Flannery O’Connor and “The Enduring Chill”

By Dr. Paul J. O’Reilly
Vice President for Development
Thomas Aquinas College
 
Presented at the Legatus-Aquinas Forum | October 15, 2011

 

Flannery O’Connor describes herself as a Catholic novelist. But what is it about the “Enduring Chill” that makes it a Catholic story?

Initially it does not seem to be. After all there are two Catholic characters in the story, Father Vogle and Father Finn. However, neither of these priests seem to have a Catholic effect on the central figure of the story, the obnoxious son, Asbury. These priests do not administer sacraments in the story, or even talk about the sacraments; they do not teach any particular Catholic doctrine, although Fr. Finn does speak about general Christian teaching, and, by the way, I maintain he is the Catholic hero of the story.

On the other hand, Flannery O’Connor, in her book Mystery and Manners, makes a remark that suggests that she is trying to lead the reader to a specifically Catholic understanding.

 …the average Catholic reader…[is] more of a Manichean than the Church permits. By separating nature and grace as much as possible, he has reduced his conception of the supernatural to pious cliché … (p. 147)

What does this mean? And what relevance does this have to the “Enduring Chill”?

The Manichean heresy, among other things, insisted that good and evil exist in separate domains. It is a perennial problem to reconcile the existence and providential plan of a good God with the presence of sin and natural evils in the world. No where is this tension more difficult to understand than in the actions of men in a world created and governed by God. In the case of human action and responsibility, the kind of separation the Manicheans insisted upon can be thought of in two ways.

  1.  When man’s power and autonomy are emphasized at the expense of divine causality.
  2.  When God's causality, in particular the work of Grace, is thought of as nullifying or overwhelming human action.

The first view is a version of the Pelagian error. The second is best known as the error of Martin Luther.

Without trying to oversimplifying things, I contend that there are basically three views about the causality of a good God and human choice; or stated more briefly, there are three views about grace and free will.

Pelagianism

The error of Pelagianism is a natural one to fall into. We tend to think that we are primarily responsible for the things we do, good or bad. And to the extent that we are religious, we might be inclined to think like Fr. Vogle in the “Enduring Chill” that we do good works “assisted by the Holy Spirit.” This view, if one takes Fr. Vogle’s words strictly, results in giving human choice too much of a role in our good deeds. For God’s grace is then thought of as a kind of aid to our choices, much the way a ladder can be used to climb up to some height. The ladder is helpful, maybe even necessary, but what is even more fundamental is the man who takes the initiative to climb the ladder. In short, man turns to God freely by way of his spontaneous choice, and God subsequently comes to his aid.

Luther

In his book Bondage of the Will, Martin Luther is famous for saying:

I frankly confess that, for myself, even if it could be, I should not want ‘free-will’ to be given to me, nor anything to be left in my own hands to enable me to endeavor after salvation…Whatever work I had done, there would still be a nagging doubt as to whether it pleased God, or whether He required something more. (p.199)

Luther thinks that if we attribute freedom to the will, then we must deny that God is also causing the will to choose. So the only way we would have a will that is free to choose is when we sin, but when we choose that which is good and holy it is because God has overcome our will so that we do what is right.

St. Thomas

St. Thomas Aquinas thinks there is a middle position. That it is not necessary to say human will is the primary cause of our doing good, and God only helps us with the details. Nor does he think it is right to say that when God causes the will to choose the good, the will is not involved in the act of choosing. In order to clarify, I should say something about primary and secondary causes.

The easiest way to make the distinction I have in mind is by way of an example. The baseball bat is really a cause of the home run that the ball player hits, but it is a secondary cause. The bat can only produce the effect if the ball player swings it. The baseball player is the primary cause of the home run, and he is called primary because without his action the effect cannot be produced at all. The bat is a cause because of the work of another, but it is still a cause of the home run that is hit.

Another key principle for St. Thomas is that grace does not destroy nature, but perfects it.
(Summa Theologiae, Q. 1, a.8, ad.2)

So St. Thomas insists that every good thing, including are good choices, come from God. God’s grace is first necessary if we are going to choose well. Grace, then, is a primary cause of our good choices. But His grace does not destroy our will, it does not overcome it (as Luther would have it) Grace enables our will to do what the will is able to do—to choose well. Much like the carpenter who uses a hammer to pound nails. The hammer really is doing something, but it would not be able to act without the carpenter swinging it.

St. Thomas puts it this way:

God does not justify us without ourselves, because while we are being justified we consent to God’s justification by a movement of our free will. Nevertheless this movement is not the cause of grace, but the effect; hence the whole operation pertains to grace. (Summa, I-II, q. 111, a.2, ad.2)

How is this discussion of Pelagius, Luther, and St. Thomas relevant to Flannery O’Connor as a Catholic writer?

O’Connor tells us that her “… view of free will follows the traditional Catholic teaching.” (p.115) And if we are attentive, we see this in the thoughts and actions, however imperfect, of Asbury in the “Enduring Chill.”

