The Extraordinary in the Ordinary; Finding Annunciation in Montgomery and Flannery
By Rose Klassen
“Look what I found, Mama! A seed is a tear!” My little five-year-old’s voice was alive with the delight of her discovery as she extended her little hand with a pumpkin seed in it that had been thrown out into the winter grass for the birds to find. This moment, along with another, has caused me to wonder how ordinary things can be extraordinary.
Since my husband and I met, herons have always held a special meaning for us. Whenever we would be going somewhere with a particular purpose—to spend time together or with a community—a heron would fly over us as we walked or drove. This occurrence still happens to us 16 years later as we travel with our seven children. We always think that God’s benediction is extended over our heads in the heron’s wings as it navigates the winds with calm, its intent beak pointed in a steadfast direction.
After a tough few days of ice and bitter cold, I recently found the body of a young heron, limp with death, in a gravel parking lot out in our rural neighborhood. Immediately, I felt grief for its lost life. Its heart’s space was hollow and eaten away, but its beautiful eye was still present, its feathers fluttered; its long, stick-like and beautifully scaled feet were so graceful. I felt privileged to be so close, to be able to touch it, to observe the curve of its beak and how the feathers laid—he would never have let me come so close in life.
But then the question came to me: “What does this mean? What does this event foreshadow for me, my spouse, and my family? Death? If so, is it imminent? What am I supposed to do with this knowledge?” My two little daughters and I took the heron to the pond and said thank you and goodbye as it floated away on the water. Then, it occurred to me, “Is there a deeper meaning about death and suffering that God is calling me to look upon in this small drama, this little death that perhaps is not so little if I have the eyes to see?”
Flannery O’Connor and L.M.Montgomery, though their visions are so different, are both writers who urge the reader to awake to the beauty and meaning in reality that is illuminated with signs of God’s divine grace and even further to hear God’s call to us through these signs.
First, in reading The Violent Bear It Away, I learned that God’s will for redemption could work even when one works against Him, but the consequences necessitate a violent awakening. Flannery invites us to encounter what the narrator calls in the story “the intimacy of creation.” When we observe Tarwater, the protagonist, who rejects that intimacy, we see the horrible end of such a choice. Listen to this description of Tarwater:
“He tried…to keep his vision located on an even level, to see no more than what was in front of his face, and to let his eyes stop at the surface of that. It was as if he were afraid that if he let his eye rest for an instant longer than was needed to place something—a spade, a hoe, the mule’s hindquarters before his plow, the red furrow underneath him—that the thing would suddenly stand before him, strange and terrifying, demanding that he name it and name it justly and be judged for the name he gave it. He did all he could to avoid this threatened intimacy of creation.”(p.22)
Tarwater’s gaze stays on the superficial surface-he will not let love and wonder work in his heart when presented in ordinary circumstances. So, he refuses God’s grace, and he doesn’t hear his actual call—to bury his uncle and to listen to that call echoed in the comical scratching of chickens in the dirt.
In contrast to Tarwater, there is Mongomery’s Anne, whose heart is open to love and whose gratitude allows her to recognize the world as sacramental, as our WRM Companion so aptly describes. She has the capacity also to wonder and thus never takes anything for granted. Where Tarwater is never hungry and goes about with his hat over his eyes to protect him from beauty, Anne’s attitude is different. “Isn’t it splendid to think of all the things there are to find out about? It just makes me feel glad to be alive—it’s such an interesting world. It wouldn’t be half so interesting if we knew all about everything, would it?” (14)
Then too, Anne has an intuitive impulse to name those particular places in nature—be it trees, flowers, ponds—that strike her as “wonderful.” When she passes through what Matthew calls The Avenue on her first drive to Green Gables, Anne says that such a name does not live up to reality. “It’s the first thing that couldn’t be improved upon by imagination… But they shouldn’t call that lovely place the avenue. There is no meaning in a name like that. They should call it—let me see—the White Way of Delight.” (18)
Now, her imagination can carry her too far because she wants to imagine things differently from what they are, including imagining people’s names being different. But Marilla corrects her. “I don’t believe in imagining things different from what they really are…When the Lord puts us in certain circumstances, He doesn’t mean for us to imagine them away” (54). When I was younger, I thought Marilla was being harsh with Anne here, but as a woman reading these lines, I see that Marilla is right. She helps nurture Anne’s relationship with creation by checking her overzealous fascination with the romantic, which she sees will distract Anne from the beauty and wisdom in front of her nose.
After reading The Violent Bear It Away and Anne of Green Gables, I came upon a poem that caused me to see how great a choice it was for Well-Read Mom to place these works side by side for our reading delight. This poem describes the overshadowing of the Holy Ghost after the message of the Angel. Just dwell with it a moment and see if it draws our two books together for you as it does for me. (I quote just part of it.)
Never again would she awake
And find herself the buoyant Galilean lass,
But into her dissolving dreams would break
A hovering consciousness too terrible to pass—
A new awareness in her body when she stirred,
A sense of Light within her virgin gloom:
She was the Mother of the wandering Word,
Little and terrifying in her laboring womb.
And nothing would again be casual and small,
But everything with light invested, overspilled
With terror and divinity, the dawn, the first bird’s call,
The silhouetted pitcher waiting to be filled.(From “I Sing of a Maiden,” by Rev. John Duffy, C.S.s.R.)
In a blog post in which I discovered this poem, the blogger, Claire Dwyer, reflects profoundly on the poem’s premise. “Mary becomes pregnant with the Son of God, and with His arrival, the entire world suddenly and forever becomes pregnant with meaning.” (After reading the stanza, go back to Flannery’s description of the “intimacy of creation” that I quoted above.)
What struck me was Mary’s awakening to the light falling and hearing the birdsong as she came to the “terrible” realization that the maker of all creation, “the wandering Word,” is housed within the confined and intimate space of her womb. The creator lies within the created. Because of this knowledge, even the pitcher takes on a sacramental meaning—it waits to be filled, as should we. (Remember reading Caryll Houslander’s Reed of God and her metaphor of the chalice-the empty vessel- for Mary? I can’t help but see some ties to the reading we’ve done. And there are indeed more than you can think of as well)
My prayer after being drawn into the poem’s Incarnation and after journeying with Tarwater’s anti-fiat is Lord, let me see when I sin against the Holy Ghost—ignoring his call in the “hidden” ways. Let me also be still and open my eyes and ears in response to his “gentle violence” when he wakens me (St. Jane de Chantal). After accompanying Anne, I see that I lose the joy of naming things in the fatigue of motherhood. Do I have a name for my home or my sourdough starter? Do I have a relationship with the landscape—the trees, the cemetery, and the roads—around where I live? Do I see the sacramental in the everyday? The Old Man’s prophecy is for me as much as for Tarwater: “The day may come when a pit opens inside you and you know some things you have never known before” (p.67). If we are vessels that are empty of our own impositions on what God’s call will look like and we give our fiat freely, then a moment of wonder will happen, and we will see “all things made new.” (Rev. 21:5).
About Well-Read Mom
For our Tenth Anniversary, the reading list put together by Well-Read Mom reflects on the theme of family. In Well-Read Mom we desire to create a place for women, not to escape from family life and work, but to experience a kind of leisure through friendship and literature so that women can return to their lives with a renewed vision and vigor. By reading books together, we help sustain a tradition of reading, which is a gift not only to our families but to the world. We hope you’ll join Well-Read Mom for our Year of the Family. Find out more.