One of the stories we read in the book group earlier this fall was titled “Parker’s Back” by Flannery O’Connor. The main character in the story, O.E. Parker, is a tattooed, shiftless, good-for-nothing who, through a burning bush-like epiphany, becomes a sort of Moses. The other main character is his wife, Sarah Ruth, whose father is a preacher and who seems to loathe Parker more than she loves him. She hates his tattoos, his worldliness, and Parker suspects that she stays with him primarily because she wants to “save him”.
Sarah Ruth’s main prop throughout the story is a broom with which she is constantly sweeping and cleaning. The broom is a metaphor for her religion: sweeping away the sin, sweeping away the evil she sees all around her, particularly in her husband. It is a Christianity without Christ, focused solely on what she believes to be good behavior and morality but absent the One who is the Good, the True, and the Beautiful. It is a religion of “thou shout not’s” absent the presence of "He Who Is”.
When Parker, following his burning bush experience, arrives home with a freshly tattooed icon of Christ on his back, Sarah Ruth, unable to perceive the change that has taken place in him (evidenced by the image that he carries, like his own cross, on his back), takes her ever-present broom and begins to beat him with it, striking him repeatedly on the back where the image of Christ has sealed him, calling him an idolater. When Parker protests speaking about the image, “Don’t you know who it is?”, she replies tragically, “No, who is it? ... It ain’t anybody I know.” The time of her visitation - Christ in his prophet, Parker - has come and she has missed it because her Christianity knows nothing of Christ. Her religion has blinded her to him.
I was reminded of this story this week because one of our Gospel readings (Luke 11:23-26) quite obviously served as the inspiration for O’Connor’s story. The house that has been swept clean and purged of devils but then left empty is but a tomb where a temple should be. Unfortunately, for many people, this emptiness is the essence of their religion: not being “bad”, minding your manners, and staying out of trouble. But this sort of religion is a charade, fooling only those who practice it. It doesn’t fool the demons, and it certainly doesn’t fool Christ.
All of the “negative” work of asceticism is aimed at purifying the heart. But the heart is purified so that it can be the temple and dwelling place of Christ. If the heart is left empty it will become, undoubtedly, the haunt of demons. There were, after all, many religious people in Jesus’ day who shouted “Crucify him!”, just as there were packed churches in Nazi Germany, millions of Orthodox Christians in Russia prior to the revolution, and a church on every corner in our -and Flannery O’Connor’s - South, a place scarred still by the evils of racism and hatred.
If we are to be anything more than merely religious people then we must become living temples of the Holy Spirit. And to do this we must, like O.E. Parker, bear Christ and have his image “tattooed” upon us.
With Love in Christ,