Sufficient Grace: An Imagined Conversation with Flannery O’Connor – by Emily Peña Murphey

Sufficient Grace: An Imagined Conversation with Flannery O’Connor

Sitting at my desk with eyes closed and dozing—the witching hour of 2 PM has arrived. There arises before me an image of a small, mousy woman wearing a sheath dress and unbecoming glasses. Like me, she is seated at the keyboard of her time, a typewriter. I recognize her and feel a desire to connect.

Flannery? Can you hear me?

Well, since y’all’ve been readin’ my work these last few days, I reckon I’m close by!

I’m overjoyed and honored to meet you! I hope I won’t be a bother if I ask some advice. You see, I’m starting out as a writer…and I’ve just been diagnosed with an auto-immune disease that could turn out to be like your lupus.

Well, ordinarily I prefer that folks just leave me alone. But now that I’m over here my burdens are a lot less than when I was livin where you are. And what you say‘bout yourself suggests we might have life strains in common. It’s not too often an oddball like me meets up with a kinderd spirit!

Well, I’d say we must have things in common. I mean, like me and everyone you had to live in a body. But your body was sick and didn’t allow you much time to work—that’s a burden!

Well, truth to tell, I’ve always felt that time don’t count for much. And being close to the Lord always helped me forget about past and future—that was a blessing I was right grateful for.

What was it like to having that gift?

Well, ma’am, during the times I could write, it helped me get deep into that other world—the story—and just forget most everything else. And also, a regular practice of prayer helped me keep my mind pretty well focused.

The part of time that was hard was near the end when I’d get tired out and realize my couple good hours was used up ‘til the next day. At that point I’d commit myself to God and thank Him for my filled-up pages, even if they was only a few. But I never doubted that the strength would come back again if I was patient and obeyed His will. I had a strong belief—a knowledge—that as long’s I done my part, the Holy Spirit would grant me endurance.

And then in the earthly world a God’s creation there was deadlines; agents and editors and even readers was countin on me. I was responsible to friends who’d helped me out and was goin to make sure my writin got published. It was a great comfort t’ward the time of my death to know that my words’d still be set down in books after I was gone. I s’pose you could say it was one a the ways I had a sense of “life eternal.” No, if I hadn’ta been a Catholic I sure woulda been at a disadvantage!

What did it mean to you, being Catholic?

It was a rock-solid belief I was raised with—trustin’ in the goodness of God and the beauty of His kingdom—the example of our Lord’s suffering and sacrifice—the struggle against Satan—a way to live that’d guarantee my soul’s salvation—and daily rituals and routines that was such a source of assurance. But a course, that ain’t even the half of it!

But so many of your characters seem so far away from God—even evil! How do you account for that?

Well, I can’t rightly say. Maybe they was the underside of the goodness I tried to live out in my own life. Maybe they allowed me ta get up close to transgression; maybe you could even say…flirt with it a little bit! (Not that I was ever one for flirtin!) And it sure created struggles for them characters; that mighta helped keep the stories intersting. Lotsa critics’ve had a lot to say about it; for me it was really just the way the ideas come to me. I had a strong feelin about redemption.

My trouble’s that even though I trust God and pray, I often don’t have the self-discipline to sit down and write for even two hours a day. I have pain and tiredness like you; usually not enough to keep me away from my desk, so it’s no excuse! When I do sit down and get myself started, the words usually come pretty easily. I just avoid it for some reason; sometimes it feels like something about it scares me…

Well, what in creation might that be?

Well, I’m ashamed to admit it, but I think deep down I’m afraid that letting go and creating means losing control—even insanity. My father was a writer with a serious mental illness back when it wasn’t really treatable. And even if there’d been a treatment he probably wouldn’t’ve submitted to it!

Whenever he was heading into mania he’d stay up all night pounding away at his old cast-iron Remington—banging out an autobiographical novel he never finished. There wasn’t any help back then for families like us. Just hospitals that locked the sick ones away and wouldn’t even allow their children to visit them. The worst of it was that the person I loved most turned into somebody I hardly knew. So later on I feared that by taking the risk of writing I’d be inviting the disease that destroyed my Daddy.

Well, I’m perty sure you know I lost my daddy when I was quite young, to the same disease that stood in wait to kill me. It was a slow torment, losing a loving parent to such a pernicious affliction. Maybe that’s where my characters’ battles with Satan began—something violent bore my daddy away!

For years we had no notion I was developing the same condition. Then people tried to keep it from me. But when I found out the truth I realized I sort of knew it all along. It was a relief but also terrifying to the bone to know what lay ahead.

Your word “pernicious” is a good one, ‘cause it suggests fighting something malevolent. Those auto-immune diseases are like that: what normally protects and heals turns on us and starts to destroy. The body goes to war against itself—hard not to see Good versus Evil in that!

I guess compared to you I’m fortunate because I was diagnosed later in life; and now more remedies are available. But honestly, nobody can predict for any one person how these illnesses are going to play out.

Only God has that knowledge, and this holpen me ta accept what I was up against. That, and knowin His will was for me to write as much as I could for as long’s I was able. Though that old lupus was fairly a demon, for sure!

I hope you don’t mind me making comparisons…

Lordy, not in the least! I been taken down from my cross and now my spirit dwelleth in the Kingdom. I trod out my days ta the fullest on the path God set for me. And ever since I reached the end I been at peace. I think if y’all accept your own talent and put it ta hard work like a mule ta plow, whatever happens you’ll feel the same peace that I did. Jus’ don’t ever give up prayin for strength!

No. But there’s death

Yes, for us like ever-one. I was lucky, I s’pose, ‘cause death finally come while I was in a coma. So I just woke up in the bosom of the Lord. Maybe that was easier’n if I’d been aware when the time came; I didn’t suffer physically. Though just the same I could sense a lot of presences hoverin around me: “a cloud of witnesses.” But how dearly I loved those folks, that farm, my birds. And I hadn’t no chance to say goodbye.

But even long ‘fore that, death was fer me like an angel bird perched right on my shoulder while I typed, whisperin ta me that my time was short. Yet also remindin me that God willed that I live out the days he decreed for me, and that my purpose was ta write. Death seemed almost friendly ta me sometimes, urging me onward like that. See if you can’t have it be that way for you. Though, he’s also an adversary and you got to struggle against him to make damn sure he don’t take you ‘fore your time’s out!

And I assure you of this: when life finally ends, you’ll know the truth of the promise that we’ll be reunited with our lost beloveds.

You’re with your father?

All of us’s together again, dinin ‘round Andalusia’s big mahogany table! And, my, but them peafowl is hollerin in the garden outside!

And don’t y’all forget Saint Paul’s words: the Lord refused to remove the thorn from his flesh so that His servant’s strength might be perfected in weakness!

So for people like us… with bodies pierced by thorns…perhaps His grace is sufficient!

Sister, Amen!


Emily Peña Murphey is a retired psychotherapist who has published work in several literary journals. She was recently designated a finalist in the short story and essay categories of the Adelaide Voices Literary Contest. She has family roots in the Smoky Mountains of North Carolina and Texas’ Río Grande Valley.  She lives in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania in the U.S.A.


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