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This is My Body
© February 2006 - Stephen Sparrow 


The Mystery of the Incarnate God in Flannery O'Connor's Short Story A Temple of The Holy Ghost. 

A Temple of The Holy Ghost is the one piece of fiction unique among the Flannery O'Connor corpus for its distinctly Catholic theme; the reader being treated to an insight into the effect of a Catholic upbringing on an adolescent girl living in the American South. The title is a clear reference to a term familiar to most Catholics practising their faith prior to 1970. The expression refers to God creating each person in His own image--each possessing an immortal soul. The term first surfaced with St. Paul who reminded the Church members of Corinth1 that their bodies were Temples of The Holy Ghost to be used only for God's glory, meaning that God is exalted in the exchange and gift of the self in marriage; whereas sexual immorality--using others only for pleasure or gain--was a sin against the body given to man by God.

The story is told through the eyes of a twelve year old girl who throughout the story is called just "the child". For the reader there is no cosy familiarity with her character. We're not told her name nor do we get to know much about her personality. We're kept at arm's length; the focus being on the child's view of life, which in this instance is presented through the weekend visit to her home of two cousins Susan and Joanne--immature and scatty fourteen year old girls boarding at the local convent school. The child however, despite lapses in behaviour, displays wisdom well beyond her years; wisdom resulting no doubt from a combination of her solid Catholic home background combined with a willingness to absorb instruction in spiritual matters.

Early on we learn that the two convent girls have recently been told by some elderly, unworldly nun, that the most effective way to repel the advances of any young man in the back seat of a car is to say, "stop sir! I am a Temple of the Holy Ghost," and throughout the weekend the girls address each other as Temple one and Temple two, after which they collapse into hysterics. The child's mother however backs the nun's advice and affirms the doctrine that each human being is in fact a Temple of the Holy Ghost, a response causing mild astonishment for the two young visitors.

A Temple of the Holy Ghost was first published in 1954. The story presages the coarsening of Western Culture marked in the 1960s by the birth of radical feminism and its corrosive effect on traditional family life. The laughter at the feeble advice on how to combat the world of lustful men shows the two girls' unconscious alignment with the mores of a society that increasingly saw goodness and innocence as targets for mockery and scorn. However the hothouse environment of the convent may also have exacerbated that problem. On at least one occasion O'Connor opined that overly pious religious instruction is not the most effective way to equip young women (and men) for the moral rigours of the world. O'Connor herself was taught by nuns in grade school in Savannah Georgia, but in 1938 the family moved to Milledgeville where, because there was no alternative, she was enrolled at the local public school (Peabody High). It was a critical time for O'Connor but her Catholic faith was by then sufficiently embedded to survive the transition. If anything, exposure at high school to the American South's prevailing moral climate of bigotry and rapidly mounting secularism undoubtedly strengthened her faith. As she famously said, “you have to push back against the age as hard as it pushes against you.” So why should anyone be surprised at the direction O'Connor's writing career ultimately settled on? By her own admission, the rationale of her fiction is founded on the relevance of Christ's redemption illumined by the actions of those who have rejected it. And so, returning to the child in this story, we can see in her that combination of innocence and wisdom that unquestionably characterised Flannery O'Connor in her formative years.

Not far into the story we find the child's mother racking her brains for ways to keep Susan and Joanne "safely" entertained for the weekend. The child makes a series of intentionally absurd suggestions before hitting on the idea that they enlist the help of the two Wilkinses boys, Wendell and Corey. The mother initially warms to the idea but then concedes that being, “only farm boys, [the] girls would turn their noses up at them.” The child persists, reminding her mother that both boys were planning to become Church of God preachers, rubbing it in with the unnecessary rider, “because you don't have to know anything to be one.”

The mother again ponders the suggestion and convinces herself of its usefulness by saying the girls, “would be perfectly safe with those boys all right,” and straight away phones their mother to arrange things.

In anticipation of the visit, Susan and Joanne smarten themselves up. When Wendell and Corey arrive, the child observes the proceedings from the top of a barrel hidden in some bushes. The girls sit together on the porch swing giggling and talking to each other while the boys sit on the steps banister. Beginning a shy courtship, Cory blows softly on his harmonica while Wendell strums his guitar, and looking “at Susan with a dog like loving look,” he begins to sing. The songs are popular Southern hymns including “The Old Rugged Cross”. Cutting in to stop them, the girls, “sing with their convent trained voices,” the Medieval Latin hymn "Tantum Ergo"2. The child, from her observation place, “watched the boys' faces turn with perplexed frowning stares at each other as if they were being made fun of,” and when the hymn was finished she heard Wendell say, “that must be Jew singing.” A remark that infuriates the child so much she can't stop herself roaring, “you big dumb Church of God ox,” at which she falls off the barrel, quickly picks herself up and flees around the side of the house in embarrassment.

