Twenty-Second Sunday after Pentecost
[Proper 30], rcl yrb, 2021
Job 42:1-6, 10-17; Psalm 34:1-8; Mark 10:46-52
I know that you can do all things,
and that no purpose of yours can be thwarted
Flannery O’Connor, the celebrated 20th century author of fiction, was Roman Catholic, and committed one. She was known to attend mass every morning, and to keep theologians like Thomas Aquinas and Teilhard de Chardin on her bedside table. She died tragically young, at age 39, of Lupus. So it’s no surprise that, as a result of that long, difficult, and painful disease, a lot of her stories explored topics like disability and illness.
As a result of her experience as a Christian, and as someone who was never healed of Lupus in any conventional sense, she has much to offer, as we work through today’s readings.
We will come back to O’Connor in a moment.
In the meantime, I’d say the following about our readings—about our reading from Job, where we learn that after his long suffering, all his fortunes returned to him twofold; or the about the Psalm, and its extraordinarily optimistic tone: “I called in my affliction and the Lord heard me and saved me from all my troubles,” says the Psalmist; or about the gospel, where a faithful blind man has his sight restored by a Jesus who says, “go, your faith has made you well.”
What I’d say about our readings is that, firstly, they are absolutely right and true. God does restore our fortunes; the Lord does hear us and save us from our troubles. That’s to say, Jesus is telling the truth when he says that our faith makes us well.
But secondly, I’d add that to say “your faith has made you well” does not infer the corollary that sometimes we assume: that we are unwell because we are unfaithful. Rather, yes, your faith can make you well, but also, you can be faithful and unwell. And most truthfully, for all of us, eventually, God’s work for us and on our behalf in making us well in its fullest sense is fulfilled eschatologically; that is, none of us escape death, and the promise we hear about the fullness of life is only entirely made real for us at the resurrection of the dead on the last day.
Flannery O’Connor, though, dives a little more deeply into faith and unfaith, and wellness and unwellness; O’Connor’s is a world not of the Job whose faithfulness leads to his reversal of fortune, but rather of the Job who says “I know that you can do all things, and that no purpose of yours can be thwarted.” Because O’Connor’s God is one that can overcome faithlessness, but not necessarily by making the faithless faithful and reversing fortunes, but rather by offering a sanctification that proceeds according to our own faithlessness, but sanctifies us nonetheless.
So that’s all a bit abstract.
What will help is to illustrate this through one of her short stories—one of her more obscure ones, but a favourite of my own: “The Enduring Chill.” The main character is Asbury, and he’s a bitter and unpleasant man who has failed as a writer in New York, and has had to retreat to his mother’s farm in the South. Asbury blames all his failures on his mother, and does whatever he can to spite her, things like smoking cigarettes with the farmhands and drinking milk fresh in the barn, both things his mother has forbidden him.
After Asbury develops what seems to be a bad cold, he lies in bed and remembers meeting a worldly and literate Jesuit priest in New York; and so again, out of spite for his strictly Protestant mother, and despite his own atheism, Asbury convinces her not to call the pastor, but to call the local Roman Catholic parish to get their priest to visit. Asbury doesn’t get a worldly and literate Jesuit though, he gets a disheveled, uneducated, and blind-in-one-eye priest who is so deaf all he does is yell, telling Asbury that he just needs to pray and read the catechism.
The story resolves with the doctor returning with the results of Asbury’s bloodwork, which reveal that in his moment of spite towards his mother when he drank fresh but unpasteurized milk in the barn, he gave himself “undulant fever,” which would mean that Asbury would live the rest of his life much like he was now, with recurrent fevers and chronic pain.
It’s only at this point that Asbury has his religious experience, his own vision of God; as O’Connor puts it, it was then that Asbury “saw that for the rest of his days, frail, racked, but enduring, he would live in the face of a purifying terror. A feeble cry, a last impossible protest escaped him. But the Holy Ghost, emblazoned in ice instead of fire, continued, implacable, to descend.”
Job says of God, before his fortunes are reversed: “I know that you can do all things, and that no purpose of yours can be thwarted.” And indeed, God has in mind for us the fulness of life. And there are many ways that we can experience that in the present—and I hope you do. And that you thank God for all the ways you experience the fulness of life now.
But as I said, the real fulness of God’s promise in Christ is ultimately, for all of us, a promise that reaches into that which is to come. Like Job says, God can do all things, and no purpose of God’s can be thwarted—not by sickness nor by death. This is O’Connor’s vision, and terrifying as it is, it is a vision of a God who can do all things, a vision of a God whose purposes cannot be thwarted—even by the most miserable among us, even people like the spiteful and vindictive Asbury.
But like us, Asbury is saved nonetheless. He is given a strange gift: illness itself would be his sanctifying grace, given to him by a Holy Ghost that descends upon him, not like fire, but like ice.
It should be no surprise that O’Connor would develop a theology where God doesn’t necessarily save us from illness, but where God saves us by and through our illness, illnesses that God will not always choose to heal; O’Connor herself lived a life of pain, disability, and faithfulness. She didn’t see her pain and disability as a way of exposing her lack of faith. Instead, if “The Enduring Chill” is anything to go by, pain, chronic illness, blindness, disability—are another way that sometimes God offers a way of sanctification. Not always a pleasant or easy sanctification, but one that is a grace of the Holy Spirit nonetheless.
So if you find yourself here—and if you don’t now, you will probably eventually—be sure that God in Christ has accomplished all that needs accomplishing in order to provide for us the fulness of life and human thriving. Including now. But know that it doesn’t always come so easily as it seems to have come for blind Bartimaeus. For some of us the Holy Ghost descends not like fire, but like ice.
But even this, all the illness, and for that matter all the sin of the world, the resistance of our souls and sometimes the resistance of our bodies, none of this changes the promise of God: that God can indeed “do all things, and that no purpose of his can be thwarted.” Because salvation has already been accomplished in the cross of Christ.