catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 10, Num 5 :: 2011.03.11 — 2011.03.24


The vioLENT bear it away

If you read her, she will stick to your bones. But first, she will burn away your flesh. It would seem a timely reading for Lent then, the season of ash heaps and dwelling in dark places. The Lenten season and the works of Flannery O’Connor, a Southern Catholic novelist whose oft misunderstood body of writing is deeply grotesque and violent, are both repelling to the first touch; the lips singe and the taste is bitter, unwanted. But swallowed down, taken into the whole of things, into the whole person, this tandem pair of observing Lent and reading O’Connor can absorb into the blood like liquid life — allowing you to see, not clearly or all at once, but into the distance, to things that are hidden, the stuff of prophets.

Flannery O’Connor wrote stories that explored the very worst in humanity. She was interested in that moment when grace is offered, but often rejected. She writes, “For me [the gravest concern] is always the conflict between an attraction for the Holy and the disbelief in it that we breathe in with the air of the times.” Her stories are violent and dark, the grace moments hard to see and understand. At first reading, you may wonder if the descent is worth the affliction. But wait for it.  O’Connor writes,

There is something in us, as story-tellers and as listeners to stories, that demands the redemptive act, that demands that what falls at least be offered the chance to be restored. The reader of today looks for this motion, and rightly so, but what he has forgotten is the cost of it. His sense of evil is so diluted or lacking altogether and so he has forgotten the price of restoration. When he reads a novel, he wants either his senses tormented or his spirits raised. He wants to be transported, instantly, either to a mock damnation or a mock innocence.

It takes work to remember the cost of redemption. It demands something of us, something most of us are unaccustomed to giving ourselves over to. Think of a typical American evangelical church on a typical Easter morning. The sheep have gathered in their pastel assortment of fleece coverings, lined up like a row of dipped and dyed eggs, all ready to celebrate and to shout off the rooftops with resurrection hymns and a ham waiting in the oven at home. But the path that led them there started no earlier than when they rolled out of bed that morning, and if they are honest, the New Life they are celebrating seems a little lost in the day’s activities and all its glory shines barely a smudge brighter than the brass trumpet up on stage. The celebration of Easter must begin with the grave, and the grave is preceded by the cross. And the cross is the road of Lent.

So too is the reading of Flannery O’Connor a cross-ridden path. Her grace is hard wrought, littered and layered with the darkness of humanity in her sinister and deeply disturbing heroes. Critics of her work would ask why Southern writers seemed to have such a penchant for writing about freaks, to which O’Connor would reply, “It is because we are still able to recognize one. To be able to recognize a freak, you have to have some conception of the whole man. And in the South, the general conception of man is still, in the main, theological…. I think it is safe to say that while the South is hardly Christ-centered, it is most certainly Christ-haunted…. Ghosts can be very fierce and instructive.”

The soul work of Lent also needs this conception of the whole man, this recognition of the freak. The journey of Lent can be a sort of working backward from the Resurrected Man of Easter. In order to recognize ourselves as freaks, in need of saving grace, we must have a conception of the Whole Man, the Straight Stick. This is what looking at the figure of Christ does for us. This is what the Law does for us. All that grotesque, bloody work of the priests and the bulls and the sacrifices and sprinkling of altars, day after day, year after year — we want to turn away. We want a cleaner salvation, a humane humanity and a creation that needs reforming but not redemption. Because redemption, as O’Connor says, is costly and travels through dark underworlds.

If we must know the Resurrected Man to see the Fallen Man, so too it seems we must know the Fallen Man to see the beauty of the Resurrected. It is like Orual’s complaint in C.S. Lewis’ retelling of the Greek Myth, Cupid and Psyche: “How can they meet us face to face till we have faces?” To stand before God and receive your judgment, you must be made to see yourself for who you are. This is the grace moment we are offered in the Shadowlands of this world — to look in the  mirror and see the Fallen Man, and then to look at the cross-bearing Resurrected God Man and throw ourselves at his feet.

In the final moments of O’Connor’s short story, A Good Man is Hard to Find, the silly and banal Grandmother character is frantically pleading for her life before the serial killer, The Misfit. Her moment of grace comes when she sees in his face that he could be one of her own. “Why, you’re one of my babies. You’re one of my own children!” She reaches out to touch his shoulder. He recoils, and shoots her. O’Connor later wrote that in that moment, the Misfit rejects the grace offered him. He is tormented all his life by the work of Christ — and turns his face away. But in the end, his rejection and its terrible consequences are evident even to him. “No pleasure but meanness,” he said to the Grandmother before he shot her, but afterwards, “It’s no real pleasure in life.”  The Good Man had shown the Misfit who he really was, and offered him a chance to repent, but he rejected it and the fall is a violent one.

O’Connor’s works are the stuff of violence. It is a violence though, that bears the Kingdom away. A soaking in the darker realities of humanity, grotesque and sinister though they may be, can be a vehicle for the cleansing of it — not in a salvific way, but in a way of making us see, and for the reader of Biblical literature, seeing is the way out of all this mess. The best writers are prophets, and for O’Connor, her grotesque heroes were vehicles of this prophetic voice. She writes, “[These heroes] seem to carry an invisible burden and to fix us with eyes that remind us that we all bear some heavy responsibility whose nature we have forgotten. They are prophetic figures. In the novelist’s case prophecy is a matter of seeing near things with their extensions of meaning and thus seeing far things close up.”

This seeing both near and far seems to be the purpose of a dark Lenten season before the celebration of our New Life. It is the working against our natural human tendency to be blind, and the sitting in the violent action of the cross, so that we can come again to the celebration feast with a truly renewed vision. Lent is no rule, nor is the reading of Flannery O’Connor. But both can be an offering of grace; and taken, swallowed hard down, they may just take you to new heights.

All quotes unless otherwise noted are from Flannery O’Connor: The Collected Works edited by Sally Fitzgerald.

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