What Did Flannery O’Connor Pray For?

Often when I read, I’m struck by something, but I’m not sure why.

I’ve read The Habit of Being several times — it’s a collection of Flannery O’Connor’s extraordinary letters. O’Connor is one of my favorite writers, but I can hardly bear to read her fiction; it makes my head explode.

On July 1, 1964, O’Connor (who was a devout Catholic) wrote to Janet McKane:

Do you know anything about St. Raphael besides his being an archangel? He leads you to the people you are supposed to meet…It’s a prayer I’ve said every day for many years.

A week later, she wrote McKane a follow-up letter, with the prayer, which reads in part:

O Raphael, lead us toward those we are waiting for, those who are waiting for us: Raphael, Angel of happy meeting, lead us by the hand toward those we are looking for. May all our movements be guided by your Light and transfigured with your joy.

O’Connor died of lupus two weeks later.

I’ve often thought about this idea, that was clearly so  important to O’Connor — the prayer for being led to the people you are supposed to meet. This struck me as an oddly specific domain for an angel — and why did this matter so much to O’Connor?

But yesterday, I was at an event, and someone told the story of how at a networking event, she’d met a guy, and she told him, “You should meet this other guy I know,” and she’d introduced them, and now they’d started a huge project together.

This chance meeting, and her introduction, had transformed their lives.

As I heard her tell this story, it suddenly became clear to me: for O’Connor, working on her writing, sick, weak, living with her mother in Milledgeville, Georgia, because she couldn’t manage to live on her own, the hope of “meeting the ones we are looking for” would have been enormously important.

We’ve all waited and hoped for a “happy meeting” to occur.

It’s a very important thing, to play the role of making introductions, connecting people, helping to lead them to the people they need to meet. It can be such a huge thing in a person’s life. I myself set up someone I hardly knew on a blind date, and the two people ended up getting married.

As I’m thinking about O’Connor…I wonder if her prayers to meet the person she was looking for was tied, at least in part, to her art.

On March 4, 1962, she wrote to Father J. H. McCown:

I’d like to write a whole bunch of stories like [“Everything That Rises Must Converge“], but once you’ve said it, you’ve said it, and that about expresses what I have to say on That Issue. But pray that the Lord will send me some more. I’ve been writing for sixteen years and I have the sense of having exhausted by original potentiality and being now in need of the kind of grace that deepens perception, a new shot of life or something…

Sometimes this type of renewal comes from an encounter with another person.

Has anyone ever made an introduction for you, that transformed your life? Or have you ever played that role for someone else?

 

  • Penelope Schmitt

    I am a lot more interested in the specificity of the prayer than in the thing asked for, although the ‘answer’ O’Connor’s got–meeting eternity– is something she would most definitely have found right on the mark. An answer she’d have approved.

    The artist in me, like the one in O’Connor, lives a symbol-making life, a meaning-making life. If you pray for a spirit-infused circumstance of meeting, well then you will be alert for such events in your life. In one of O’Connor’s stories (“Descent of the Holy Ghost”) a young man, seriously ill, returns home, and must live with his mother (autobiographical!). He prays for the Holy Ghost to appear to him, expecting something fine and uplifting. But he finally notices the dove-shaped stain on the wallpaper above his bed. His ‘calling’ is to accept a confining, boring fate, and to pray for the basic things in a simple manner. No romance about it.

    O’Connor’s savage ironies DO make your head explode. As life often does make our heads explode with its terrible gifts. At any rate, I think specific prayers do cause us to look for meaning. Some of us are more clever and mind-bending about finding the meaning than others. A ‘heart shape’ on Pluto? Ok. Or, as in O’Connor’s story “Parker’s Back,” the tattoo of Christ in Agony on a man’s back seems to attract to him all the cruel blows rained upon Jesus. So it goes, in O’Connor’s theology. Mystery, indeed. Manners? I’m never sure.

  • My husband and I were introduced by friends who were dating at the time. And my dad introduced my husband to someone who ended up hiring him and helping him start his business. I had never heard of St. Raphael being the angel of happy meeting, but I find that idea so compelling.