I think it's obvious O'Connor devised this scene to throw light on the gulf that exists between mature Catholic practice and doctrine, and the raw and immature perceptions of what constituted Christianity for those languishing in the Church of God. The child could see the difference and so to could the girls, who couldn't help but notice the reaction to their rendering of "Tantum Ergo". With that Latin hymn they knew immediately they had something over the boys whose banal “what a friend we have in Jesus” smacked of Sola Fide3 with its simplistic believe-and-be-saved mind-set. There's also classic irony in the child calling Wendell a “big dumb Church of God Ox.” St Thomas Aquinas, arguably Christianity's greatest philosopher, was sometimes referred to in his lifetime as The Dumb Ox – presumably because he seldom set down his thoughts or spoke until the argument he had been mulling over was resolved.

After supper the quartet head for the local Fair. The child, having been left at home, spends the evening in her room pacing up and down, allowing full play to her imagination and occasionally glancing out the window toward where the fairground searchlight beam plays in the night sky. She begins reflecting on her common faults and sins, including her disdainful sufferance of her school's visiting Baptist preacher. Finally, kneeling at her bedside to pray, her mind abruptly settles on Wendell and Cory and her bedtime prayer ends with a resounding "thank you" that she was “not in the Church of God”. Perhaps this prayer mirrors a comment O'Connor's mother may have made after Flannery quite likely grumbled about the visiting preacher at Peabody High. Might she not have told her daughter how thankful she should be not to be in a Church like that? Yes we would have to admit that bigotry can flow both ways and throughout the story O'Connor's integrity would not allow her to conceal that fact.

Just before midnight the girls return and wake the child with their giggling. They try to keep secret from her the subject of their giggles but the child tricks them into revealing and describing their memorable encounter with the Freak.

The following afternoon Susan and Joanne don their convent school uniforms and together with the mother and the child are driven by Alonzo back to the Convent in the middle of town. The nun who welcomes them urges the mother and the child to stay and attend Benediction4, which has just started. With no option available except to accompany her mother and the nun, the child grudgingly enters the chapel where Tantum Ergo is again being sung, the air is full of incense and the monstrance5 occupies the centre of the altar with the vested priest and white surplus clad altar boys kneeling in front. The child, realising she was in the presence of God, kneels and prays. The priest then raises the monstrance containing the “shining ivory white” Blessed Sacrament6, and the child's thoughts again return to Susan and Joanne's account of the fairground tent where the hermaphrodite freak displayed itself saying, “I don't dispute hit. This is the way He wanted me to be.”

As they left the chapel the nun with a mischievous smile “swooped down” on the child and gave her a smothering hug that mashed the side of her face into the crucifix “hitched onto [the nun's] belt”7. In the car on the way home, the child watched the setting sun resembling a huge red ball like an elevated host drenched in blood sinking out of sight behind the tree line. The sun as symbol of the Eucharistic Host--nature ennobled by grace--the blazing disc of the sun with its power to upstage gravity--enabling plants to absorb its energy and grow upward toward the light--mirroring the duty of human beings to align themselves--orient themselves favourably toward receiving the light of God's grace. After all, human beings seek nourishment to recover strength from the exertion of work and the Eucharist8 received in good heart is the nourishment available to Catholic Christians enabling them to recover from the exertion of avoiding illusion and focusing on the one true god. And, as the Gospels are at pains to point out, transforming ourselves with our own resources is impossible.

In Catholic worship and practise it is the Eucharist that marks the radical divide separating Catholicism from Protestantism. O'Connor once declared that the Eucharist was the centre of her existence. The vast majority of Protestant denominations condemn Catholic reverence for the Eucharist as Idolatry9. The Eucharist was instituted at the Last Supper10 being a covenant made by Jesus with his followers in which the bread and wine signify the person of Christ. Contact with the consecrated bread is contact with God--a sacrament11, a contact desired by both God and Man in the love that unites heaven and earth. On this point, the words of Jesus at the Last Supper are very explicit, “This is my body. This is my blood,” and the Gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke are all in accord on the matter. St John (6:32-58) records Jesus preaching that eating his flesh and drinking his blood was necessary to salvation. The reaction from the crowd was one of outrage. “This is intolerable language,” they muttered while leaving. Jesus never relented; He didn't call them back to tell them it was only a symbol.

