I’ve always thought that I should like Flannery O’Connor. The only problem is that I have yet to read one of her stories that doesn’t leave me depressed. Being determined to like her, however, I brought her short story collection, Everything That Rises Must Converge, along with me on my trip to Poland and brought very little else by way of reading material.
I began reading while waiting at the airport in
On the way back, though, I began to get bored and broke out the book again. This time, I managed to work my way through the rest of the book. I still didn’t find any stories that weren’t depressing. But I did find one that I found compelling.
The story “Revelation” tells of Mrs. Turpin, a self-satisfied, self-righteous woman. When Mrs. Turpin visits the doctor, she is surprised by the presence of a young woman who takes an immediate dislike to her and, seemingly without provocation, attacks her. In what seems to be a prophetic moment, the girl tells her, “Go back to hell where you came from, you old wart hog.”
Mrs. Turpin is shocked. She can’t understand why she, of all people, should deserve such a judgment. She has always lived in a way that she thought was right. In fact, she regularly thanks God that she is not like most of the people around her.
As she rails in anger at God, she has a vision:
She saw the streak as a vast swinging bridge extending upward from the earth through a field of living fire. Upon it a vast horde of souls were rumbling toward heaven. There were whole companies of white-trash, clean for the first time in their lives, and bands of black niggers in white robes, and battalions of freaks and lunatics shouting and clapping and leaping like frogs. And bringing up the end of the procession was a tribe of people whom she recognized at once as those who, like herself …, had always had a little of everything and the God-given wit to use it right….They were marching behind the others with great dignity, accountable as they had always been for good order and common sense and respectable behavior. They alone were on key. Yet she could see by their shocked and altered faces that even their virtues were being burned away.
When O’Connor writes that “even their virtues were being burned away,” I don’t think she’s talking about virtues like kindness, gentleness, and love. I think the “virtues” that are burned away are the things that were never really virtues to begin with. So many of the things that we think are our virtues are really nothing but thin veneers for our pride and selfishness.
Now, it’s kind of popular to complain about the hypocrisy in the church and blame the “Christian” community for being self-righteous, and that seems, to a certain extent, to be what this story is about. I’m all on board with that. Jesus certainly wasn’t a fan of hypocrisy and self-righteousness, from what I can tell.
The only problem is that when I start griping about hypocrisy and self-righteousness, I’m being a bit self-righteous myself. This is a problem that we need to address in the church, but the way we address it is not by complaining about everyone else’s self-righteousness. It is by realizing that we all are living on grace.
I’m not saying this because I want us to all start beating ourselves up. I’m saying this because, until we realize this, we can’t really accept grace.
I’m also not saying that we should stop trying to be virtuous. Instead, we need to realize that any virtue that we actually have is a gift to us. We are just dispensers of God’s grace.
I’m probably not ever going to be one of Flannery O’Connor’s biggest fans, and I probably won’t bring her along as reading material on my next international flight. But she is a brilliant writer, and she does make some valid points, so perhaps I should give her some grace…