If there was a scripture haunting the protagonist of Flannery O’Connor’s “Greenleaf,” it was Romans 14:10.
For we shall all stand before the judgment seat of Christ.
Religious without humility, Mrs. May–a widow intent on protecting her land–would offer a resolute, “I’ve worked, I have not wallowed” in the presence of her Judge.
Then there’s “Revelation’s” plump and pious Mrs. Turpin, proclaiming to the inferiors in her doctor’s waiting room, “If there’s one thing I am, it’s grateful” while her inner dialog takes note of the dirty, lazy and ungrateful people all around her. Joyfully she bursts, “Thank you, Jesus!” for not making her like one of them.
O’Connor’s delivery of each inner voice is spot-on. I might like to believe I’m nothing like her characters, but the lupus-stricken short story master has a way of revealing the truth about you and me through them. Beneath differences of social station, race and level of education, each of us has made our heart a judgment seat. And we greatly prefer our own judgment seat to God’s.
O’Connor is as deft at revealing the judgmental nature of smug, citified secularists as of pious southern ladies.
There’s “The Enduring Chill’s” Asbury, an artistic failure just returned from New York, bristling as his mother complains about “the faults of the help” and demanding she round up a Jesuit that he might engage in conversation with an “educated” man.
O’Connor’s unforgettable intellectuals include Thomas, a history buff who seethes at his mother’s kindness toward the “slut” she brings home from the local jail in “The Comforts of Home” and Shepherd, the atheist counselor who ignores his own child’s pain in a wretched attempt to “save” a club-footed delinquent from the home where he works in “The Lame Shall Enter First.”
If you fancy yourself a saint, Flannery O’Connor can deliver you of the notion.
And that’s a good thing. While exposing our judgmental hearts, O’Connor prepares us to seek a deliverance that can only come from grace.
Granted, we have to suffer, along with her characters, the demise that creates an opening for light. We have to abide each character’s judgmental interior, poverty of self-awareness and mistreatment of others until we can barely stand it, until tragedy and transformation become synonymous.
But the experience leaves us changed, ready to admit that we too are sinners who will stand before Christ just like everybody else. “Do not think at all about what others do; think instead about the account you must render of yourself,” advised the great French preacher, Bishop Jacques-Bénigne Bousuet:
You do not see into the interior. You do not know his intentions, which may perhaps justify him. And if his crime is manifest, you do not know whether he will one day repent, or whether he has already repented, or whether he is one of those whose conversions will cause great rejoicing in Heaven. Therefore do not judge.
Ok. But I do, and so do you. Our culture is rife with judgment while railing against intolerance. It’s in politics, in our entertainment, in the church, in our workplaces and in our divided families.
It’s in our own intolerant hearts.
If we recognize how deeply judgment is rooted within our own souls, we’re closer to seeking the grace God longs to give, the grace that transforms us little by little rather than curing us in one surefire instant.
The Pharisee in Christ’s parable, overly impressed with his own moral excellence, did not go home justified the day he recited his merits before the altar. His gratitude that God had not made him like his inferiors sounds a lot like Mrs. Turpin. And if O’Connor shows us anything, it’s that we’re all more like Mrs. Turpin than we realize.
Mrs. Turpin’s moment of transformation begins when the pimpled college girl, Mary Grace, becomes fed up with the woman’s self-satisfaction and calls her a warthog from hell while winging a human development textbook smack at the lady’s smug, fat face. Broken-hearted and angry, Mrs. Turpin slowly opens to a true vision of heavenward souls.
The Pharisee, as far as we know, never received such a favor.
Our moments of self-revelation can allow us to banish our inner Pharisee and join the tax collector, begging for mercy in the here and now.
The tax collector received the mercy he sought.
If we understand how wretched we truly are, we may also receive the mercy flowing from the Heart the Judge who emptied Himself of glory to meet us in the places we wallow.
“Isn’t it strange that the saints always seem to think they are buried deeper in the muck of sin than the rest of us?” Read Ken Lankoski’s essay “I Am a Warthog from Hell” at Dappled Things, here.
Though I’ve read her many times over the years, I haven’t always appreciated Flannery O’Connor as I wanted to. This Audible edition made all the difference. The narrators simply nail it with their put-upon huffiness and perfect southern accents.
O’Connor is famous for her grim and piercing take on the culture. But she can also be hilarious. This recording of Stephen Colbert reading O’Connor’s “The Enduring Chill” is priceless.
This post is part of a series (see Confessions of a Cannonball: A Lenten Invitation to Hunger for Humility).
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