Returning from the convent near the end of the story, Alonzo told the mother and the child how much he'd enjoyed the fair, especially since after his visit the Church Elders had ordered it closed down, which begs the question; what is the purpose of the Church? Did Christ found an army to rid the world of sin or was His Church intended as a hospital for sinners--with entry free to all who sought treatment? Well here we have the (non-Catholic) Church Elders adopting the church as army analogy. They used their influence to have the fair shut down--why? The Elders no doubt saw themselves as the guardians of public morals, taking upon themselves the duty to re-establish the Garden of Eden here on earth. They couldn't appreciate that the "evil" they perceived (at the fair) was a manifestation of the distance between God and humanity and that God should be loved through and in spite of that evil. Instead their faith was governed by insecurity and fear--the fear of placing their trust in God's providence. O'Connor however confirmed her faith in God's Providence by portraying the fairground freak as living its life to the best of its ability. The situation of the freak was a striking parallel to O'Connor's situation; she lived her life to the full knowing the Lupus she carried could kill her at any time12. Both Flannery O'Connor and the freak lived knowing and accepting the affliction God permitted them to endure--their contentment resting in being what God wanted them to be.

1. "1 Corinthians." 11:26-30. Bible: New Testament.

2. "Tantum Ergo": Medieval Hymn used during Benediction originally in Latin. Words attributed to St Thomas Aquinas.

Tantum ergo Sacraméntum / Venerémur cérnui: / Et antiquum documéntum / Novo cedat ritui: / Præstet fides suppleméntum / Sénsuum deféctui. / Genitóri Genitóque / Laus et jubilátio: / Salus honor, virtus quoque / Sit et benedictio: / Procedénti ab utróque / Compar sit laudátio. Amen. 

Lowly bending, deep adoring / Lo! The sacrament we hail: / Types and shadows have their ending / Newer rites of grace prevail: / Faith for all defects supplying / Where the feeble senses fail. / To the everlasting Father / And the Son who reigns on high / With the Holy Ghost proceeding / Forth from each eternally / Be salvation honour blessing / Might and endless majesty. Amen.

3. Sola Fide: Eternal salvation by Faith alone, once and for all.

4. Benediction: Roman Catholic ceremony wherein the Eucharistic Host is displayed for adoration. 

5. Monstrance: Elaborate ornamental stand for displaying Eucharist during Benediction.

6. Blessed Sacrament: The term used to describe the Host during Benediction.

7. In a letter to A. (Betty Hester) dated Dec 16th 1955 in The Habit of Being, O'Connor's Collected Letters, O'Connor wrote: “Remember that when the nun hugged the child, the crucifix on her belt was mashed into the side of the child's face, so that one accepted embrace was marked with the ultimate all inclusive symbol of love, and that when the child saw the sun again, it was a red ball, like an elevated Host drenched in blood and it left a line like a clay road in the sky.”

8. Eucharist: In the Roman Catholic Mass the Eucharist is the re-presentation in an un-bloody manner of Christ's crucifixion. The consecrated unleavened bread (Host) becomes the actual body of Christ. The wine is also consecrated into Christ's Precious Blood.

9. Idolatry: Worship of idols.

10. Last Supper: See Bible: New Testament. Mt 26:26-27; Mk 14:22,24; Lk 22:19-20; 1 Cor 11:24-25: "this is my body ... this is my blood."

11. In Roman Catholic practice a Sacrament is a liturgical contact desired by both God and Man. There are seven sacraments: Baptism, Confirmation, Reconciliation (Confession of sins), Reception of the Eucharist (Holy Communion), Marriage, Holy Orders (raising to the priesthood), Sacrament of the Sick (anointing and prayers for those seriously ill or dying).

12. Lupus: O'Connor was afflicted with this disease at the age of twenty-six and lived in a precarious state of health for the next thirteen years. The Lupus became reactivated through necessary surgery in early 1964 and O'Connor died from its complications on August 3rd 1964 at the age of thirty-nine.

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