Flannery O’Connor’s only explicitly Catholic short story has a (very) surprising twist.
Flannery O’Connor wrote only one short story that takes place in a Catholic setting. In it she unites two theological truths, the indwelling of the Holy Spirit in every human being and the presence of Christ in the Eucharist. She also explores an extreme sexual orientation—all within a sometimes hilarious story about an unusual weekend in a mother-daughter household.
In “A Temple of the Holy Ghost,” a nameless 12-year-old child learns something special about herself when her cousins, two years older, come for a weekend visit from a girls’ convent school nearby. At dinner, the cousins are giggling as they call each other “Temple One” and “Temple Two.” The mother questions them and learns, amid more giggles, that Sister Perpetua advised them that if a boy tries to take liberties with them, they should say, “Stop, sir! I am a Temple of the Holy Ghost.”
In her story O’Connor unites two theological truths: the indwelling of the Holy Spirit in every human being and the presence of Christ in the Eucharist.
The child’s mother doesn’t laugh; she calls the girls “silly” and adds, “After all, that’s what you are—Temples of the Holy Ghost.”
The child listens. “I am a Temple of the Holy Ghost,” she said to herself, and was pleased with the phrase. It made her feel as if somebody had given her a present.” She continues to reflect on this new knowledge and applies it mentally to the lonely spinster boarder at their table, even though “it’s all over her head.”
To entertain the two cousins, the child’s mother calls a friend and invites her two grandsons to come to supper the next day and take the girls to the county fair. She is told that they are going to be “Church of God preachers,” so she thinks they would be safe escorts. Wendell and Cory arrive with harmonica and guitar and, on the back porch, they begin to sing hymns as love songs to the two girls, while the child listens, unseen. In a display of one-upmanship, the girls respond “in convent-trained voices” with the “Tantum Ergo,” the traditional Catholic hymn honoring the Eucharist. When they finish all three verses and draw out the “Amen,” there is silence. Perplexed, Wendell says, “That must be Jew singing.”
“God done this to me and I praise Him.”
The child, still unseen near the porch, stamps her foot and shouts: “You big dumb Church of God ox!” This warfare between religious sentimentalism and religious doctrine is completely comic, but it illuminates the child’s reverence for the Eucharist.
Then the girls and their dates leave for the fair. It is nearly midnight when the cousins return to the child’s bedroom giggling about the “you-know-what.” The child cleverly gets the girls to tell her what they saw: “it was a man and woman both.” In a tent with a curtain dividing men from women, a person on stage went from one side to the other, lifting up a blue dress and saying, “God made me thisaway and if you laugh he may strike you the same way. This is the way He wanted me to be and I ain’t disputing His way.”
The child climbs into her own bed and, as she slowly moves into sleep, she tries to picture it. She tries to imagine a creature with two heads, but it is all too much for her. Half asleep, she recreates the scene as a dialogue between the freak and the audience.
She was better able to see the faces of the country people watching….
She could hear the freak saying, “God made me thisaway and I don’t dispute hit [sic],” and the people saying, “Amen. Amen.”
“God done this to me and I praise Him.”
“Raise yourself up. A temple of the Holy Ghost. You! You are God’s temple, don’t you know? Don’t you know? God’s Spirit has a dwelling in you, don’t you know?”
In this dramatic exchange, the child unites what she had learned the previous day with the person who was described to her. The reader watches the child assimilate the understanding that the Spirit of God dwells in every person, regardless of gender identity.
The next morning, mother and daughter take the cousins back to their convent school, and “a moon-faced nun” tells them that the service of Benediction is starting. “You put your foot in their door and they got you praying, the child thought as they hurried down the polished corridor.” She kneels in the chapel, and “they were well into the Tantum Ergo before her ugly thoughts stopped and she began to realize that she was in the presence of God.” The service ends with the priest raising the monstrance high and blessing the congregation, and as he does, “she was thinking of the tent at the fair that had the freak in it...saying, ‘I don’t dispute hit. This is the way He wanted me to be.’”
O’Connor goes to the extreme of the gender spectrum to create one of her “large and startling” figures, a hermaphrodite.
Unwittingly, the child links the Divine Presence in the Eucharist, now displayed in a golden monstrance, with the Divine Presence in each human being. Quite wittingly, O’Connor structures the story to link the mystery of the divine indwelling with the mystery of persons who accept their gender identity and “don’t dispute it.” But O’Connor takes one further step. As mother and child are leaving the convent, the “big nun swooped down” on the child, “mashing the side of her face into the crucifix hitched onto her belt….” She feels the mark of the cross on her body. Redemption.
On the drive home, “the child’s round face was lost in thought.” Then she looks at the sky: “The sun was a huge red ball like an elevated Host drenched in blood and when it sank out of sight, it left a line in the sky like a red clay road hanging over the trees.”
This story, filled with inimitable Georgia characters, is real to the core, vivid and profound. The child understands and believes in the indwelling of the Holy Spirit in each person, reveals her belief in the real presence of God in the Eucharist, and has a physical encounter with the cross.
To tell this story effectively, O’Connor creates an extremely imaginative child, who makes up stories about herself. She wants to be a saint, so she imagines her martyrdom. Her thoughts are laced with humor. She muses that “she could be a martyr if they killed her quick,” and then creates possible scenes of her martyrdom, “lit by the early Christians hanging in cages of fire.”
What is true of this person is true of every person: God made me this way.
O’Connor goes to the extreme of the gender spectrum to create one of her “large and startling” figures, a hermaphrodite. What is true of this person is true of every person: God made me this way.
This story was published in Harper’s Bazaarin May 1954, a decade before the Second Vatican Council recommended the phrase “Holy Spirit” to replace “Holy Ghost.” It ends with a vision of O’Connor’s signature landscape—dark woods and a red clay road.
In my book, Flannery O’Connor: Voice of the Peacock, I quote from a letter that Robert L. Faricy, S.J., sent to me in 1969. It is a theologian’s view of O’Connor’s fiction:
Flannery O’Connor is a theologian as well as a great fiction writer. She is both, not less one for being the other…. Her theological method is to interpret God’s message for us in Christ by and through her own literary gifts. The result is literature, and it is also theology—not a theology that is rationalistic, conceptual, or even conceptualizable, but a theology that is faithful to its literary form, and one that cannot be separated from that literary form.
O’Connor could tell a good story, often interweaving horror and humor, but her fiction is always more than a good story. Her added dimension probes the deepest theological truths. In this story, the reality of the indwelling of the Holy Spirit in every person reaches new depth through the consciousness of a child. Someone has given each person a gift that is the ultimate equalizer of persons, even as it is the ultimate elevation of humankind. No exceptions.
This layer of meaning emerges from a story written in an era in which sexuality, much less the spectrum of gender identity, was not discussed in polite society.
Once again, literature proves to be both timeless and timely in this 1950s story by a gifted, deeply Catholic, American author who sometimes wrote more profoundly than she knew.