Hulga’s Revenge or Joy’s Return?
Domestic violence is not entertaining. And I don’t spend my time scanning news sites looking for more sadness than that which usually jumps out at me when I check the Chicago Tribune each morning. But… There was an incident that caught my eye on a popular news/chat/gossip site a few days ago. And my first response was to send it to a friend with the brief comment, “Hulga’s revenge?”
Flannery O’Connor fans know who Hulga is. A joyless woman, possessed of a degree in philosophy but little common sense, Hulga - née Joy - lost a leg in a childhood accident. She lives with her mother on the family farm, where her position is, in today’s parlance, resident “Debbie Downer.” In a tragi-comical turn of events, Hulga seduces a Bible salesman who she takes to be an innocent rube, and instead winds up as his victim. The Bible salesman is not what he appeared to be and Hulga, in her haste to shame him, allows herself to be shamed. Not only is Hulga shamed, she is left in the loft of the barn while salesman takes quick leave of her – carrying her prosthetic leg as a trophy. (This is better told by Flannery herself. If you don’t have a copy of her collected works I would advise that you find one. And make “Good Country People” one of your first choices.)
How could Hulga not come to mind when I read of a woman in South Carolina who stabbed her boyfriend and then threw his prosthetic leg into the yard to keep him from chasing her? And this woman was thorough! She didn’t just through his leg out in the yard; she tossed his spare leg, too. I wonder if any other fans of Flannery and “Good Country People” also saw it as some sort of turnabout on Hulga’s tale. (That is all I know of this sad story, except that it coincidentally took place in the south, reminding me of what the great author said about that, “Anything that comes out of the South is going to be called grotesque by the northern reader, unless it is grotesque, in which case it is going to be called realistic.”)
The frailties of the human body show up frequently in Flannery’s work. As a Catholic she knew the importance of the human body as being an offer of Divine Grace. Each human body. In the Resurrection, it will be our bodies, glorified, that will rise. God himself became human, incarnated in a body of flesh and blood – bones, tendons, corpuscles and muscles. It is easy to see to make a connection to the divine if one looks upon a body in its prime – adorable babies, Olympic athletes at the peak of their fitness, gorgeous women on the covers of popular magazines, men so good looking they must be deported.
Then there are those of us whose bodies don’t draw an immediate connection to the divine: the Plain Janes, those missing limbs, those with weak chins, weak intellects, and chemical imbalances. These bodies, too, are offers of Divine Grace. Afflicted with Systemic Lupus Erythematosus, Flannery O’Connor knew more than enough about the trials that can afflict the human body. My family has seen their share of suffering and challenge. Lately I have been doing more reading on lupus and other autoimmune disorders. This not only helps in our immediate situation, but also reconnects me with the background of one of my favorite authors. I can read Flannery’s work with knowledge of her understanding of the incarnational nature of Catholicism as well as with fuller insight to the suffering and vulnerability that she faced in her own body. (I did find a good Flannery quote that has been a help; with a bit of humor consoling one of my daughters as she faces illness and the baffling maze of our American medical system: “Doctors always think anybody doing something they aren't is a quack; also they think all patients are idiots.” A sense of humor in the face of suffering is grace indeed.)
March 25 of this year would have been Flannery O’Connor’s 88th birthday. What beauty there is in the birth date of such an ‘incarnational’ author being the Feast of the Annunciation! I can only wonder how a woman with such a keen sense of humor felt about having a birthday which was a Feast day which was movable dependent upon its falling during Holy Week. This year, for instance, we celebrated the Annunciation on April 8. Would she have moved her birthday celebration? Celebrated twice? I know I remembered her birthday on both days this year.
Our bodies are important. They are not just disposable, fleshy vehicles for our souls. As the Catechism of the Catholic Church says, “The human body shares in the dignity of "the image of God": it is a human body precisely because it is animated by a spiritual soul, and it is the whole human person that is intended to become, in the body of Christ, a temple of the Spirit.” (CCC 364) God himself became one of us – incarnate in a human body: an actual human body prone to colic, rashes, fevers, and vulnerable to extreme suffering. And death – death on the cross. Is that not the most potent endorsement for the gift of our bodies?
So here is an offer of Divine Grace. We have only to run with it. Figuratively speaking. If we cannot run or walk or think with extreme acuity, we still just pick-up where we are and go forward to embrace and accept the offer of grace to the soul incarnate in the human body. In that offer of grace is also a charge of responsibility, for our bodies are indeed temples of the Holy Spirit.
He will change our lowly body to conform with his glorified body by the power that enables him also to bring all things into subjection to himself. (Philippians 3:21) Until that time when, what in some translations are referred to as our “vile bodies”, are brought into conformation with his glorified body – while they are under our care – we must keep them in proper perspective. Naturally we should nurture and care for them properly. We should also understand our imperfections and accept the offer of Divine Grace that is inherent in them, to cast off the Hulga and bring back the Joy; respecting and honoring our own bodies, the bodies of others…and even their attendant prosthetics.