A lot of Christians talk about God “turning up” in their lives. When pressed, they usually describe a comforting, devotional experience of God’s tender presence. But grace can be a real bitch, an unwanted, unsettling moment of clarity in which hope and healing is offered but not in the way you expected. Or even wanted.
I learned that from the Southern gothic writer, Flannery O’Connor. And then I saw that all through the Bible grace turns up in people’s lives in some of the most painful and unexpected ways. Flannery was right.
Flannery O’Connor died of lupus in 1964 at the age of just 39. But she created the most extraordinary body of work – mainly short stories – peopled by the freakish and grotesque, and characterized by violence. But, for O’Connor, such strange twists were her way of reflecting society back on itself in order that we might recognize our own distortedness. For her, fiction “is a plunge into reality and it is a shock to the system.”
It also can’t be overlooked that Flannery O’Connor was a devout Catholic. Growing up in the Bible Belt of Georgia, O’Connor was Christian enough to understand her predominantly Baptist society, but Catholic enough to sit on the edges of that society. This insider-outsider status afforded her a unique perspective on Southern religious hypocrisy, the emergence of the feminist and Civil Rights movements, and the growth of material prosperity along with an accompanying decline in spiritual richness.
English professor, Karen Swallow Prior writes, “As a Christian, O’Connor understood that reality includes mysteries that lie beyond what the ear can hear and the eye can see. For her, ultimate reality is bound up in grace, a grace she knew she needed as much as any of her vilest, proudest characters (and there are many of these in the pages of her works).”
In fact, all of O’Connor’s stories are about grace. But you’ve got to look hard to find it.
Finding that moment of grace in her stories, especially the bizarre and violent ones, is the challenge. That’s because, as I said earlier, we usually think of grace as an experience of gentle benevolence. But not for Flannery O’Connor. She said, “The reader wants his grace warm and binding, not dark and disruptive.”
In one story (“A Good Man is Hard to Find”) grace appears right before a serial killer strikes. In another (“Parker’s Back”) it is woven through a strange tale of domestic violence. It yet another (“The Violent Bear it Away”) grace appears as a great forest fire. As O’Connor told us, it is disruptive grace. In her world, grace jolts us out of our indifference and makes us reconsider the meaning of the Incarnation and the reality of redemption. God doesn’t tap us gently on the shoulder or whisper quietly in our ear. He pulls the rug right out from under us.
I think O’Connor knew this disruptive kind of grace is exactly what our secular age needs.
Tod Worner refers to this as “mean grace.” He writes,
“The work of Flannery O’Connor could be harsh, violent and discomfiting. And yet it is also thick with truth, grace and redemption. To the superficial reader, a yarn filled with unattractive figures on ill-fated endeavors may be all that is perceived. But to those willing to consider her work more deeply, powerful themes of deeply religious truths become apparent. Perhaps the greatest and most pervasive of these truths in Flannery’s stories is the pain, suffering and ‘meanness’ that often accompanies the beautiful grace of God.”
One of Flannery O’Connor’s most discomfiting (and interestingly, most Catholic) stories was published in 1955. “A Temple of the Holy Spirit” is narrated by 12-year-old girl and tells her story of visiting a local country fair with two of her cousins, a pair of boy-crazy 14-year-olds back home from their Catholic convent school. The counsins smirk at how the nuns had taught them their bodies are the “temples of the holy ghost” and must remain pure and undefiled. At the fair, they leave the younger girl outside and enter a tent advertising a freak show. Inside, they see a hermaphrodite (O’Connor’s term), and the curious convent school girls are intrigued when the performer lifts “his skirt to show what was underneath” and explains to the gawking crowd that this was how God had created him.
When the cousins describe this experience to our 12-year-old narrator, she finds herself later pondering the mystery of this deformity during Sunday Mass. As the priest elevates the host, the girl recalls the hermaphrodite’s reminder to the audience that circus freaks are created by God just as they were. They too are a temple of the holy ghost.
The story closes with the child gazing at a sunset that reminds her of an elevated host.
I haven’t done the story much justice, I’m afraid, but it has all the O’Connor hallmarks: striking religious imagery that disrupts our easy ideas about God and ourselves, a narrator whose moment of revelation becomes our own, and an explosion of grace mediated through someone typically dismissed as grotesque.
God turns up. Unexpectedly. Surprisingly. In unwanted and unpleasant ways. As a divorce. As a tragedy. As illness or in death. When we find ourselves at the end of our tether. In all those moments where an offer of new life is made. Flannery O’Connor once wrote, “There is a moment in every great story in which the presence of grace can be felt as it waits to be accepted or rejected even though the reader may not recognize this moment.”
It’s the same in life as well.