“Mrs. Shortley recalled a newsreel she had seen once of a small room piled high with bodies of dead naked people all in a heap, their arms and legs tangled together, a head thrust in here, a head there, a foot, a knee, a part that should have been covered up striking out, a hand raised clutching nothing…and watching from her vantage point, Mrs. Shortley had the sudden intuition that the Gobblehooks[Guizacs], like rats with typhoid fleas, could have carried all those murderous ways over the water with them directly to this place. If they had come from where that kind of thing was done to them, who was to say they were not the kind that would also do it to others?”
“Displaced Person,” Flannery O’Connor
Mrs. Shortley and her husband worked on the southern plantation of Mrs. McIntyre around the time of World War II. One day, the local priest drove onto their property and dropped off the Guizacs, a Polish family displaced from their home in Europe, to work the land.
Grotesque images from the war flooded Mrs. Shortely’s imagination as she walked to meet the Guizacs. She felt, she knew, that the atrocities of Europe would follow them into her quaint, traditional southern life, and she felt, she knew, she would reap the consequences of it.
The father of the displaced family, Mr. Guizac, was a tremendous worker. He completed tasks at a rate much quicker than both the white and black men on the land, and the finished work was done better than them, as well.
Mrs. McIntyre quickly realized that Mr. Guizac’s value to her exceeded the value of the Shortley’s. Because of this, she decided to relieve the Shortley’s of their duty in favor of the foreigners. Mrs. Shortley’s greatest fears were actualized. The Guizacs destroyed her family. They destroyed their livelihood.
As time began to pass, though, Mrs. McIntyre began to miss the company of Mrs. Shortley. During her lifetime, she had lost all three of her husbands, so the friendship of someone like herself – a white woman – sustained her in ways she hadn’t appreciated. The excommunicated relationship between herself and her one friend eventually led to a withering of her own spirit.
The deterioration of her life, brought about by the burden of loneliness, caused her to look for someone to blame. The priest would swing by the house every so often to check up on the Guizacs, and when he did, both the priest and Mrs. McIntyre would chat for a bit. As the priest sought to convert her to Catholicism, his antics began to pester her. His weekly ritual bred hate in her heart – not only for him, but also the Guizacs, since they were the byproduct of his charity.
Rationalizations to fire the displaced family ensued:
“Listen,” she said [to the priest], “I’m not theological. I’m practical!
“[Mr. Guizac] doesn’t fit in.”
“I didn’t create this situation.”
“It is not my responsibility that Mr. Guizac has nowhere to go. I don’t find myself responsible for all the extra people in the world.”
“He didn’t have to come in the first place.”
All the while, as Mrs. McIntyre vents her frustration, the priest casts his gaze on the land where a peacock lifts his beautiful tail “and spread it with a shimmering timbrous noise. Tiers of small pregnant suns floated in a green-gold haze over his head.”
Interspersed between Mrs. McIntyre’s desperate reasons to rid herself of the Guizacs, the priest responds to her as he marvels at the displaced peacock:
“Christ will come like that!”
“The Transfiguration,” he murmured.
The old man smiled absently. “He came to redeem us.”
He came to redeem us.
It isn’t completely clear who the priest thinks is able to redeem us. Is it the peacock? Is it Mr. Guizac? Our understanding of redemption typically lies in one person – Jesus. For a mere peacock or mortal to redeem us seems to apply the divine characteristic to something temporal.
Nonetheless, the priest’s understanding that redemption can be obtained through the rightly attending to the beauty of the peacock’s flamboyant feathers points to the redemptive nature of the displaced. Both the Polish family and the Indian peacock had been removed from their land and brought to the south – a place of wealth and abundance. For the priest, the Guizacs and the peacock’s presence in this place offers the community an opportunity to be a “redeemed” people – to “practice resurrection” as Wendell Berry so beautifully puts it, and to be redeemed as a people.
In Matthew 25, Jesus gives his disciples a foretaste of what redemption will look like in the end:
34 “Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. 35 For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, 36 I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’
37 “Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? 38 When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? 39 When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’
40 “The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’
The subconscious response to the Spirit’s prompting to serve and love the “least of these” points to our status as the redeemed people of God. The least of these ranges from our neighbor to the foreigner. From those mired in physical misfortunes to those wrapped up in existential dread. From those who externally look, sound, and believe like us to those who, if we tilt our head and squint, may or may not seem to have some vague relation to us.
In the end, this ability to love functions as marker of the redeemed, and for others, to love in this way functions as an opportunity to be redeemed – or brought into relationship with the One who longs to be united with us. Unknowingly living out the commands of Jesus sheds light on the remnant of his image which remains in all of creation. While the act itself doesn’t bring about communion with God, it does give man the taste of what it means to love sacrificially — the mark of those who follow Jesus. This taste lingers in the mouths of man and reminds them — sometimes vaguely, sometimes clearly — of the divine feast which is waiting for them to attend, and one we hope all will enjoy.
But fear of what may or may not happen to us as we love the least of these must not be a hindrance to our actual love, and we must trust in the gift of love God promises us. Our response must be of the priest, and not Mrs. Shortely. We must view all of God’s creation as image bearers, things and people which are transfigured into his likeness in our very presence. As Richard Beck says,
If we receive everything – even our very lives – as a gift, then we have nothing to cling to or to protect…In a sense, we “die” – and thus we no longer have to fear dispossession, loss, diminishment, or expenditure in the face of death…The creation of a secure heart makes love a possibility. It enables us to do something that biological creatures worried about self-preservation don’t naturally do: place the interests of others before our own.
And in placing the interest of others, through the work of Spirit’s love that frees us, we are the redeemed.
May we — may I this summer — be the redeemed, and be redeemed, by loving and serving the displaced domestically and abroad.