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Blog

Quiet Grace

William Coleman

Photo by Richard Carl Pearson on Flickr / CC BY 2.0

Flannery O’Connor said her fiction was concerned with “the action of grace in territory held largely by the devil,” and that “violence is strangely capable of returning my characters to reality and preparing them to accept their moment of grace” and that “[a]ll human nature vigorously resists grace because grace changes us and the change is painful.” So it can be nothing like news—though it is thrilling—to discover, as several of my high school students did in tandem during class discussions in September, that the color of bruising marks O'Connor's “Revelation,” the story of the essential humbling of a certain Mrs. Turpin.

As they led me to see, the acne borne by the young vessel of truth, Mary Grace, is “blue,” betraying the deepest of influence. Mary's coloring becomes the bruise above Mrs. Turpin’s eye (born of Mary Grace's thrown book) as slowly she is made ready for alteration, her suffering come to render her sensitive to the conditions of others.

Just before she's given the revelation of a divine ladder (a vision that appears within a field of blue-black sky), upon which Turpin sees her self-satisfied kind at the very end of a procession that's triumphantly led by the very “niggers” and “white trash” she’d labeled and categorized--just before that vision, she finds herself watching her husband drive the African-American farm workers home. For "five or six minutes," she stands in anxious stillness, watching the "tiny truck" ("it looked like a child's toy") make its slow way along a darkening road, a road lined on either side by lavender. Only when she is certain that all are safe can she move, "a monumental statue coming to life."

It felt like a revelation in itself to be led to follow this circle of painful coloring in the story. I love O’Connor's work. I know change can feel like breakage. I know resistance to change can feel as powerful as the force that can cleave the earth in two. But I know too that grace need not feel like imposition. Sometimes it falls as gently as a hand slipping silently into another’s.

It was Thursday morning. I was rushing to dump my half-drunk coffee into the travel mug; I was worried about papers I’d failed to grade the night before; I was worried about the car and about health insurance, which is to say that I was worried about money; and I was worried about being late. One of my former students was coming to speak that morning at convocation. I needed to greet her at the door; what kind of host would I be if I didn't? And I needed to think about my introduction. And I needed--

A hand. My wife’s. Without a word, without one sound, but with a smile, my beloved towed me through the kitchen, through the dining room, across the corner of the living room, through the French doors of the little library, across the rug her friend had given us, and stopped to stand beside me at the window set within the eastern wall. There I saw the crimson sky, spread upon the bare branches of the oak.

I arrived at school in plenty of time to talk to Alexis, who had already made her way to the converted garage that served as our convocation hall. She was not, in the least, put out that I had not been waiting for her on the front porch of our schoolhouse. She didn’t mind the time to herself, she said. Then she told me that she had decided to talk about mindfulness.

Her first year away at college had been difficult, she said to us that morning. Then one Sunday, she was talking to her brother on the phone.

“Are you enjoying your coffee?” he asked her.

“Of course!” she told him. “I have to caffeinate to power through the day.”

“No,” he said. “Are you enjoying your coffee?”

"It seemed the simplest thing," she told us. "Silly almost. Until I tried it." She looked up from her notes. "It is hard to sit for five minutes without an agenda,” she said. “But those are the moments when life can rush in."