The Common Good
December 1994-January 1995

The Transfiguration of Time

by David S. Cunningham | December 1994-January 1995

Flannery O'Connor's disorienting fiction

"Time Marches On!" proclaimed the newsreels as they swept us along-in a straight line-from one historical event to the next. They thus reflected, or possibly anticipated, our modern view of the passage of time.

Time, for us, is linear; effects follow their causes in strict, logical sequence. Time moves straight down the hourly slots in our appointment books, straight across the neatly arranged rows of our wall calendars, and straight across the "Great Events" timelines in the margins of our history books. These straight lines always end with arrows: pointing on, straight ahead, into the ever-expanding future, never allowing us to look back.

It was not always thus. We once marked the passage of time not by lines but by circles: the sweep of the watch hands, the close observation of the moon's phases, the repeating change of the seasons. In cultures much more in tune with nature than our own, one could never forget that the passage of time was cyclical. In our modern effort to domesticate time by forcing it into straight lines, we have eclipsed our own awareness of nature's cycles.

Christianity was born into a culture that recognized its place in the natural order. It has thus retained an awareness of the circular movement of time, even as our secular society has lost it. The regular cycles of Christian prayer, the repeating scripture readings and feast days, and even the circular nature of the worship service itself (with processions and recessions)-all these are small reflections of the Christian understanding of time in its cosmic scale. Augustine referred to it with the words exitus and reditus: The whole creation moves out and away from God-and yet always longs to return to God, and thereby close the circle. "You stir us to take pleasure in praising you, because you have made us for yourself, and our heart is restless until it rests in you."

AUGUSTINE could not have hoped for a more brilliant 20th-century commentator on this aspect of the human condition than Flannery O'Connor. Because of her intense awareness of the distinctively Christian scheme of things, she was able to bring time's circularity to life in story after story. Most of her characters, caught up in the straight lines and the lock-step assumptions of their culture, must experience some kind of violent shock in order to recognize that the temporal progress of our lives is actually a circle: a dependence on God and a longing for God. By the conclusion of each story, these characters are forced to realize that-to use a phrase that Flannery must have appreciated-"what goes around, comes around."

In O'Connor's short story "Greenleaf," Mrs. May thinks of her life as progressing in a strictly linear fashion. Her husband died and left her the dairy farm that she now runs; when she dies she will pass it on to her sons. She puts all her energy into the farm because, in her view, legitimate gain comes only from hard work; the soil produces crops because she wills it so. Yet no matter how much she does, things seem to deteriorate.

By contrast, the Greenleaf family seems to be getting along fairly well. This is incomprehensible to Mrs. May, since Mr. Greenleaf is merely her hired hand. He can't be trusted to do a day of honest work, his wife is fanatically obsessed with faith healing, and his two sons have succeeded only by virtue of having "managed to get wounded" in the war. From Mrs. May's point of view, the Greenleafs "had no worries, no responsibilities. They lived like the lilies of the field, off the fat that she struggled to put into the land."

And this, of course, is precisely the secret of the Greenleafs' success: They live like the lilies, within the cycles of nature, and have never tried to convince themselves that time flows in straight lines. They see everything they have as gifts, and their own work as a thanksgiving for those gifts. Mrs. May thinks of every event as the unfortunate effect of a previous cause, whereas the Greenleafs live abundantly within the cycles that nature provides. While Mrs. May believes she is in complete control of her own destiny ("I'll die when I get good and ready," she proclaims to her sons), the Greenleafs constantly acknowledge their dependence. ("I thank Gawd for ever-thang," drawls Mr. Greenleaf.)

This contrast is illustrated throughout the story by the characters' differing attitudes toward a scrub bull that has gotten loose on Mrs. May's farm. The Greenleafs know that the bull cannot be easily contained, will do no real harm, and will eventually provide them with food. Mrs. May, on the other hand, sees the bull only as a cause of damage. She demands that the bull be restrained and, when this fails, demands that it be shot. Not until the story's final, apocalyptic moment does she realize that the bull's gratuitous presence might have been part of the natural order of things, and that she-sitting on the hood of her car in the middle of a field-was actually the trespasser, forcing her straight-line mentality into the "green arena" where the animal had been peacefully grazing.

