Today, August 3, marks the 50th anniversary of Flannery O’Connor’s death. She had battled lupus for years, and battled the effects of the steroids that were used to keep it in check. She had undergone an operation to remove a tumor, which reactivated her lupus and she slipped into a coma before passing away. Until the end she was writing notes to friends and revising her last story, “Parker’s Back.”
During her last days, she also turned to “Spring and Fall” by Gerard Manley Hopkins:
Margaret, are you grieving
Over Goldengrove unleaving?
Leaves, like the things of man, you
With your fresh thoughts care for, can you?
Ah! as the heart grows older
It will come to such sights colder
By and by, nor spare a sigh
Though worlds of wanwood leafmeal lie;
And yet you will weep and know why.
Now no matter, child, the name:
Sorrow’s spríngs are the same.
Nor mouth had, no nor mind, expressed
What heart heard of, ghost guessed:
It ís the blight man was born for,
It is Margaret you mourn for.
Flannery found much comfort and inspiration during her life in the work of the Jesuit priest Pierre Teilhard de Chardin. (His theory of passive diminishments helped her cope with her illness and prepare for her death; his theory of souls becoming subsumed into an ever-evolving God led to her title “Everything that Rises Must Converge.”) I think this passage from The Divine Milieu was also a comfort to her during that final illness and hospitalization.
Communion through diminishment
It was a joy to me, O God, in the midst of the struggle, to feel that in developing myself I was increasing the hold that have upon me, too , under the inward thrust of life or amide the favourable play of events, to abandon myself to your providence. Now that I have found the joy of utilizing all forms of growth to make you, or to let you, grow in me, grant that I may willingly consent to this last phase of communion in the course of which I shall possess you by diminishing in you.
After having perceived you as he who is “a greater myself,” grant, when my hour comes, that I may recognize you under the species of alien or hostile force that seems bent upon destroying or uprooting me. When the signs of age begin to mark my body (and still more when they touch my mind); when the ill that is to diminish me or carry me off strikes from without or is born within me; when the painful moment comes in which I suddenly awaken to the fact that I am ill or growing old; and above all at that last moment when I feel I am losing hold of myself and am absolutely passive within the hands of the great unkown forces that have formed me; in all those dark moments, O God, grant that I may understand that it is you (provided only my faith is strong enough) who are painfully parting the fibres of my being in order to penetrate to the very marrow of my substance and bear me away within yourself.
You are the irresistible and vivifying force, O Lord, and because yours is the energy, because, of the two of us, you are infinitely the stronger, it is on you that falls the part of consuming me in the union that should weld us together. Vouchsafe, therefore, something more precious still than the grace fro which all the faithful pray. It is not enough that I should die while communicating. Teach me to treat my death as an act of communion.
If anyone could treat death as communion, it was certainly Flannery O’Connor. Her home has always been in the region beyond thunder, serene and blindingly bright.