“I have found, in short, from reading my own writing, that my subject in fiction is the action of grace in territory held largely by the devil,” wrote Flannery O’Connor.
This is hard for readers to grasp, for O’Connor’s stories are so shocking, violent, and disturbing that we wonder how they can be about grace. This is because we see grace as being a “nice thing”, like quietly saying grace before meals, like the “graceful” moves of a figure skater, like the “social graces”, which are about soothing and calming people and situations. We really believe the message of all the Scriptures is “Jesus was nice; you be nice, too.”
But the Grace of God is a man clothed in rags with a wild gleam in his eye eating locusts in the desert and warning his people to flee from the wrath to come. The Grace of God is the zeal of Phineas, who slew the Israelite and his wife who were flaunting God’s commands. The Grace of God is St. Paul, blinded, knocked down, humiliated.
When the hand of God reaches out to us, we usually see it as a disturbance in our otherwise orderly lives. We want to do things our way, and so we want no interference. We usually think of the strident atheist as railing against God, but in fact we are the ones railing against God quietly when we take the awe of Him out of our parish architecture and when we castrate our homilies and when we gay-up our liturgical music; we rail against God when we choose a life devoted to nothing but bourgeois comfort, when we placate our lusts with private porn and shut out the silence with headphones and texting. We come to feel satisfied that grace is a predictable thing we can keep in a box, that God is a feeling we can turn on or off whenever we want, that the prophets are wrong, that zeal is a bit much, that St. Paul is best left ignored, that he’s a tad embarrassing.
Now here’s the surprising thing. When we invite God out of our lives in this way, He sometimes exercises a great Grace on us – by going. The Grace of God is not always an active thing. He is content to be passive, as passive as a good man hanging on a cross. He is content to give great Grace by removing His Grace.
And what happens then?
In Psalm 106:15 we read, “And He gave them their request, but sent leanness into their soul.” In Hosea 4:10, “They shall eat, but not be satisfied; they shall play the whore, but not multiply.” Isaiah 9:20, “On the right they will devour, but still be hungry; on the left they will eat, but not be satisfied.” These are three penetrating descriptions of the modern world, of people filled with every activity but never able to be made full by this activity, of people working to crawl out of the hole, but never being able to pay the debt, of never being able to say, “It is enough”, of people who have been given what they want - sterility.
It is a great grace for God to remove His Grace and show us how empty we are without Him.
But then when the active Grace comes, when the great gift is given … we cry out, “Mountains and hills fall on us!” and we flee, as if from the wrath to come.