As it happened, I had to undertake a sad task this morning. I had to drive to Lenoir City to pick up the ashes of my late dog, Dante. For the record, Carolyn at Yeargan Pet Cremation is a fine and caring woman, and if you are in East Tennessee and need these services, I recommend her.
But, I thought the drive down would be better with a little Flannery O'Connor. I played an audio book of her short stories and listened to "The River." Now, I had read this story before, but listening to it, it came to me that it is appropriate for today's Feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe. Because in the story, the Blessed Virgin Mary challenges the Devil . . . and wins. But not in a conventionally happy sense.
For anyone who has not read the story, a quick synopsis:
Harry is a little boy of 5 years with less-than-attentive parents. While his mother sleeps off a hangover, the story opens with his father handing Harry over to a babysitter, Mrs. Connin, who is an evangelical Christian. She tells the Harry's father that she will be taking the boy to a faith healer, a traveling circuit preacher, by the name of the Rev. Bevel Summers. Harry is an attention starved little boy, and so he tells Mrs. Connin that his name is also Bevel. Mrs. Connin is also led to believe that Harry's mother is unwell.
Mrs. Connin brings Harry to her home first, where he sees a picture of Jesus on the wall and is tricked into letting a young shoat out of a sty by Mrs. Connin's sons, which scares him and sees him retreat to the safety of her lap. She also shows him a book of Bible stroies for children that belonged to her great-grandmother, that Harry surreptitiously slips into his coat pocket.
Later, she takes her children and Harry to the river. Among the people gathered is one Mr. Paradise, who purposely comes to show off a tumor on his face that has not been cured, as proof that it is all nonsense. The preacher winds up baptizing Harry, telling him now he "counts." When Mrs. Connin tells the preacher that Harry's mother needs a healing, it is revealed that she does not, she has only drunk too much the night before, producing loud guffaws from Mr. Paradise.
Mrs. Connin returns Harry to his parents, who are in the midst of another party. She only then learns that he is not named Bevel. After Mrs. Connin leaves, his parents discover the book and mock its contents in front of Harry.
The next morning, as his parents sleep off another party, Harry decides to return to the river. As he is on his way, he is seen by Mr. Paradise, who slips some candy into his pocket and follows Harry. Mr. Paradise takes up a spot near Harry, following his usual habit of pretending to fish at the river. Harry wades into the river, determined to baptize himself again and find the Kingdom of God. He sputters in the water, while Mr. Paradise draws near, but just as the man reaches the boy, a current catches Harry, and pulls him away and under, drowning the boy.
Not exactly a feel good story, is it? Oh, but the trick to O'Connor's stories is to look at how God's grace is working in the story.
Let me propose this: Mrs. Connin is the Blessed Virgin Mary. Harry's parents - Adam and Eve after the fall - are his biological parents, but it is clear he is secondary to their own interests and pleasures int heir lives. And so he receives a spiritual mother in Mrs. Connin, who is the first to tell him about Jesus and take him to be baptized. The scene with the pig is important - Harry does not purposely loose the pig, but his tricked into it, and it is important to note that he is not yet of the age of reason, and so there is no sin and his innocence is preserved. The pig scares him - I see a connection to the pigs into which Jesus cast an unclean spirit, and so Harry finds safety and protection in Mrs. Connin.
And she is there when Harry meets the Devil - Mr. Paradise. Mr. Paradise, with his diseased neck, purposely comes to these gatherings to shake the faith of the people, by "exposing" that faith healing ia fraud, else his own tumor would have been cured. Mrs. Connin is resolute, though - she brings Harry to the water and hands him over to the preacher, who has said, he is not promising any healings, which is a way of inviting those in attendance to believe. Harry is baptized and now "he counts" as one of the family of God. He innocently tells the preacher his mother has a hangover, and with that, Mr. Paradise as Satan discovers his victim, a child of innocence with parents who are not willing to protect him.
But who is? The next day Harry returns to the river to find the Kingdom of God. Mr. Paradise slips candy into his pocket and follows Harry - Mr. Paradise is the predator of the innocent. He does not approach Harry; rather, he pretends to fish (his hook is unbaited), a wonderful metaphor for the Prince of Lies disguising himself as the Fisherman, while the bait lies in his pocket, a peppermint stick. But he does not Harry's intentions, and when it appears the boy is purposely drowning himself, goes after him - but Mary has seen that the boy is baptized as a Christian and so the river, that is the Kingdom of Heaven, catches Harry because now he "counts." Harry dies a good death - he is under the age of reason and original sin has been removed, and so he is snatched away from the false Paradise that sought to take away his innocence and is brought to the real Paradise of God's kingdom.
Totus tuus - through Mary we are brought to Christ. She is the women clothed in the sun with her foot on the serpent's head. And she intercedes for us, both now (when Harry is in her care) and at the hour of our deaths (when Harry is alone at the river).
Maria, ora pro nobis.