Saturday, November 3, 2012

Burning Away Virtues

There was only a purple streak in the sky, cutting through a field of crimson and leading like an extension of the highway, into the descending dusk ..A visionary light settled in her eyes. She saw the streak as a vast swinging bridge extended upward through the earth through a field of living fire. Upon it a vast horde of souls were rumbling towards heaven.... 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 a little of everything and the God-given wit to use it right. She leaned forward to observe them closer. They were marching behind the others with great dignity, accountable as they had always been for good order and common sense and respectable behavior. They alone were on key. Yet she could see by their shocked and altered faces that even their virtues were being burned away. Flannery O'Connor, Revelation

I wanted to post this on All Souls Day, but I got here a bit too late (unless you live in Hawaii and read right after I publish).    This quote always comes to my mind when I think of Purgatory. 

And of course, from November 2 to about the time of Thanksgiving, I am thinking quite a lot about Purgatory, because it is the month dedicated to the Poor Souls, or Faithful Departed, or Church Suffering, however you want to refer to those of whom it is said in today's mass readings:

For if before men, indeed, they be punished,
yet is their hope full of immortality;
chastised a little, they shall be greatly blessed,
because God tried them
and found them worthy of himself.
As gold in the furnace, he proved them,
and as sacrificial offerings he took them to himself.
The other story that comes to my mind, hearing the lector read of being proved in the furnace, is the Steadfast Tin Soldier, who melted in the fire until all that was left was a small tin heart.

I feel like Flannery O'Connor's story represents me more than Hans Christian Andersen's, though, because I often think that my virtues are going to be the hardest to burn away.    Whereas the Tin Soldier did everything for the sake of love for the little dancer, and through all his trials only "almost wept" when he saw her once again, Mrs Ruby Turpin is tempted to believe that she is pleasing to God because she is accountable for "good order and common sense and respectable behavior".

Those aren't necessarily my virtues, but I know I have my own little list of things I stand by rather than surrender to God, and am as close to unaware as Mrs Turpin of their sheer inadequacy.    Sometimes I get a glimpse for a moment or two, but the clarity is always in danger of slipping away. 

My vices, at least, make me feel ashamed and as if I need to ask pardon.  For them I say, with the repentant tax collector "Have mercy on me, a sinner."  Not so with my various vanities, the virtues that aren't straight from God and returning straight to Him.  With them, I am too much like the Pharisee, thinking, even for a split second, "Thank God I am not as other men." 

I suppose as the Tin Soldier teaches, the only way to burn away those virtues is to love  -- not with the complacent politeness of the Mrs Turpin in the beginning of O'Connor's story, who grades people by color and social decency,  but the one at the end, who bends intently over the pig-pen "as if she were absorbing some abysmal life-giving knowledge", who finally empties herself enough to see and hear.    I can't love God that way on my own; happily, He gives me grace sufficient to overcome my weakness.   In that way, His love is the fire that burns away all that is not of Him. 

1 comment:

  1. love those last two sentences......

    Thanks for the food for thought.....


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