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cemetery in fog

Samuel Martin’s powerful review-essay in the current issue of Image (#99), “Piercing the Fog of God,” pulls me into areas of my Christian faith where I’d rather not go. Drawing on the short stories in three debut collections by contemporary writers, Kirstin Valdez Quade, Chanelle Benz, and Melissa Kuipers, Martin explores what Christian sacrifice, damnation, and revelation might mean for us today.

Martin begins by recounting the plot of Flannery O’Connor’s story “Revelation.” This is a story I’ve long admired — no, even more, been gripped by. The protagonist, Mrs. Turpin, is self-righteous and bigoted, considering herself better than nearly everyone else. We know, as readers, that Mrs. Turpin — like all of O’Connor’s self-righteous characters — will get her comeuppance. And we know that this comeuppance will be violent: spiritually violent. As indeed it turns out to be.

For Samuel Martin, though, O’Connor’s vision is “limited.” At first I resisted his point, but after he details the plots of four stories in the collections he’s reviewing, I could assent to his thesis. Even more than Flannery O’Connor, he argues, these new writers rip open our hypocrisy, “puncture our vague imaginings of the divine,” and dramatize how excruciatingly painful our redemption can be — or maybe even must be.

I find all this frankly terrifying. I’m guilty of many of the sins that these characters are ripped open for. O’Connor once spoke of her sins as the “garden variety”: not murder or adultery, but “little” things like smugness, complacency, self-absorption. Yet in her stories and those Martin reviews, God strikes these characters ruthlessly to purge them of these “everyday” sins.

Imagining God doing this is what terrifies me. The God whom I imagine, the God I pray to, offers not a thrashing but comfort, love, mercy. I’m not unique here. This is the God of current, post-Vatican II Catholicism. Even during Lent, we don’t hear much about sin from the pulpit — or if we do, it’s joined with an emphasis on God’s forgiveness. I’m not criticizing my Church for this; on the contrary, I’m deeply grateful for it. I need this God of love. In the hymn I sing every night at bedtime, “Day is Done,” God is evoked repeatedly as “love.” The hymn ends:

God of love, all evil quelling
sin forgiving, fear dispelling
Stay with us, our hearts indwelling
this eventide.

Keyboarding these lines here, I’m embarrassed by how mushy they sound. So I guess I have to confess that I need this mushy God. My husband and I both live with chronic illness; several friends have recently died of cancer; our nation and world (I need hardly say) are a disaster of ugly, violent divisiveness. Given all this, I don’t have the inner strength to dwell on the hell of O’Connor’s stories or those that Samuel Martin presents. I wish I did, but I’m chicken.

When I feel God’s presence, it’s as a gentle but infinitely strong force sustaining me, cradling me — the God of Psalm 91, who “will cover you with his pinions, and under his wings you will find refuge.”

I’m not, though, constantly hiding under God’s wings. A poem that has been moving me lately, one that’s a bit closer to the spirit of Flannery O’Connor and the stories that Martin reviews, is W. S. Merwin’s “Thanks,” which a friend read recently at his father’s funeral. The poem doesn’t flinch from life’s darknesses, but it images a way to embrace them with gratitude. Here are some of Merwin’s lines:

back from a series of hospitals back from a mugging
after funerals we are saying thank you
after the news of the dead
whether or not we knew them we are saying thank you

over telephones we are saying thank you
in doorways and in the backs of cars and in elevators
remembering wars and the police at the door
and the beatings on stairs we are saying thank you…

with the cities growing over us
we are saying thank you faster and faster
with nobody listening we are saying thank you
we are saying thank you and waving
dark though it is

I’m hearing Merwin’s poem now as maybe a compromise between the cozy comfort of “Day is Done” and the heart-ripping agonies of characters’ fate in O’Connor’s stories and, even more, those favored by Martin. I wish I had the courage to read the stories that Martin reviews; he makes them sound brilliantly compelling. But even O’Connor’s more “limited” (in Martin’s term) stories scare me; I love them but can read them only when I’m feeling especially strong.

Martin ends his review with this praise: “In reading these writers’ debut collections, I have been entertained and shocked, offended and brought to tears, overturned and uplifted.” As for myself, I’d be comfy being entertained, brought to tears, maybe even shocked or offended. And I’d love to be uplifted. But, alas, if I were “overturned,” what I’d do is throw up.

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The Image archive is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.

Written by: Peggy Rosenthal

Peggy Rosenthal writes widely on poetry as a spiritual resource. Her books include Praying through Poetry: Hope for Violent Times (Franciscan Media), and The Poets’ Jesus (Oxford). See her Amazon Author Page for a full list. She also teaches an online course, “Poetry as a Spiritual Practice,” through Image’s Glen Online program.

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