Their Purpose-Driven Lives
Graduation Eve

Tumbling Toward Heaven

Bigstock-a-tree-in-a-field-with-space-b-41769235Like any good Calvinist, I hold to the doctrine of total depravity, meaning not that I am as bad as I could be but that sin touches all that I do. Beneath every good work lies subtle or not so subtle self-love: a bit of self-congratulation, elevation of myself at the expense of others, or an attempt to grab attention and praise. “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God,” says the Apostle (Rom. 3:23), and yet some have inevitably fallen shorter than us, right? Or so we can think. If you don't think so, sit in the DMV waiting room sometime and look around you, finding yourself grateful you don't go out in public looking like that or have children that act like that.

The late Flannery O’Connor, a Catholic, Southern, and often macabre writer, had a penchant for telling stories that strip away our pleasantries and self-delusions, that hold a mirror up to us and show us who we are. They are often ugly stories, peopled by characters that we don’t wish to meet, and yet they are us: in them we see ourselves.

One of those stories is “Revelation.” In it a “stout” Mrs. Turpin is waiting with her sanguine and likely hen-pecked husband Claud in the doctor’s waiting room, Claud having been kicked by a cow. O’Connor: “Mrs. Turpin put a firm hand on Claud’s shoulder and said in a voice that included anyone who wanted to listen, ‘Claud, you sit in that chair there,’ and gave him a firm push down into the vacant one.” You see what I mean. You see how Claud is. Across from Mrs. Turpin a young woman is reading a book and casting nasty stares her way, disfigured faces which only increase in their severity during the wait. Another woman is what she refers to (in her mind, of course) as “white trash.” She spends most of her time espousing racist views. “‘They ought to send all them niggers back to Africa,’ the white-trash woman said. ‘That’s where they come from in the first place.’” Mrs. Turpin holds no such view. “‘There’s a heap of things worse than a nigger,’ Mrs. Turpin agreed. ‘It’s all kinds of them just like it’s all kinds of us.’”

O’Connor gives us a bit of Mrs. Turpin’s inner dialogue:

Sometimes at night when she couldn't go to sleep, Mrs. Turpin would occupy herself with the question of who she would have chosen to be if she couldn't have been herself. If Jesus had said to her before he made her, "There's only two places available for you. You can either be a nigger or white trash," what would she have said? "Please, Jesus, please," she would have said, "Just let me wait until there's another place available," and he would have said, "No, you have to go right now", and I have only those two places so make up your mind." She would have wiggled and squirmed and begged and pleaded but it would have been no use and finally she would have said, "All right, make me a nigger then-but that don't mean a trashy one." And he would have made her a near clean respectable Negro woman, herself but black.

At one point, overcome with gratitude for her blessing at being who she is, Mrs. Turpin exclaims, “Oh thank you, Jesus, Jesus, thank you!” At this point the girl making faces threw her book at her, hitting her in the face, and jumped on her, digging her fingernails into her neck. “Go back to hell where you came from you old wart hog,” she said, before being restrained. Eventually the girl is sedated and taken to the hospital, and yet Mrs. Turpin, even that afternoon, lying on her bed, cannot put what the girl said out of her mind, keeps telling herself that she is not an old wart hog. Lunatic, she thinks. “I am not a wart hog,” she says to the ceiling with clenched fist, Claud snoring away beside her..

Later that evening, near dusk, down at the pig parlor, she looks up, sees a purple streak across the sky caused by the setting sun. And in that looking, there was this revelation:

A visionary light settled in her eyes. She saw the streak as a vast swinging bridge extending upward from the earth through a field of living fire. Upon it a vast horde of souls were tumbling toward heaven. There were whole companies of white trash, clean for the first time in their lives, and bands of black niggers in white robes, and battalions of freaks and lunatics shouting and clapping and leaping like frogs. 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 given wit to use it right. She leaned forward to observe them closer. 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 even their virtues were being burned away.

Their virtues were being burned away.

Frederick Buechner once compared righteousness to a piano student who, while he might hit all the right notes in playing a piece, played with accuracy but no heart. Righteousness is not, he said, “playing by the book.” Pharisees do that. “Righteousness is,” he said, “getting it all right. If you play it the way it’s supposed to be played, there shouldn’t be a still foot in the house.” There should be singing and dancing and a lunatic grace. Old wart hogs from hell, virtues stripped away, join a throng of bastards and prostitutes and decidedly unhip , a “vast horde of souls. . . tumbling toward heaven.”

The lunatic girl spoke the truth. She saw the worst of us, the hell in all our virtue as we, thank God, tumble toward heaven, our only ticket grace.

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