by Katie Daniels
After class one spring afternoon, my high school religion teacher gave me a gift. “I found this in a used bookstore,” she said and handed me a slim, water stained volume. The words A Memoir of Mary Ann were stamped on the peeling green spine. A woman named Flannery O’Connor had written the introduction.
Had she lived past age 39, O’Connor would be celebrating her 90th birthday today. Although she suffered from a chronic disease that would eventually kill her, O’Connor wrote some of the most
powerful fiction in American literature. She grew up an oddity in rural Georgia as a Catholic in the deeply Protestant South. O’Connor used her sly observations of her fellow Southerners’
mannerisms to create her famously grotesque characters and to describe their turbulent encounters with grace.
O’Connor’s illness had already confined her to her mother’s farm when she received a letter from Sister Evangelist, the Sister Superior of Our Lady of Perpetual Help Free Cancer Home in Atlanta. Mary Ann Long, a girl who had come to the Home when she was three years old, had just died from a tumor at age twelve. The sisters wanted O’Connor to tell her story.
In her introduction, O’Connor admits her reluctance to take up the task. The sisters had included a photograph of Mary Ann with their letter. O’Connor took another look.
“It showed a little girl in her First Communion dress and veil. Her small face was straight and bright on one side. The other side was protuberant, the eye was bandaged, the nose and mouth crowded slightly out of place. The child looked out at her observer with an obvious happiness and composure. I continued to gaze at the picture long after I had thought to be finished with it.”
Mary Ann’s diagnosis was sixth months. In the nine years she wasn’t supposed to live, she touched the lives of all the sisters, patients, and visitors at the Perpetual Help Home. Even in her death, she touched Flannery O’Connor.
When Bishop Hyland preached Mary Ann’s funeral service, O’Connor writes that he told the girl’s family and friends that the world would ask why Mary Ann should die. O’Connor is more far seeing.
“He could not have been thinking of that world, much farther removed yet everywhere, which would not ask why Mary Ann should die, but why she should be born in the first place.”
In his 1993 World Youth Day address, John Paul II described the world as “the theater of a never-ending battle being waged for our dignity and identity as free, spiritual beings. Death battles life: A “culture of death” seeks to impose itself on our desire to live and live to the full.” O’Connor too spoke of our tendency to use suffering to discredit God’s goodness. “Busy cutting down human imperfection, they are making headway also on the raw material of good,” she wrote. Like Mary Ann’s face, O’Connor’s fiction, and our own imperfect lives, there is good to be made out of the grotesque, light to be found in the darkness.
On March 25, the Catholic Church recognizes the Feast of the Annunciation of the Blessed Virgin Mary. Exactly nine months before Christmas, we celebrate the archangel Gabriel’s proclamation to Mary that she would be the mother of God. March 25 is also Flannery O’Connor’s birthday.
Coincidence? Maybe. Or perhaps it is a chance to reflect on the sheer courage it took for Mary to say yes to life. It is a chance to wonder over people like Mary Ann, whose life and suffering had a purpose she never got to see. It is a chance to look at ourselves and ask if we are living out John Paul II’s call to wage battle for our inherent human dignity, and the dignity of those more vulnerable than us.
Most of all it is a chance to marvel as O’Connor did, at how Mary Ann’s story “illuminate[s] the lines that join the most diverse lives and that hold us fast in Christ.”