Andalusia Blog: Flannery O'Connor and the Little Flower | Community Spirit
On my most recent visit to Andalusia I noticed for the first time a small image of St. Thérèse of Lisieux (1873-1897), the “Little Flower,” hanging next to a doorway in the back of the house. As is typical, the saint is portrayed in her Carmelite habit holding two items. The first is a crucifix, which indicates her intimacy with Christ’s suffering through her own struggle with tuberculosis. This ended in her death when she was just twenty-four. The second is a bouquet of roses, which refers to the saint’s promise to provide a shower of roses—miracles, favors—from heaven. Such miracles began to be reported even before Thérèse was buried.
Given her own serious health struggles, Flannery O’Connor surely identified with this suffering saint whose spirituality Thérèse called the “little way.” St. Thérèse believed that everyone is able to grow in the spiritual life by focusing on God’s transforming love. Her famous image for this spiritual program is an elevator to God that allows the believer to avoid an arduous climb up the steep stairs to heaven. This simple plan belies the saint’s subtle intellect, another trait that she shared with O’Connor. Thérèse’s theological incisiveness is evident in her letters and especially her autobiography, The Story of a Soul, published posthumously. She was named a Doctor or official theologian of the Catholic Church by Pope John Paul II in 1997.
Curious about the life of Thérèse O’Connor read Etienne Robo’s biographyTwo Portraits of St. Therese of Lisieux (1955) and found a kindred spirit in its pages. The book describes the sanctity of Thérèse but also explores her character defects. It is notable that O’Connor marked a passage in the book that describes the airbrushing of photos of the saint by members of her religious community shortly after her death. These ostensibly improved images became the basis for portraits, icons, and statues. Robo argues that a similar airbrushing of Thérèse’s life often downplayed her “strong and inflexible, strict and stern” side.
O’Connor recorded her reaction to this book in a letter that she wrote to her spiritual director, Fr. McCown: “I have just read a very funny book by a priest named Fr. Robo—on St. Theresa of Lisieux…. He has managed (by some not entirely crooked means) to get hold of a photograph of her that the Carmelites have not ‘touched up’ which shows her to be a round-faced, determined, rather comical-looking girl. He does away with all the roses, little flowers, and other icing. The book has greatly increased my devotion to her.”
Associate Professor of English, Stonehill College, Easton, MA
NEH Summer Scholar, Georgia College, July 2014