Grace for the Best of Us

This is part of my series on stories. You can read an introduction here.
If you would like to read today’s short story, you can find the full text here.*

O'Connor Assault of Grace
Original image here

“Revelation” by Flannery O’Connor introduces us to the prim and proper Mrs. Turpin, the epitome of a Southern lady. Mrs. Turpin is extremely pleased with who she is and enjoys comparing herself to others. “Sometimes [she] occupied herself at night naming the classes of people.” She quantified and ranked their value: non-white people on the bottom along with “white-trash;” above them, the various levels of white people, like herself, ranked by increasing wealth and status.

We meet Mrs. Turpin doing this in a doctor’s waiting room. She is surrounded by people from various walks of life and sorts through them, determining that the dirty “white-trash” people and ugly girl that glowers at her the whole time are undeserving of her attention. She deigns only to talk to a pleasant, “stylish lady” she determines is of her own worth. As these ladies talk, expressing their smug contempt for the lower classes, Mrs. Turpin gets swept up in how glad she is that she is not one of those lowly people. Right as she exclaims how grateful she is that Jesus gave her “a little of everything and a good disposition besides,” she’s suddenly hit in the face with a large textbook by the ugly teenager. The girl, named Mary Grace, then jumps across the room, throttles Mrs. Turpin and tells her, “Go back to hell where you came from, you old wart hog.”

Mrs. Turpin is astounded that with all the lowly people in the room Mary Grace singled her out – her, “a respectable, hardworking, church-going woman.” She goes home, trying to convince herself and God that she is not such a foul thing, but she knows deep down it is true. She is angry and confused; she cannot reconcile her untarnished reputation with being a wart hog from hell.

At the end of the story, as she is cleaning her hogs’ pen, Mrs. Turpin sees a vision of “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 [people] 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…, had always had a little of everything and the given wit to use it right…she could see by their shocked and altered faces even their virtues were being burned away.”

Mrs. Turpin is despicable in her smug arrogance – belittling others around her to make herself feel better while completely unaware of her own offenses. After reading this story, I can think of many people I know that are just like her, and I feel very pleased with myself that I am not. But by doing that, I show that I am just like Mrs. Turpin. Like the character, I easily pinpoint how others are selfish, arrogant, and gossipy, while I am blind to my own self-righteousness. I am so wrapped up in feeling good about myself by disparaging others, that I don’t see the wart hog from hell that I’ve become.

Like Mrs. Turpin, I think I am ok on my own but, as she learns, my good deeds can never be good enough to please God. No matter how much I serve people, give of my time and money, or do and say all the right things, I can never be good enough to earn His love. Even my good deeds are damnable and must be acknowledged as filth before the face of God (Isa 64:6, Rom 3:23). I can never measure up on my own.

It would be nice to read this story and identify with Mary Grace or some passive bystander, and see Mrs. Turpin merely as a cautionary figure. The reality, though, is that we are all Mrs. Turpin. We think we’re ok because we put on a good show and do our good deeds, then pity those around us that can’t be as great as we are.

In one of her letters O’Connor wrote, “All human nature vigorously resists grace because grace changes us and the change is painful.”1 In order to accept grace, we must first see the reality that we need it, and for this reason the grace she extended her characters was often through violent means. “I have found that violence is strangely capable of returning my characters to reality and preparing them to accept their moment of grace. Their heads are so hard that almost nothing else will do the work.” In “Revelation,” the aptly named Mary Grace was Mrs. Turpin’s violent saving grace. Her eyes were opened to her own sin by the force of Mary Grace’s physical and verbal assault.

We, like O’Connor’s characters, have hard heads. We cling so fiercely to our own righteousness that it often takes a startling illumination of our sin to loosen our grip. Thankfully, the Lord assaults us with grace.

Seeing our sin is often a painful revelation, but it is God extending us extravagant grace. It is kind of Him to show us that we cannot possibly be righteous on our own because He also shows us He has met that need through the life and death of Jesus. We can never be good enough to stand on our own merit before God, but we can stand before Him clothed in the righteousness of Christ. May we be bold enough to honestly examine ourselves, repent of our sin, especially our damnable good works, and pray with O’Connor: “Give me the courage to stand the pain to get the grace.”3

1The Habit of Being: Letters of Flannery O’Connor, Flannery O’Connor
2 Flannery O’Connor, edited by Harold Bloom. Bloom’s Literary Criticism, 2009
3 A Prayer Journal, Flannery O’Connor

*This story was published in 1965 and does contain some disturbing language from the time period. Hopefully this language makes you angry and uncomfortable. Keep in mind that it reflects the character of the people in the story using it.

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