My evening examination of conscience has been growing shorter of late. I figure it’s probably because I’m growing in holiness. I’m sinning less, right?
Isn’t it strange that the saints always seem to think they are buried deeper in the muck of sin than the rest of us? Let an anecdote about Blessed Teresa of Calcutta demonstrate:
A priest, rushing out of the confessional after hearing his last penitent, bumped into the short yet imposing figure of Mother Teresa, who had just emerged from the confessional herself. “Well,” she said to him, “Now you can correct all those folks who say I’m a saint!”
Either the saints have false humility or they are correct. If the saints are correct, then the short list of venial sins I write (almost) nightly amounts to desperate personal blindness. Woe is me.
By happenstance, I came across a Flannery O’Connor short story I had read years ago. You probably know it. It’s the dark one with the twisted characters and a less-than-comic ending. Oh wait, that’s every O’Connor story. The story is “Revelation,” set in a physician’s office, where the main character (Mrs. Turpin) receives her own surprising diagnosis, even though her husband is the patient. Despite having thought of herself as “grateful person,” who never turned away a person in need, who “has a bit of everything,” she discovers she is in truth a “warthog from hell.” Always concerned to classify and assess her surroundings in comparison to herself, Mrs. Turpin finds her large personality in a cramped Doctor’s office containing representatives from a range of the social hierarchy she has constructed for her own comfort. The negro, the white trash, the homeowner, and the home-and-land owner, all are represented, assessed, and classified–whether by internal dialogue or by a conversation with the only other gentrified person in the room. Mrs. Turpin’s world turns over, however, when an ugly college girl throws a book (ironically titled Human Development) at her face and attempts to choke her. The crushing line lands when Mrs. Turpin asks for an apology from the girl (ironically yet appropriately named Mary Grace):
“What you got to say to me?” she asked hoarsely and held her breath, waiting, as for a revelation.
The girl raised her head. Her gaze locked with Mrs. Turpin’s. “Go back to hell where you came from, you old wart hog,” she whispered. Her voice was low but clear.
Mrs. Turpin spends the remainder of the story grappling with this revelation. Is it true? She returns home and sees a vision of a wart hog as she attempts to nap, yet she cannot accept the truth of the revelation. She tells her negro farmhands about the encounter. Incredulous, they respond, “Ain’t nothing bad happened to you! . . . You just had a little fall.” This bit of dramatic irony rings in the reader’s ear, but Mrs. Turpin still clings to her place atop the hierarchy she’s made for herself. Having received approbation from her farmhands, she, as one going “into battle, stamps to the pig parlor to prove the revelation once-and-for all false. As the sun sets on her interior conflagration against the hogs, it reveals outwardly to her eyes a purple ribbon, like a highway:
Upon it a vast horde of souls were rumbling 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 God-given wit to use it right.
The revelation is now complete. Mrs. Turpin is not wrong to grasp at hierarchy. She is mistaken, rather, about her own place therein. The revelation is at once painful yet offers reason to be finally what she always thought she was… grateful. She may be a wart hog from hell, at the tail-end of the saints marching through purgatory, but at least “her kind” is in that number. No longer presuming on salvation, “thanking God” for making her in the upper crust of the saved, she can express authentic gratitude that even a self-referential, prideful, prejudicial, condescending person like herself has made it to the back of the line. What’s more, she sees for the first time, that, along with her sin, even her “virtues were being burned away.” It was, after all, her hardworking nature, her prudence, her neatness, her “never having passed up a person in need,” her work for the church, that became the occasion of her vice, the measure of her false ladder to heaven.
I couldn’t help but identify with Mrs. Turpin throughout the story. Occupying her position becomes an examination of conscience: Am I a character deluded, lacking self-knowledge, thinking I am looking up to God but really looking down at others. For example, Mrs. Turpin is always looking discretely down at people’s feet. This is not, however, in humility. She is, in fact, judging social position and piety based on footwear. How does my looking disguise or reveal my character? Do my children see a countenance of encouragement or of condemnation when I look their way and criticize their small mistakes?
How do my conversations construct categories and force people in where they don’t belong? In the story, for example, Mrs. Turpin and another middle-class person talk around a white-trash mother in such a way as to invalidate her contribution to their conversation. The middle-class folk are allowed to criticize negros, but the white trash may not. They possess too close a likeness to the lower rung of society to make such a judgment. Justifying her exclusion of the white-trash mother, Mrs. Turpin states interiorly, “You have to have certain things before you can know certain things.” Whose moral judgments do I prejudicially invalidate?
How do the thoughts of my heart betray my self-importance? In the story, for example, Mrs. Turpin think of cutting, classifying, condemning responses to innocuous statements from her interlocutors, but she never replies audibly. Her front of propriety is thick enough to blind even herself to the truth of her character. Am I blind? Am I a warthog, from hell??
I think so. But you know what, O’Connor has hope for me and all the other wart hogs out there. At the story’s close, as Mrs. Turpin marches to battle with her hogs, to see whether a warthog can be cleaned, we hear:
The sun was a deep yellow now like a harvest moon and was riding westward very fast over the far tree line as if it mean to reach the hogs before she did . . . [before long] The sun was behind the wood, very red, looking over the paling of trees like a farmer inspecting his own hogs.
I may be a warthog, but thank you God that I am at least your warthog. Make me ever to know myself truly, as one (pray God) at the back of the line of saints, hoping to be clean of the hogwash by Springtime.