Wednesday, September 20, 2006

Wart Hogs from Hell

There, now that I have your attention, I’d like to say something about a Flannery O’Connor story called Revelation. It’s basically about the pharisaism of “decent” and even “religious” people, a theme that has been coming up in my reading here and there lately. I won’t try to analyze the story or give all its details, just the general impression.

A woman who had prided herself on being a decent, churchgoing person, who did right by other people, who tried to be helpful and unselfish—Lord knows!—and who lived a respectable life, was sitting in the waiting room at a doctor’s office. She noticed there was some “white trash” there, a snot-nosed kid, an unattractive college student reading a big book, and other people whom she found reason to judge or look down upon. They were certainly beneath her standards and, oh, it wouldn’t take them so much effort to be a decent person like her, would it? But why was that homely college kid with the acne staring at her, and looking angrier by the minute?

Suddenly the girl got up and hurled her book at the woman, hitting her near the eye (perhaps trying to open it?), and loudly calling her a “wart hog from Hell.” The girl was quickly subdued, given an injection of something and taken out of the room—the usual protocol for prophets. Meanwhile, the woman got her new injury treated and left, thinking. Why did she call me that? Me! But I’m the decent one, I do good to others, I don’t think of myself, I go to church. Why call me such a horrible thing? Hell is for devils, and hogs are dirty animals. The woman didn’t get it.

When she felt a little better, she went out to her farm to hose down the hogs, still thinking. While she was contemplating hogs and cleansing them, she had a vision. She looked into the sky and it opened up, and she saw a procession of people entering the Kingdom of Heaven. She other decent people like herself, but they were at the end of the line. At the front were white trash, black slaves, and all the other types she had grown accustomed to looking down upon. She began to realize the truth of Jesus’ words: “the tax collectors and the harlots go into the kingdom of God before you” (Mt. 21:31). She realized also that even her supposed virtues had to be burned out of her before she could enter, because she had lived by her own righteousness and not by the Lord’s. But now the hellish wart hog was washed by a vision of truth, and we’re left to hope that she would see things quite differently henceforth.

Alexander Schmemann remarks (in a different context): “The Gospel is quite clear: both saints and sinners love God. ‘Religious’ people do not love Him and, whenever they can, they crucify Him.” He laments repeatedly in his journals about the superficiality, self-righteousness, and hypocrisy of church people, people who are “religious” and who thus are supposed to know the Lord, but they don’t. They only know their own narrow vision of things and are quick to judge and condemn—not manifest evildoers but their own neighbors and fellow church people, or anyone who is “not us”—wholly unaware that the entire drama of the Gospel is being played without them, in the arena of repentance and sanctification, of love and mercy, of humility and of suffering for the sake of Christ.

There may be more “wart hogs from Hell” in our churches than we’d like to admit, or perhaps we are already painfully aware of it. Or worse, perhaps we’d see one if we honestly looked in the mirror. We ought to pray that everyone in the Church would receive the kind of cleansing vision that will open them up to the deep truths of the Gospel. No one gets to Heaven by being decent, respectable, or even religious, especially if they think that qualifies them to look down on others (see Lk. 18:9-14). The Lord looks kindly on the poor in spirit, the strugglers, the despised, those who don’t “have it all together,” who know they aren’t worthy but who put all their hope in his mercy. They head the line marching to the Kingdom, while the Pharisees must hurry, flinging away their collection of masks and baggage, if they’re even to allowed to bring up the rear. For whoever exalts himself shall be humbled, but he who humbles himself shall be exalted.