of Lorraine Murray. A subject of this kind is usually the undertaking of scholarly academics, but it turns out to be one of the most readable pieces of non-fiction I’ve read in ages. A pleasure as genuine as it was unexpected. You don’t have to be an O’Connor fan to enjoy this book, but you will be when you finish it – and you might also be a Murray fan, as well.

Publisher:
ISBN-13: 978-1935302162
Original Language: English
Book Dimensions: 0.6 x 5.4 x 8.4 inches


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Dena Hunt taught English at the University of New Orleans until her conversion to Christianity in 1984. Following her reception into the Roman Catholic Church, she returned to her native Georgia and taught in rural high schools until she retired. She did not start writing until after her retirement. Currently, she has several short stories in print and online, as well as reviews and essays. Hunt\'s first two novels, \"Treason\" and \"The Lion\'s Heart\" were both published in 2013.

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