Ralph Wood, professor of theology and literature at Baylor University, spoke on the catechesis of Catholic author Flannery O’Connor. Notre Dame’s Center for Ethics and Culture sponsored this lecture, delivered on September 21, which was third in its literary series “Strangers in a Strange Land.”
Wood began by noting that catechesis is not always a strict teacher-student arrangement. It can also consist of “small Christian communities very deep in faith, winning people in by witness.”
Woods decried the inadequacy of modern catechesis. While teaching at Wake Forest University, for instance, he was irritated by how many Catholic northerners told him, “My faith means absolutely nothing to me; it is only part of my background.” He also criticized the statement, “Notre Dame students leave less Catholic than when they entered, but more Christian.”
O’Connor, Wood believes, was similarly disgruntled by the lack of faithfulness and proper catechesis among Catholics. “Aware of the way Christians don’t know much about their faith,” O’Connor incorporated many types of catechesis into her writing.
Wood examined three of O’Connor’s works, each of which demonstrates a different type of catechesis.
An examination of Protestant catechis at its best, The Violent Bear It Away follows a southern family’s religious struggles and conflicts. The protagonist experiences a “moment of grace” toward the end of the novel, and recognizes his dependence on God. This revelation stems from the teachings and example of his great-uncle, a very religious though somewhat troubled, man. O’Connor’s portrayal of Protestant catechesis in this work, said Wood, epitomizes her signature grotesque style of creating both physically and morally deformed characters. It illustrates how one can struggle with one’s faith but remain indebted to and humbled before God.
According to Wood, O’Connor’s short story “The Enduring Chill” examines Catholic catechisis at its worst. The tale follows a young man named Asbury Fox who is exposed to poor examples of faith by his racist “smother mother” and other religious acquaintances. At one point, Asbury believes he is dying and asks for a Catholic priest.
The meeting between Asbury, a morally grotesque character, and the orthodox priest is a stunning combination of humor and profundity. O’Connor portrays this “grotesque, orthodox,” view of catechesis “powerfully and artistically,” said Wood. Although Asbury remains resistant to the priest’s questions and criticism, by the end of the conversation, Asbury “in effect (though not verbally) asks for the Holy Ghost.”
Finally, Wood addressed “the most important of the three (works discussed),” the short story “A Temple of the Holy Ghost,” which examines good Catholic catechesis. The story revolves around the religious journey of a little girl who is a “bad Catholic, but Catholic through and through.” She is prideful and sometimes disrespectful, but still accepts Catholic teaching. When her less religious cousins come to visit, they make fun of the poor catechesis which they have received in Catholic school.
The story ends with an incredible revelation that strips the girl of her pride and teaches her that Christ is the way to salvation. Through this literary artistry, Wood proposed, Flannery O’Connor catechizes by showing, rather than by preaching. In doing so, she developed a clever remedy for the absence of effective catechesis in current society.
Anna Powers is a freshman biology major who loves movie soundtracks, looking out of backseat car windows, and the idea of tea. She would be happy to spend the rest of her life eating baklava. Contact her at email@example.com.