Some of you know that I am a fan of 19th century English literature. My favourites are Dickens, Hardy and Twain. I haven’t much enjoyed 20th century fiction largely because I have found it too harsh, hopeless and often gratuitously salacious for my tastes. However, a few years ago I became interested in a twentieth century Catholic novelist, Evelyn Waugh, particularly his novel Brideshead Revisited. I was uncomfortable with the marital immorality that it portrays at points, which, thankfully, was not pornographic, but still I stopped reading it a couple of times. Nevertheless, I found the story compelling enough that I kept coming back to it. By the time I was finished, I found the tale to be quite satisfying, portraying, it seemed to me, the over-abundant Grace of God at work in the lives of very messed up people.
So I thought I’d try my luck with another 20th century Catholic author, Flannery O’Connor. I read her complete fictional works, which although published as novels, read as a collection of short stories. All of her stories deal with characters in or from the Deep South—O’Connor spent most of her life in the Southern state of Georgia. The Southern flavour of her characters make them particularly interesting to me as one who has spent very little time in that part of the world, but what I found quite shocking to my sensibilities is that she doesn’t spare the racist language and attitudes typical of that region in the mid-twentieth century. In fact, it is this very racism, along with the whole bus load of other human sins and weaknesses typical of all human beings of any time or region, that provide the backdrop for what she really seems to be writing about.
“My subject in fiction is the action of grace in the territories held largely by the devil,” O’Connor is quoted as saying by one of her biographers. Of course what that demonically held territory might refer to is not always very easy to discern. Several of her characters are good in many ways, yet manifest in the course of a story a deep demonic flaw; while other characters seem deeply evil or profoundly flawed, yet many of these, not all, show glimmers of the Grace of God at work in their lives. It is true that some of her stories left me confused, wondering if I missed the point. Nonetheless, several days later I was still thinking about the stories and wishing I had a conversation partner to discuss them with—which to me is a sure sign of a good story. Others of her stories I seemed to get right away, or after a day or two thinking about them. Most of these I wanted to fix in my memory as wonderfully insightful illustrations of how Grace often works in our broken lives in the world as it really is.
With O’Connor’s stories still haunting my mind, I ran across a spiritual biography by Lorraine V. Murray called The Abbess of Andalusia (Andalusia is the name of the O’Connor family farm in Georgia). It tells of a moment of insight O’Connor experienced discussing an introduction she was writing to a biography written by some nuns whose ministry it was to care for terminally ill cancer patients. The biography is the life of a girl who lived under the nuns’ care, Mary Ann Long, who died at age twelve after having survived nine years with a cancer that terribly disfigured her face. At one point in the conversation, one of the nuns asked O’Connor “why the grotesque…was [O’Connor’s] vocation.” You don’t have to read many of O’Connor’s stories to see why this question is apropos. Before she could answer, however, another person said to the sister, “that’s your vocation too.” This comment brought about O’Connor’s flash of insight, what she called a “new perspective on the grotesque.” O’Connor’s biographer writes the following:
In the introduction to the sisters’ book, she [O’Connor] noted that most of us, over time, are not very shocked by evil in the world; indeed, we may become “dispassionate” about it. We “look it in the face and find, as often as not, our own grinning reflections.” Good, she said, was quite another matter: few have stared at it long enough to see “that its face too is grotesque, that in us good is something under construction.” When we look into the face of goodness, she said, “We are liable to see a face like Mary Ann’s, full of promise.”
Someone meeting Mary Ann for the first time might be so horrified by her deformed face that he’d [sic] be tempted to connect her cancer with the underlying grotesquerie of sin. But to Flannery this would be a terrible mistake, because even in physical evils like suffering and deformity, God makes his presence known.
When I read these words, sitting in Tim Hortons waiting for my car to be repaired, tears filled my eyes and I had to just stare out the window for ten minutes. My heart was so full. Good in this broken world is always something under construction. The grotesque—physical, moral and spiritual—that presents itself to us as the terribly deformed face of a cancer ridden child very often hides from us the Grace of God at work constructing good in that person’s life. How many people have I dismissed because I have connected the visible cancer of a terribly confused and broken moral or spiritual life with the “grotesquerie of sin”? How often have I failed to see, failed to even look for the good under construction, the glimmer of Grace at work in a life disfigured by the brokenness of sin? Truly the thought of this question overpowers me sometimes.
But here, perhaps, I need to learn to look good in the face too. I need to recognize that in this world good also has a disfigured face. My own brokenness, my own disfiguring cancer, could this very failure of mine, this failure to love and to look for the grace of God in others, could this failure be the disfigured face of good that may be under construction in my heart? I am so easily turned away by the ugliness, sinfulness, and brokenness I see in the lives of others. And this ugliness of mine sometimes overwhelms me. Sometimes I wonder if there is any hope for a man—a priest no less—who cannot look beyond the moral, spiritual and physical brokenness of others to see the Grace of God at work in them. I truly am the blind man who needs healing. And yet, maybe I too am under construction. Maybe this ugliness I see in myself is nothing other than the grotesque face of good under construction in my heart.
Jesus said of the Holy Spirit that when He comes, He would convict the world of sin, righteousness and judgement. The very fact that we see the ugliness of sin in ourselves seems to be evidence of the work of the Holy Spirit. Perhaps seeing my own ugly sinful face is exactly what is supposed to happen, exactly what the Holy Spirit does in one’s life. In seeing the ugliness of sin in my life, perhaps it helps me to look past the ugliness of sin I see in others so that I might see the good under construction in them, the glimmers of Grace at work. And in seeing the good under construction beneath the brokenness of others, I might have reason to hope that beneath my own face disfigured by sin, God is constructing good there too.