THE MATRIX OF CATHOLIC IMAGINATION IN FLANNERY O’CONNOR’S “EVERYTHING THAT RISES MUST CONVERGE”
O’Connor’s “Everything That Rises Must Converge” is a story narrating how a son treats her mother and all the repercussions stemming from it. The short story does not focus on any emotion but rather it centers itself on the conception of a family life, a search for identity, and a desire for moral lesson. Though the story can be perceived something simple at first, it brings out something more valuable and life-changing: a story that imposes a moral lesson.
First, there is the issue of reality centering on Julian Chestny. He constantly slips into his dream or thoughts of what to do with his mother, or rather how to teach her a mother a lesson for her racist attitude towards the Blacks. In his book, “Matrix of Faith”, Pugh argues that “there are competing, conflicting realities to contend with, and how we adjucate those perspectives is not as obvious as it used to be” (Pugh 2). Julian is conflicted with the realities he wants to discern: a reality of he and his mother riding a bus peacefully; a reality of Julian teaching his mother a lesson by marrying a Black woman; and a reality of Julian becoming a writer. Truly, there are many paths of realities that Julian inflicts to himself that he is now unsure of what the true reality is or what is his identity in the reality.
Pugh continues to state that, “Reality was ‘out there’ and all we had to do was [to] discover it” (Pugh 7). There is an emphasis of the existence of reality and a need for someone to exert an effort in finding it. It is like finding your destiny or fate: it’s there, but it’s upto you to find it. Due to Julian’s conflicted self, he wasn’t able to find the reality he needs to discover. Instead, he is faced by a reality he wasn’t expecting—a reality where his mother his gone and all his ironic thoughts of banishing his mother is now clawing him to another reality of being alone. It’s all because Julian thinks he can be superior but in the end, he is still dependent despite being able to graduate from college. He exerts Pugh’s concept of “will to power” which means, “…it constitutes one of the primary forces of human behavior. It is a manifestation of our desire to show our strength” (Pugh 13). Julian tries to display power over his mother; that, through his thoughts of teaching moral lessons to her mother, he can change her. He believes he has the power to change her, which is isn’t exactly what happened in the end. Because primarily, he wasn’t able to conceive the proper reality to him because “we have no firm in reality; all we have are interpretations of interpretations” (Pugh 146). Truly, we interpret things that has been already interpreted either by ourselves formerly or through another medium.
Julian’s choices throughout the story is one-sided; he did not think of his mother’s position of why is she racist. Instead of doing it in a more peaceful way, he used his own belief of teaching someone a lesson, the hard way. Pugh states that worldviews must be carefully explored and critiqued as only as we explore will we find what we believed to be the truths (Pugh 18). Julian should have taken it this way: if I do this, “is this really beneficial? Is there no other way to teach someone a lesson?” We must always engrave upon our very soul that, “If we believe our view of things is the right or correct view, we will engage in systematic destruction of the other in order to maintain our world” (Pugh 19). Truly, Julian believed in his views and he had destroyed (though unconsciously) all the other possibilities of reaching out to his mother because he apprehended his decisions to be correct and exact.
Compared to the first issue of reality, there is the second issue of identity and meaning. Primarily on identity, is Julian really sure of his identity? Was he really someone who have proven something or does he will to use his planned “moral teaching” to her mother as a base for his identity? According to Pugh, “everything we create ends up defining us inviduals” (Pugh 24). We are what we create—and most of the time, we create our own identity and thus it becomes us. Julian grows into an environment of possibly no father (as Mrs. Chestny noted that she schooled her son to college by herself) and of course, with a racist mother. We cannot blame Julian for being something who he is in the story because “the cultural context we grow up in is also a significant factor in forming out identities.” The no-father/racist-mother filial culture has already embraced him that he only had a refuge to his mother, who is a racist clashing against Julian’s conceptions of racial and ethnic identities. In the course of the story, however, aside from Julian’s multiple conception of realities, Julian’s self is conflicted. He does not have a fixed definition for his identity because he is still dependent to his mother and he still doesn’t know what to do with his life. He suffers from this identity crisis that hinders him from knowing more about the world outside his community and his mother because “we have always defined ourselves by the narrative frame that constructed our culture” (Pugh 38). In short, Julian has already adapted to the culture he grew up with and constructed it to the narratives of his life that he doesn’t know who he is outside that cultural frame. Our construction of the authentic sense of identity, St. Augustine suggests that, “we must first see ourselves in God.” (Pugh 51). Seeing ourselves first in God helps us in understanding more of our spiritual self—or how we communicate through God and have Him lead us into a journey of finding ourselves.
