‘Even their virtues were being burned away’: Lent with Flannery O’Connor

A pimpled teenager named Mary Grace had the audacity to throw a book at her, the eminently respectable Mrs. Turpin, and declare her a warthog from hell. Seeing this as a prophetic word from God, she confronts Him—“How am I a hog and me both? How am I saved and from hell, too?” These questions from Flannery O’Connor’s story Revelation lead us into the central tension of the Christian vision—the now and not yet tension of the presence of Christ’s saving grace extended towards us alongside our continuing struggle with sin. Each year, Lent accentuates this tension for us through attentiveness to the dimensions of the not yet, specifically those that dwell deep within ourselves. Lent, claims Alexander Schmemann, is “the help extended to us by the Church, the school of repentance which alone will make it possible to receive Easter not as mere permission to eat, to drink, and to relax, but indeed as the end of the ‘old’ in us, as our entrance into the ‘new.’”

This school of repentance shocks us out of our complacency. As the book to the face and snarled insult challenge Mrs. Turpin’s self-satisfaction, so our Lenten disciplines lay bare not our dramatic failings but the true scope of our most mundane sins—the ones we barely even see, and may even consider virtues, and which thereby keep us all the more easily from living into the ‘new.’ And just as Mrs. Turpin requires time after the event to ask her questions and receive her responses, so we need time for the concrete disciplines of Lent and the openness they create in us to God’s word to sink in and transform our vision of the world. This understanding of the purpose of Lent underscores Iris Murdoch’s insight that “The place of choice is certainly a different one if we think in terms of a world which is compulsively present to the will, and the discernment and exploration of which is a slow business. Moral change and moral achievement are slow; we are not free in the sense of being able suddenly to alter ourselves since we cannot suddenly alter what we can see and ergo what we desire and are compelled by.” As O’Connor claims, “the roots of the eye are in the heart.” Through practices of fasting, prayer, and almsgiving, Lent alters our hearts and serves as a school for our attention. We do not know, going into Lenten observance, the precise dimensions of our own sinfulness, the particular ways in which we are being called to see differently. If moral change and achievement are slow, then the church is wise to give us a long season to re-orient our hearts toward God, to prepare to receive and live into the new dawn of Easter.

Throwing a final cry into the void, Mrs. Turpin demands of God “Who do you think you are?” And in reply, after a time, she receives a vision of “a vast horde of souls . . . rumbling toward heaven”—with those she most disdained leading the decidedly un-orderly procession.

And bringing up the end of the procession was a tribe of people whom she recognized at once as those who, like herself and Claud, had always had a little of everything and the God-given wit to use it right. . . . They were marching behind the others with great dignity, accountable as they had always been for good order and common sense and respectable behavior. They alone were on key. Yet she could see by their shocked and altered faces that even their virtues were being burned away.

“If moral change and achievement are slow, then the church is wise to give us a long season to re-orient our hearts toward God, to prepare to receive and live into the new dawn of Easter.”

This tribe—like all the others—does not become other than they are, and yet their virtues, source of their pride, are as nothing before the glory of God, revealed on Easter Sunday. Without this purging fire, where even our virtues are as naught, we are not ready to receive the Easter joy that even now suffuses the world if we but had eyes to see it.

We are saved and from hell, ourselves and warthogs both. And through the incarnational disciplines of Lent, we are opened to the mystery of Christ’s sacrificial redemption. Through our small self-denials, we are led to full kenosis at the foot of the cross, followed by the sorrowful and yet somehow expectant waiting of Holy Saturday, and finally, into the now of Easter. Lent prepares us to accomplish what O’Connor characterizes as the Christian writer’s task: to “feel life from the standpoint of the central Christian mystery: that it has, for all its horror, been found by God to be worth dying for.”

Dr. Amy Gilbert Richards is a professor in the Templeton Honors College as well as the Eastern University’s Philosophy Department Chair.

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