Filed under: Books and Movies, Culture and Catholicism, Vatican II | Tags: Angelus Press, Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre, Catholic tradition, Catholic values, fiction, Flannery O'Connor, Revelation, SSPX, Teilhard de Chardin, traditional mass, Vatican II
Pius X wrote Pascendi in 1907 to warn us of a special danger: modernist heretics fight dirty. Unlike the heretics of the past, they conceal their true agenda and don’t even leave the Church. And they employ a special rhetorical device, confusion. They decline, Pius X wrote, to lay out their thought coherently, but spread it out in a confused or puzzling way so that the full meaning is not immediately apparent, or bury it in bits in otherwise orthodox material which the unorthodox fragments contradict but very quietly. (And you thought it was you!)
It is not that modernists don’t wish to be understood, but rather from experience (advertising, for one) know they can trust that the whole meaning will reassemble itself in the reader’s psyche later, carried there past security by the shell of orthodoxy. They’re sidestepping a fair fight, to get into the heart. Think virus.
Their cynical tactic proves to be successful. They can even target niche audiences, it would seem. Consider, for example, that, judging from copious online reports, tenth graders ‘get’ Flannery O’Connor, while traditional Catholic school administrators apparently don’t.
In their defense, the administrators might be over-focused on non-fiction. We modern Catholics are familiar with the modernist rhetorical devices in non-fiction, thanks to Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre and others. We have been fortunate they have revealed to us the modernism buried in the text of Vatican II regarding collegiality, ecumenism, and religious freedom. We must admit, however, to vulnerability in the jungle of fiction, with its complicated language usage, its violations of time and space, and its shifting or unreliable point of view.
Modernists’ well-hidden meanings are aided by another difference, compared to the old heretics, noted by Pascendi: they do not voluntarily leave the Church. This is what Father Francois Knittel, familiar to many traditionalists, wrote concerning it:
The heretic, or more accurately the Modernist apostate like a Loisy or Teilhard de Chardin, deliberately rejects the whole doctrine of the Church, but desires to remain in the Church and takes the necessary measures to stay in. He dissembles and feigns with the hope of changing the Church in the long run–or, as the Jesuit Teilhard de Chardin wrote, to rectify the Faith from the inside. The Modernist has in common with other heretics the rejection of Catholic Revelation. But he differentiates himself from other heretics, because he hides this rejection.
Not only do they stay–they rule. Often they will work their way up the ranks until they are highly placed, and they are avid seekers of professional certifications and other levers of power and authority, so that they may appear to be well educated, Pius X continues. (Section 3).
So we have the double whammy of liberal meaning concealed by ambiguity, being spoken from positions of authority or prestige or popularity. And as Pius X cannily mentioned, there is the additional factor, that the meaning is continually urging the reader toward something easier, something more passive, something more anonymous, something less challenging, than the life of the Faith as traditionally conceived.
We can relate! That rings a bell! That is how the Church was changed before our very eyes. That is how our culture was changed. This is how we came to be in chains.
We have learned just how thoroughly we’ve been had the hard way, although there are certain websites of ‘tradition’ that seem, like Groundhog Day, to have to re-learn it fresh every morning. They need every day new scandals, and then they take a vigorous stand–until tomorrow, when they are back to talking about obedience.
But most of us have learned, and retained, how to detect the poison in modernist non-fiction, as in the constitutions of Vatican II. We have learned and retained the code words–dignity, dialogue, diminishment, all the rest of the alphabet of apostasy, and we can recognize them even when they are sugar-coated and chocolate-dipped, praise God. Those with eyes to see now see the exact text in Vatican II that SSPX and other theologians are talking about; they no longer pretend the embodiment of those texts in Church policy, canon law, and even in catechisms is the fault of “the spirit of the council misinterpreted” and not the letter. (If you still have not done so, please google Gleize and Ocariz for a concise, clear statement giving the significance and location of the text in question along with the location of the traditional text being contradicted, regarding religious liberty, ecumenism, and collegiality.)
But it would seem that we still have to see how we’ve been had in fiction, because some traditionalists are apparently missing the actual point Flannery O’Connor was making in her flaming work, because– why, again? Because she said (over and over) that she was Catholic.
