O'Connor's Religious Vision
In many essays and public statements, O’Connor identifies herself as a Catholic writer and asserts that her aims as an artist are inextricably tied to her religious faith. She claims that it is her specific goal to offer a glimpse of God’s mystery and, thus, to lead readers—whom she sees as, for the most part, spiritually lost in the modern, secular world—back toward the path of redemption.
This information may be somewhat bewildering for those first approaching O’Connor’s writing through her short story ‘‘Everything That Rises Must Converge.’’ While some of her other fiction focuses on specifically religious themes, this story, involving the generational and ideological conflict between mother and son, seems to be thoroughly secular in nature.
Set in the South in the early 1960s, ‘‘Everything That Rises Must Converge’’ is firmly grounded in the social history of that time and place. Julian, the arrogant and alienated son, abhors his mother’s racism and resents her attachment to outdated ideas of Southern aristocracy. Their differences come to a head during a ride they take together on a recently integrated city bus. The questions the story raises are obviously moral, but how they relate specifically to Christian theology is not immediately apparent.
The story contains a few passing mentions of heaven and sin, but these words are not used in a serious theological sense. (For example, exasperated with his mother’s indecisiveness, ‘‘Julian raised his eyes to heaven.’’) There is a single reference comparing Julian to Saint Sebastian, a Christian martyr, but it is used ironically, in order to show Julian’s exaggerated self-pity.
In another remote reference to religion, Julian’s mother attends a weight reduction class at the ‘Y’— the Young Women’s Christian Association. But at the time O’Connor wrote, the YWCA, which was founded on Christian values, had become a secular institution. It seems that the few references to Christianity are largely emptied of meaning.
However, the first bit of research into ‘‘Everything That Rises Must Converge,’’ reveals that the title of the story refers to the philosophy of an obscure Jesuit theologian, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin. Teilhard offers a Catholic version of the science of evolution, theorizing that lower life forms evolved toward greater diversity and complexity, rising to the level of man, who exists at the midpoint between animal life and God. At this point, evolution continues—yet only on a spiritual level.
Instead of diversifying biologically, humanity takes a path of convergence—that is, a path toward intersection or union—rising toward the unification of spirit in God. Referring to the Christian concept of revelation, Teilhard posits that at the end of time human spirit will have at last risen to the ultimate point of convergence, where all people are as one in Christ.
O’Connor states in her title that everything that rises must converge. This sounds optimistic and affirmative—which faith, by nature, is. What can this theory have to do with the bleak view of human nature that O’Connor presents in the story?
It is helpful to remember that Teilhard conceives of humankind as the midpoint between the ultimate unity offered by God and the chaotic savagery of animal life. O’Connor writes from this midpoint, grounding her fiction in the contemporary secular word, a world she sees as sinful and benighted.
‘‘If the Catholic writer hopes to reveal mysteries, he will have to do it by describing truthfully what he sees from where he is,’’ she writes in ‘‘The Church and the Fiction Writer.’’ (This and the other writings by O’Connor cited in this essay are collected in Mysteries and Manners, edited by Sally and Robert Fitzgerald.)
What O’Connor sees when she looks at the world from her Catholic perspective is mostly dark, chaotic, and divisive. ‘‘An affirmative vision cannot be demanded of [the Catholic writer]...
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