The Eucharist at the Core: Flannery O'Connor and Elizabeth Ann Seton - Seton Shrine

The Eucharist at the Core: Flannery O’Connor and Elizabeth Ann Seton

The Catholic writer and the Catholic saint each grounded their lives and their works in the astonishing power of grace.

The short stories of Flannery O’Connor (1925-1964) are terrifying. They’re meant to be. Set in rural Georgia, where O’Connor lived, each focuses on a character who is self-righteous or self-centered or snobbish—”the garden variety of sins,” O’Connor called them, adding that they were the sort of sins that she herself was guilty of. The characters hold tight to their particular sin—proudly, possessively—until at the end of the story they get their comeuppance: they’re zapped by God in some startling, horrifying way.

Take the story “The Enduring Chill.” Twenty-five-year-old Asbury Fox fancies himself a writer, an intellectual. He has moved from his Southern home, which he sneers at as beneath him, to New York—to work on his art. But he gets sick and returns home, certain that he’s about to die. He scorns his mother for not understanding his brilliance; he derides the local physician, Dr. Block (“What’s wrong with me is way beyond Block”). So he lies on his bed, chilled and feverish, staring up at the lines made from a leak in the ceiling that had been there since his childhood: the leak “had made a fierce bird with spread wings. It had an icicle in its beak.”

Asbury had come home the previous year, feeling fine, because he wanted to “write a play about the Negro,” and two black men worked in his mother’s dairy farm. He’d hung out with them in the barn, and—trying to pal around with them—had drunk a glass of warm milk straight from the cow. He’d offered the glass to the workers, but they refused because Mrs. Fox “don’t ‘low it.”

Now, in what Asbury insists are his dying days, he craves company equal to his own brilliant mind. So having heard that Jesuits are intellectuals, he asks his mother to invite one to visit him. But when the Jesuit dutifully arrives, he focuses only on Asbury’s religious ignorance, shocking Asbury to the core. .

“You must pray,” the priest says; Asbury responds pompously , “The artist prays by creating.” The priest insists that Asbury ask God to send him the Holy Ghost. Asbury’s furious retort: “the Holy Ghost is the last thing I’m looking for!” And the priest angrily replies: “And He may be the last thing you get.”

The next day Asbury feels unbearably weak, “as if he were a shell that had to be filled with something but he did not know what.” He looks around his room—even “at the fierce bird with the icicle in its beak and felt that it was there for some purpose that he [O’Connor adds with a nice pun] could not divine.” Dr. Block comes, after having done some tests on Asbury and reported the results to his mother. She announces to Asbury that Block has found the source of his illness: “undulant fever,” caused by drinking unpasteurized milk.”It’ll keep coming back but it won’t kill you!” she exclaims happily.

Left alone, Asbury senses “some awful vision about to come down on him.” Looking out the window, he sees “a blinding red-gold sun” (symbol in O’Connor’s fiction of the Eucharist). Looking back at the ceiling, he feels the start of a new sort of chill. And then come the story’s final lines:

“The fierce bird which through the years of his childhood and the days of his illness had been poised over his head, waiting mysteriously, appeared all at once to be in motion. Asbury blanched and the last film of illusion was torn as if by a whirlwind from his eyes. He saw that for the rest of his days, frail, racked, but enduring, he would live in the face of a purifying terror. A feeble cry, a last impossible protest escaped him. But the Holy Ghost, emblazoned in ice instead of fire, continued, implacable, to descend.”

I wonder how Elizabeth Ann Seton would have responded to this story. She was well-read, witty and highly intelligent. I think she would have seen exactly what was going on: how the Holy Spirit, or Christ’s presence in the Eucharist, can not only bring divine comfort but sometimes divine retribution if that is what is needed to save a soul.

I’m certain, though, how Seton would have responded to O’Connor’s famous statement about the Eucharist in her 1955 letter to a good friend. O’Connor recounts:

“I was once, five or six years ago, taken by some friends to have dinner with [novelist] Mary McCarthy and her husband, Mr. Broadwater. … Well, toward morning, the conversation turned on the Eucharist, which I, being the Catholic, was obviously supposed to defend. Mrs. Broadwater said when she was a child and received the Host, she thought of it as the Holy Ghost, He being the ‘most portable’ person of the Trinity; now she thought of it as a symbol and implied that it was a pretty good one. I then said, in a very shaky voice, ‘Well, if it’s a symbol, to hell with it.’ That was all the defense I was capable of but I realize now that this is all I will ever be able to say about it, outside of a story, except that it is the center of existence for me; all the rest of life is expendable.”

If Elizabeth had been at that dinner table, she would undoubtedly have spat out her wine, then nodded her profound assent; I can even picture her applauding or saying “Amen.” For after she converted to Catholicism, she indeed saw the Eucharist as the center of her life.

It was in Italy, staying with Catholic friends after her husband’s death, that Elizabeth began hungering for Communion. Then, back home in New York, as she moved toward Catholicism, she (in her biographer Catherine O’Donnell’s words) “gloried in the hope of the Eucharist.” When Elizabeth was finally a Catholic, a widow at age thirty and the mother of five, O’Donnell writes that she “thrilled to feast on the Eucharist.… Receiving the sacrament of Communion compensated for a thousand irritations and worries.” Summarizing, O’Donnell says succinctly: “At the heart of her faith was the sacrament of Communion.”

Elizabeth called her relative Rebecca Seton her “soul sister.” I’d say that St. Elizabeth Ann Seton and Flannery O’Connor are soul sisters, too.

PEGGY ROSENTHAL has a PhD in English Literature and has published many books and articles on the intersection of poetry and spirituality.

Image: Public Domain

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