Flannery O'Connor with her Peafowl. Flickr

Flannery O’Connor: Grace without Limit

What has led to the presentation of the first-ever exhibit direct from America at this year’s Meeting? First and foremost, the desire to explore the heart of one of the most provoking American writers...
Amy Sapenoff

Our path to the Meeting in Rimini actually began in the fall of 2008. A group of friends at the Catholic University of America and the John Paul II Institute for Studies on Marriage and Family began to promote cultural initiatives through a small club on campus, Radius. What was initially slow to gain momentum became a real education into what culture is and how we look at it, as we learned what it was to start with a small question or desire and follow it to its depth. A year later, Fr. Pietro Rossotti, FSCB, a student at the John Paul II Institute and one of the initial members of Radius, suggested that we submit a proposal to the Meeting as a way to continue this education. From the very beginning, we could see that the work would be bigger than ourselves; accordingly, we invited some of our other friends from the CLU community in Washington to help. Our small team was comprised of Fr. Pietro, Annie Devlin, and James Sternberg, all founding members of Radius and students at the Institute. It also included Abby Holtz and Chiara Tanzi of the University of Maryland and John Martino, Nick Kraus, and myself from the School of Community at CUA.
Our goal was simple: to present something beautiful and distinctly American. At the time, my roommate Annie had begun to read The Habit of Being, a book of Flannery O’Connor’s letters during her brief career. Flannery, an American short story writer from Georgia who wrote primarily in the 1950s and early 1960s, within the initial pages of her correspondence, had already managed to make what would be a lasting impact on Annie.

The fifth roommate. In fact, Flannery became something akin to the fifth roommate in our house! Nearly every exchange at the dinner table struck a chord and Annie would ask, “Well, do you know what Flannery has to say about that?” It seemed Flannery’s genius was appropriate for any situation. As it turns out, Flannery’s genius was even appropriate for a meager proposal to the organizers of the Meeting. However simple the proposal, they agreed to let us prepare one of the eight major exhibits for the 2010 edition. The next step was to begin reading Flannery together, starting with several of her letters. We were immediately compelled by the circumstances of her life. As an adult, Flannery was confined to her small family farm in Milledgeville, Georgia, due to her struggle with lupus, the disease that would eventually take her life at the young age of 39. There, she would write in the morning and, in the afternoon, accept visitors, write letters, and tend to her beloved flock of peafowl. From the outside, it is easy to perceive her life as provincial and isolated. However, even given these circumstances, what became evident to us through reading her letters was that she lived the limitations given to her with such a profound intensity that her life became dominated by the Mystery at work within her reality. Moreover, what was true for her life was also true for her art. She herself stated, “He [the artist] must first of all be aware of his limitations as an artist–for art transcends its limitations only by staying within them”(Mystery and Manners, p. 171). It was from this concept that the title and theme of our exhibit emerged: “Flannery O’Connor: A Limit with Infinite Measure.” It was at that point that the real work began. To our little group of O’Connorites, we added the expertise of Stephen Lewis, a Professor of Literature at the Franciscan University in Steubenville, Ohio, and Dino D’Agata, a high school teacher in Washington, DC. In addition to her non-fiction, we started reading some of Flannery’s more well-known short stories and discussing them over conference calls every few weeks.

Inspiration and Friendship
What immediately became interesting in her stories was the fact that there were no barriers or limits to the grace that is always offered to her characters, a confirmation of what we had learned from Flannery in terms of her own life and deep Catholic faith. Our work progressed from conference calls to sometimes tedious eight-hour work days. Even though these days often seemed to be “infinite discussion with no limit,” the exhibit began to take shape. Within a large space of four rooms at Rimini, we would introduce Flannery’s biography and the social and cultural context she was writing within, present her understanding of what it was to be a writer, showcase several of her short stories, and then culminate with the way in which her final short stories and the end of her life coincided.
The work of putting together the content of the exhibit spanned from October to May. It was evident during that time that “Flannery O’Connor: A Limit with Infinite Measure” is the fruit of something much larger than those of us working on it. A number of new friendships were born from this work, including with Fiorenza, the architect in New York who, without previously knowing us or Flannery O’Connor, threw herself into the immense task of designing our 1,000-square-meter exhibit.

