Discussion Materials for Flannery O’Connor’s Revelation Story

There was good turn-out and lively discussion at Thursday’s discussion group about Flannery O’Connor’s short story Revelation. Several people have requested copies of Fr. Smith’s remarks. The remarks are below and the program used on Thursday can be found here.

Among the many things which Grace Church and St Charles share are the common readings for the Eucharist. The passage we have just heard from Genesis was read last Sunday and contains a sentence which may cause us to stop and ponder its meaning. Adam and Eve are told not to eat of the fruit of the knowledge of Good and Evil yet is it not essential to know “what is good and what is bad”? Indeed, isn’t that what makes us moral beings? Flannery O’Connor’s writings are addressed to people who think that eating the fruit of that tree was the right choice.

Now you are involved in a scientific experiment tonight. My next observation is taken from my friend Msgr. Fernando Ferrarese. I told him that I was going to quote him around now and he is waiting to see if his ears are burning. When we were in the seminary, he said that “The real Copernican revolution was not replacing the earth with the sun at the center of the universe but rather replacing God with Man”. His ears may not be burning now but I hope that yours are. Let us to stop for a moment. It does not mean that people ceased to believe in God but that the divine would be judged by the human. God’s relevance to situations and life in general would be determined by our own will and concerns. This is revealed most clearly in our understanding of freedom. Until the Enlightenment freedom came before decisions. The freest persons were the ones best formed and with the greatest ability to master and control themselves. This essentially meant accepting God’s plan and will. To a great degree the freest human is one who cannot even imagine straying from God. Look at your own lives. There are I am sure sins that you cannot even imagine and would require a research grant from the Ford foundation to commit. You are simply not tempted to do them. Is this a lack, are you less or more free in this area than in one which causes constant temptations?

Flannery O’Connor’s only earned degree was in Social Science. She understood the great benefits of the Enlightenment and the modern world but also what it took from us. That is why her writings are complicated. Note Mary Grace in “Revelation”: is reading from “Human Development”. which she then flings at Mrs. Turpin. O’Connor’s writings can strike us as so different and indeed weird because she is telling us that unless we put God back in the center of our lives and world, we will continue to plunge into chaos. The fight that the world puts up gives her story its edge and reveals the violence that holds it together. She knew that her modern and sophisticated readers did not live the same world as she did  and that reaching them would be difficult. She famously and perceptively stated: “For the almost-blind you draw large and startling figures, to the hard of hearing you shout.”

I hope that we are neither but to help us get into her world I have suggested a few scripture passages which may be found in the program. None of them are quoted directly in Revelation but I think they will help connect O’Connor’s vision to our daily reality.

So, it is fitting that I close with scripture as well. The story with which we began today is often called the creation and fall of Adam and Eve but it is even more about the creation and fall of the perfect community. They begin in a palatial garden but because of their disobedience they end in a wilderness. The garden lies behind O’Connor’s vision, the wilderness, alas, is the world we have in front of us.