Finicky Saints: Contemptus Mundi (Sacrifice) in Flannery O'Connor's "A Temple of the Holy Ghost," "Why Do the Heathen Rage" and "The River"
By Mr. Eric Francis T. Valles
National University of Singapore
Flannery O'Connor's characters, like herself, are not free from the complexes that afflict moderns. But they do not shrink from sacrifices, even self-immolation, in order to achieve personal integrity. That goal is intertwined with adherence to a pristine, austere Christianity, the very same program of Newman's Oxford Movement.
Traditional and Christian critical approaches have yielded variegated interpretations of O'Connor's fiction. I propose the reconsideration of Augustinian theology and interpretation with which OConnor was familiar. This system is expounded in several books, most notably the first three volumes of On Christian Doctrine. St. Augustine talks about an inherent relationship between the eyes of Faith (understanding) and the eyes of the mind (viewing words on the page) [Exposition on Psalm 113. i.4]. The church father says the interpretation of texts, especially of Scriptures, may fall into absurdity when it mistakes a word or a sign to mean one thing when it stands for another. Similarly, a writer or a rhetorician can use signs to lead people toward God, whose caritas is the standard for Augustinian interpretation, or to error, which may degenerate into sin or cupiditas. This mindset is parallel to OConnor's own as she recognizes the dynamic between what she calls intellectual and physical aspects of literary creation.
One area in which this dynamic comes into play is in the reading of certain OConnor characters who flourish through sacrifice, brought on by a disdain for worldliness. A disdain for and misreading of the term sacrifice has led to the relative critical neglect of "Why Do the Heathen Rage?," "The River" and "A Temple of the Holy Ghost."
The world of these three short stories is a literary site pockmarked by the effects of a primordial catastrophe or rupture. Those who find release from that world's confusion are delinquents, those who suffer tremendous guilt for a primal fault, which is a turning away from God toward creatures. Their simplicity and humility to accept a gaping hole in their existence bring them on the road toward holiness. But at the same time, they remain as human as their fellows, with the same inclinations toward pride and other follies. They are, as OConnor describes Newman, with a sanctity that does not destroy his scrupulous intellect or his finickiness (Habit of Being 352).
Why Do the Heathen Rage? centers on Walter, an intellectual drifter who participates in a reality greater in scope than his intellect or his mothers acquisitiveness. This participation involves a choice to renounce smugness and to take responsibility not only for himself but also for Otherness. He battles against the materialism around him by assuming a spiritual language and the refugees lifestyle.
The River chronicles the passage of a young boy, Harry Ashfield, from spiritual darkness toward the light through the acceptance of pain. Harry's family mistakenly diagnoses his illness as physical. He ultimately finds salvation, however, by spiritual means, the sacrifice of his life as an offering for his agnostic world.
Finally, A Temple of the Holy Ghost is an important aid in the task of unraveling OConnor's ascetical characters. The story gently weaves its theme of visionary experience that is, the mysterious presence of beauty and the spiritual in their seeming absence in the carnal world. Its rebel is an impudent twelve-year-old girl who catches a glimpse of the infinite in the limitations of a circus freak. The girl, the freak, the sun and holy communion converge in the Divine: they are various aspects of the truth of the Divine (as innocent, paradoxical, harsh and self-abnegating).
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