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More O’Connor: Practicing Incarnation

The new Flannery O’Connor letters reveal more about the author than just her writing prowess. Over the course of nine years, from 1955 until her death in 1964, O’Connor maintained regular correspondence 20070513_oconnor_hester_inscription.jpgwith Betty Hester. An unremarkable woman, Hester chain-smoked, never married or had children, lived with an aunt in a Midtown apartment, and rode the bus each day to work as a file clerk for a credit bureau in downtown Atlanta. The two women wrote each other nearly every week, discussing everything from Catholicism to current events in letters that have been called “the most personal” of O’Connor’s life.

But something even more intriguing was revealed about Betty Hester. According to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution:

“Betty was a lesbian, and probably for that reason was worried about public scrutiny of herself. She didn’t want any attention. She did not want scholars knocking at her door and did not want to answer meddlesome questions. That’s why she said the letters should be closed for 20 years,” said Steve Enniss, director of Emory’s Manuscripts, Archives and Rare Book Library.

Enniss expects the letters to reveal an O’Connor who was surprisingly open-minded about sexuality, considering her strong Catholic faith.

“I believe Flannery will appear in a very caring way in relation to Betty Hester’s disclosure about her personal life,” he said.

William Sessions, Hester’s literary executor, is working on a new biography of O’Connor and suggests the letters offer insight into the popular author.

“People will be surprised at the depth of their friendship and the kind of things they talked about,” said Sessions, 77, who got a first look at the papers on Wednesday because he is Hester’s literary executor. He said the letters reveal a caring and emotionally intimate — but not romantic — relationship between the two women.

“Betty had a crush on Flannery early on, but she seemed to be able to leave that behind as the friendship grew,” he said.

There’s two things that fascinate me about this relationship. First, is the practical outworking of O’Connor’s convictions. Quoting again from The Habit of Being:

One of the awful things about writing when you are a Christian is that for you the ultimate reality is the Incarnation, the present reality is the Incarnation, the whole reality is the Incarnation, and nobody believes in the Incarnation; that is, nobody in your audience. My audience are the people who think God is dead. At least these are the people I am conscious of writing for.

Making God real to “people who think God is dead” is the essence of Incarnation. Not only do O’Connor’s stories reflect this “Incarnational” design, apparently, her life did as well. In the course of their correspondence, Hester converted to Catholicism, asking O’Connor to be her sponsor. In this sense, O’Connor “fleshed out” the love and grace of God to a woman who deeply needed Him, ultimately wooing her to faith.

But secondly, befriending Hester must have been problematic. Christians are notoriously up tight about such accords. The ongoing friendship between this famous Christian author and her lesbian fan could not have been without its risks. Jesus was called a “friend of sinners” (Lk. 7:34) — a rap that He took pains to reinforce, especially among the religious gatekeepers. His alliances, however, ended in crucifixion. I can’t imagine O’Connor’s relationship with Hester did not also tweak some sensitivities. Perhaps that’s why, as the California Literary Review puts it, “[O’Connor’s] been accused of being a closet lesbian, a feminist, a racist, and, perhaps worst of all, a pre-Vatican II Catholic.”

Betty Hester later left the church, and in 1998, shot herself with a hollow-nose bullet through the left temple. Only hours before her suicide, William Sessions had dinner with Hester wherein he later noted she playfully mocked him “for taking the Church seriously.”

Incarnational living — or Incarnational writing, for that matter — demands being a friend of sinners. Flannery O’Connor’s relationship with Betty Hester, with all its paradox and complexity, may raise a few eyebrows. But for me, it shows the author practiced what she preached.

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{ 13 comments… add one }
  • H June 11, 2007, 7:08 PM

    FO’s relationship w/ Ms. Hester was an act of grace. Christians too often confuse such friendships w/ something immoral. Can’t we befriend sinners w/out being accused of being one?

  • Elaina June 11, 2007, 11:41 PM

    This was great, Mike. Thanks for posting this.

  • Rebecca LuElla Miller June 12, 2007, 2:48 AM

    Ah, Mike, that is possibly the sadest thing I’ve read. That she befriended the woman? No, but in befriending her, she did not point her to Christ.

    Jesus was called a friend of sinners, not because He hung out with them but because He showed them the way out of their sin. The Pharasees couldn’t enjoy His friendship because they were too stuck trying to prove their own righteousness.