  • Dianne Ochiltree

    Surely all of us here are thankful for being connected with you, Gretchen, and your books, podcasts, blog posts. St. Raphael was at work in all of these happy meetings.

    • Mary

      Absolutely agree! Big kudos to Gretchen for helping so many find happiness!

  • Judy

    When my son was in the Air Force he was stationed in England where he met and married my wonderful DIL. They introduced me to her father at the wedding. Nine years later I married him. Best introduction of my life!

  • Marlene King

    Dear Gret, That was a great blog about how encounters can transform our lives. You have inspired me to help a dear friend in need of companionship.

  • Deb Coman

    Yes, I’m a connector and I love doing it. I have also been connected, almost by chance, to others who shifted from strangers across the continent, or even the world, to close friends and colleagues. It’s an exciting space, that role of connector and of being the connectee. I often pay particular attention to the feeling when first introduced and allow myself to wonder if this is the start of a deeper, more meaningful relationship or if it will remain a one-time encounter. Wonderful stuff to write about here. Thanks!

  • Bob

    I met my dear wife through a blind date arranged by a coworker’s wife and loved her deeply for the next 38 years until her untimely death. I have heard that arranged marriages are as happy as romantically initiated marriages. I am not absolutely certain about that, but it does seem to me that the commitment to make the marriage work may be more important than the initial source of attraction, though we all must acknowledge that “chemistry” initially adds to a happy marriage. Consequently, I was intrigued by the passage in the Letters of J. R. R. Tolkien regarding this. He posits that men are not monogamous by nature and must exert a “conscious exercise of the will” to live faithfully, as the Church has traditionally taught concerning the acquisition of virtue. His thoughts on marriage make such sense to me:

    “No man, however truly he loved his betrothed and bride as a young man, has lived faithful to her as a wife in mind and body without deliberate conscious exercise of the will, without self-denial. Too few are told that—even those brought up in ‘the Church’. Those outside seem seldom to have heard it.

    When the glamour wears off, or merely works a bit thin, they think that they have made a mistake, and that the real soul-mate is still to find. The real soul-mate too often proves to be the next sexually attractive person that comes along. Someone whom they might indeed very profitably have married, if only—. Hence divorce, to provide the ‘if only’.

    And of course they are as a rule quite right: they did make a mistake. Only a very wise man at the end of his life could make a sound judgement concerning whom, amongst the total possible chances, he ought most profitably have married! Nearly all marriages, even happy ones, are mistakes: in the sense that almost certainly (in a more perfect world, or even with a little more care in this very imperfect one) both partners might have found more suitable mates.

    But the ‘real soul-mate’ is the one you are actually married to. In this fallen world, we have as our only guides, prudence, wisdom (rare in youth, too late in age), a clean heart, and fidelity of will…”

    (Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, pp. 51-52)

    • Molly

      I love your post! It also reminded me of something I read when people marry because they believe they are soul mates, the marriage is more fragile than when people don’t harbor such grandiose thoughts. One reason is that couples are bound to hit bumps in the road and, yes, romance wears off, but if someone is supposed to be your soul mate, then you will more likely conclude you made a mistake and need to move on. The same is probably true about work. When we believe our work is our calling or destiny, then when we hit the proverbial bumps in the road, we are more likely to jump ship and head off on our quest for our calling. It’s seductive, yet potentially damaging to think about life in such romantic ways.

      Still (going back to Gretchen’s post), it is true that we sometimes meet the right person at the right time, and that person can help us in ways we could never have envisioned. I’ve had that happen. The problem is that often those people disappear from our lives as quickly as they arrive, and we have to be careful in assuming that such people are meant to be in our lives forever.

    • ARM

      I agree that “the ‘real soul-mate’ is the one you are actually married to,” but I would note that J. R. R. Tolkien might have had a slightly jaundiced view of monogamy. It’s pretty clear to me from what I’ve read of his life that he married a truly dreadful woman, who envied and resented his work, his faith, and even his relationship with their children. He met her and fell in love when he was 15 and she was 19, and due in large part to a severe and unwise reaction by his guardian (“You may not see or talk to her again until you’re of age!”) he considered himself permanently committed to her from that point on.

      Not that he wasn’t right to be faithful once they were married, but not many people make quite such an unfortunate choice of spouse as he did.