There is the talk about “interpretations” which is one of the backbones of the story. It is the third issue of the story—the meanings. Pugh expresses that, “all the things, the artifacts of human society that we create, are containers of meaning” (Pugh 3). Everything has a meaning in life, like a bicycle which is a two-wheeled mechanical vehicle, or a ball which is an inflatable spherical object capable of bouncing. Though there are things with fixed meaning, “we are in a world that we are constantly interpreting to ourselves and one another.” A bicycle becomes a memento given by your father; or a ball is something you played with a friend who went to the States. We interpret things with a brand new perspective. In this story, Julian fails to interpret all her mother’s hardwork for him. His antagonistic attitude towards his mother led to his downfall in the end because primarily, he interpreted his mother as a person who deserves a hard lesson but in the end, her mother becomes someone you still need in the world.
In the story, the most obvious presentation of interpretation is Mrs. Chestny’s attempt to give a child a penny. It is in the nature of Mrs. Chestny to give children a “shining” penny regardless of race because it serves as her token for a child. However, the mother misinterprets the coin that she believes Mrs. Chestny is giving alms to her child, causing the mother to hit Mrs. Chestny with a big purse, knocking her unconscious.
Community also serves as an issue in the story in the context of the merging of Black and White. The racist ideology of Mrs. Chestny dictates that Blacks and White should be separated; Blacks should grow all by themselves. However foolish is Mrs. Chestny’s ideals, it is engraved in her upbringing because of her historical experiences with her ancestors. Nonetheless, she sacrificed a lot for her son in order to bring him into good education and the son (Julian) being able to graduate from college. In the book, “The Catholic Imagination”, Andrew Greeley introduces the concept of “Christ figure” as someone sacrificing himself for friends ruining his career chances for the future. (Greeley 116). Mrs. Chestny doesn’t have a bright future anymore—she has a racist mentality and a need of training at the YMCA to lower her blood pressure.
The community of Mrs. Chestny is a merged one—of the Blacks and Whites. However instead of being able to communicate well as articulated by Greeley, “It enabled to sustain many of the social patterns they had left behind while at the same time adjusting to a different society and—as there can be little doubt any more—struggling successfully to become part of that society” (Greeley 126), it was the other way around—Mrs. Chestny refuses to be part of the “accepting community.” She is tarnished by her own hubris which causes her fall through her child, Julian.
Together with community comes a hierarchical need, in which it is present in the division of the Blacks and the Whites. Greeley articulates that, “structure implies organization, which is not possible without leadership, which in turn requires hierarchy” (Greeley 138). The hierarchical status of the community only leads to a false notion that the Blacks and Whites are equal. In the eyes of Mrs. Chestny, the Blacks should be in the lower form of the hierarchy. But it is undeniable that “it is in the nature of community that it be ordered” (Greeley 141) because through order, it creates peace and harmony. Mrs. Chestny obviously opposed this concept. She did not accept the hierarchical equality of the Blacks and Whites because she believes that the Blacks are always of the low class, and why should the community be ordered according to them?
Synthesizing the issues, our lives are constantly affected by meaning or rather, “we are experiencing a saturation of messages flowing into us from the cultures we are becoming” (Pugh 29). These interpretations become our own conception of reality and our own conception of the self. We provide meanings to our lives just like how we define our reality and define ourselves encaged in our influences through the cultural community structed by the hierarchy. In the postmodern, we are enshrouded with meaning but in order to see the meaning, we must let it flow within us. Only if we “become” we will know the reality of our being and the self we are performing.
Greeley, Andrew M. The Catholic Imagination. Berkeley: University of California, 2000. PDF.
Pugh, Jeffrey C. The Matrix of Faith: Reclaiming a Christian Vision. New York, NY: Crossroad Pub., 2001. Print.