Friday’s Flannery is an occasional series of commentary from a Catholic point of view on the short stories of Flannery O’Connor.
In her last work, completed shortly before her death, Flannery O’Connor depicts the great clash of the two principles of Creation: the Spirit and the Flesh and their only resolution in the Incarnation represented by an icon.
Sarah Ruth is the epitome of the iconoclastic tendencies of a puritanical Calvinism. She negates the body, pleasure, the material, and every attempt to represent God who is as she says, “pure spirit.” Preoccupied with the wrath of God on Judgment Day, she is a cold and fearsome character–lean, gaunt, colorless, with piercing eyes:
“She was plain, plain. And the skin on her face was thin and drawn tight like the skin on an onion and her eyes were gray and sharp like the points of two ice picks.”
Parker, on the other hand, is a man of the flesh, made graphic in his pursuit of body art. He is a man of lust attracted to women with plenty of meat on them. He is a denier of God and seeks to live fully in the material world.
There are forces stirring in Parker. The twin forces of wonder and sacrifice began with seeing the tattooed man at the circus and the day of his first tattoo:
“Parker had never before felt the least motion of wonder in himself. Until he saw the man at the fair, it did not enter his head that there was anything out of the ordinary about the fact that he existed. Even then it did not enter his head, but a peculiar unease settled in him. It was as if a blind boy had been turned so gently in a different direction that he did not know his destination had been changed.
He had his first tattoo some time after … It hurt very little, just enough to make it appear to Parker to be worth doing. This was peculiar too for before he had thought that only what did not hurt was worth doing.”
So, Parker is in a way looking for God in all the wrong places. A man of the flesh, Parker is seeking wonder and looking for a way to give himself away in some sort of sacrifice. He tries to find both in the Navy and in tattoos. But his Godless pursuit leaves his soul empty. His body mural is “something haphazard and botched.” His dissatisfaction grows.
His dissatisfaction which alternates with fits of tattooing is building, its relief prefigured in his first encounter with Sarah Ruth. Feigning an accident he offers his outstretched and unwounded palm, almost implying the missing nail marks.
The Augustinian pattern is everywhere apparent in this story. His restless discontent drives his mindless quest for novelty, and may also partially explain his otherwise inexplicable attraction to Sarah Ruth. He sees in her nothing physically attractive. She is everything he is not nor wants to be. Being almost completely other to him, her figure suggests his longing for the ultimate otherness and mystery of God. His attraction to her is to him a mystery which haunts him and upon which he cannot refuse to act. He discovers that he only wants to please her. He wants to give her the best of what he has to give, his last remaining canvass, his back.
Distracted while plowing, Parker has a terrifying epiphany. Making his concentric rounds of a field he finally, unwarily strikes the tree that stands at the center, his body tossed and his tractor, shoes and tree left in flames. The scene evokes the holy ground where Moses removed his sandals before the faceless God of the burning bush (Exodus 3) who is manifested in only in fire and voice. He is God to be feared. Not a bush, the tree also evokes the tree of knowledge in the Garden of Eden whose fruit of disobedience is toil and death and whose resolution is the cross or tree of Christ whose fruit of obedience is eternal life in glory. In the moment his tractor struck the tree, Parker must have been struck by something else or his inertia would have carried him into its trunk. Inexplicably and defying the laws of physics, Parker is thrown in another direction, declaring unwittingly the source of his blow: “GOD ABOVE!”
Parker’s search for just the right image of God took him past the sappy images of Christ which arose from the same vernacular tastes as his previous disarray of tattoos. Finally, he set upon the Byzantine image of Christ presented in all its mosaic intensity. It is telling in several ways that Parker is forced to have this culminating image of Christ on his back. He cannot look at Christ’s face directly but only as a reflection in a mirror. For whom is this not true until the Day of Judgment?
“For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I have been fully known.” (1 Cor. 13:12)
Parker bears the pain of the tattoo on his back for the sake of this Christ whose back had born scourges and the cross for him. Like Peter before him, Parker figuratively turns his back on Christ, three times denying him.
While still in his former bravado, and denying Christ, he is forced to see Christ’s face only indirectly. But, even in that indirect angle, Parker recognizes what the image’s eyes demand: Obedience. While coming from a different root in a another language, perhaps Obadiah’s name is a play on this divine demand.
In having this obedience-demanding image of Christ emblazoned in full Byzantine color on his skin, Parker must turn away from all that his other tattoos represent: canon, violence; cards, vice; Buddha, other religions; snake, evil; peacock, pride; hearts with arrows through them, lust; eagle, power; panther and tiger, a predatory nature; Elizabeth and Philip, ostentation. Still, though marked with this sign of Christ, Parker cannot quite understand what it all means. Like a newly baptized child indelibly marked with the sign of Christ, he bears a light he does not yet understand.
Upon his return to the house (another possible sense for the title, Parker’s Back) and Sarah Ruth, O. E. Parker is forced once again to declare his name, Obadiah Elihue, two names that signify between them the conflict between his wife and his new image of Christ. Being names from the Old Testament they pleased Sarah Ruth upon her learning of them. They were a source of shame for Parker. The name, Obadiah occurs in various places in the scriptures, most notably as a minor prophet who in his book, the shortest of the Bible, declares the violent divine destruction of the people of Edom. Elihue is the name of the fourth friend of Job who is outraged by the first three friends’ accusations against the just man, Job. He explains in the strongest terms that suffering is not simply punishment but is God’s discipline designed to turn the hearts of men. He declares God to be ultimately just and merciful.
The Byzantine Christ is at once a stern and merciful image. It is direct, intense, piercing, all knowing and still kind. It is the Byzantine face of Judgment, so completely different from the way Sarah Ruth speaks of that day. The image also recalls the great iconoclastic controversy of the Byzantine Empire in the Eighth Century which was resolved at the Second Council of Nicaea in 787 a.d. with these words: “He who venerates the image, venerates the person represented in that image.” Christ is not the invisible God of Sarah Ruth. “He is the visible image of the invisible God.” (Colossians 1:15) She, who has rejected the flesh as evil, could not accept an image of God made flesh for her sake.
There in the darkness shown in the warm, golden flicker of a kerosene lamp, the image of the Word made flesh, Who dwelt among us and was a light shining in the darkness. This visual reference to the Prologue of John’s Gospel at once masterfully connects the veneration of images with the very mystery of the Incarnation.
Finally, Sarah Ruth’s blows with a broomstick to Parker’s back are a kind of anti-veneration, a rejection of the God-made-man and simultaneously recreate in Parker, a latter day Simon the Cyrenian, and a participant in Christ’s passion. And, as Jesus did, Parker wept.