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, Fr. Vogle and Fr. 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. Nowhere 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 oversimplify 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.
Humans naturally tend toward the error of Pelagianism. 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. God’s grace is then thought of as a kind of aid to our choices, much in the way that 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.
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 Aquinas thinks there is a middle position: that it is not necessary to say that 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 between primary and secondary causes 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. To use another analogy, consider 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.
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 our good choices, comes 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.
St. Thomas puts it this way:
God does not justify us without ourselves, because while we are being justified we consent to God’s justificationby 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 of Asbury in “The Enduring Chill.” Asbury 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, inclines him to avoid the nihilism and despair of his friends.
Throughout the rest of the story, Asbury’s attempts to satisfy his own pride and vanity force him despite himself in the direction the Holy Spirit wants him to go, like a donkey pulling against a rope tied to his hind leg. Asbury is attracted to what Fr.Vogle represents, but not because Fr. Vogle is a priest. There is no religious connection between the two of them. Rather, he thinks Fr. 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. Later in the story, Asbury’s sickness is due to an act of disobedience, an act prompted by a petty desire to flaunt his own lack of prejudice by communing with the black help at the dairy. Finally, when Asbury asks for a priest, preferably a Jesuit, he does so (it seems) in order to spite his mother. Yet even while Asbury persists in acting out of pride, vanity, and just plain meanness, 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” [italics mine].
How did he get to this stage? Again, let us turn to Flannery O’Connor’s general thoughts about grace and free will, rooted in the Catholic tradition of St. Thomas Aquinas: “Freedom cannotbe conceived simply.” “Free will does not mean one will, but many wills conflicting in one man.” (Mystery and Manners, p. 115) In this tradition, we come to understand that God can move us to Him, even using our defective wills. So it is with Asbury.
I suggest, too, that Dr. 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 sitting alone, internalizing this statement 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 sings 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 only be sickly off and on because he drank unpasteurized milk. The illusions that Asbury has formed about his own 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 depth of 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, this is 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 Asbury himself 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 explains this moment in her own work 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” (emphasis mine). “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.”