On imagining, the Ascension, and Flannery O'Connor
Her name was Sandy, and though most who met her described her as “bubbly,” I, personally, never thought that did her justice. Ordinary happy people can be bubbly, but I always felt after encountering Sandy I needed to consult a thesaurus to find some other word. Peppy? Effervescent? Perky? Zippy? Sunny? Zingy? All are accurate, but none exactly capture her spirit.
I knew Sandy through my involvement with a parish RCIA group – that's Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults for those who may not know that terminology. In the Roman Catholic Church, it is a period – we used to shy away from calling it a programme and opted more for process – in which those who would like to be baptised or confirmed as adults meet together once a week for a little more than a year, learning about the Christian faith and becoming part of the community. It's an amazing, rewarding experience filled with fellowship and study and sharing and ritual – and I'd have to say it's probably the thing I miss most about my former ministry.
During Sandy's time there were nine going through the process. Eight were people who were marrying Catholics and thus wanted to be baptised or confirmed in that Church. Sandy, on the other hand, had just wanted to find a church and had chosen ours because our building was the prettiest. (Take that, all you who say church buildings are unimportant!) To say she was enthusiastic would be an understatement. Always perched on the edge of her seat as if she were at a rugby match and not in a classroom, her eyes – already gigantic – became positively immense when something caught her interest. And pretty much everything caught her interest.
In that place where - amongst other things - we talked about ritual language, it soon became evident that Sandy had some of her own. Whenever we would talk about the theological or belief bits, say, the Virgin birth or the miracles of Jesus, she would always exclaim: “I can't imagine!” and then turn to the person next to her and ask, “Can you imagine?” Eventually this developed into a proper ritual exchange. Sandy would say “I can't imagine!” and we would all then chime in with “Can you imagine?” like we were participants in a midnight showing of The Rocky Horror Picture Show. Every dogma, every movement of Jesus, every element of faith soon had its own ritual language: I can't imagine! Can you imagine?
Which is what made the evening in which we discussed the Ascension of Jesus so extraordinary. It is, of course, one of the most fantastic stories of our faith, an event that would lend itself well to a Hollywood treatment with pyrotechnics and killer special effects. A colleague of mine was facilitating the discussion but no one was looking at him; we were all waiting for Sandy to say “I can't imagine!” so that we could shout “Can you imagine?” But Sandy just sat there, eyes large but growing no larger.
My colleague finished his presentation with nary a word from Sandy. What was going on? we wondered. A participant, obviously trying to stir her up a bit, asked my colleague but looked at Sandy, “Let me get this right. Jesus – body and everything – just woosh! Went up to heaven like Superman?”
“Well, not like Superman, maybe,” my colleague replied, “but .. yeah. That's the idea.”
We looked at Sandy. Silence.
“You mean he was there one moment and just vanished before their eyes?” he asked.
“Yes, that's what we believe.”
We looked at Sandy. Silence.
Finally someone said, “Sandy! We're waiting for you to say 'I can't imagine!'”
She smiled. “Well, this one I can imagine,” she said.
“Really?” I asked, dumbfounded. “A shepherd going after a lost sheep gets an “I can't imagine” but a man rising above the clouds doesn't?”
“Well,” she said “I can't imagine anyone coming after me if I were lost, but I can imagine being able to rise above things because I've done it. Loads of times. I've had to do it.”
We all kind of let that sink in a bit, and I said to Sandy, “I don't think I'll ever look at the Ascension of Our Lord in the same way again.”
“I can't imagine!” she responded.
It is, in a sense, the Great Feast of the Imaginable, though I would have never thought about that before. For though our hearts can mist over at the wonder of a Virgin Birth, it's not really for us – in that sense – that Christmas. We stand almost as observers before a painting which is beautiful and touches and involves us and is a part of us, but at the same time it's not, we who know how we came into this world.
And though we can glory in the Resurrection which changed the world and us and everything in it, it's somewhat unimaginable for us, that Easter, we who have touched cold, hard hands gripped by death, we who have heard the dull thud, thud, thud of dirt on coffins.
But maybe the Ascension is different. Because although there are elements that seem outside of our experience, that seem almost unimaginable, there is something eminently accessible about it as well. Because who among us has not – at one time or another – been able to ascend to something great, even if but for a moment? Who among us does not know what it is to be earth-bound, to be mired in the routine and drudgery and even suffering that life offers, and through something or someone – a friend, a painting, a piece of art, a book, a poem, a lover – is transported up, up, up: enraptured, complete, loved. Yes, it is not difficult to imagine the Ascension of Jesus, not difficult to pray that we may eventually follow where he leads, because we have seen that way, even travelled a part of it ourselves.
Hail thee, festival day! Let us rejoice in the imaginable.
Of course, the trick – and there's always a trick, a divine sleight of hand that keeps us guessing – is not imagining the glories of the Ascension for ourselves, but for those others, whom the world frequently seems to think are worthy to remain down, down, down. Happily, there is no room for our judgement on this great feast of the imaginable.
And so we revel in this our feast. We thank God for our unlikely ability to know the Ascension, and to feel a part of it.
I have no idea why or when I began doing it, but for decades now on the Wednesday evening before the Ascension I always read the story entitled Revelation by Flannery O'Connor, one who I have to say has raised me up and thus given me a foretaste of the Ascension many times over. It is the story of one Mrs. Turpin, a shameless bigot, and at this part of the story we find her among the hogs. There is one word in it that – all apologies to the memory of the celestial Ms. O'Connor – I cannot bring myself to say, so I shan't, but I feel the passage does not suffer for its omission. O'Connor writes:
“Then like a monumental statue coming to life, she bent her head slowly and gazed, as if through the very heart of mystery, down into the pig parlor at the hogs. They had settled all in one corner around the old sow who was grunting softly. A red glow suffused them. They appeared to pant with a secret life.
Until the sun slipped finally behind the tree line, Mrs. Turpin remained there with her gaze bent to them as if she were absorbing some abysmal life-giving knowledge. At last she lifted her head. There was only a purple streak in the sky, cutting through a field of crimson and leading, like an extension of the highway, into the descending dusk. She raised her hands from the side of the pen in a gesture hieratic and profound. A visionary light settled in her eyes. She saw the streak as a vast swinging bridge extending upward from the earth through a field of living fire. Upon it a vast horde of souls were tumbling toward heaven. There were whole companies of white trash, clean for the first time in their lives, and bands of black [people] in white robes, and battalions of freaks and lunatics shouting and clapping and leaping like frogs. And bringing up the end of the procession was a tribe of people whom she recognized at once as those who, like herself and Claud, had always had a little of everything and the God-given wit to use it right. She leaned forward to observe them closer. They were marching behind the others with great dignity, accountable as they had always been for good order and common sense and respectable behavior. They, alone were on key. Yet she could see by their shocked and altered faces even their virtues were being burned away. She lowered her hands and gripped the rail of the hog pen, her eyes small but fixed unblinkingly on what lay ahead. In a moment the vision faded but she remained where she was, immobile.
At length she got down and turned off the faucet and made her slow way on the darkening path to the house. In the woods around her the invisible cricket choruses had struck up, but what she heard were the voices of the souls climbing upward into the starry field and shouting hallelujah.”
Thank you Flannery O'Connor. Thank you Sandy. Thank you God. I canimagine. Can you imagine? Amen.