And we yearn to believe her, because kids ‘love her, eat her up’ or at least one traditionalist’s daughter did, or so he said of his home-schooled offspring. Besides, Flannery spoke with authority, because she enjoyed–and still enjoys (perhaps more now than ever) some moderate fame with the secular and protestant intelligentsia, who recognize, better than Catholics perhaps, having made the journey themselves, her defection from tradition, and love her for it, because they love all enemies of the Church and are always seeking to lionize them. But confronted with the evidence of Flannery’s popularity with the wrong crowd, traditional O’Connor supporters blow it off with the suggestion that it just gives Catholics more street cred, so it can’t hurt, right? O’Connor’s cool and she’s ours, ha ha. (Or maybe not.)
Professionals have noticed this weakness in the line. As one critical essay points out, contemporary readers ”approach O’Connor’s material from varied spiritual perspectives, but generally assume her acceptance of classical Catholic Theology. This school of O’Connor scholarship is relevant because its proponents are some of the fiercest opponents of any profound philosophical/theological relationship between Flannery O’Connor and Teilhard de Chardin.” They then usually go on to demonstrate just how her work completes his. They’re talking about us, who should know better, who have read Pius X, and they find it astonishing that we believe her to be, of all things, traditional.
For, here they are, all the indicators Pius X warned us about: public assertions of orthodoxy but private pursuit of error, staying in the Church while differing with the Church on these significant points, and avid pursuit of professional credibility. Flannery fits the profile, her private unorthodoxy suggested by her enthusiastic promotion of Teilhard de Chardin in her book reviews and letters, when we know him as one of tradition’s worst enemies, so identified by Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre, when we know that his liberal-fascist poison still circulates in our comatose Church, newly injected by the recent praise of Benedict XVI. So it is only fair to ask: which side is Flannery on? Is she a Thomist, or a Teilhardist? And how should we begin to know? How does one analyze fiction?
Here’s one approach that ought to be persuasive to traditionalists, the excellent How to Read A Book, the Classic Guide to Intelligent Reading, by Mortimer Adler and Charles Van Doren, offered by Angelus Press. Briefly, they recommend that, after establishing the genre to which a work belongs, one does what is necessary to grasp the unity of the work in a sentence or two, and ‘what is necessary’ is accomplished by pinning down the plot in its temporal order, including the episodes, incidents, characters, and their thoughts, speeches, and actions, and then last, having capsulated the meaning of the work in the one or two sentences mentioned, one must say whether one likes or dislikes the work, and why–and this liking or disliking is based on whether the work is ‘true.’
This is a brilliantly simple way of putting the matter of interpretation so that even children can begin to exercise their critical faculties, but all criticism is simply whether or not we ‘like’ something, based on a world full of various and sundry walls to bounce that against, some that Adler points out are cheap (like the application of a ‘test’ of historical accuracy to historical fiction, for example) and some so powerful they knock your cognitive socks off. And notice the importance of step one before the application of step two: the ‘plot’ must be addressed first, what the author actually wrote must be addressed, in totality, not in bits (this is a real kindness to an author, by the way; people simply making up your stories as they go along is a painful trial). The most powerful interpretations explain the most broad range of plot elements, and violate none.
This approach is typically the one favored on the better standardized essay tests, by the way, whose agencies typically reserve the best scores to students who are able to grasp and communicate in one short coherent statement or thesis (such as the two-sentence standard recommended by Angelus’ Adler) the central meaning that ties together all the major events and statements in the particular work of fiction, then go on to support that thesis using evidence from the text, and finally, one more thing, make a judgement/interpretation as to the truth of the statement, again in parallel with Adler. New Standards, one excellent nineties think tank (Pittsburgh used the approach until liberals killed it), favored the thesis that was able, without violating the evidence from the text, to extend the reach of the thesis to larger issues pertinent to the topic (‘go big or go home’ in terms of the breadth of the thesis), and I will try to do that regarding “Revelation,” as you will see, or have already guessed from the title of this post.
Adler’s methodology, and others like New Standards, is profoundly anti-modernist; the liberal understanding of the world disputes that a text (or a religion) can have any stable, non-subjective meaning; furthermore, is has fallen out of use because our US kids simply can’t do it. Teachers familiar with standardized testing, like the writer, are too aware that our kids can answer concrete questions about a text, who did what to whom kinds of questions, but they cannot or will not venture to say what the text means. It feels like judgement, and all their socialization is focused on their never, ever judging, apparently anything. Interpretation is a dying art, stemming from modernism’s philosophical taboo. Liberalism doesn’t permit us to make such statements. That’s because they are powerful, really powerful, and when they push back against liberalism’s lying tyranny, they can win.
