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Happy Birthday, Dear Flannery…

“Well I thanks you for your birthday message,” Flannery O’Connor wrote to a friend in 1960. “I am thirty-five years old and still have all my teeth.” If she were still alive, today would be her 88th birthday. It’s hard to say whether she would still have all her teeth.

In celebration of Flannery O’Connor’s birthday, I want to tell the story of one of the most remarkable episodes in her remarkable life. In 1958, O’Connor had been suffering from lupus for eight years and was unable to walk without a cane thanks to decalcification in a hip bone (the result, most likely, of the corticosteroids used to combat her disease rather than the disease itself). Her older cousin and benefactor, Katie Semmes, got it in her head that what Flannery needed was a trip to Lourdes, France. Lourdes was the place where a nineteenth-century peasant girl reportedly saw eighteen apparitions of the Virgin Mary. The water from the grotto at Lourdes reportedly had healing properties; from the mid-nineteenth century to today, the sick and lame and other pilgrims have come by the millions to visit the chapel built on the site, and to drink and bathe in the waters. It was Cousin Katie’s notion to get Flannery to the waters there and pray for a miraculous healing.

At first Flannery’s doctor forbade her making an overseas trip. But Cousin Katie kept cajoling until Flannery and her mother Regina agreed to go. As O’Connor wrote to her friend Betty Hester, “It is Cousin Katie’s end-all and be-all that I get to Lourdes and if I am dead upon arrival that’s too bad but I still have to get there . . . Cousin Katie has a will of iron. My will is apparently made out of a feather duster.”

O’Connor didn’t believe in the healing properties of the waters, and had no intention of bathing for her healing. “I am one of those people who could die for his religion easier than take a bath for it,” she wrote to Hester. “If there were any danger of my having to take one, I would not go. I don’t think I’d mind washing in somebody else’s blood . . . but the lack of privacy would be what I couldn’t stand. This is neither right nor holy of me but it is what is.” [Author’s note: Is this the earliest instance of the phrase “It is what it is”? Head coaches and televised talking heads everywhere, rejoice that you have such a glorified precedent.]

It’s hard to imagine any place in France being like something out of Flannery O’Connor, but Lourdes, apparently, is. The sanctuary grounds themselves are beautiful, but just outside the gates is a strip of religious souvenir shops as tacky and commercialized as anything you would see in an American tourist trap. The combination of maimed pilgrims, vulgarized religion, and outlandish tackiness was right up O’Connor’s alley. Before leaving for her trip, she told Betty Hester, “I expect it to be a comic nightmare.”

In spite of earlier declarations, O’Connor did get in the bath, at the urging of both her cousin and, perhaps more persuasively, her friend Sally Fitzgerald, who told her that not to bathe “would have been a failure to cooperate with grace.” When she got to the grotto, the invalids waiting to bathe passed around a Thermos bottle of Lourdes water and all had a drink. O’Connor had a cold at the time, “so I figured I left more germs than I took away,” she told a friend. The “sack” she wore in the bath was one that had been used by a person who went before, “regardless of what ailed him.” As O’Connor reported to the poet Elizabeth Bishop, “Somebody in Paris told me the miracle at Lourdes is that there are no epidemics and I found this to be the truth. Apparently nobody catches anything.” By O’Connor’s account, all the other supplicants at the bath were peasants; she remarked on”the distinct odor of the crowd. The supernatural is a fact there but it displaces nothing natural; except maybe those germs.”

From Lourdes O’Connor’s party went on to Rome to visit the Vatican. Here, presumably, she had the opportunity to take her own oft-quoted advice: “When in Rome, do as you done in Milledgeville.” The archbishop had arranged for O’Connor’s group to be on the front row during the general audience at St. Peter’s. After the service, Pope Pius XII came down to greet the pilgrims and, having been requested by the archbishop, gave O’Connor a special blessing on account of her illness. “There is a wonderful radiance and liveliness about the old man,” O’Connor said of the pope. “He fairly springs up and down the little steps to his chair. Whatever the special super-aliveness that holiness is, it is very apparent in him.”

(Just a couple of days ago I saw this picture of Flannery O’Connor from that day, standing behind Pope Pius XII like Zelig or Where’s Waldo. It’s worth a look.)

O’Connor never described her bathing in the waters at Lourdes as an act of faith; he choice derived instead from “a selection of bad motives, such as to prevent any bad conscience for not having done it, and because it seemed at the time that it must be what was wanted of me.” Nevertheless, the visit to Lourdes and Rome seemed to have had its benefits for O’Connor. Later that year, her doctor announced that her hipbone was recalcifying. “They told me last year that I wouldn’t get any better,” she wrote to a friend. “I am willing to lay this to Lourdes or somebody’s prayers but I hope the improvement will continue.” The improvement, as it turns out, was limited and temporary. But it came just in time for Katie Semmes, who died that November, only days after hearing the news that the cousin she dragged to Lourdes had indeed experienced some of the healing that Katie had hoped so earnestly for.

This story is adapted from Jonathan’s biography of Flannery O’Connor,The Terrible Speed of Mercy, which you can find in the Rabbit Room store.


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