Eat or Be Eaten

Not by design, I just finished Flannery O'Connor's The Violent Bear Away in time for today's Feast of Corpus Christi.  The Eucharistic imagery in "A Temple of the Holy Ghost" always moved me, but I found the same theme in this novel more demanding, more challenging--as if O'Connor could have titled it alternately:  Eat or Be Eaten.

The boy sensed that this was the heart of his great-uncle's madness, this hunger, and what he was secretly afraid of was that it might be passed down, might be hidden in the blood and might strike some day in him and then he would be torn by hunger like the old man, the bottom split out of his stomach so that nothing would heal or fill it but the bread of life (135).

Resistent as he is to the hunger, it consumes him.  Yet when he tries to reject this hunger, he gets swallowed up, Jonah-fashion, albeit in a far more gruesome way.

Riding in the cream-and-lavender car, Tarwater takes a swig of some drugged liquor and his last words to the leering young man are:  "It's better than the Bread of Life!"  Within two hours, the leering young man is creeping away, his skin "a faint pink tint as if he had refreshed himself on blood" (261).

So does God send the whale to Jonah?  Does O'Connor mean us to think God sent that leering man Tarwater's way?  No . . . it seems more like O'Connor was suggesting that the fate of the man who rejects the Bread of Life is not going to be merely starving.  We are not going to be left to die in peace, in a fate of our own choosing.  Rather, this food for the journey, this bread of angels is truly the staff of life, the support against a malevolence that would seek, vampire-like, to consume us.

Striking thoughts for the Feast of Corpus Christi.  Happy Feast.
Quotations are from Three by Flannery O'Connor (New York:  Signet Classic, 1983).

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