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Francis, Flannery and the Divine Dance

“The joy of the gospel fills the hearts and lives of all who encounter Jesus. Those who accept his offer of salvation are set free from sin, sorrow, inner emptiness and loneliness. With Christ joy is constantly born anew.” These are Pope Francis’ opening remarks in his apostolic exhortation Evangelii Gaudium. As my first year in the seminary draws to a close, I’ve been reflecting on how this core message of the Holy Father is being echoed in our formation.

Dr. Paul Hilliard, professor of Church history, reminded us that the story of salvation is not only the greatest story ever told but also the greatest love story ever lived. It is composed of three elements: courtship, a wedding banquet and everlasting matrimony. The two parties involved are Christ who is the bridegroom and the Church who is his bride.

While courting his Bride, God spent much time fending off other competitors, ever eager to seduce her away from him. Many times she fell to the tempters and betrayed him. Nonetheless, he continued to draw her back and redeem her by his grace. We can read all about this in the books of the Old Testament when God instructed Noah to build the arc, called Moses to lead the Israelites out of Egypt and empowered Joshua to charge in battle at Jericho.

Despite many wounds, Israel ultimately remained faithful and walked down the aisle. The presider of the ceremony turned to the Bridegroom and asked, “Are you willing to lay down your life for your bride?” He responded, “I AM,” and stretched out his arms. They ate bread, drank wine and consummated the marriage.

Since then, it’s been similar to other marriages. There’s happiness, joy and fruitfulness as well as pain, absence and betrayals. The main difference is that the Bridegroom, in this case, is never at fault. Nevertheless, he continues to come to the rescue of his Bride.

Although this metanarrative of the salvation of the Church is an appropriate launching pad, we must also reflect on the petite narratives of our individual lives. Each of us are being, at any given time, pursued by God, wooed away by tempters and again rescued by Christ. As Pope Francis continues, “I never tire of repeating those words of Benedict XVI which take us to the very heart of the Gospel (emphasis added): “Being a Christian is not the result of an ethical choice or a lofty idea, but the encounter with an event, a person, which gives life a new horizon and a decisive direction.” A short story that we read in Humanities, Good Country People by Flannery O’Connor, gives us an insight into this divine dance.

Good Country People is about Hulga, “a large blonde girl who had an artificial leg,” who falls for a Bible salesman, “not a bad-looking young man though he had on a bright blue suit and yellow socks that were not pulled up far enough.” Both of them had a “heart condition” and “[might] not live long.” Other characters are her mother, Mrs. Hopewell, and a family friend, Mrs. Freeman. Hulga did not like either of them.

Prior to meeting the Bible salesman, Hulga “had never danced a step.” She had “taken the Ph.D. in Philosophy” and come to believe in nothing. “Sometimes she went for walks but she didn’t like dogs or cats or birds or flowers or nature or nice young men.” Later on, when the boy pressed her on whether she loved him, she murmured, “You poor baby…It’s just as well you don’t understand. We are all damned, but some of us have taken off our blindfolds and see that there’s nothing to see. It’s a kind of salvation.”

Her wooden leg is a key in the story. Her real leg had been “blasted off” in a hunting accident when she was a child; “she had never lost consciousness.” Over the years, it had become both her crutch in life and her most private and cherished possession; “No one ever touched it but her.

Once the boy entered – er, barged into, unannounced and unwelcomed – her life, he was infatuated with her. He stopped in front of her and stared at her “with open curiosity, with fascination, like a child watching a new fantastic animal at the zoo.” He showered her with compliments, “I think you’re real brave. I think you’re real sweet…I liked you the minute I seen you walk in the door.”

In their first date he kissed her, confessed his love for her and that he knew “when he first seen her that he loved her.” At first she was hesitant, but soon decided that “for the first time in her life she was face to face with real innocence.” She returned his affection, “kissing him again and again as if she were trying to draw all the breath out of him.” She came clean that she had initially lied about her age and her level of education. He was not perturbed; “I don’t care a thing about what all you done. I just want to know if you love me or don’tcher?” She responded positively. He pressed on. “Prove it.” “How?” “Show me where your wooden leg joins on.”

At this point, Flannery gives us the interpretive key: “She took care of [her leg] as someone else would his soul, in private and almost with her own eyes turned away.” But then, “When after a minute, she said in a hoarse high voice, “All right,” it was like surrendering to him completely. It was like losing her own life and finding it again, miraculously, in his.”

We see that Flannery is using biblical language. Perhaps she is describing the ‘encounter with Jesus’ that Pope Francis is advocating. The story could end here and serve as a nice piece of romantic literature. Flannery’s genius, though, has not yet been revealed. Without warning, the tale turns on its head: the boy pulls out a flask of whisky, a pack of dirty cards and a box of condoms. He’s not the “good country people” Hulga – and we – had been led to believe. ““Give me my leg!,” she screeched.” He jumped up and packed his things back into his case – including her leg. “I’ve gotten a lot of interesting things…one time I got a woman’s glass eye this way.” Before he disappeared and left her legless in the barn, unable to get out on her own, he bragged, “You ain’t so smart. I been believing in nothing ever since I was born!” She thought she had been seducing the “poor kid” with her wit, when in reality she was the fool.

My first reading of this story left me angry. I didn’t understand why Flannery would include this turn in the story. It was in reading Joseph Ratzinger’s Introduction to Christianity in our Church & Religion class a few days later that the pieces came together. He writes about our longing for communion and our search for it in another human person. Whereas this type of communion brings about a degree of comfort, in the last analysis it becomes another disappointment: it never meets the deepest desire of the human heart. We’re left again with our longing for communion. However, this brightness and joy of finding one another can point to the fulfillment that God alone can give.

Hulga, in the enfolding of her life, had been seduced by many tempters – pride, greed, envy and, finally, the Bible salesman. These paths did not fulfill her heart but rather thrusted her back into her own loneliness. Now, having been stripped bare of her most personal attachment, she is in the position to accept God’s grace.

Pope Francis is stressing this message when he urges us, “I invite all Christians, everywhere, at this very moment, to a renewed personal encounter with Jesus…or at least an openness to letting him encounter them … thanks solely to this encounter – or renewed encounter – with God’s love, which blossoms into an enriching friendship, we are liberated from our narrowness and self-absorption.” We’re now in a position to look within and ask ourselves, “Am I open to such an encounter?”

After that, it’s similar to other marriages. Even though he’s never at fault, he never fails to come to our rescue.