    It’s not about the dos and don’ts. None of it. We get no points for adhering to the list or for distaining it. It’s about Christ and Him crucified. I don’t think “incarnational living” or writing is enough. It needs to be redemptive.

    Becky

    • John M. March 26, 2013, 9:20 AM

      I realize this discussion is from six years ago, but I found it in a Google search, so I assume others can, too. Flannery O’Connor definitely pointed Betty Hester to Christ. As the article mentioned, she was her sponsor when Hester joined the Catholic Church. When Hester told her after five years that she was abandoning this new-found faith, Flannery was heartbroken, writing “I don’t know anything that could grieve us here like this news.” What are we supposed to do to point people to Christ besides tell them they should believe in Jesus and love them even if they don’t? The scandal here is based on the fact that Flannery O’Connor never married and never dated much, and hence people speculate about her sexual proclivities.

  • janet June 12, 2007, 12:33 PM

    How do we know, Rebecca, that Flannery didn’t point Betty toward Jesus? Perhaps she did. If they were that close, I’m sure Betty knew what Flannery believed. We can’t make people believe, and we can still love them if they don’t. Conviction is the Holy Spirit’s job.

  • Mike Duran June 12, 2007, 12:41 PM

    Hey Becky! You’re assuming that incarnational living is not redemptive. By “incarnational” I am simply referring to the embodiment or “fleshing out” of His presence. The effects that has on people is another story. While Jesus didn’t wink at sin, it also appears He did not go around harping or nit-picking, at least upon the genuinely contrite. The first bridge of redemption is often relational, and I think Jesus — and in this case, O’Connor — demonstrate that. Yes, He was the friend of sinners. . . but first He was their “friend.” Still, not everyone was saved because of Christ’s Incarnation. Thus, living gracious, godly lives is no guarantee of anyone’s redemption, save our own.

    I am not sure how detailed O’Connor’s “spiritual” conversations were with Hester, but they were obviously detailed enough to compel the woman to take a step of faith. Granted, joining the Catholic Church is no guarantee of salvation, but it does indicate the woman was reaching upward. And in this sense, incarnational living played a part.

    Thanks for the comments, Becky!

  • David June 12, 2007, 4:50 PM

    Good and insightful post and comments Mike.

    We as Christians tend to be oh so quick to judge the hearts of others without the depth of truly being able to know and understand them. God is big enough to take care of that job without our help. The state of Betty Hester’s heart is known only by God.

    Jesus told us to preach the good news and to make disciples of those that believe the news.
    * So then, was Jesus, the Incarnation, a successful preacher? Not by today’s standards. The religious people of the day rejected Him and His message. The rich young ruler went away saddened that the cost of salvation was more than he was willing to “pay.”
    Every time Jesus had a big “church” (5000 or more on several occasions) he would say things that would cause the majority to leave because the teaching was “too hard” for the hearers to receive.
    * The apostle Paul said he was as all things to all men that by all means he might win some to Christ.
    Both understood that all could – but not all would – be redeemed.

  • David June 12, 2007, 4:55 PM

    *** Left this off the previous post… ***

    Write the way the Lord leads you to write (which I believe you will) and let Him lead you how to be published where and how. Maybe it will be through a non-christian publisher. Would that be bad?
    Not as long as the message gets across.

    — David

  • Gina H. June 13, 2007, 3:49 AM

    I’m so proud to call you friend, Mike.

  • Ame June 14, 2007, 7:34 PM

    There is a lot I can say but am too tired to articulate clearly. However, I have thought of you today as this “little” scenario has evolved from the church we used to attend and where my girls been attending VBS this week – and we invited our little Muslum neighbors, and their parents let them come – and the little girls were taken away from their groups into a room by themselves with an adult they do not know in a church they have never been and questioned about their faith. But the time the leader finally took the second little girl from her “counselor” the two dissolved into tears. Not surprisingly, the parents are NOT happy. I am NOT happy. Their leader is NOT happy. I talked to the girls before we left the parking lot at church and told them how sorry I was and that they were wrong for scaring them like that. When I dropped them off I went up with each to personally tell their mom what happened. One mom called and asked what she should do. I told her that God gave her her children to protect, that they dishonored them by the way they treated her daughter, and they were wrong. I told her that if God is who we believe He is, then He is perfectly capable of revealing Himself to them – including revealing if what they believe is right or wrong, and that taking a child, alone, into a room with an adult they do not know is simply WRONG!!!!!

