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Flannery O’Connor, Rose Hawthorne, and Our Unfinished Faces

August 23, 2016


The entire time I have worked at the office of Word on Fire, there has been a pile of prayer cards on my desk dedicated to the cause for canonization of Sister Rose Hawthorne. Everyday, I straighten the prayer cards into a neat stack, but in the many months of my daily post at that desk, I have made no attempts to delve into Sister Rose’s story, nor have I been at all curious as to her particular charism or unique vocation. As with the uncanny nature of Christ and the communion of Saints, the prompting to explore more deeply always emerges according to God’s perfect timing. As it turns out, Sister Rose (later known as Mother Alphonsa) was the daughter of author Nathaniel Hawthorne and co-founder of the Congregation of St. Rose of Lima, a religious order in the Dominican discipline dedicated to the cause of caring for the destitute who are diagnosed with terminal cancer. A small part of Sister Rose’s story is beautifully told by Flannery O’Connor in a book of her prose, entitled Mystery and MannersUpon reading O’Connor’s work, I quickly found that I have a lot to learn from Sister Rose Hawthorne.

In Mystery and Manners, O’Connor tells of her correspondence with the group of Dominican sisters whom Hawthorne established. The Sisters requested that O’Connor write the story of a young girl under their care who had died at the age of 12 named Mary Ann. (The short essay, entitled A Memoir of Mary Ann, is beautiful and well worth the read.) Briefly, O’Connor recounts what she gathered from Hawthorne’s nuns: Mary Ann was a particularly radiant child with a particularly grotesque tumor that disfigured her face, rendered her left eye useless, and promised to make a quick end of her young life. The young girl’s narrative is illuminating in the typical ways: the discovery of joy in the face of suffering, difficulty, and hardship; the beautiful living out of sanctity and piety in the form of a gracious, innocent child; the transformative effect of her particular example on those who are lucky enough to encounter its fullness in her person, etc. Mary Ann’s joy was the societal conundrum, and this qualified her as the saintly standard. As is customary with the “otherness” of the Saints, the world’s heart was warmed by her story, but deep down, it preferred (and still prefers) another reality: devoid of the grotesque, at an arms-length from the suffering, and concentrating so intently on the perfection of superficial beauty that it finds Mary Ann utterly impossible to process and much easier to avoid. Shamefully, our first reaction to disfigurement is a pity that approaches self-righteous pride. We often seek tirelessly to reconfigure the physical defect rather than to care for the soul, which is the sanctuary of the paradoxical beauty that, once identified, beautifies the physical.

O’Connor says of Mary Ann, “She and the Sisters who had taught her had fashioned from her unfinished face the material of her death. The creative action of the Christian’s life is to prepare his death in Christ.” Sister Rose Hawthorne discovered her vocation to care for the poorest of the poor, like Mary Ann, and to find Christ within the physical features and sensory catalysts that were often so far from beautiful they would make your stomach turn. However, Sister Rose and the women that carry on in her stead sought to do all they could to identify most fully with those for whom they cared in order to fashion for them “the material of their death.” They intended to eliminate “pity” for the sake of establishing a much purer, mutually-identifiable dignity. They made themselves poor to care for the poor as one of the poor. (Sound familiar?) In so doing, they discovered the paradoxical beauty of the grotesque and suffering, a beauty which is held so near to the heart of Christ and which most vividly reflects his own image. This process reflects a love that seeks not to elevate another to one’s own standard of beauty, but to become unconditionally aware of and utterly in love with the inherent beauty of another that exists for God’s sake. Therein, a mutual elevation takes place. It’s a surprising truth… it always has been. It goes one step beyond what is assumed into the territory of what, once grasped, is the only possible answer. However, it is a truth that is only discoverable with the infusion of humility, with abandoning the standards that we have always deemed certain and venturing into the liberating love of God that awaits our detachment. One can see this love in the saint’s longing gaze at the crucifix, the quintessential grotesque and simultaneously, the archetypal beauty.

In the following description from A Memoir of Mary AnnO’Connor speaks of the importance of forming a definition of love that is connected directly to the source and not isolated as mere tenderness:

“One of the tendencies of our age is to use the suffering of children to discredit the goodness of God, and once you have discredited his goodness, you are done with him… Busy cutting down human imperfection, [those who seek to eliminate it] are making headway also on the raw material of good. Ivan Karamazov cannot believe, as long as one child is in torment; Camus’ hero cannot accept the divinity of Christ, because of the massacre of the innocents. In this popular piety, we mark our gain in sensibility and our loss in vision.

If other ages felt less, they saw more, even though they saw with the bind, prophetical, unsentimental eye of acceptance, which is to say, of faith. In the absence of this faith now, we govern by tenderness. It is a tenderness which, long since cut off from the person of Christ, is wrapped in theory. When tenderness is detached from the source of tenderness, its logical outcome is terror. It ends in forced-labor camps and in the fumes of the gas chamber.

These reflections seem a long way from the simplicity and innocence of Mary Ann; but they are not so far removed…”

We often revel in the physical beauty of creation as an expression of the perfection of God, and rightly so. However, if left to our own devices, we devolve into thinking that the physical aspect of this beauty is a reality separate from the expression of God, and we worship it for its own sake, spending all of our time staving off the slow imperfection of the physical, correcting the inherent blemishes and flaws of our corporeal selves, and turning away from any expression of the grotesque. Soon, we view the absence of our self-identified beauty as an absence of God himself, so we make it our mission to recreate and re-instill our standard. This, O’Connor asserted and Hawthorne grasped, mistakenly informs our judgment of ourselves and others and leads us down a horrific and unfulfilling path. It creates obstacles and conditions to love, eventually replacing love all together.

If we are to learn anything from Sister Rose Hawthorne, it should be to keep love coupled with its source and keep its true definition ever in mind; to reach out to the suffering and grotesque and in them, see Christ on the cross. We tend to assume that because we recoil from the “grotesque,” we are not “called” to minister in this way, that it is someone else’s job. Rather, by altering our understanding of beauty, we find that no one is exempt from this call or ministry because within it lies our true freedom and greatest love. In this ministry, we live out the fullness of God’s will for our lives, and we fashion, from our own unfinished faces, not only the material for our death, but for our eternal life.

Let us pray for the canonization of this beautiful servant of God, Sister Rose Hawthorne!