“Even the mercy of the Lord burns.” – Mason Tarwater
One of the main characters in Flannery O’Connor’s novel, The Violent Bear It Away, is the self-proclaimed prophet, Mason Tarwater. A fat, ornery recluse, Old Tarwater lives in the scrubby woods of Georgia, subsisting on corn (in the form of grits and whiskey). He thinks of himself as Elijah, filled with the Lord’s Word and strength, shunned by others, persecuted for his message.
As enthusiastic as he is about his role as prophet, Old Tarwater actually does very little prophesying. Miles from civilization, the only person around to hear his prophecies is his grand-nephew, Francis Tarwater. Mason performs most of these from memory, working himself into a manic state as Francis goads him on. His most dramatic prophecy is the one Old Tarwater delivered during a confrontation with his nephew, the atheist Rayber, during a rare trip to the big city. Rayber openly mocked his uncle and his beliefs so the self-proclaimed prophet was only too happy to deliver the harsh rebuke:
“Ignore the Lord Jesus as long as you can! Spit out the bread of life and sicken on honey. To whom work beckons, to work! Whom blood to blood whom lust to lust! Make haste, make haste. Fly faster and faster. Spin yourselves in a frenzy, the time is short! The Lord is preparing a prophet. The Lord is preparing a prophet with fire in his hand and eye and the prophet is moving toward the city with his warning. The prophet is coming with the Lord’s message. ‘Go warn the children of God,’ saith the Lord, ‘ of the terrible speed of justice.’ Who will be left? Who will be left when the Lord’s mercy strikes?”
After delivering his fiery message, Old Tarwater was promptly arrested and carted off to an insane asylum. And why not? The “prophecy” sounds like the usual fire-and-brimstone message of a stereotypical street preacher. Lust, blood, justice, fire, etc. And Old Tarwater seems to have meant the speech this way, as a vindictive warning against an avowed foe. Better to have such a man locked away than free to roam the streets, frightening women and children. But, whether the prophet was aware of it or not, the message is actually much more subtle and interesting. Yes, the Lord will strike and it’s implied that, when he does, no one will be left. But the ‘justice’ moving at a terrible speed is replaced by ‘mercy’ in the last few words. Ultimately, this fiery message isn’t a warning about hell. Rather, it’s God’s mercy that is coming for his children.
For most street preachers, warnings of fire and justice would likely be warnings of hell and the flames that await the wicked. But, for Catholic O’Connor’s Tarwater, the fire in his message is actually purgatorial flames. This is perhaps clearer in the more concise message Old Tarwater scrawls on the back of a magazine for Rayber: “THE PROPHET I RAISE UP OUT OF THIS BOY WILL BURN YOUR EYES CLEAN.” (147) Superficially, these words sound like a threat or a warning of damnation. But, upon a second reading, it’s clear that (whether he knows it or not) Old Tarwater is actually promising that Rayber will be purged. The image is reminiscent of the beginning of the Book of Isaiah when a seraph touches the prophet’s lips with a burning coal, preparing him for his prophetic work.
“And the foundations of the thresholds trembled at the voice of him who called out, while the temple was filling with smoke. Then I said,
“Woe is me, for I am ruined!
Because I am a man of unclean lips,
And I live among a people of unclean lips;
For my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts.”
Then one of the seraphim flew to me with a burning coal in his hand, which he had taken from the altar with tongs. He touched my mouth with it and said, “Behold, this has touched your lips; and your iniquity is taken away and your sin is forgiven.”” Isaiah 6:4-7
In this passage, Isaiah is rightly fearful of his “unclean lips” in the presence of the Holy God. He must be cleansed if his eyes will be able to stand the sight. But the cleansing isn’t a soothing cup full of water or a quiet prayer. Instead, he is cleansed by burning coals. The picture is even more frightening when we consider the seraphim, literally “the burning ones” who deliver the coals.
This is the fire that will burn Rayber clean. In some ways, these flames are even more disconcerting than hellfire. This isn’t a question of the reality of hell. Hellfire awaits the wicked, yes. But, for now, all those flames can do is burn and wait. But the Lord is not so lazy. He is coming. He is coming for his children with a terrible speed, with a mercy that burns.
The allusion and the message seem to have been lost on Old Tarwater who delivered his prophecy with a kind of vindictive certainty. Francis Tarwater was not so oblivious. He understood the mercy of the Lord to be a swift and terrible thing. But he didn’t want to deliver that message. Or any message for that matter. Instead of Elisha, Francis became another famous Old Testament Prophet. On the run from his mission, O’Connor says Francis “might have been Jonah clinging wildly to the whale’s tongue.” (216) Jonah, tasked with delivering a message of mercy to the people he hated, fled from his prophetic duty. But Prophet is a dangerous calling. And after his time in the belly of the beast, Francis, just like Jonah, found he could no longer avoid his task. For much of The Violent Bear It Away, Francis questions – even ridicules- his calling. At the same time, he constantly feels an aching hunger yet cannot eat the food presented to him. Eventually, the calling and hunger converge:
“He felt his hunger no longer as a pain but as a tide. He felt it rising in himself through time and darkness, rising through the centuries, and he knew that it rose in a line of men whose lives were chosen to sustain it, who would wander in the world, strangers from the violent country where the silence is never broken except to shout the truth.” (242)
Soon, his purpose and calling overwhelm him:
“He threw himself to the ground and with his face against the dirt of the grave, he heard the command. GO AND WARN THE CHILDREN OF GOD OF THE TERRIBLE SPEED OF MERCY. The words were as silent as the seeds opening one at a time in his blood.” (242)
Francis submitted to his call and became a vessel – a mouthpiece – of God. For those of us without such rich blood and ancestry, we must only respond to the prophetic Word. This Word, as O’Connor presents it, is not wrath or angry discipline, but mercy. But the mercy isn’t easy. It is “terrible,” something that hunts us down and burns us. The language here is admittedly frightening and strange. Why should mercy burn? Well, if Elvis can sing of “burning love” and Johnny Cash of “a ring of fire,” the metaphor must certainly hold even more true of the Lord. His love blazes without burning up. His mercy cleanses and brings us true freedom. Frightening? Maybe. But ultimately hopeful and thrilling. Be warned: the Lord’s mercy is coming with terrible speed.