Adler’s trick to help children ferret out the meaning of a work, was to ask oneself, after doing steps one and two, if we ‘liked’ the meaning we’d discovered. They must interpret it to answer, more important than their yes or no. Mature readers do not ‘like’ falsehood, and do like truth. The truth of a work is found or lacking on a very broad field of questions, but in our case, we traditionalists are looking for the meaning of the work in terms of its doctrine, because we heed the warning of Pius X and above all else do not wish to inadvertently introduce the poison of modernism into our children’s minds, nor into our own, via the unguarded back door of fiction. To us, the most important question of truth in Flannery O’Connor and in this particular story is simply whether it reflects Thomism and the teaching of the Church, or, on the contrary, Teilhardism and the teaching of modernism. So, let us turn to the text, as Adler suggests, and see whether we ‘like’ the truth we find asserted there.
We must begin by examining the details of the plot and characters. “Revelation” is found in the collection of short stories, Everything That Rises Must Converge. The title of the book refers to a work by Teilhard, in the Omega Point. A representative statement of its thesis is one like this:
“Remain true to yourself, but move ever upward toward greater consciousness and greater love! At the summit you will find yourselves united with all those who, from every direction, have made the same ascent. For everything that rises must converge.”
It is this phrase that O’Connor borrowed in her book title. In Flannery’s story “Revelation” her title refers to a sustained experience of the central character, Mrs. Ruby Turpin, which the narrative follows throughout. Mrs. Turpin enters a crowded doctor’s waiting room with her husband Claude. She is a “large woman,” so large that she made the room look “even smaller by her presence” (The Complete Stories, 1971, p. 488; all subsequent references will be from this source). Mrs. Turpin must stand, at first, because a child was monopolizing two seats, one of which is the last seat in the waiting room; she judged him mentally for doing so. She engaged in conversation with a ‘nice woman.’ They discussed and dismissed her fatness with platitudes. This annoyed a college student trying to read a book called Human Development. Mrs. Turpin mentally judged her as ugly because of her acne. Next Mrs. Turpin turned her attention toward the grandmother of the child who is monopolizing two seats, judging her as a woman dressed in “a flour sack,” as ‘dirty,’ and “worse than n——- any day” (490). Mrs. Turpin judged more positively the better dress of the nice woman with whom she had been speaking.
Mrs. Turpin’s thoughts about the people in the room reminded her of an experience she sometimes had at night in bed, considering that she could have been created black, or white-trash, instead of her respectable self, and concluding that of the choices open to her, she would have chosen, if she could not have been created herself, to be a respectable black woman rather than white trash. But she liked her own identity and would’ve preferred that over all others.
Next Mrs. Turpin judged another woman in the waiting room who is “not white trash, just common” (491) and then recollected her personal ranking of the classes of people – most colored people on the bottom, and next to them, equal to them, the white trash; then above them, the homeowners, and above them the owners of both home and land, the one to which she and her husband belong. Above them were people with lots of money and bigger houses and more land. But her personal racial and social classification system dictated that money alone is not the only criteria for rank. “Good blood” counted. She was aware that there was a connection between the ranking of people such as she has been doing, and the use of such rankings to eliminate some of them, in box cars (a reference to the holocaust), and this confused her.
When the conversation in the waiting room turned to green stamps [a form of merchandising coupons], Mrs. Turpin was critical of the white trash grandmother for getting jewelry with her green stamps instead of “a wash rag and some soap” (492).
The white trash woman in the waiting room criticized hogs as dirty and hog farmers in general as derelict, and Mrs. Turpin defended hogs and farmers and described the clean way they are raised on her farm, with a daily wash down. Interiorly, she asserted that her hogs are cleaner than the little boy with the white trash woman.
The conversation continued. Mrs. Turpin described how she is able to work with the black people but how she was tired of buttering them up. Her husband picks up their workers, and drives them home, she said. She described other efforts they make with their black help.
The white trash woman argued with her and said she wouldn’t either work with black people or wash down hogs.
Mrs. Turpin then helped a black delivery boy who had just entered, by telling him how to summon the receptionist. Then she defended black people against the statement of the white trash woman that they ‘ought to be sent back to Africa’. She said, “It’s all kinds of them just like it’s all kinds of us” (494). This causes the college girl to make an ugly face. Then Mrs. Turpin gives reasons why it would be impractical to send black people back to Africa – mainly because they wouldn’t stand for it. And also because they’d rather stay here and marry white people and “improve their color.” Then her husband makes a joke based on his white-face cattle [a common type of meat animal named for their broad blaze], that black people who marry white would become white-face n——–. This makes everyone laugh except the white trash woman and the college girl.