    I’m sure there will be few who agree with me – “we need to reach them before they die without Jesus!” Since when are WE responsible for drawing anyone to God?!!!

    anyway – befriending those whom “christianity” rejects … yes. a true reflection of Who lives within.

  • Rebecca LuElla Miller June 15, 2007, 6:52 PM

    You’re assuming that incarnational living is not redemptive. By “incarnational” I am simply referring to the embodiment or “fleshing out” of His presence.

    Mike, I understood perfectly what you meant by incarnational living. The thing is, people take that to mean that Christ came to love others. He did not. He came to preach. He came to die–which is how He showed His love. And He came to rise again.

    No, I don’t think in the preaching we should be offensive (though sometimes the gospel offends). And I don’t think people should be suckered into thinking all is well with their souls because they’ve joined a church … or prayed a prayer … or given money to the poor.

    Somewhere along the line we have to be redemptive enough to sacrifice our reputation, or influence, or friendship and preach the gospel. We need to say, actually, that Jesus is the truth, that sin keeps us from a relationship with God, and nothing we can do will change that.

    I don’t see Jesus ever hanging with sinners just because. It’s clear that the people he ate with who were labeled as sinners were those who believed in Jesus. As we know, the Pharisees were also sinners. They just didn’t see themselves that way. The (reformed) tax collectors, the (former) prostitutes were just some of the people who recognized their need for a savior. As did a couple members of the Sanhedrin and at least one terrorist.

    Jesus was not here to make friends. He wasn’t. He came to call people to repentance and those who got it were those who wanted to hang with Him.

    Mike, I hope I’m not coming across as if I’m angry. I’m certainly not. I am sad by this gentle Jesus our culture wants to embrace. It’s a false picture of Holy God mucking about with the unrepentant and only getting tough with the religious establishment.

    Sure, He healed and fed and taught the unwashed masses, but in the end, He stood looking over Jerusalem and cried. Of course He loved … loves. That’s the point. But the food, the wise words, the healed bodies mattered not at all compared to Him going to the cross.

    That’s what counted. That’s what made the eternal difference.

    He told us to do one thing–make disciples. He didn’t say make friends or converts or church members. Disciples. People who will take up their cross and follow Jesus.

    First I gotta do that myself.

    Becky

  • Mike Duran June 16, 2007, 2:01 AM

    Becky, thanks for the detailed response. I really appreciate your thoughts. I don’t disagree with your fundamental point at all — Christ came to redeem us. However, you seem to be downplaying the vital role of simple relationship / friendship in that process. You said: “I don’t see Jesus ever hanging with sinners just because.” Well, I agree. Any “hanging out” He did was for redemptive purposes. But to assume then that these relationships always involved preaching and conversion is a stretch. There is no biblical evidence, at least that I’m aware of, to suggest that everyone Jesus befriended was saved. This, however, did not stop Him from loving them.

    I too disagree with the “gentle Jesus” of our culture; the spineless, liberal, non-judgmental God. Nevertheless, Jesus developed relationships with sinners. It’s the reason He was accused of being a drunkard and a glutton. But this was part of a redemptive bridge. You said: “. . .the food, the wise words, the healed bodies mattered not at all compared to Him going to the cross.” On the contrary: the food, wise words and healing made the cross that much more special.

  • zerobot June 21, 2007, 5:51 PM

    I love this little moment of journalistic wordplay:

    “Enniss expects the letters to reveal an O’Connor who was surprisingly open-minded about sexuality, considering her strong Catholic faith.

    “I believe Flannery will appear in a very caring way in relation to Betty Hester’s disclosure about her personal life,” he said.”

    Note that O’Conner’s response to Hester’s “disclosure” is described by the scholar as “caring” while the writer of the article calls it “suprisingly open-minded.” As if it is utterly shocking that a Catholic with strong faith wouldn’t immediately kick any homosexual to the curb at the moment of “disclosure.”

    The New Testament is rife with Jesus being “caring” towards sinners, but his words are rarely what we would call “openminded.” Of course, in our culture, the two are inseperable.

    Reminds me of the Louvin Brothers: “That word broadminded, it’s spelled S-I-N.”

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