The Grand Spectacle of Baptism: Flannery O’Connor’s “Strange Vision”

By Claire Bordelon
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The Baptismal scene is understandingly appealing to the authorial mind. Rich in spectacle, symbolism, and, of course, ripe for all manner of literary lampoons, these scenes are a mainstay in many corners of the literary canon. But why is this the case?  Why does Baptism’s presence seem to linger in the corners of so many texts? Is it perhaps the drama of the scene? There’s something in that. An audience often demands spectacle, and the act of submersion and renewal appeal to that type of sensibility. But what does the spectacle signify? What parts of the internal drama are manifested in the physical act of baptism?

A good literary case to consider here is Flannery O’Connor, an author well-recognized both critically and popularly, and whose personal writings offer direct insight into her story-making formula and purpose. In her recently-published prayer journal, O’Connor speaks candidly about her goal as an authoress:

Please let the story, dear God, in its revisions, be made too clear for any false and low interpretation because in it, I am not trying to disparage anybody’s religion, although when it was coming out, I didn’t know exactly what I was trying to do or what it was going to mean. I don’t know if it is consistent. Please don’t let me have to scrap the story because it turns out to mean more wrong than right – or any wrong.

O’Connor’s aversion to “false and low interpretation” lends itself to the often hard edge of her storytelling. She approaches the theme of Baptism in several of her short stories, and it consumes nearly all of her novel The Violent Bear it Away. However, several moments in her story “The River” (1955) make it an especially appropriate case for this discussion. In “The River,” five-year-old Harry Ashfield is left by his neglectful parents in the care of Mrs. Connin, who brings him to the riverside healing service of the Reverend Bevel Summers. Several telling catastrophes occur before they arrive at the service, but in one quieter moment of the story, Harry asks about “the man in the sheet in the picture over [Mrs. Connin’s] bed.” When Mrs. Connin explains that the man in the picture is Jesus, Harry reflects: “If he had thought about it before, he would have thought Jesus Christ was a word like “oh” or “damn” or “God,” or maybe somebody who had cheated them out of something sometime.”

Mrs. Connin and Harry go to the healing service at the river, and Harry is taken from Mrs. Connin by the preacher to be baptized. Looking at the preacher, whose “bony face was rigid and [whose] narrow gray eyes reflected the almost colorless sky, [Harry] had the sudden feeling that this was not a joke. Where he lived everything was a joke. From the preacher’s face, he knew immediately that nothing the preacher said or did was a joke.” After Harry is baptized, the preacher tells him that he now “counts.”

Perhaps the most O’Connor-esque (that is, both spectacular and disturbing) moment in the text comes when Harry returns home the next day. When he notices that his shoes are still wet, Harry begins to think about the river and suddenly “he knew what he wanted to do.” Harry returns to the river where, determined to baptize himself and “to keep on going…until he found the Kingdom of Christ in the river,” he jumps into the river and drowns.

The difficulty that critics (and readers) have had with the ending of the story is further complicated by a comment made by O’Connor herself. She noted that Harry “comes to a good end. He’s saved from those nutty parents, a fate worse than death. He’s been baptized and so he goes to his Maker; this is a good end.”

How challenging to accept these words! A good end? Surely not.  But let us consider the spectacle of Harry’s fate alongside comments made this week by Pope Francis. At his General Audience on January 8th, Pope Francis said that Baptism “gives us new birth in Christ, makes us sharers in the mystery of his death and resurrection, grants the forgiveness of sin and brings us new freedom as God’s children and members of his church…Our baptism has changed us, given us a new and glorious hope.”

What greater marvel than this? It is no wonder that writers are often drawn to the mystery of new life (however strangely they interpret it – I’m thinking especially of Kate Chopin here). The great drama of baptism occurs not in outward spectacle, but in the very depths of our hearts. It makes us sharers in the Body of Christ, in communion with the Holy Spirit. When Harry realizes the gravity of his baptismal experience, “his expression changed as if he were gradually seeing appear what he didn’t know he’d been looking for” and later, immersed in the river “all his fury and fear left him.” Baptism offers Harry ultimate salvation from his suffering, knowledge and experience of the very real change brought about by his (and our) baptism. His death, then, is death in Christ, and we have the hope of the same. Let us be thankful for the grand spectacle of baptism that poets place on the page but that occurs most authentically, beautifully, and poetically within our hearts.

I end with Flannery’s own words about poetic vision from Mystery and Manners which will perhaps offer some insight into her own “strange visions”:

Faith is a “walking in darkness” and not a theological solution to a mystery. The poet is traditionally a blind man, but the Christian poet, and storyteller as well, is like the blind man whom Christ touched, who looked then and saw men as if they were trees, but walking. This is the beginning of vision, and it is an invitation to deeper and stranger visions.

Here’s the full text of “The River,” and a link to Pope Francis’ comments about Baptism.

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