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Thinking Out Loud

Wounds of Grace

by Michael Jinkins | Apr 11, 2017

"The dragon sits by the side of the road, watching those who pass. Beware lest he devour you. We go to the Father of Souls, but it is necessary to pass by the dragon." -Cyril of Jerusalem*

Wounds of GraceOne of the courses I most enjoyed teaching was on the theology of vocation. I designed it to be a first-year course, but soon had to rethink the syllabus because of the large number of middler and senior seminarians who wanted to take it to help them in their process of discernment.

We were lucky to introduce the course when we did because a wealth of good books were being written on the subject of vocation at that time. Books by Eugene Peterson and Parker Palmer were especially timely. Then there were the classics, like Gregory of Nazianzus's Defense of the Flight to Pontus, a riveting theological reflection by a young man so terrified by the call to become a parish priest that, following his ordination, he literally ran for the hills and had to be coaxed by friends to return to his (rather miffed) congregation. They were so irritated with their young priest, by the way, that when he did return, they didn't come to hear him preach. Gregory wrote his Defense so they would understand why he ran away.

I think I can say with some confidence that students profited from and most came to enjoy the texts I assigned, even if they were initially puzzled about how a fourth-century tract might be relevant to their experience. In the interest of full disclosure, I must confess that there was one text they didn't care for. It was my favorite of them all, Flannery O'Connor's first novel, Wise Blood (1952).

If you believe that the power (maybe even the excellence) of a text or a work of art can relate to the reactions it provokes, then you might be tempted to believe - as I am - that this book is powerful and great. It tells the story of Hazel Motes, a man who is running from a God he wishes didn't exist. O'Connor describes Hazel as a person "who can neither believe nor contain himself in unbelief and who searches desperately, feeling about in all experience for the lost God."**

O'Connor famously reflected further on Hazel Motes in the author's note to the 1962 edition of the novel:

"That belief in Christ is to some a matter of life and death has been a stumbling block for readers who would prefer to think it a matter of no great consequence. For them Hazel Motes' integrity lies in his trying with such vigor to get rid of the ragged figure who moves from tree to tree in the back of his mind. For the author, Hazel's integrity lies in his not being able to."

Hazel looks squarely at the religiosity of the religious, their conventional lives with their conventional self-deceits, their struggles to protect themselves against dangers and the insecurities that dog them, their baptism of prejudices and vanities and hatreds, and their inability to see themselves for what they are: sinners in need of mercy and redemption. He knows they believe themselves to be just fine as they are. At most they see themselves as needing a little refurbishment here and there. On the whole these are people grateful that their god has the good sense and proper upbringing to bless their lives pretty much as they are.

Hazel is a sinner. He knows it, and he is fighting redemption with every fiber of the soul he doesn't believe he has. And he has nothing but contempt for the religious and their self-justifying religion.

He is too honest to his own perception not to recognize hypocrisy when he sees it, and he is too honest to God not to give in at last when the hound of heaven tracks him down. Self-blinded, self-tortured in mind and body, worn-out, worn-down from running from and cursing at God, this self-proclaimed preacher of the church without Christ crucified, where the lame don't walk and the blind will never see and what's dead stays dead, is found by God and finds himself against all odds redeemed. Grace as uncompromising and unsentimental as a bottle of wood alcohol poured into an open wound tells the good news of the Gospel: Nobody is beyond the reach of God, and no evil of which we are capable is stronger than God's love.

Are we still wondering why my students had a hard time with this novel, totally devoid of the easy and comforting messages of contemporary religion? In course evaluations, one student called it "ungodly," as I recall. Another, more frequent, assessment was that it is "depressing." But, as I explained to them, I don't think there is a more vivid portrait anywhere than in this novel of the soul under conviction, of a person resisting the call of God, thrashing violently like a fish on a hook. The more he thrashes, the more we know, he is caught.

Flannery O'Connor has variously been described as a genius, an original American voice. Thomas Merton thought her more like Sophocles than like any of her contemporaries: Ernest Hemingway, Katherine Anne Porter, or Jean Paul Sartre. She is often thought of as a "Southern" writer, and this is obviously true to some extent, but the "South" of her novels is a mythological country not found on any map. O'Connor has aptly been compared to John Donne and Nathaniel Hawthorne. She reminds me even more, however, of James Hogg of Ettrick, whose Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner (1824) used violent and grotesque Gothic themes to communicate the terrifying consequences of a Christianity led astray into antinomianism (the rejection of morality in the name of the freedom of the gospel).

