Wednesday, September 17, 2008

A Pause For Worship

Hon. Daughter #1 picked up a short story class over the summer, and somewhere along the lines (I think it was the final paper on A Good Man is Hard to Find) we had a conversation about Flannery O' Connor. Hon. D. remarked that Flannery often put herself--and not necessarily a flattering portrayal, either--into her stories. Certainly overeducated adult women (occasionally men) who still live with their mothers (or other older relatives) crop up frequently in the Flannery canon. But other characters in the stories can also function as Flannery stand-ins. And Flannery can be as merciless with her stand-ins as with the meanest of her nonautobiographical characters, making her stories a sort of confessional of the typewriter.

I hadn't read any Flannery since college, but of late circumstances, not the least of which is that I'm now living smack dab in Flannery country (I could visit her old haunts of Milledgeville or Savannah in a few easy hours of driving) have been pulling me in her direction. The images she created are still palpable along many a secondary road, where teetering sharecroppers' shacks and farmhouse chimneys peer through kudzu and ramshackle towns that the interstates passed by dot the largely rural landscape. In short, Flannery's been tugging at my consciousness for some time now. So I picked up a collection of her short stories a few weeks ago and have since been reading through them.

I'd read A Temple of the Holy Ghost years ago, so it's been in my mind since the conversation. In a few stories, most notably this one, the Flannery/main point of view character is an intellectually precocious girl on the brink of adolescence, who is frequently impatient with the lack of perceptiveness of the older people around her. In Temple this character is summed up in a self-deprecating sentence that has become a stock in trade of the Catholic blogosphere: "She could never be a saint, but she thought she could be a martyr if they killed her quick." (Ohh, does that hit close to home!)

At any rate, figuring out the child/Flannery was the easy part. There's another character of sorts (of sorts because he/she exists only in a brief description given the child by a teenaged cousin and subsequently in her vivid but not necessarily realistic imagination) whom I hadn't associated with Flannery before rereading: the Freak. The Freak is a carnival sideshow hermaphrodite (though that word is never actually used in the story) whose description springboards the child's imagination into a more profound understanding of the workings of the Holy Spirit and the human connectedness with God therein. (All of this is of course, completely lost on all the "adults" in the story, for whom the Freak is merely a prurience-enabling occasion of sin.)

Now I'm sure that a search of literary journals would show me thoroughly unoriginal in my assessment, but that by no means takes the fun out of the realization for me. It's not much of a stretch, because most of us feel like a freak at one time or another. I imagine that Flannery, struggling for most of her adult life with the lupus that eventually ended it prematurely, experienced that feeling as well. I think she voices her acceptance, and her determination not to let the thorn in her side dissuade her from spreading the Good News, in the preaching of the Freak as envisioned by the child. She's tough on herself, mind you, and on her audience. Speading the Good News is no job for sissies, she seems to say. But it is our calling; so buck up there, you.

I think it's a worthwhile meditation for all of us, especially when we feel overwhelmed by our own afflictions. To that end, I close with it here:

"God made me thisaway and I don't dispute hit," and the people [said,] "Amen. Amen."
"God done this to me and I praise Him."
"Amen. Amen."
"He could strike you thisaway."
"Amen. Amen."
"But he has not."
"Raise yourself up. A temple of the Holy Ghost. You! You are God's temple, don't you know? Don't you know? God's Spirit has a dwelling in you, don't you know?"
"Amen. Amen."
"If anybody desecrates the temple of God, God will bring him to ruin and if you laugh, He may strike you thisaway. A temple of God is a holy thing. Amen. Amen."
"I am a temple of the Holy Ghost."

Coming up next, we return to our regularly scheduled rant already in progress.



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