  • Ruth

    Yes! Gretchen Rubin!

  • maryann

    I called off a wedding less than two months before the date and the weekend before the bridal shower. I was 30 years old. I called my only friend from high school and college who was still single to go to a singles dance with me. She was in a relationship but had recently run into a friend she went to grammar school with. She set us up on a blind date. We have been married 21 years.

  • Susan

    Sitting on my couch one Saturday morning, I had a sense that I needed to connect my friend Ronda, with another friend’s son. (Sandy had threatened that if John did not get married by age thirty, she was going to take charge.) I had the great pleasure of playing the piano at John and Ronda’s wedding… and being listed as “musician and matchmaker”. It’s the only time I’ve ever served as matchmaker.

    Many times in life I’ve connected people in different ways, and it gives me great joy! My mom is like that, and I take pleasure knowing that her legacy continues!

  • ARM

    I love that prayer and used to say it often. Less often now I’m married with a family, but I probably still should – obviously it still matters who we meet in life, even once we’re all paired off.

    As to the question of why an angel has such a specific area of responsibility, in this case it’s because of the Book of Tobit, where the angel Raphael leads young Tobias to Sarah, whom he will marry. The book makes it clear this is an important part of God’s plan; Tobias is able to help Sarah save herself from a demon who has been persecuting her (and killing each of her previous husbands on their wedding nights!)

    By the way, my father always spoke very highly of Flannery O’Connor when I was a teenager, and I was startled when I read “A Good Man is Hard to Find’ in high school, finding it horrifying. But I persisted in reading more because of my dad’s recommendation and came to love her stories. I only discovered years later that, like you, my dad loved her letters and couldn’t bear her fiction. So you’re not the only one.

    • Penelope Schmitt

      Thanks for giving the reference! I did not know that.

  • Angie

    As a military family we pray for this a lot. When we moved to our first base I was filling out school registration forms and when I came to the emergency contact section I just stared blankly at the secretary. I didn’t know a soul, not one person. We move every few years and we start all over. This prayer has been answered powerfully every time we move. Then those friends that we meet move too. It can be taxing but the connections are worth it.

  • caitlingracie

    I love this idea! I was raised Catholic (no longer practicing, but it is still a part of my life) and I find saints with specific roles like this very charming. I think I am a connector too, as Deb calls herself below. A friend and I introduced my brother and her family friend, and they have been dating for three years now. As soon as the idea occurred to me I felt a shiver up my spine and knew that it would work.

    Then my aunt and her hairdresser set me up with the hairdresser’s son’s friend, and we have been together for two years. As soon as my aunt mentioned it, before I even met him, I felt a shiver and knew it would work.

    Also, in college I was talking to a friend from high school who ended up at the same college. She was unhappy in the arts program and I mentioned that there was an art institute in our hometown, and she could live at home and save money and attend. She transferred there and it had a big effect on her life and career. I dragged another college friend to a job fair during our senior year, and she found a job outside of her field but that she loved for five years. That’s where she met her husband.

    I often think of the Ray Bradbury short story “A Sound of Thunder” and the concept that small changes can affect our lives and others in very big ways. I think it’s fun to trace the effects I’ve had on the lives of friends and family, like George Bailey in “It’s a Wonderful Life.” Did I introduce my college friend to her husband? No, not technically–but I took her to the job fair where she got the job that led her to meeting him.

  • Susan Mary Malone

    Thank you so much for this, Gretchen. I adore O’Connor and her stories. “A Good Man is Hard to Find” is one of my all-time favs. And I love the prayer. It’s one I’ll be using daily.
    Again, thank you!

  • Kathy

    The archangel Raphael is associated with happy meetings (and with healing) because of his role in the Book of Tobit. Tobit is a good read, and also short, ~15 pages.

    The Book of Tobit is found in Catholic and Orthodox bibles (In Protestant ones it’s left out or relegated to the Apocrypha.)

    http://usccb.org/bible/books-of-the-bible/index.cfm#Tobit

  • Jillian Ratti

    Gretchen, this reminds me of you saying that when the student is ready the teacher appears. Maybe O’Connor needed a teacher, or maybe she was ready for a student. Intriguing.