Tradition Is Not Nostalgia
I’ve been teaching a course called The Catholic Imagination online, in which we look at the human person under the conditions of modernity and talk about the literature and art Catholics have produced, finishing up with the glory that is the semiotics of ecclesiastical architecture.
This week we’re looking at Flannery O’Connor as our entré into fiction. Like Walker Percy, she’s awesome in two ways. Not only does she write incredible, substantive fiction, but like Percy she also wrote essays and delivered talks that have been published, many postmortem. It makes for some challenges — there’s always the temptation to let the author intrude on the work — but in her case, I think it’s OK, and while I realize the Author needed to die for good reasons, it’s OK to resurrect an author once in a while, especially when he or she has great stuff to say about fiction and its writing and its relation to the world.
My favorite O’Connor story is of course “A Good Man Is Hard to Find” (full text online here). It’s the story of a family headed up by the grandmother that takes a wrong turn, a very wrong turn, and winds up getting summarily executed by a trio of serial killers, headed up by The Misfit.
Yes, it’s brutal. It’s also brilliant. In a nutshell, the grandmother is a self-righteous prig more concerned for outward appearances than inward reality, a Pharisee. She’s morally inconsistent, claiming Christ but failing him in her life, especially at gunpoint, when she’s quite willing to deny him. The Misfit is brutal, but consistent; no hypocrisy here! His philosophy is “No pleasure but meanness.” Eat, drink, and kill merrily, for tomorrow we die, but today, you.
In any event, O’Connor uses extreme situations to shock her characters and readers out of their pride and move them in the direction of faith, which is seeing how God sees. She wants people to wake up to the reality of original sin and real redemption. When the grandmother, then, is facing her imminent death, she has a moment of awakening, a moment of grace. The Misfit wishes to know precisely whether Jesus raised the dead:
“I wasn’t there so I can’t say He didn’t,” The Misfit said. “I wisht I had of been there,” he said, hitting the ground with his fist. “It ain’t right I wasn’t there because if I had of been there I would of known. Listen lady,” he said in a high voice, “if I had of been there I would of known and I wouldn’t be like I am now.”
The grandmother’s head clears, and she realizes that she and the Misfit stand in solidarity; she is no better than he:
His voice seemed about to crack and the grandmother’s head cleared for an instant. She saw the man’s face twisted close to her own as if he were going to cry and she murmured, “Why you’re one of my babies. You’re one of my own children!” She reached out and touched him on the shoulder.
She experiences a breakthrough of grace. The Misfit has too: “His voice seemed about to crack…” What will it avail? Not much, save three rounds:
The Misfit sprang back as if a snake had bitten him and shot her three times through the chest. Then he put his gun down on the ground and took off his glasses and began to clean them.
Grace, apparently, is God’s prerogative. The Misfit remained ultimately unchanged (or did he? The last line of the story has him say, “Shut up, Bobby Lee. It’s no real pleasure in life.” Has he lost the pleasure of killing? Has he started down the path of repentance?), but the grandmother dies in a way that suggests she’s on the way to the Beatific Vision:
Hiram and Bobby Lee returned from the woods and stood over the ditch, looking down at the grandmother who half sat and half lay in a puddle of blood with her legs crossed under her like a child’s and her face smiling up at the cloudless sky.
Now one characteristic that the characters of the grandmother, Red Sammy, and the Misfit share is nostalgia, the belief that the past was better. For instance, the grandmother says, “In my time…children were more respectful of their native states and their parents and everything else. People did right then.” Red Sammy says, “A good man is hard to find…Everything is getting terrible. I remember the day you could go off and leave your screen door unlatched. Not no more.” The Misfit remembers fondly his father’s words and deeds.
This nostalgia is not healthy; it keeps the characters constrained in their inauthentic ways, as they believe the present is a time when virtue and transformation is simply too difficult.
As one who treasures the past, and who does believe that many things were better in the 50s — I mean the 1250s — and who values tradition in religion and culture, I was struck while thinking about this. Those of us who value tradition are often accused of nostalgia, of seeking greener pastures in the irrecoverable past.
Nostalgia is a sin, a mild form of sloth, and engaging in it enervates discipleship and devotion. But tradition is different; tradition is not the dead faith of the living but rather the living faith of the dead, as Pelikan said. To live within and out of tradition is not to daydream about days gone by most of us never experienced anyway, but rather to ride the crest of the wave of God’s redemptive story as we live out our own stories within its broader plot.
We have no other time than the present in which to live; all of us were called for such a time as this, this time, here, now, Today, as long as it is called Today, wherever and whenever we are. But we do not stand alone; we stand locked in arms not only with our sisters and brothers today in time and space but also in spirit with those gone before — St. Paul, St. Augustine, St. Hildegard — indeed, the entire company of all the angels and saints, the Church Triumphant and the Church Militant.
Where is this encounter to be found? Where meet heaven and earth, past and present, I and Thou? In the liturgy, in the Mass, borne forth by tradition and bearing tradition forth, in which together we encounter Christ our God in the Eucharist, the sacrament of all unity, the source and summit of Christian life. Here, the Church teaches, is the highest form of prayer, upon which daily prayer, devotion, and discipleship draw, and thus here, the crest of tradition, is whence we draw wisdom and courage for meeting the challenges of our present age.
Nostalgia is a sin. Tradition is not nostalgia.