A song comes on the radio. Mrs. Turpin agreed with its meaning, which she interpreted as an endorsement of her own philosophy of life, which is to help anybody out it needed it, whether they were “white or black, trash or decent” (497). Mrs. Turpin thought that, “of all she had to be thankful for, she was most thankful that this was so” (497). She reflected that even if Jesus had offered her a choice in the matter and had offered her riches rather than being “a good woman,” even if being “a good woman” was accompanied by being ugly and poor, she would still choose being good. Her heart “rose” that Christ had “made her herself and given her a little of everything” (497).
There was more conversation in which the white trash woman says that she “can’t get nothing down them two [the grandmother and the child] but Co’Cola and candy,” and Mrs. Turpin judgmentally thought, that’s because “that’s all you try to get down ‘em,” and reflected further on how well she knows white trash, how well she knows that “if you gave them everything, in two weeks it would all be broken or filthy or they would’ve chopped it up for lightwood. She knew all this from her own experience. Help them you must, but help them you couldn’t” (497). As if in response to her thoughts, the college girl again made an ugly face, and began to stare at Mrs. Turpin.
Mrs. Turpin tried to make conversation with the college girl, who rudely refused to answer her. The n’ice woman,’ the girl’s mother, said how well she’s doing in college, while the girl looked “as if she would like to hurl them all through the plate glass window” (498). Mrs. Turpin judgmentally observesdthat she may be doing well in college, but they’re not teaching her manners.
The girl became the butt of jokes (started by her mother) revolving around her refusal to show gratitude for everything that is done for her, and this caused Mrs. Turpin to share some of her interior dialogue with the others. She said that it’s the one thing that she was, “is grateful. When I think who all I could have been besides myself and what all I got, a little of everything, and a good disposition besides, I just feel like shouting, ‘Thank you, Jesus, for making everything the way it is! It could have been different!’ “ For one thing, somebody else could’ve ‘got Claude,’ she observed mentally, and is “flooded with gratitude and a terrible pang of joy ran through her” (499).
Following this expression of gratitude to God for the world exactly as it was, the college girl attacked her. She threw the book about human development she had been reading at Mrs. Turpin and hit her in the head, cursed her by calling her a wart hog from hell that she should go back to, and choked her. The attack was followed by moments of confusion before the others were able to extricate Mrs. Turpin, and then she and her husband were called for his appointment with the doctor, who examined Mrs. Turpin as well as her husband for the injuries she received in the girl’s attack, and then the couple was subsequently on their way home, passing in the waiting room the white trash family, who were heard to give thanks that they are not lunatics like the college girl, as the ambulance hauled the girl away.
When they got home, Mrs. Turpin continued to think about what the girl said to her. She took it seriously. She asked for and received a kiss and comfort from her husband. When their black workers arrived at ther house to be taken home, she took them cold water, as they ‘prefer it’ to tepid, and shared with them what happened and what the girl said to her. They flattered her outrageously in response, and she was disappointed: “Idiots! Mrs. Turpin growled to herself you could never say anything intelligent to a n—–. You could talk at them but not with them” (505).
When her husband left to take their workers home, Mrs. Turpin, washing down the hogs in the hog pen, complained to God. She had taken it as God’s will that the girl chose her to call a hog and to attack her, rather than the other people in the waiting room. She asked God if He prefers trash. She reminded God that “it’s no trash around here, black or white, that I haven’t given to. And break my back to the bone every day working. And do for the church” (507). She asked God if He would prefer that she quit working and be filthy and nasty and dip snuff and lie down in the middle of the road and stop traffic (perhaps a reference to the civil rights movement). Genuinely furious, she roared at God, “Who do you think you are?” (507) and her question echoed all around the pasture and highway and cotton field until it came back to her.
She stood there a long time, until she had a vision. In the vision “a vast horde of souls” were “rumbling” toward heaven. They were in groups. There was a group of white trash, and a group of blacks, and a group of freaks and lunatics leaping around like frogs, and finally after those, at the very end, were “tribe of people whom she recognized at once as those who, like herself and Claude, had always had a little of everything and the God-given wit to use it right.” Like the white trash, “clean for the first time in their lives,” these respectable people too were changed: it was clear in their shocked faces that “even their virtues were being burned away” (508). As she leaves the hog pen to go home, the last of her vision is music – gospel music accompanies the souls in the sky.
