On 3 June 2020, the Collegium Institute’s Ars Vivendi Arts Initiative gathered four distinguished scholars and authors on Zoom to discuss Flannery O’Connor and her relevance during the quarantine. Speakers Amy Alznauer, IHE Fellow Jennifer Frey, Jessica Hooten Wilson, and Christine Flanagan probed into O’Connor’s work as it relates to philosophy, ordinary experience, and creativity, which included a deeper conversation on God’s grace as brought about by solitude, violence, and boredom. Throughout the discussion, the speakers discussed that while these prevalent aspects of life are often avoided or identified as negative, in reality they are opportunities to grow in grace.
In her initial presentation, Alznauer, author of the soon-to-be released picture book, The Strange Birds of Flannery O’Connor: A Life, and Artist In Residence at St. Gregory the Great in Chicago, remarked that the original form of solitude is found in childhood. O’Connor knew this from her own youth and incorporated it into her works frequently. Moments of solitude experienced by her young protagonists magnified their self-knowledge in relation to God and the pursuit of truth. Being alone, regardless of age, allows a person to know himself and contemplate, a freedom vital to the reception of grace and truth, especially amid the distractions of modernity.
When the discussion opened for audience questions, the topic of violence prompted another important supposition: is there a tension between enjoyment of literature and the grotesque elements that often appear in O’Connor’s stories? Hooten Wilson, Associate Professor of Literature at John Brown University and the author of Giving the Devil His Due: Flannery O‘Connor and The Brothers Karamazov, asserted that, while people tend to fixate on O’Connor’s violence, the point of the violence is not merely to horrify but to make possible a moment of grace. In both literature and reality, violence is important not for its own sake but for the sake of eventual virtue; it forces society to see its distorted ways and choose to retain or overcome them. Ultimately, the violence of purgative fire is a passage to ensuing grace.
The final question of the evening explored whether solitude, that strange state simultaneously fruitful and boring, is the result of fallen human nature or the appropriate state of a soul that can only be satisfied by God. All four speakers agreed that boredom is good. Flanagan, Professor of English at University of the Sciences and the editor of The Letters of Flannery O’Connor and Caroline Gordon, found boredom to be a necessary condition of an artist; O’Connor reportedly would sit at her desk for hours while waiting for ideas. Frey, Assistant Professor of Philosophy at the University of South Carolina and co-editor of Self-Transcendence and Virtue: Perspectives from Philosophy, Psychology, and Theology, asserted that boredom is beautiful and “the mistress of receptivity,” being none other than the passive, silent state that precedes inspiration. Hooten Wilson concurred that the resting of heart and mind, which is now called boredom, is actually an openness to deep contemplation and the grace of God.
During this time of national distress, the Christian must not despair but rejoice. Opportunities to develop virtue are present today in the least-expected, even initially distasteful, places of boredom and quiet.