Exploring Empty Houses and Teeming Literature: Vacancy and Vision in the Literature of Flannery O'Connor

Once upon a quiet evening, taking a new road out of the small Kansas town I resided in, I noticed an old farmhouse on top of a little hill. It was on fire. Liquid flames were lapping from every window and the outer paneling glowed as if a meteoric ember were about to explode the structure from the inside. It was incredible. But this was a vacant house, and it turns out, not even fire accepted to be an occupant. The flames that had looked so real to me from the distance were, in fact, a reflection of the setting sun.

Though this mirage lasted only a moment, it left an impression on me, and it started me pondering vacancy and vision. I have always thought that what we are can be influenced, to a certain degree, by what we choose to rest our eyes upon. The more we look at the sunrise or sunset, the more we resemble it. The more we stare into the heart of life and the mystery of God, the more our hearts will pump for the love of it. Our eyes speak for us, as they reflect what we gaze upon back out into the world. Unlike the house, however, we have the will to choose what we gaze upon, and whether this view take up residence in our hearts or not.

The house was dark as the night and open to it

 and though he saw that the fence around it had partly fallen

and that weeds were growing through the porch floor,

 he didn’t realize all at once that it was only a shell,

there was nothing here but a skeleton of a house.”


Flannery O’Connor, Wise Bloo

The Catholic author Flannery O’Connor captures both the horror and the sheer comical madness of vacancy and nihilism in her short novel Wise Blood. Its protagonist, Hazel Motes, denies the divinity of Christ and the necessity of salvation and starts his own church, The Church Without Christ, “where the blind don’t see and the lame don’t walk and what’s dead stays that way.” No sin is too great, and no man needs saving, since nothing means anything in this world. Throughout the course of the novel Haze, as he is commonly called, grapples with what this nihilism actually means. As he stares into this nothingness and preaches its message from the pulpit of his car, he begins to resemble what he studies. Like the windows in an abandoned home, or the empty home of Haze’s youth, an observer notes that his eyes “don’t look like they see what he’s looking at but they keep on looking.” Even to those he meets, Haze does not seem truly present, and what presence he does have increasingly resembles a void. As haunting as an empty house, Haze contemplates the emptiness of his world, and comes to resemble it more and more. However, unlike the empty home of his youth, he can never be emptied of his will, and in a certain sense, this makes the whole process even more haunting and real. Haze is choosing to be emptied, though he does so passively.

In dealing with human choice and vision, O’Connor brings up gritty topics in her prose, something that intimidates many Catholics and non-Catholics alike. Though the subject matter may not be typically wholesome (i.e. censoring the sinful stuff), it is WHOLEsome in the sense that it offers a complete view of a person. Even the emptiest, vilest characters in an O’Connor story are not reduced to objects or foils to nobler characters. In fact, there are no nobler characters in an O'Connor novel. She only deals with human characters, and in doing so, presents us with a picture of ourselves. We are shocked by their wretchedness, and then we find that we are shocked at ourselves. We are brought back constantly to our own humanity, its brokenness, and its call to fullness and redemption.  The process by which O'Connor leads us there however, is through emptiness.

Haze is certainly empty, but though he stares through vacant eyes, O’Connor never leads the reader to believe that Haze has completely lost his freedom of will.  His own choices can lead him into emptiness or to fullness. Though presented with many choices that drive the plot, the most crucial is as follows: emptied, Haze can turn towards nothing or he can turn towards God. If the choice is nothing, then he will remain as nothing. His eyes will continue to reflect as windows do in an empty home, even as it remains empty. If he chooses God, he will be pierced and occupied. Whichever road he takes will sweep him away, change his vision, and change him. Haze is a shell of a man, much like the house of his childhood is but a shell of a house, but O’Connor reminds us that he is a man. He is a whole man, grown hazy, and because of this, he is wholly redeemable. 





Spiritual Vision

Recently, I rediscovered Romano Guardini. In my undergraduate studies a professor had handed me a copy of his work The Lord. For the past 7 years it collected dust on my shelf, until this past January when I went on retreat to prepare for my diaconal ordination and brought it along with me. I fell in love with his presentation of Christ and how real he makes the person of the Lord. In the years between being handed the book and picking it up, many of my intellectual heroes have cited Guardini, including professors at the seminary and men like Pope Benedict XVI, Pope Francis (who wrote a thesis using Guardini) and Bishop Robert Barron. Pope Benedict XVI said “Guardini taught that the essence of Christianity is not an idea, not a system of thought, not a plan of action. The essence of Christianity is a Person: Jesus Christ Himself. That which is essential is the One who is essential.” Reading through The Lord, I discovered a beautiful gem on spiritual vision that has been feeding my prayer into Lent during this Year of Mercy.

Throughout His teachings, Our Lord says some rather puzzling things. For example, He says He has come that “they who do not see may see and those who see may become blind.” (John 9:39) And again in His famous Sermon on the Mount He declares, “The eye is the lamp of the body. So, if your eye is sound, your whole body will be full of light; but if your eye is not sound, your whole body will be full of darkness. If then the light in you is darkness, how great is the darkness!” (Matthew 6:22-23)

All of us are blind. If only we would have the humility to acknowledge it! For when we compare our earthly way of seeing things to God’s view, we see the limits to our vision. “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, says the Lord. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.” (Isaiah 55:8-9)

To see something is to take into oneself its form. But how easy it is for us to filter what we take it. Of course ideological filters can exist as well as particular ways of seeing based on our nurturing. But also just as true is that influence of concupiscence on our way of taking in reality. And no one understands this more than Christ. He sees our tendency to be blind and desires to give us sight. We do this so often with other people, alienating them because of interior judgments we make against them. In this case we become enablers of the throw away culture the Holy Father is constantly condemning rather than agents of true Christian humanism. It’s worth quoting Guardini at length, because of the profundity of his insight:

 To see another human being as he really is means to lay ourselves open to his influence. Thus when fear or dislike moves us to avoid him, this reaction is already evident in our gaze; the eye caricaturizes him, stifling the good, heightening the bad. We discern his intentions, making swift comparisons, and leap to conclusions. All this proceeds involuntarily, if not unconsciously. Seeing is a protective service to the will to live. The deeper our fear or distaste of a person, the more tightly we close our eyes to him, until finally we are incapable of perception or the profound German word for it, Wahrnehmen: reception-of-truth. Thus we have become blind to that particular person. This mysterious process lies behind every enmity. Discussion, preaching, explanations are utterly useless. The eye simply ceases to register what is plain to be seen.

Pope Francis has called for this Lent during the Year of Mercy to be one of greater intensity and purification. To pray for the grace to see every human person with the eyes of faith and to have our vision rooted more in reality and supernatural vision, to be receptive to the truth, would do wonders for making the world more just and more merciful. Maybe Guradini will help you in examining your interactions with others. I know his insight has awakened me.