Entering the Kingdom by Violence
It is Jesus the king of peace who says on entering Jerusalem astride a miserable donkey:
“The kingdom of heaven has been subjected to violence and the violent are taking it by storm.”
St. Josemaria Escriva
Christ is Passing By, no. 82
Flannery O’Connor (1925-1964), the great Catholic fiction writer of the American south, once explained that the purpose for violence in some of her stories was to bring her characters back to reality and, therefore, open them to the grace of God. More pointedly, she identified the main subject of her fiction as “the action of grace in territory largely held by the devil.”1
The devil’s “territory,” apart from those “kingdoms of the world” he claimed as his own when tempting Christ, might be difficult to map out—it was, after all, into the swept and tidied house that the unclean spirit returned with a company of devils worse than himself (cf. Lk 4:5; Mt 12:43-45). What may appear to be the “likeliest” places are not always the most demon-haunted, whereas the most carefully sanitized places just might be. For want of humility and insight, our hearts and heads can become hardened to grace and truth, since where there is no perceived need, openness to help is also generally lacking.
For grace and truth to penetrate a hardened heart or closed mind, O’Connor realistically sees a need for some to be shaken out of their complacency by a “violent” turn of events. She explains:
“I have found that violence is strangely capable of returning my characters to reality and preparing them to accept their moment of grace. Their heads are so hard that almost nothing else will do the work. This idea, that reality is something to which we must be returned at considerable cost, is one which is seldom understood by the casual reader, but is one which is implicit in the Christian view of the world.” 2
Wresting regions from the grasp of the evil one will always require a measure of violence—violence broadly understood as anything that goes against our natural (or sinful) inclinations, since “violence is contrary to that which is according to nature,” as St Thomas Aquinas teaches. Fasting is violence to the appetite as much as learning an unpleasant truth about yourself is a healthful shock to the ego. Whatever reduces us to reality, to humility, is an avenue down which Christ may freely walk and tend to our needs of soul.
If “God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble” (Jas 4:6), then we must begin to see the contradictions and incongruities of life as coming from a God who is ever looking for an entry point into our lives. The only opening for grace in a fallen world—or even in an unfallen world—is humility, which is the truth (or reality) about ourselves. The humble person, rooted in the reality of who he is and what he needs to be saved from, is ready to accept the Providential mix of good and evil, virtue and vice, the ugly and the beautiful, as the basic ingredients of life and the stuff of sanctity.
By presenting the natural world in a believably (even brutally) realistic way, O’Connor tried to make the supernatural real to ordinary people, especially to those who don’t believe in much of anything, “for if readers don’t accept the natural world, they’ll certainly not accept anything else,”3 such as the supernatural help of grace. Since grace builds on nature, it is only when we accept the fallen world on its own terms that we can begin to appreciate what grace does for fallen people.
Jesus, although coming in the fullness of time, did not demand that the world be in the fullness of grace before entering it. He came quietly and unobtrusively into a world and a particular society running on its own principles, and it was to them that the Gospel of salvation was announced. Yet Jesus set about quietly but firmly undermining the foundations of Satan’s counter-kingdom, undoing a whole network of possession and demonic disturbance, one soul at a time. And those who had the ears to hear and eyes to see saw that “the grace of God ha[d] appeared for the salvation of all men” (Ti 2:11).
And it was precisely the objective of Flannery O’Connor’s frequently unsettling tales to show that grace appearing in all the least likely places. Her characters, writes Italian poet Elena Buia Rutt in a 2014 L’Osservatore Romano article,
“are souls that are stubbornly closed in on themselves until a violent and unexpected event occurs to shatter their convictions and their bonds. Breaking the seal costs them tears and blood, but this is the only possible way to come close to the mystery – a mystery which … is the intuitive recognition of a God who transcends and saves man, healing him from his incompleteness and frailty that are synonymous with humanity.” 4
Hence, an unreligious man in a tattoo parlor hunting through a catalogue for just the right image for his back (the only untattooed surface left on his body), is transfixed by an icon of Christ, whose eyes “were eyes to be obeyed.” Or a family on vacation is waylaid by an escaped criminal who massacres them, but not before one character’s “head cleared for an instant” and she reaches out to touch her killer, claiming him as her child. One particularly self-righteous woman opens to grace upon being attacked in a doctor’s waiting room by a deranged college girl.5 God reaches into any place where people are even slightly open to grace, navigating even into the hostile ground of (supposedly) enemy territory.
It is into such shadowy grounds that Jesus extends His hand when a woman “caught in the act of adultery” is put before Him and us in the Gospel for Monday of the Fifth Week of Lent (cf. Jn 8:1-11). Having been thrust into the arena of reality, this is the most real moment of her life. With the prospect of certain punishment before her, she cowers in the presence of a mysterious man whom the Pharisees heatedly interrogate as “Teacher.” Her fate depends upon the judgment of a man whom she has never met.
This is not a nice woman; we need not “sugarcoat” her. Either she was married and unfaithful to her husband or unmarried and abetting the infidelity of another. It’s important that we not romanticize the sinners whom Jesus pardons, somehow regarding their sins or vices as a pleasing “artistic” contrast to Christ’s mercy. This woman’s sins were as real and ugly as our own. The harm she has done is as real as any harm we ourselves have caused through sinful excess or neglect. Failure to recognize this fact renders the mercy of Jesus not merely less poignant but less gratuitous.
But just as for her as for us, Jesus spares and forgives a sinner because the avenue for forgiveness had been cleared away. She was humbled to the dust, made ready to be lifted up by Him who stooped down and heard her cry. For her, the terror of a violent death formed the initial opening to Christ, so that the balm of His mercy could enter in both to convict and to heal, but not to destroy.
Although Jesus regularly teaches us about grace in terms of violence—from the fruitless fig tree cut down after having been allowed time to bear fruit, to enraged kings who order the destruction of those who spurned their gifts and mistreated their messengers—these images of God’s judgment come from the mouth of the King of peace, of Him who describes Himself truly as “meek and humble of heart.” In each case, grace offered, grace accepted or rejected, hangs in the balance (cf. Lk 13:6-9, 19:27; Mt 22:1-10).
Because behind the violent and terrible images, and woven throughout stories of unlikely souls receiving an offer of grace, there is a mercy that too often can only reach us through violating our expectations or thwarting our fallible plans. Jesus is busy bringing us from death to life, through His own death and Risen life, through the contradiction of the cross, through His new life which delivers our life from the dark country in which we may be stranded as in enemy land.
1 Flannery O’Connor, Mystery and Manners: Occasional Prose, selected and edited by Sally and Robert Fitzgerald (New York: Farrar, 1984) 118.
2 O’Connor, Mystery 112.
3 Mystery 116.
4 Elena Buia Rutt, “Limitation as a Strong Point: The American Writer Flannery O’Connor,” L’Osservatore Romano, English Edition, April 2, 2014
5 See the short stories “Parker’s Back,” “A Good Man is Hard to Find,” and “Revelation,” in The Complete Stories of Flannery O’Connor (New York: Farrar, 1971).