On Comforts and Crosses
In The Everlasting Man, Chesterton, having moved on from the creature called man to the man called Christ, explains that in the first half of his book he “often treated man as merely an animal, to show that the effect was more impossible than if he were treated as an angel.” The rationalist, the man who unreasonably believes in nothing but a domineering aprioristic reason, tries to account for the nature of man by construction from his lowest and most ignoble parts. Such a man always has a disparaging conception of the human person, for abstracting any sort of universal from the majority of individuals based upon their worst actions is bound to produce a deformed and vulgar conception. On the surface, that would be the conception possessed by Flannery O’Connor, whose writing is permeated with stupid and sinful characters who act viciously and selfishly. Almost all of her stories end with some grotesque deprivation of happiness, a calamity in life or by death. Yet what O’Connor most definitely saw in the sinful human person was the same thing Chesterton saw; namely, Christ, or at the very least, the effect of Christ.
“The Comforts of Home,” though not one of the more frequently-commented upon stories of O’Connor, does a magnificent job of showing this contrast. In a strange sort of double-inversion, the story takes what is ostensibly an anecdote told of St. Thomas Aquinas, turns it inside-out, and then stands the world on its head; quite a feat in a mere 21 pages. The story opens with the protagonist, Thomas, a thirty-five year old scholar of history, chasing a naked girl out of his room in the middle of the night with a chair, a story which parallels the popular legend that the great Saint of the 13th century did likewise, with a burning log, when his brothers attempted to induce him to forsake his vows of chastity. But while the men, the real theologian and the fictional historian, share a distaste for strumpets, the similarities do not penetrate any deeper. St. Thomas slammed his door, burned a cross into it, and fell to prayer; Historian Thomas chased the girl into the guest room and turned to berating his mother for bringing the young nymphomaniac into the house. The fictional Thomas is not unlike what the real Thomas would have been if not for the gift of faith, if not for the transformative power of Christ; and thus they are radically different.
What changed in the world with the advent of Christ and His Church? In a word: everything. That which constituted perfect virtue in the eyes of the world became imperfect virtue, seen through the corrective lenses of Christianity. When Christ died on the Cross, the veil in the temple was torn, and indeed, so too was a veil torn off of man, that which obfuscated his transcendent nature. This vision of man, as created in the image and likeness of God, Who, by the Incarnation and Eucharist gave man an eternal and immanent channel to the transcendent, was made possible by incomparable suffering, and therein lies perhaps the most significant transfiguration affected by Christ; that what was most ignoble in man—physical torment, public humiliation, and ignominious death—becomes his greatest means to perfection.
This infused value of suffering is recognized everywhere by the fictional Thomas’ mother, who, as Thomas describes it, has a “daredevil charity.”1 Indeed, Thomas’ mother’s act of kindness, bringing home Sarah Ham, an obsessive compulsive liar and nymphomaniac who has seen no end of trouble, can be seen as daring the devil. The girl abuses the elder woman’s charity and constantly taunts and tempts the uninterested Thomas. Yet the mother finds herself either unable or unwilling—possibly both—to send away the girl, believing that she has been the victim of an unfortunate past and that she deserves an infinite number of chances to right her life. Despite Thomas doing everything he can to oust the young girl, who turns to weakly-attempted suicides to further her appearance of being imperiled, the mother pictures the girl as being her own, and pities her lack of a good home. Ultimately, in the story’s last moment of final suspense, Thomas’ mother sacrifices herself for the sake of the young harlot—and it is left open to interpretation whether or not such an action might also be salvific for her son. Like most of O’Connor’s stories, it ends abruptly, leaving the reader a bit confused and a bit perturbed. None of the characters are blatantly good, with the mother’s “daredevil charity” resulting in her own death, and no good having evidently come out of the story, one character ending up a murderer and another yet ensconced in a sinful life. But despite this seemingly fruitless, seemingly vain story of grotesque hate and violence, the story’s sanguinity is not one-dimensional.
St. Thomas deprived of his faith becomes an ordinary Thomas, not only doubting but denying; Mary Magdalene without redemption a harlot remains, a debauched life unabated; and in the end, Christ dies for them both, sinners each beloved and unloving. Though the end is abrupt, as with all of O’Connor’s fiction, the distinctly Christian element, the meaningful sacrifice, the purposeful suffering, instills the otherwise morbid story with a silver lining of hope. The fates of Thomas and Sarah are not decided by the author, nor by the mother; but that thread is dangled not tauntingly but beckoningly before them, out of the blood-stained shroud of the unnamed mother; Magdalene may yet escape the stones, and Thomas may yet write his Summa.
1 O’Connor, Flannery. “The Comforts of Home,” The Complete Stories of Flannery O’Connor. (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1971) 383.