Adler would have us sum up this action in two sentences, and comment on it. Mrs. Turpin is every good, happy housewife with attitude, but she wakes up to the fact that her decent life amounts to zip in the bigger picture and isn’t even what her God wanted. And that about covers it. We can go ahead with saying what we think it means–whether we like it. To sum up the salient plot points: Ruby Turpin is a comfortable, prosperous,virtuous, judgemental woman who uses impolite racial terms, but who is in fact reliably kind to black people, helping them as she can, taking them seriously enough to reject their flattery, and combatting racial persecution in rejecting the demand that blacks ’be sent back to Africa.’ She is charitable in other ways, for example the reliable support of her church, her habitual care for the poor regardless of race, and her love for her husband, and she has done all this for God, when she is made to realize in this story that God doesn’t like it.
So, Mrs. Turpin is a type, don’t you recognize her? Mrs. Turpin is Ethel Mertz, devoted to her Fred. Except this Ethel gets transformed. She’s Joan Allen in Pleasantville, transformed from her virtuous black and white (boring!) life to technicolor sexual freedom– except Mrs. Turpin is even more blessed than the movie character, Mrs. Turpin is allowed to be fat and happy and sexually complacent in her Claude (their married kiss she asks for, and gets).
But Ruby Turpin is more than that. The text said she’s ’the largest presence in the room’, that is, the most comfortable, the most judgemental, the fattest, the most insultingly charitable, the one Teilhard was aiming at. The Queen. Mrs. Turpin, in her completely relaxed freedom, her freedom to criticize with complete and shameless confidence the sinful (or merely unwashed) world around her, is no less than the Church Triumphant. It’s the Church that has to wise up. That was Teilhard’s obsession. It’s the Church that has to wise up in Revelation.
Mrs. Turpin is so confident she uses the private names we Americans sometimes, in extremity, with family, never in public, put on sinners, including the n word and the w t word, and more, she is confident even to the degree of criticizing the personal hygiene of her neighbor, all in step with Mother Church, who shows a similar rude arrogance certainly bordering on racist, at least to the rebels’ eyes, to the degree of putting clothing on naked native bodies, and forcing on them new music for liturgy, which She dares to substitute for their healthy pagan music. Mother Church has the nerve to call a sin a sin, just as Ruby never hesitates to tell it like it is. It is this confidence and this largeness and this satisfaction that must burn away. Such confidence is bad. That is what the text says. Flannery points it at Ruby but Teilhard was aiming at the Bride of Christ.
The reader will object! Flannery O’Connor didn’t intend to ‘bring down’ Holy Mother Church! Flannery O’Connor loved the Church and in spite of her jokiness on the subject, she would have died for the Church. One must agree!
And one does agree. But it doesn’t work that way. The thesis of a work isn’t always what the author intended, but what it means on its own, which is the sum total of all the plot elements etc. as Adler said. Sometimes stories/novels/plays mean the opposite of the stated beliefs of the writer. Sigrid Undset gives the example of D.H. Lawrence (in her essay in Men Women and Places) who was a free love advocate, and who taught and lectured about how sexual liberation would bring perfect happiness on earth, but whose tortured characters proved over and over how empty promiscuity is. He could not do otherwise, Undset wrote, simply because he was a good writer and was unable to write inauthentic (untruthful) characters. J.M. Coetzee makes the same point about South African writer Sarah Millen, whose fiction work followed Nazi biological theories in spite of her Jewish blood and her dedicated, life-long anti-Nazi propogandizing (White Writing, On the Culture of Letters in South Africa, 1988).
This is like that. Flannery didn’t intend to take down the Church Triumphant, but her story nevertheless serves to throw the shadow of doubt over the characteristics we habitually associate with Mother Church, most certainly her audacity to judge the good from the bad.
You know how that kills modernists. They hate it. How dare She! It’s a tone. When Pius XI called indigenous religions ‘motley assemblies’ (Mortalium animos p. 7) he sounds awfully like Ruby Turpin’s racial ephthets, that is, harsh but true (perhaps only a child of poor white trash can say that with credibility). This is the tone, banned at Nuremberg, that audacious confidence to judge what is motley and what is not, and even to put it in racial terms en famile at least, what is trash and what is not, that Vatican II replaced with the unctuous ecumenism that has killed our mission and our joy. This is the tone of the Church Triumphant. Flannery’s ‘Revelation’ speaks to this tone in Ruby Turpin. The story reveals how deeply Flannery despises it.
