Down in the River to Pray

I can’t shake Flannery O’Connor’s short story The River. It is accessible yet unattainable, clear yet veiled. What to make of it!

A woman takes a four year old boy named Harry/Bevel from his dysfunctional house for the day to the river where a preacher baptizes and heals. The woman presents him to the preacher to be baptized. Before the preacher submerges him, he tells him that his baptism will enable him “to go to the Kingdom of Christ. You’ll be washed in the river of suffering, son, and you’ll go by the deep river of life.” After he administers the sacrament, he tells the boy, “You count now…you didn’t even count before.”

In his family, the boy did not count. His mother was an alcoholic and his father was incapable of meeting the four year old’s need. When the boy woke up the next morning, his parents were knocked out and would be out of commission until the afternoon. He had to fend for himself.

He beautiful naivete longed for some form of extrinsic value that the preacher seemingly bestowed him through the river.  He wanted to go to the Kingdom of Christ. His home certainly failed to embody it…but the river, yes, the river, must house it. He would do whatever it takes to wash away his suffering and to find rest in the Kingdom — to really count.

So he leaves. With no intention of coming back. He follows the path that leads to the river that washes away suffering. He didn’t need a preacher to baptize, he could do it himself. Purposefully, “he put his head under the water at once and pushed forward.” Straining, reaching, hoping, he tried with all his might to literally reside in this Kingdom. Initially, he failed, but as evil tried to hold him back from the loving embrace of Christ, “the waiting current caught him like a long gentle hand and pulled him swiftly forward and down.”

The little boy suffered no more. That day, he resided with Christ in his Kingdom.

“For the disciple of Jesus, ‘becoming like a little child’ means the willingness to accept oneself as being of little account and to be regarded as unimportant…God’s grace falls on them because they are negligible creatures, not because of their good qualities.” — Brennan Manning

The boy realized he was nothing. But for those who are nothing, Christ died for them to make them into something. In his fervent desire, the boy’s discipleship led to his earthly demise. But more so than his earthly pleasure and gain, the boy wanted to participate in the Kingdom, no matter the cost. For once in his life, he counted!

Dietrich Bonhoeffer describes the grace the boy received like this:

“Costly grace is the treasure hidden in the field; for the sake of it a man will gladly go and sell all that he has. It is the pearl of great price to buy which the merchant will sell all his goods. It is the kingly rule of Christ, for whose sake a man will pluck out the eye which causes him to stumble; it is the call of Jesus Christ at which the disciple leaves his nets and follows him…It is costly because it costs a man his life, and it is grace because it gives a man the only true life.”

The boy’s actions seem absurd, to literally die for the sake of Christ and to give up your life for the truth of Grace. But the call of discipleship is to leave their old lives and conjoin to their new ones. We see this as the disciples drop their nets and leave their booths as their rabbi calls them.

O’Connor is not calling us, in her grotesque ways, to physically destroy ourselves in order for our souls to be stripped from its vessels and placed in God’s presence. Instead, as a mouthpiece of the Gospels, she calls us to strip our body and soul from its old life and rest in the new life of God’s grace in the temporal Kingdom Jesus established through his bodily death — no matter the perceived or actual cost.

I pray I began to have the child-like faith to embrace the costly grace of Christ.

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