Then there is Michael Fitzgerald
Over Christmas break, we decided to get together to watch the film adaptation of Flannery O’Connor’s first novel, Wise Blood. The film was produced by Michael Fitzgerald, the son of two of Flannery’s best friends, Sally and Robert Fitzgerald. At the conclusion of the film, we listened to Michael’s commentary. It was evident that he had a profound respect for Flannery and her work, expressing a real love for the characters in Wise Blood. We mused that it would be great to invite him to join us at the Meeting, speaking on the panel presentation of our exhibit. A few months and several phone calls later, James, Fr. Pietro, Annie, and I found ourselves surprised to be driving up to New York to meet him for dinner.

While dining in a small Italian restaurant in Manhattan, Fr. Pietro and I were able to explain what we had experienced of the Meeting. Michael found the fact that the Meeting is nearly entirely run by young volunteers from all over the world to be particularly remarkable. At the end of the dinner, we invited him to attend the Meeting and speak alongside Stephen Lewis and Davide Rondoni, an Italian poet, about our exhibit. After only a moment’s thought, he agreed. It was clear to us sitting at the table that we were not simply inviting Michael to go to Rimini–we were inviting him to see something of our life, of our companionship together which had generated something even more incredible than we could have imagined.
Once the text of the exhibit was finished, the arrangement of the physical space presented an entirely new set of challenges.

Down South
Among the most pressing concerns was the gathering of photos to be used. So, Chiara and I took a road trip down South, making a “Flannery O’Connor pilgrimage” of sorts. The first stop was Savannah, Georgia, the birthplace of Flannery and where she spent the majority of her childhood. Her house, situated across the street from the Cathedral of Saint John the Baptist where she was baptized, has been turned into a museum open to the public. Our tour guide seemed to have endless anecdotes that helped to paint the picture of Flannery as a person, the type of person capable of the witty and dark humor she is known for. For examples, her penchant for Grimm’s Fairy Tales and the fact that she started referring to her parents by their first names at age six simply seemed in character.

From Savannah, we traveled about two hours north to Milledgeville, Georgia, to visit the family farm, Andalusia, where Flannery lived with her mother in adult years until she died. Seeing the living room that was converted into her bedroom, with a typewriter and her crutches on display, emphasized what we had been working on all along. Flannery’s life from the outside seemed to be utterly determined by the limitations imposed by her circumstances. However, it is abundantly clear to us that Flannery only became a great writer by staying within those limitations and accepting them as the very contours of her vocation.

A measure that Astounds
Now that the various elements of the exhibit are complete, the dominating sense that we all share, however, is that we are still at the beginning of something–which, even still, we do not fully comprehend. The path that opened up for us in the fall of 2008 shows no signs of simply winding to an end after the Meeting in Rimini this coming August.

What opened up for us has become an experience of life shared by the entire community. I continue to receive interesting input from friends around the country and Annie and I were able to share what we have learned in these past months with our friends on the CLU vacation. Fr. Pietro has been helped with translating by our friend Donatella, and some others from the CLU in Washington, in the awareness that they, too, belong to what is happening, are organizing a fundraising event to make the trip to Rimini possible for those of us involved in the exhibit. Within the friendship flourishing in this common work, and the compelling world that Flannery O’Connor’s art and witness of life have opened up to us, that which has been most beautifully in evidence is the growing clarity that none of this has its origin only in us. Instead, in simply responding to what was happening in our lives, we have found precisely there–within the apparent limits of reality–an inexhaustibly fruitful depth, the measure of which continues to astound us.