Certainly, one wants to say in charity, Flannery didn’t will that message. And yet it’s inescapable how the story serves the cause, to dethrone, not the sinner, which would be orthodox, but the Good Wife. Flannery has brought them all down. Her letters reveal how she hated them, all the fat, happy wives, the happy, pious nuns, the comfortable virtuous, and now, at the end of her career and very life, she has brought them with this story to heel in the service of equality, stripping them all of the one feature that the text says in Mrs. Turpin’s eyes was her crown (since the plot says it was the one thing in her meditation on the topic of identity, she would not consent to surrender, even if God Himself should require it of her): her virtue. The thing that sets her apart. And the thing that must be burned away. Only modernism, never tradition, thinks it sinful to wish only to be oneself, as Ruby did. They always wish to be someone else, you see.
Look at the other behaviors that Flannery’s text would vanish! She hardly missed a virtue! Mrs. Turpin will have to have burned away her life-long pursuit of what we call ‘Christian perfection,’ her almsgiving, her support of her church, her uncritical generosity to the poor, her accumulation of property, and last, of course, her constitutional right to judge the behaviors of others according to their measurement against a standard, a standard which includes the damnably European and classist use of soap and water. Apparently also sacred music: what is left at the end of the vision in Flannery’s text, is gospel singing, the hallelujah. (That must be consciously composed on Flannery’s part, since we know how she sees the distinction, as she did in the short story “Temple of the Holy Ghost,” contrasting the Pange Lingua to a cheap gospel tune.)
Only then, with all that virtue gone, will she and her fellow believers be able to enter heaven. And only then. Presumably for the other groups in the vision’s line up, their distinguishing features will be burnt away as well, the white trashness will be burnt off that crowd, as it has already begun to be, since the text notes they are ‘clean for the first time in the lives,’ the blackness from the black people, the foolishness from the simple in their jittering herd. Who can miss the implication: all, all are going to heaven, as soon as they are all the same, and for the group of up-tight virtuous, it means, the text says, losing the virtue.
I believe the case is made, then, that the book Human Development is thrown not only at Ruby Turpin but at the Church Herself as the chief promoter and example of Ruby’s particular behaviors. The Church is the biggest, fattest, richest, happiest house wife around, with that judgmental attitude so despised by modernism, and Flannery has brought her down. It will be burned away, until all churches are equal. Ruby Turpin ‘subsists’ in the white trash. Not as special as she thought she was.
I hope we can agree that this thesis statement covers, as per Adler, the sum of the plot details (and not just one or another,as, for example, a recent piece in a traditional magazine asserting that Flannery was intending to show her wonderfully Thomistic belief in purgatory with this story, which cheap thesis cherry picks that one element and ignores all the rest of the plot details– rather like saying that we must introduce Lady Gaga in our schools, because she teaches girls to be Ladies; in fact, it may be the new modernist paradigm, since Benedict once argued that the Council and Tradition must agree, because, after all, they address the same subjects ). It covers all the plot elements, and is negated by none of them. This thesis, which reveals the modernism of “Revelation,” is fully supported. And it does address an element larger than one hilarious good old girl with a beef.
Now we can turn to the second step of the Adler method; we must ask, do we like it?
We will like it if it is Catholic.
But is it? Is this Thomism? One hardly feels the need to say more! All of one’s Catholicism rises up in protest!
Does St. Thomas ever make virtue the equal of any bad thing? The equal of vice? Does St. Thomas equate virtue, for example, with those well-known behaviors that make white trash such unforgettable neighbors? Does St. Thomas ever equate virtue with those black trash behaviors that unfortunately provoke many humans, including African American ones, to let loose the n word? Does he ever equate virtue with race at all, that is, as something we’re either born with, or we’re not? We’d get better Thomism from Martin Luther King–his dream was that black people should be judged by the content of their character, Mrs. Turpin’s motto, too. Flannery’s story is so not that. Flannery’s story is so the modernist garbage that killed the civil rights movement in favor of the promotion of vote-captives languishing in their gang-infested ghettoes except during elections.
What St. Thomas makes equal to virtue is Christ’s suffering on the cross. Here is what he says, see if it is his wish we should lose virtue:
Why did the Son of God have to suffer for us? There was a great need, and it can be considered in a twofold way: in the first place, as a remedy for sin, and secondly, as an example of how to act.
