a consuming flame

He stood appalled, judging himself with the thoroughness of God, while the action of mercy covered his pride like a flame and consumed it. He had never thought himself a great sinner before, but he saw now that his true depravity had been hidden from him lest it cause him despair.  He realized that he was forgiven for sins from the beginning of time, when he had conceived in his own heart the sin of Adam, until the present, when he had denied poor Nelson.  He saw that no sin was too monstrous for him to claim as his own, and since God loved in proportion as He forgave, he felt ready at that instant to enter Paradise.”

-Flannery O’Connor;  The Artificial Nigger

I’ve been reading a book of O’Connor’s short stories lately with varying degrees of interest and enjoyment.  There is no doubt she is a brilliant writer and well-deserving of her place in this country’s literary canon, but nonetheless, her stories make me very sad.  She manages to give birth to characters who exemplify the depravity of man so intensely that it is both exhausting and painful to read their stories.

So earlier this evening I was sitting in the Filling Station, fully prepared to be left saddened yet again by the story, when I came upon those words I just quoted at the end of one story.  “the action of mercy covered his pride like a flame and consumed it.”  How incredibly powerful are those words?  Shouldn’t that very action be taking place in our hearts?  This bears a great deal more thought.

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One thought on “a consuming flame

  1. Sara,

    I am thrilled to read your thoughts. Yes, you are having the epiphany that Flannery hopes you will have–and it is only the beginning.

    I have been reading Flannery for over 25 years now. I return to her stories at least every six months and re-read a few. As one who was chronically perplexed and even scandalized by her in the early years, I understand well your negative reactions. But, once you have read and re-read her appalling accounts a few times, you will get past the shock enough to see the hints of grace in her stories. And, as you read again those hints begin to blare and shout and stomp demanding more and more of your focused attention. Now I find I can hardly read more than a page without taking a break from her wonderful intensity. And the hopefulness of her spiritual vision is now what I see most in her.

    From a Catholic point of view, the meaning of ones life as a Christian has everything to do with how his life ends–either reconciled to God or not. If reconciled, then every twist on ones life path no matter how horrible becomes a necessary step in the process of conversion, a moment of grace, an encounter with God. If unreconciled, even the best moments in this life only serve to highlight the ultimate tragedy. This is central to Flannery’s vision.

    Keep reading and let the world know more about what fruit comes from it.

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