“The Enduring Chill” by Flannery O’Connor is the second book of our Literary Lenten Book Club. In this process of exploring literature during Lent, we’ll ask ourselves first, “How did the main character, Asbury, encounter transcendence?” and second, “How did he respond?”
For reflections on our first book, The Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemingway, click here.
Flannery O’Connor lived from March 25, 1925 – August 3, 1964, dying from Lupus at the age of 39. She studied writing at Georgia State College, attended the prestigious Iowa Writers’ Workshop at the University of Iowa, lived with writers at Yaddo, an artists’ community after earning her MFA, and only left that way of life when her health needs demanded she return to live with her mother on her mother’s Georgian farm.
The setting of “The Enduring Chill” presents us with a common theme in O’Connor’s work; the educated young adult returning to his backward home in the rural south.
Asbury is a college-educated intellectual with an “artistic temperament” who moved to the city to escape the stifling environment of his mother’s dairy farm. His mother labels him with this “artistic temperament” to explain away her inability to understand or reach him and to excuse his rudeness and emotional reactivity to all she says and does.
His sister sees him as a failure, a child-man who tries at nothing and succeeds at nothing.
How does Asbury see himself?
He sees himself as in touch with something deeper than the reality before him. He knows more and can see more than others. This places him in the artistic or poetic class, a higher class of being than those around him. And so, he is disgusted with them for their obtuseness. They could not possibly understand.
When Asbury comes home, he comes home to die. He perceives his impending death, and so puts himself through the paces of existential death.
What happens to Asbury?
Asbury begins in the story with a sense of the transcendent. He wants to capture it after experiencing something bigger than himself in the “moment of communion” he recalls with the two dairy workers, a moment to meet spiritually and not just physically with another. Though not a Catholic, he asks for a priest.
If he is to die, let him meet with one in whom he can see himself. Let him meet with an intellectual, a Jesuit even, like the one he encountered early in the story. During a discussion, that priest says, calmly.
“There is…a real probability of the New Man, assisted, of course…by the Third Person of the Trinity”
The priest called for is not like that man. Fr. Finn does not concern himself with the death of Asbury’s body. He does not attempt to reflect the image Asbury would like to see. Rather, passing by Asbury’s conception himself, the priest cuts through the image and shows Asbury who he really is.
“The Holy Ghost will not come until you see yourself as you are — a lazy ignorant conceited youth.”
Asbury thinks his body will die. But in truth, it is his old nature that must die to grasp this divine thing. He must exchange the image of himself as superior, all-knowing, all-seeing for one that reflects the truth.
When one is saved, when one accepts Christ as Lord and God, one must change.
“Put off your old nature which belongs to your former manner of life and is corrupt through deceitful lusts, and be renewed in the spirit of your minds, and put on the new nature, created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness.”Ephesians 4:22-24
As his body writhes under the agony of his illness, his soul struggles under this existential death. First, he blames his mother for his wasted life. Next, he pities himself for the loss of a young life. So much more might have been achieved. He changes from his petulance to regret. His life will end and he achieved nothing. He is a failure.
The poet or artist is nothing until he can touch the transcendent. Asbury has had only a poor taste of communion. The real thing would help him not only taste life but make his death a worthy one. That real thing is the Holy Spirit.
The priest lays it squarely on his shoulders. Asbury faces himself as he is. It isn’t his mother or his young life that prevented him from achieving something worth anything. It was only he himself.
Asbury anticipates a revelation, some terrible shock, will come with death. Transcendent communion not with human beings, but with the Reaper itself.
The shock comes.
He is not dying.
Now, he must live with himself.
To live is more terrible than death because he saw what a pathetic death it would be. Knowing what it is to face death after a wasted life, with life in his hands he must make a choice.
Asbury encounters the transcendent when he encounters the truth:
God is truth. Truth exists beyond our perception of the world. It is not true only because we think it is true. The truth of himself first presented is his encounter with the transcendent.
Death is the vehicle that reveals this truth. Asbury looks around the corner to face death as if it were a character, more real to him than his mother’s employees. His conception of them exists on his mind and try as he might, he cannot make them what he would like. They disappoint him.
“But the Counselor, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, he will teach you all things.”John 14:26
Asbury is reduced in his estimation. Humbled by the revelation that all he thought true was false, he is broken and ready, though he does not yet understand it.
What is his response?
He puts away the key to the drawer holds the letter which was meant to change the life of his mother. His life must change instead. Though he does not know how.
And as he sees the bird descend, he knows that God, that hound of heaven, in the form of the dove, the Holy Spirit, will pursue him.