My mother was in the drugstore in town today. As she stood in line to pay for her stuff, an ancient black lady, a woman she did not know, said to my mom, apropos of nothing, “You know where we are, don’t you?”
“Where’s that?” my mother answered.
“We in the middle of Revelation. You young people need to be watching.”
My mother, the young person, is 70 years old.
I love the South.
Ralph Wood, writing about Flannery O’Connor this week, said the writer couldn’t stand the popular civic Christianity of the 1950s, and “sought an alternative to the vaporizing spirituality of her age.
She found it chiefly in her own region. She both loved and criticized her native South, praising its transcendent virtues while lamenting its temporal evils. Chief among the Southern virtues that made O’Connor the Roman Catholic thoroughly at home among the folk Christians of the Protestant South was their saturation in Scripture. She shared their conviction that the biblical Story of the world’s creation and salvation is meant to master us rather than for us to master it. We have engaged Scripture aright, O’Connor declared, when, “like Jacob, we are marked.”
O’Connor admired the backwoods believers of the American South because they were thus “mastered,” thus “marked.” She was drawn to their self-blinding street prophets and baptizing river preachers. Despite their awful failings, they spoke the language and declared the message of Scripture. These economically poor and educationally uncouth believers possessed no cultural standing or political power; indeed, polite society had passed them by on the other side. Yet she makes them the focus of her fiction, not in scorn but sympathy. Their fierce and sweated Faith enabled them to feel “the hand of God and its descent,” she confessed. “We have trembled with Abraham as he held the knife over Isaac.”
Flannery O’Connor was far too troubled by the horrors that Southern whites have visited on Southern blacks ever to identify Jesus as the central figure of Southern history. Even so, the radically flawed Christians of her region prompted one of O’Connor’s most celebrated sayings: “While the South is hardly Christ-centered, it is most certainly Christ-haunted.”Advocates of our “antireligious religion” of secular autonomy are not thus haunted. They do not fear the terrible descending hand of God. They do not walk, like Jacob, with a divinely inflicted limp. O’Connor’s characters, by contrast, are terribly afflicted, fearful, haunted. When asked why her fiction, like that of so many other Southern writers, is filled with freaks, O’Connor famously replied that Bible-drenched Southerners are still able to recognize a freak when they see one. They take the measure of themselves and others by the plumb line described by the prophet Amos. Its true Vertical exposes all deviations, whether left or right, religious or secular.
I love that I live in a place where you can be standing in line at the drugstore a wizened old country woman will tell you that the world is under divine judgment, and to be ready, because the coming of the Lord draws near. I love it not in the trite way of people who find that kind of thing endearingly eccentric. I love it because people here — not everybody, but more people than you might think — take that sort of thing seriously. Maybe we aren’t in the Last Days, and maybe the Lord will tarry for some time yet. But the fact that the old black woman is thinking about it, and wanted to let strangers in line at the drugstore know that Judgment Day is coming — well, there’s a moral and spiritual realism there that I find bracing and comforting.
Our priest, a white man from Washington state, took his liturgical vestments in to the dry cleaners to have them cleaned. The black woman behind the counter had never seen religious garments so elaborate before. The two talked about the Old Testament, and the ritual clothing the priests of the Hebrews wore. Just a casual conversation between strangers in a small town in the Deep South.
You young people need to be watching. That old drugstore prophetess might be wrong on her timetable, but she knows things the rest of us do not.