“My preoccupations are technical. My preoccupation is how I am going to get this bull’s horns into this woman’s ribs.” -Flannery O’Connor, personal letter, 1956
The term salvation may conjure up the related words “grace,” “redemption,” “joy,” and the like. We may not immediately think “violence.” The popular image of The Good Shepherd depicts a smiling Christ looking off into a distant sunset while a perfectly groomed sheep rests contentedly on the shoulders of his tunic-clad captor. Rarely is a shepherd shown battling off a wolf, tying weights to a sheep’s leg to prevent him from wandering off, or using dogs to intimidate the herd into a certain formation.
Flannery O’Connor’s short story Greenleaf focuses on Mrs. May, who “was a good Christian woman with a large respect for religion, though she did not, of course, believe any of it was true.” Unlike others in the story, who pray consistently and with authentic intention, she requires a considerably violent encounter with grace to force her into the narrow gate.
Mrs. May is presented from the beginning as a demanding, strong-willed landowner who decides she’ll die “when [she gets] good and ready.” She scoffs at any external show of faith and sees going to church as a political or cultural statement. The Gospel is just an impractical ornament of the culture that surrounds her. It certainly is not transformative, as she submits to no will but her own. Near the end of the story, a bull belonging to the neighboring Greenleafs wanders onto her property. As she goes out to confront the animal, she demands that Mr. Greenleaf come out and shoot it. When he arrives, he finds Mrs. May suspended on a horn, with “the look of a person whose sight has been suddenly restored but who finds the light unbearable.” As she hangs in the air with her life quickly expiring, she mutters something into the bull’s ear. Her belated act of contrition bears a resemblance to that of the good thief hanging at Our Lord’s side during the crucifixion. The encounter gives a new meaning to the term “horn of salvation.”
“…from the days of John the Baptist until now, the kingdom of heaven suffereth violence, and the violent bear it away.” (St. Matthew 11:12) Evangelical violence is destructive only in the sense that it aims to destroy all that binds us: our unruly passions, sinful nature, or corrupt inclinations. Our violence is our prayer, fasting, and self-denial exercised in the radical decision to live for God alone. It’s easier to make this decision as a child, since the barnacles of worldly experience and vicious habits become tougher to chop off with time.
Some encounter Christ in their youth and are blessed to see his mercies anew each day, while others arrive later on account of the more violent gore of grace. The former grow gradually in holiness listening to the Good Shepherd and following his voice. The latter can be glad to have messed with the bull and got the horns.
Image: Farm sign