In fact, O'Connor's mission is even more like that of Søren Kierkegaard, who taught Christian Faith to a nation of people who already believed themselves to be Christian by birth and citizenship. Kierkegaard's quest involved exposing people who had been inoculated with the dead virus of Christendom to the living virus of Christian Faith, in the hope that the live bug would overcome their immune systems and they would be infected with the real thing.

C.E. Morgan (a graduate of Berea College here in Kentucky, and of Harvard Divinity School), in her introduction to the Folio edition of O'Connor's short stories, makes the case that in O'Connor's stories "violence becomes sacramental via its repetition and its revelation of what Catholics term 'actual grace' understood as a kind of supernatural help from God (not to be confused with 'sanctifying grace,' which is a permanent inner condition). In story after story we see characters broken open by the hard fist of the writer, acts of brutality O'Connor deemed necessary for the eruption of living grace into the stubborn, recalcitrant lives of both the non-believing and the self-professedly devout."***

Although my favorite O'Connor short story is "Revelation," in which the commonplace, the tragic and the comic combine to convey unforgettably the very heart of Jesus' message, the most vivid example of O'Connor's passionate grace occurs in "A Good Man is Hard to Find." This story illustrates better than anything else I've ever read the truth of a statement O'Connor makes in a letter to a friend: "This notion that grace is healing omits the fact that before it heals, it cuts with the sword Christ said he came to bring."****

Sometimes the cut is more evident than the healing. The story is horrifically violent.

A family of six is traveling to Florida for vacation, over the objections of the grandmother, who, wanting to visit her people in eastern Tennessee, doesn't want to go to Florida. She tries in vain to convince her son, with whom she lives, that a violent criminal known as "the Misfit" has escaped from prison and is also headed for Florida. The next day they head for Florida, and on their way have an accident. Sure enough, they fall into the hands of the escaped convict and two other dangerous men. The irony comes thick and heavy: the news story of "the Misfit" the elderly woman had used to try to manipulate her son into doing what she wanted, becomes a prophecy. The entire family is murdered.

As the she waits her turn to die, a conversation between the woman and "the Misfit" occurs. At first she tries to bargain with the man, offering him all of her money if he will spare her life. He won't budge. As she sits weeping over the death of her family (she can hear them being shot off in the woods), "the Misfit" muses: "Jesus was the only One that ever raised the dead. ... And he shouldn't have done it. He thrown everything off balance. If He did what He said, then it's nothing for you to do but throw away everything and follow Him, and if He didn't, then it's nothing for you to do but enjoy the few minutes you got left the best way you can — by killing somebody or burning down his house or doing some other meanness to him."

As the conversation progresses, something unexpected happens in the grandmother. Something is awakened in her. She feels compassion toward the murderer. It happens as she listens to him, and she looks into his tormented face as he is on the verge of tears at the meaninglessness of life. She is overcome, it seems, with sympathy. And, saying, "Why, you're one of my babies. You're one of my own children," she reaches out gently and touches him on the shoulder. "The Misfit" recoils at her touch, "as if a snake had bitten him and shot her three times through the chest."

In the close of this scene of breathtaking violence, "the Misfit" says to one of the other men with him, "She would have been a good woman ... if it had been somebody there to shoot her every minute of her life."*****

That which had insulated the old woman from the humanity to which Jesus called her was the conventional comfort and relative security of her life up to that point; that which opened her heart to the compassion she might have felt toward others (including her family) was the terrible grace of God in the face of her killer.

The way to God is through the valley of the shadow of death. Sometimes it is the threat of death, the pain of illness, the hollow ache of grief, the suffering of life that God uses to draw us close, to awaken in us the compassion and humanity to which we are called in Jesus. As St. Cyril wrote, the path to God passes by the dragon. Sometimes we're bound to get burned. It is dangerous out there, and the greatest dangers are not physical, but spiritual; even as the real dragon is that evil that seeks to empty life of purpose, turn every good thing into a perverse and twisted counterfeit, and thwart God's gracious ends. These are matters of life and death, says O'Connor.

We are cast upon the mercy of God like wrecked sailors on a stone-strewn shore. But the mercy is true.

*Quoted by Flannery O'Connor in “The Fiction Writer and His Country” (1957), excerpted in Robert Ellsberg, editor, Flannery O'Connor: Spiritual Writings (Orbis, 2003), p. 63.
**Cited in Richard Giannone's "Introduction," in Ellsberg, O'Connor, p. 27.
***Flannery O'Connor, A Circle of Fire and Other Stories (Folio edition, 2013), xiii.
**** Ellsberg, O'Connor, p. 136.
*****O'Connor, Circle of Fire, pp. 49-51.

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