Flannery O’Connor (1925-1964) was a writer whose Catholic faith deeply informed her fiction, and no thinker influenced her more than Teilhard de Chardin. Afflicted with lupus, an autoimmune disease that led to her early death, she found comfort in Teilhard’s spiritual writings as well as his evolutionary theology. Writing for her Georgia diocesan publication, she reviewed both The Phenomenon of Man (earlier title of The Human Phenomenon), Teilhard’s most extensive work about evolution, and The Divine Milieu, considered his major work of spirituality. In the latter work, she found a teaching that reinforced her faith in the spiritual significance of her disease: Teilhard’s insights about “passive diminishment” or unavoidable suffering. About The Phenomenon of Man she wrote that Teilhard “asserts that creation is still in full gestation and that the duty of the Christian is to cooperate with it.” (PG, 87)
O’Connor came to Teilhard late in her short life, but his ideas made their way into her work. In her article comparing their ideas about good and evil , Sue Whatley writes
In a letter to friend Rosalyn Barnes, O’Connor indicated that Teilhard’s laws governed not only the title but the substance of her story and beyond: “I have also written and sold to New World Writing a story called “Everything That Rises Must Converge”, which is a physical proposition that I found in Pere Teilhard, and am applying to a certain situation in the Southern states and indeed in all the world” . . . . It is also within this system that we find O’Connor’s inability (perhaps refusal) to make absolute the elements of evil and the elements of good.
The “certain situation” was enduring racism. The two main characters in the story, a mother and her son, hold apparently opposite views about African Americans. The context is O’Connor’s South in the late 50’s and early 60’s when Jim Crow laws were being erased but racist attitudes persisted. The mother cannot abide the fact that “Negroes” are allowed to ride in the same part of the bus as she can. Her son vehemently criticizes her racism. But as Whatley points out, neither character can be described in absolute terms of good or bad. The mother sacrificed a great deal to raise her son, and the son is full of hateful condescension toward her.
O’Connor was attracted to Teilhard’s vision of the deep interrelationship of spirit and matter. In the story’s title, “Everything That Rises” refers to the entirety of creation as it continuously emerges and evolves throughout time. The rest of the title, “Must Converge,” captures Teilhard’s notion of an evolutionary trajectory towards the Omega or Christ. Energy for the journey toward Omega is provided by love, but the common human condition is a chaotic tangle of good and evil, hate and love.
Teilhard argued that science provided ample evidence of humanity’s evolution toward a spiritual unity despite our many conflicts. All races, religions, and cultures will continue to intermingle and interact more and more, eventually identifying as a single earth community, a plurality in unity. But the certainty of that outcome doesn’t absolve us from doing the work needed to attain it. Complementing Teilhard’s notion of “passive diminishment” is his insistence on the spiritual significance of our daily efforts, our work whereby we cooperate with divine action in the world.
Each one of our works, by its more or less remote or direct effect upon the spiritual world, helps to make perfect Christ in his mystical totality. That is the fullest possible answer to the question: How can we, following the call of St. Paul, see God in all the active half of our lives? In fact, through the unceasing operation of the Incarnation, the divine so thoroughly permeates all our creaturely energies that, in order to meet it and lay hold on it, we cold not find a more fitting setting than that of our action. (DM, 31)
But O’Connor’s story ends violently as the son’s and mother’s actions lead to terrible results. While her belief in God’s intimate and active presence in his creation was fundamental to her faith, the success of her art reflects her deep awareness of human fallibility. Indeed, her stories can serve as illustrations of Teilhard’s notion of “groping” or trial and error (tâtonnement), or one of the ways that life moves forward in its development. Despite her reservations about some of his theology, I think she’d have agreed with those who, like Kathleen Duffy, argue that Teilhard should be ranked with Thomas Aquinas, Teresa of Avila, and other significant Catholic theologians as a Doctor of the Church.
At this writing, a copy of the short story “Everything That Rises Must Converge” is freely available.