Our age not only does not have a very sharp eye for the almost imperceptible intrusions of grace, it no longer has much feeling for the nature of the violences which precede and follow them.
A whole family shot to death by the side of the road. A little boy who hangs himself so he can be with his dead mother in the stars. A Bible salesman who steals a girl’s wooden leg.
Flannery O’Connor takes a hammer to any illusion that we are evolving.
Friends and I have been reading A Good Man is Hard to Find together. It has been tough going at times. O’Connor creates conundrums, then refuses to solve them. She exposes the dark underbelly but does not clean it up. She makes us uncomfortable. And leaves us that way. What is she up to? Is her view of life this bleak? This desperate?
Redemption is meaningless unless there is cause for it in the actual life we live, and for the last few centuries there has been operating in our culture the secular belief that there is no such cause.
O’Connor was convinced that we had come to think more highly of ourselves than we ought. And she understood that an arrogant, self-satisfied heart has no room for grace. Her stories show us that need. And here is the genius; we may find her characters grotesque, ignorant, prejudiced, cruel, yet we can’t help but identify with them. Their selfishness is our selfishness. Their pride our pride. Their cruelty helps us see that far too often we ourselves are cruel.
It is terribly uncomfortable.
It is terribly important.
Jesus told a story once of two men who came to the temple to pray. A Pharisee and a tax collector…
The Pharisee stood by himself and prayed: “God, I thank you that I am not like other people—robbers, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.”
But the tax collector stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, “God, have mercy on me, a sinner.”
I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God. For all those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted. (Luke 18:11-14)
Mr. Head had never known before what mercy looked like because he had been too good to deserve any, but he felt he knew now…He stood appalled, judging himself with the thoroughness of God, while the action of mercy covered his pride like a flame and consumed it. ~Flannery O’Connor, A Good Man is Hard to Find
The art of Flannery O’Connor is sumptuous and grand. It is filled with luminous phrases and deliciously evocative descriptions. But mostly, her works help us see ourselves aright. They create a space in us for almost imperceptible intrusions of grace.
*The two unattributed quotes at the top of the post are from the remarkable Mystery and Manners, a collection of her essays on writing, and on life.
**Photograph at the top by Marc Yankus.