Flannery O'ConnorAsbury cannot agree with his friend Goetz that death is an illusion. (p.359) He is right about that, but for the wrong reasons. He is vain, and he thinks his death will be some artistic moment. Yet his vanity, in a curious way, is inclining him to avoid the nihilism and despair of his friends.

He is attracted to Fr. Vogle, but not because he is a priest. There is no religious connection between the two of them. Rather, he thinks Father Vogle is sophisticated and superior. Just the way Asbury, in his conceit, thinks of himself. And he is flattered when Fr. Vogle gives him his card. So here again Asbury’s motives are not good, but he is drawn to something higher.

We discover later in the story that Asbury’s sickness is due to an act of disobedience and a petty desire to commune with the black help at the dairy. Once more Asbury’s motives are to satisfy his pride and vanity.

Finally, when Asbury asks for a priest, preferably a Jesuit, he does so (it seems) in order to spite his mother. So one more time Asbury is doing things out of pride, vanity, and just plain meanness.

However, I think the end of the story tells us about the beginning of a possible conversion in Asbury, a movement of grace that he wills to receive. As O’Connor puts it: “The old life in him was exhausted: he awaited the coming of (a) new one.”

How did he get to this stage?

Again let us turn to Flannery O’Connor’s general thoughts about grace and free will.

“Freedom cannot be conceived simply.”

“…free will does not mean one will, but many wills conflicting in one man.”
(p. 115 of Mystery and Manners)

In brief, God can move us to Him, even using our defective wills.

To return to the story, I suggest Doctor Block and Fr. Finn are unwitting collaborators in the divine plan for Asbury.

Fr. Finn tells Asbury what he needs to hear: “The Holy Ghost will not come until you see yourself as you are — a lazy ignorant conceited youth.” After Fr. Finn leaves, the reader sees Asbury with “large childish shocked eyes.” The interaction between Fr. Finn and Asbury torments him, and he begins thinking about his useless life.

And Dr. Block, who signs the hymn ‘slowly Lord but sure…’ (which I think signifies God’s hidden plan for Asbury throughout the story) brings Asbury to the last stage of readiness for God’s grace when he tells him the humiliating news that he is not going to die, he will be sickly off and on because he drank unpasteurized milk. The illusions that Asbury has formed about his life and death fall away.

Early in the story, Asbury says something very true: “what’s wrong with me is way beyond Block.” He, of course, does not realize the truth he has uttered. His sickness is really spiritual, and so unwittingly Asbury is giving witness to a divine influence upon him.

And what does Asbury do?

  1. He is willing to give up his old life. (No doubt a more passive action.)
  2. He puts the key to the drawer that contains his spiteful letter back into his pocket. (This is very significant, because when he wrote the letter to his mother it was intended to hurt her, to blame her for all his failings. Asbury thinks the letter will produce an enduring chill on her—p. 365—However, God has different plans, and he is the one who will undergo a purifying, enduring chill.)
  3. He recognizes, after much denial, his pettiness. He is finally willing to accept a new life.

All these choices are brought about by the mysterious action of the Holy Spirit. And that is what Fr. Finn believes. For he knows what is wrong with Asbury: “God does not send the Holy Ghost to those who don’t ask Him. Ask Him to send the Holy Ghost.” (p.376)

Flannery O’Connor puts it best:

“There is a moment in every great story in which the presence of grace can be felt as it waits to be accepted or rejected.”

“From my own experience in trying to make stories ‘work,’ I have discovered that what is needed is an action that is totally unexpected , yet totally believable … and frequently it is an action in which the devil has been the unwilling instrument of grace.”

“…my subject in fiction is the action of grace in territory largely held by the devil.”
(Mystery and Manners, p. 118)

So Flannery O’Connor is writing Catholic stories. She wants to depict the action of God’s grace in the world, a world that is enemy territory, and with characters who resist His grace, but eventually succumb to it. This is what Asbury does in the “Enduring Chill.”

Postscript

Additional Quotations from O’Connor to show her Catholic thinking:

...though the good is the ultimate reality, the ultimate reality has been weakened in human beings as a result of the Fall, and it is this weakened life that we see...(It) is the realism...which does not hesitate to distort appearances in order to show a hidden truth. (p. 179)

...I have to see (grace carrying) enough awe and mystery to jar the reader into some kind of emotional recognition of its significance. To this end I have to bend the whole novel-its language, its structure, its action. I have to make the reader feel, in his bones if nowhere else, that something is going on here that counts. (p. 162)

The poet is traditionally a blind man, but the Christian poet, and storyteller as well, is like the blind man whom Christ touched, who looked then and saw men as if they were trees, but walking. This is the beginning of vision, and it is an invitation to deeper and stranger visions that we shall have to learn to accept if we want to realize a truly Christian literature.

The universe of the Catholic fiction writer is one that is founded on the theological truths of the Faith, but particularly on three of them which are basic- the Fall, the Redemption, and the Judgment.

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