It is a remedy, for, in the face of all the evils which we incur on account of our sins, we have found relief through the passion of Christ. Yet, it is no less an example, for the passion of Christ completely suffices to fashion our lives. Whoever wishes to live perfectly should do nothing but disdain what Christ disdained on the cross and desire what he desired, for the cross exemplifies every virtue.
Equally troublesome to the brown-skinned, one must think, is the text’s evident equation of race with sin to be burnt away. Does St. Thomas teach that race is a bad thing? And let’s not neglect another of Mrs. Turpin’s, and the Church’s, virtues/sins, as we are encouraged to think of it in Revelation’s modernistic double-speak, the question of her property, a feature she shares with the others of her ‘kind’? Does St. Thomas not defend our right to property without any perjoration whatsoever except that we use it for good (Summa Question 66)–and doesn’t the story make such a point of the Turpin’s constant care to use it for good, so that Flannery is telling us she’s not talking about its good usage but its actual ownership that must be burnt away? Isn’t that socialism’s position, and Teilhard’s? And the general position of liberal education? But not ours. But here it is, in this story, sneaked into our children’s minds with the blessing of their traditional teacher at their traditional school.
We–traditional, not liberal, Catholics– know very well, just from the collects of the holy mass, let alone the Summa and Pius X’s catechism, that our Church calls us every day to heroic virtue and the life of perfection. We try, and fail, and try again. That is our goal as Catholics, for each day, for the whole life. It does not make us worse, this inequality growing over time from the sum of small sacrifices into a precious habit, it makes us better in this life, it makes us more prosperous, it makes us less tortured by divorce and infidelity and theft and murder and the consequences of all those sins. Virtue is good for us, experience teaches us that, so do the psalms I (“I was young and now I am old, but never have I seen the sons of a just man begging bread,” that is the message of the psalms again and again and again) in this life as well as in the next in heaven. We shall achieve heaven, not by becoming equal to sinners, as this story teaches, but by becoming ever more meritorious–ever more unequal. Teilhard hated that. It’s the opposite of his convergence. It’s the opposite of his understanding of evolution, in which species are moved along, not individuals.
Simply consider the Lenten preface: we give thanks to the God who “by this bodily fast extinguish our vices, elevate our understanding, bestow on us virtue and its reward.” We Catholics know that virtue is rewarded both spiritually and materially, and we don’t mind. We can always donate it, if we get too much reward.
And do we forget what St. Ambrose specifically teaches us about the very common fault of envying others the success they earn even in this life by faithfully following the practice of Christian perfection? Here is what he says:
It shows no triffling degree of envy to forget the charity due a fellow-citizen and turn motives for love into bitter hatreds. It is made clear both by word and by example that the Man who envies another the fruit of his virtue will wait in vain for heaven’s merciful help. The Lord is the foe of all men of ill will, and keeps His wondrous power from those who attack His good deeds in others. (Book 4 on Luke, Chapter 4, in the latter part; we read it at Matins of the Third Week of Lent.)
If the reader were thinking that the average kid probably won’t even get the message that being rewarded for being virtuous is wrong, and that good works disfigure the soul in such a way that they have to be burned away, that the average kid will just read along and be edified by the mere fact alone that the author is Catholic– that’s just not true. They get it. Here’s a sadly representative quote from a young person’s on-line essay which clearly shows how much she gets it:
The revelation Mrs. Turpin receives in the last scene of the book is one that has challenged me. In the end, everyone’s “good deeds” are burned away because they were done with human intentions. As she watches a vision of a parade going by, the last group of people who were bringing up the rear was people who she noticed were like her. She realized that everyone was entitled to the saving grace of God. Not just the people who did great “human” things with their time here on earth. She and her husband Claud were not any greater than the “white trash people” or the “black people” or anyone else. Salvation was an equal matter issue to God.
This is what this student ‘got’ from the story “Revelation.” Nor is her conclusion unsupported by the text we have just examined–she really gets it, the real story. It’s impossible to call it Thomism. Besides the error regarding virtue and reward for virtue, there’s the assertion in that final image that all are saved equally. All are not saved as in Flannery’s story. We know who does teach that, though, and where their teaching broke through into the Church, and we’ve been fighting it in non-fiction all along.