By giving the bull a "menacing, prickly crown," O'Connor makes him a figure of Christ-whose gratuitous, implacable love is offered to all. She thus alerts us to the centrality of the incarnation in her fiction. For those of us swept along by linear constructions of the passage of time, this is surely the most difficult Christian doctrine; it can only be one of many points on the "time line," blurring together with many other events into a category labeled "things that happened a long time ago."

But this cannot be an accurate description of the incarnation in any ultimate sense. It would suggest that God, having watched humanity fall into sin from the very beginning, simply bided time until the birth of Jesus. Christians have thus long affirmed that Jesus Christ was "born before all ages"-that the Word of God is "eternally begotten," not simply manufactured at a particular point in history when God finally got around to taking some action.

So the incarnation of the Word, although it appears to us to take place at a particular point in time, actually cuts across our history, in both directions: backward, to a time before time, before the creation of the world; and forward, into the future, beyond the point when all time shall cease. The incarnation wreaks havoc on our linear view of time, forcing us to recognize the ways in which time doubles back on itself, returning eternally to the same events-never simply "marching on," ever-optimistically, into the future, as our prefabricated news programs would have us believe.

IN O'CONNOR'S novel The Violent Bear It Away, this understanding of time is brilliantly illustrated. The novel revolves around Mason Tarwater, an old backwoods preacher and prophet who is devoted to saving the souls of those for whom God has made him responsible-especially the children of his unbelieving nephew and niece. The presence of this man is felt on every page of the novel. But that presence does not arise through the standard linear methods of historical development; in-stead, it shoots backward into the history of the various characters, and forward into their future.

In order to emphasize the uncanny effect of Mason's presence, O'Connor pronounces him dead in the very first, very remarkable sentence of this most extraordinary novel:

Francis Marion Tarwater's uncle had been dead for only half a day when the boy got too drunk to finish digging his grave and a Negro named Buford Munson, who had come to get a jug filled, had to finish it and drag the body from the breakfast table where it was still sitting and bury it in a decent and Christian way, with the sign of its Saviour at the head of the grave and enough dirt on top to keep the dogs from digging it up.

The next two chapters are a swirl of flashbacks and fast-forwards, in which we learn the history of Mason Tarwater, his nephew, and his nephew's nephew.

Most readers find this material exceptionally difficult to follow, since they usually take their history in straightforward, linear, domesticated doses. O'Connor does not bow to this custom. Instead, she begins with the moment of truth: the death of a towering figure. She then writes his story in an outward-moving spiral: moving back into the past to recollect history, even as she reaches forward into the future to chart his influence on the other members of his family. The effect is so mesmerizing that, when Mason's great-nephew believes he has burnt up the old man's body by setting the house on fire, most readers are ready to believe it right along with him-despite having been told, in the book's very first sentence, of the body's burial!

This kind of disorientation was precisely the effect that O'Connor hoped to achieve. The gospel is itself disorienting-forcing us to take stands against our culture's understanding of time, place, value, and personhood. We cannot do so without being "shaken up"-without being shocked into recognizing just how vast is the difference between the claims of Christianity and those of the world.

In commenting on the often violent imagery in her own work, O'Connor pointed out that one must talk very loudly to people who are hard of hearing. Those people are us: As resident aliens in a foreign land, even the most conscientious among us are bound to be incapacitated in some way. So O'Connor often used physical deformity and disability (deafness, retardation, a missing limb, a clubfoot) to symbolize human incompleteness-what is classically called the doctrine of original sin.

O'Connor writes to jar us out of the complacent attitudes into which we easily fall in this modern world: Our easy acceptance of our culture's construction of time, or its individualistic self-reliance, or even its claimed mastery over death. She wants us to measure the arrogance of these claims not by the assumptions of our culture, but by the truth made known to us in the incarnation of the Word.

O'Connor's fiction transfigures time; it reminds us that we depend upon God for everything we have, and that we must ultimately return everything-including ourselves-to God. For God has also transfigured time, by means of that most disorienting act of all: suffering a human fate. That great act is humbly mirrored in Flannery O'Connor's fiction. Together, they help us remember that we all are indeed incomplete, until we find our rest in God.

DAVID S. CUNNINGHAM is a professor of religion at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Minnesota. He is currently working on a book on the doctrine of the Trinity.

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