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Logos: A Journal of Catholic Thought and Culture 5.2 (2002) 143-156

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Flannery O'Connor and the Symbol

John F. Desmond

STUDENTS OF FLANNERY O'CONNOR'S LIFE and writings are well familiar with her famous defense of the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist made during a dinner conversation with other writers and friends in the late 1940s or early 1950s. O'Connor reported the incident later to her friend Elizabeth Hester ("A"), in a letter dated December 16, 1955.

I was once, five or six years ago, taken by some friends to have dinner with Mary McCarthy and her husband, Mr. Broadwater. . . . She departed the Church at the age of 15 and is a Big Intellectual. We went at eight and at one, I hadn't opened my mouth once, there being nothing for me in such company to say. The people who took me were Robert Lowell and his now wife, Elizabeth Hardwick. Having me there was like having a dog present who had been trained to say a few words but overcome with inadequacy had forgotten them. Well, toward morning the conversation turned on the Eucharist, which I, being the Catholic, was obviously supposed to defend. Mrs. Broadwater said when she was a child and received the Host, [End Page 143] she thought of it as the Holy Ghost, He being the "most portable" person of the Trinity; now she thought of it as a symbol and implied that it was a pretty good one. I then said, in a very shaky voice, "Well, if it's a symbol, to hell with it." That was all the defense I was capable of but I realize now that this is all I will ever be able to say about it, outside of a story, except that it is the center of existence for me; all the rest is expendable.1

Catholics who hold to the traditional belief in the real presence of Jesus Christ in the Eucharist—as defined in the doctrine of transubstantiation—usually understand that O'Connor got the better of the exchange. In this view, O'Connor is seen as the devout believer who delivered a terse and staunch defense of the reality of Christ's presence under the species of bread and wine, in response to those who, perhaps like Mary McCarthy, would regard the sacrament of Eucharist as a purely symbolic event. O'Connor may also have implicitly objected to what she perceived as McCarthy's blurring of the distinction between God the Son and God the Holy Ghost when McCarthy recalled thinking of the Host as the "most portable" person of the Trinity. Although the exact circumstances of the dinner conversation cannot be reconstructed, it is clear that O'Connor strongly affirmed that the substance of the physical objects—the bread and the wine—which become the substance of the body and blood of Christ, are essential to the meaning of the Eucharist. In her remark O'Connor placed herself in a long line of believers who have resisted interpretations of the communion that emphasize its symbolic, memorialist meaning over the idea of physical essentialism, that is, the belief that the substance of the material objects is central to the mystery and meaning of the sacrament. 2

O'Connor reiterated her belief in her essay "Novelist and Believer" when, in addressing the problem of making belief credible to a modern audience, she attacked Ralph Waldo Emerson's emphasis on the purely symbolic meaning of the communion. [End Page 144]

Today's audience is one in which religious feeling has become, if not atrophied, at least vaporous and sentimental. When Emerson decided, in 1832, that he could no longer celebrate the Lord's supper unless the bread and wine were removed, an important step in the vaporization of religion in America was taken, and the spirit of that step has continued apace. When the physical fact is separated from the spiritual reality, the dissolution of belief is eventually inevitable.3

O'Connor's statement about the Eucharist...