This is not a peripheral issue. To destroy the goal of ‘good works’ in Catholic lives is to destroy the identity of the Catholic Church, and the Catholics with it. It was always protestantism’s exact mission to deny good works because they make the lie of equality. Teilhard was nothing different than the rest of the lot. Equality in all things is the touchstone of modernism and protestantism, and it is good works that promotes the profound and eternal inequality of individuals (even when found in so rough a chalice as Ruby Turpin, which is why we love to hate the woman, just as the Church’s enemies are always forced grudgingly to admire Her, even as Flannery admitted she liked Ruby, according to a later comment).
To emphasize the point that equality is the cant for all things liberal, it is interesting that ads soliciting charitable donations are consciously tailored on that line, a recent NPR piece discusses: ads for a left audience stress equality themes–’give to Hurricane Sandy funds to restore equal access to housing,’ wording like that works with all stripes of modernists to pry out donations. And we are so good at seeing ithis trick in non-fiction; why is it so hard for us in fiction, and why so especially hard in Flannery’s fiction? Flannery is nothing different. It’s just Satan’s old song: the dream to be equal to God. And it always amounts to rejection of the lot we earn for ourselves through our own actions. It’s the refusal to admit our sins, backwards. Ruby’s renunciation of her virtue is the backhand way of accomplishing this same psychological hell.
Flannery’s vision is Teilhard’s vision. Entering heaven in racial groups, an involuntary equalization taking place, and cheap music. We ought to decline on the basis of manners to avoid quoting Teilhard’s silliness at any length, but here is one of Teilhard’s visions, given in The Phenomenon of Man:
All round us, one by one, like a continual exhalation, “souls” break away, carrying upwards their incommunicable load of consciousness. One by one, yet not in isolation. Since, for each of them, by the very nature of Omega, there can only be one possible point of definitive emersion—that point at which, under the synthesizing action of personalizing union, the noosphere (furling its elements upon themselves as it too furls upon itself) will reach collectively its point of convergence – at the end of the world.
One schoolgirl candidate for the bachelor’s degree easily sees the parallel:
This paragraph [the one above] is very similar to Ruby’s vision at the end of “Revelation” through which she receives her salvation. Ruby envisions a parade of souls headed toward heaven made up of all kinds of people, worthy and, according to Ruby, unworthy, coming together at the end of time to march to their creator, a fictionalized account of the kind of convergence experience Pierre Teilhard de Chardin describes.
This novice author sees the parallel, but she doesn’t know that Pierre Teilhard is not Catholic. We traditionalists do. Why don’t we process the similarity, and react? Why do we continue to put this vision before trusting young people? It would seem that traditionalists are the last to know. Besides the ample internet evidence that students see the message clearly, the most recent critical trend among professionals in the secular arena finds that Flannery misrepresents her identity as a traditional Catholic. They argue–with delight–that Flannery’s work goes with the new trends in the Church. Perhaps traditionalists have lost the ability to read fiction the way other untraditional Catholics, even priests, seem to have lost theirs to read non-fiction, specifically the constitutions of Vatican II. They read them and look up sweetly, soothed by the primitive rhythms of Gaudium et spes, and ask, What’s the problem? They do not process the contradictions. They do not follow the faint crumbs of inauthenticity down. There must be a house rule they keep, sort of like dropped toast in a busy kitchen, if you can forget a contradiction within three seconds, it’s okay to forget about it for good.
This must be how it works for those traditionalists who give “Revelation” to the children entrusted to their schools. The story disses virtue and promotes an idea of salvation right out of a Marxist nightmare, right out of old Teilhard. That’s there on the page, the message of the plot, see above, no interpretation required. (The interpretation part, and a bold one it is, is that Ruby Turpin represents something broader than a profile of a particular kind of good old girl, represents Mother Church Herself.)
Right? But wait. Hold on for three seconds. What cute thing did Flannery say? And aren’t her books doing well in our stores? And isn’t that O’Connor conference sold out? So why can’t we claim her? After all, Thomism is dripping from every page.
And see, three two one puff it’s gone.
But let’s not let that happen, this time. Let’s consider realizing our error and getting Flannery O’Connor out of our traditional schools just a warm up for the soon-to-come round 2 with Rome, you know, the other place traditionalists will have to be able to recognize modernism no matter how tricky it gets.
If that isn’t sufficient motivation, how about this: consider how the press (in their great love for tradition) could spin her inclusion in our curriculum, how they could dwell on common and shall we say earthy features of Flannery’s vocabulary. How dramatically they would pair it with the ‘racist past’ they’ve manufactured for us. Let us hear the coherent case that can be made for O’Connor’s orthodoxy with which we would combat the media spin, this time using all the plot elements as erudition demands.
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