The University Needs the Monastic Spirit More Than Ever

In one of her last stories, “Why Do the Heathen Rage?” Flannery O’Connor told a story of miscomprehension between mother and son. The story retells communication problems between generations by contrasting two valuations of life. Walter and his mother are at odds for reasons which are perfectly comprehensible within the mental world of each but which are almost impossible to understand across conceptual lines. At the center of this difference stands the complex and at times paradoxical relation of love to anger.

A sure indicator of O’Connor’s literary genius shows up in the levels of interpretation necessary to plumb the meaning of the story. On the surface, “Why Do the Heathen Rage?” is a story of a mother whose twenty-eight year old son appears to be a lazy good-for-nothing who is not willing to take on his masculine role in the order of southern society. Walter’s mother, who is never named, cannot understand her son’s indolence. Now that Tilman, Walter’s father, is incapacitated, the male role in the household falls to the son. Walter’s mother is especially eager that he takes up the duty of “making the Negroes work.” When Walter objects that his mother is more capable of the task than he, she protests, “I am only a woman.” Walter, for his part, seems not to have any aspirations other than reading. Like Hulga in “Good Country People,” Walter is a thinker; he is in no hurry to accomplish anything.

O’Connor pursued the tangled web of parents and grown children at odds in several of her stories. In addition to “Good Country People,” there is “The Enduring Chill” (Asbury and his mother), and the famous “Everything that Rises Must Converge” (Julian and mother). What sets “Why Do the Heathen Rage?” apart is its reach into ancient Christian antiquity to highlight the contrast between O’Conner’s southern American culture with all its emphasis on activism and the spiritual battle of desert monasticism. As the story moves to its conclusion, Walter’s mother finds an open text from Jerome’s Letter to Heliodorus written in 374 that her son has underlined. The highlighted passage begins “Love should be full of anger.” This sentence resonates with her, “she thought, well mine is. She was furious all the time.” Her anger provides the end bracket that balances O’Connor’s description at the story’s beginning of Tilman’s crooked eye, the only part of his countenance that “seemed to harbor his former personality.” And what was the personality that the eye alone could not conceal? “It burned with rage.” Tilman and his wife have set their house ablaze with anger, which O’Connor knew was one of the seven deadly sins.

Orthodox. Faithful. Free.

Sign up to get Crisis articles delivered to your inbox daily

Email subscribe inline (#4)

The title of “Why Do the Heathen Rage?” derives, of course, from the second Psalm in which the enemies of God have risen up in rebellion against the Lord and against his Anointed One. The interesting question is why O’Connor chose this biblical phrase to title her story. Who are the heathen in her story? Could it be the “Christian” of the American South whose cultural experience has been shaped by biblical categories? Could it be Walter’s father, Tilman, or his mother? Could it be that the passage from Jerome affords us insight into Walter’s “sloth?” Was he lazy or had he decided to engage the anger within his family by imitating Jerome’s monastic life? Could Walter’s own home be his desert?

How could any two things be more opposite than love and anger? Yet O’Connor was somehow taken with Jerome’s statement “Love should be full of anger” (debet amor irasci). Could there be love beneath the anger seething inside Walter’s mother? Her rage grew out of the combination of her desire to see Walter make something of himself coupled with her disappointment that all he seemed interested in was reading. Her love for Walter at least made her pick up the book and read the passage in an attempt to understand his lack of pursuing anything important. She was left with incomprehension. “This was the kind of thing he read—something that made no sense for now.”

The mother’s inability to see the connection between ancient monasticism and the mid-twentieth century was undoubtedly something of which O’Connor was all too aware. Southern Protestantism was in her experience devoid of a sense of history. Yet, in the last sentence of the story we gain some insight into why O’Connor chose Jerome’s letter, “Then it came to her [the mother], with an unpleasant little jolt, that the General with the sword in his mouth, marching to do violence, was Jesus.” Here Walter’s mother knows the reference to the Apocalypse where Jesus is portrayed as a conqueror going forth to battle. The “little jolt” was possibly the realization that Jesus could be loving and full of anger at the same time. And it is possible that this was also jolting to O’Connor whose Catholic upbringing would have surely have contrasted the sin of anger with the love of Jesus. Can love be rightly full of anger? O’Connor must have known how much Jerome struggled with anger for he was very candid about it. She undoubtedly knew that overcoming his anger was one reason he went to the deserts of Syria and of Bethlehem.

Modern culture seems to assume that Christian monasticism has little or no relevance for our world. The disgust that Walter’s mother had for his reading habits reflects the common assumption that the problems we face today have nothing do with the deserts of old. “He [Walter] read books that had nothing to do with anything that mattered now.” Too many people and even a non-negligible contingent of the highly educated are convinced that the past harbors no wisdom or solace for the present.

Many in the modern university share the perspective of Walter’s mother. Monasticism makes no sense for now, for today’s problems, for contemporary society. For example, within the research university, it is the production of papers, books, and conferences that matter. Though some may have a vague awareness that education can foster personal formation, that is an interesting by-product rather than a defined goal of the curriculum. Becoming a better person will not get you tenure. Not even helping your students become better people will count for much. In university administration, the only thing that matters is “making the Negroes work,” i.e. keeping the machinery running, maintaining the system.

When Jerome chided Heliodorus for abandoning the desert, his anger burned because he knew what the future Bishop of Altinum could so easily forget, that the mastery of self is far more important than ecclesiastical honors and recognition. Drawing on military metaphors, Jerome dismantled his friend’s possible objections against the warfare of the desert. Calling Heliodorus “an effeminate soldier” (delicate miles), Jerome warned against the purported duties of family and other attachments such as the lure of episcopal power. Jerome’s love for his fellow soldier burned with jealousy; he wanted him to take the difficult but ultimately more rewarding path of self-mastery.

The modern university is devoted to recognition of and honors for research production. Often vying to hire the brightest and the best, the university can become a place, not of critical inquiry but of disciplinary advancement, not of pedagogical excellence but of ideological hegemony. As long as the university lives in the thought world of Walter’s mother, the world of disciplinary convention and presentist conformity, it will always be vulnerable to the faddish movements of history. It needs a purgatory, not superimposed from above but a cleansing from the inside out. The modern university can be that desert for the Christian precisely because the university needs the monastic spirit more than ever. Christians have always been called to non-conformity, to spurn position, reward, fame, and to return into the silence of contemplation, to engage the battle of prayer, to assault the demons of vaunting pride, be it of ecclesiastical honors or intellectual recognition.

The Christian today must be full of love in order to make a difference in the academy. Only love can transform knowledge into some good for humanity. Otherwise, it is what the Greeks called kenodoxia, “vainglory.” The lust for recognition represents a pursuit that leaves only a few specialists better off, just as the acquisition of ecclesiastical honors in the Church profits few. Only love can reshape ecclesial and educational practice into some benefit for humanity. Such a love will necessarily be full of anger against superficial substitutes for the pursuit of truth.

How can the Christian be full of love, a love that turns anger against the twin enemies of humanity, the pride and passion of men? Only by going to the desert, to do battle with the demons of self-glory, recognition, and advancement. Only by purging the lust for power and control. The academic who is full of love will be capable of recognizing truth as the enemy of convention and conformity. Truth can purge the status quo, the desire to keep the machinery running as it has been. More love is needed if education is to be a liberalizing and humanizing enterprise. The university needs the desert. In “Why Do the Heathen Rage?” Flannery O’Connor seems to have a mission, the mission of bringing the wisdom of Jerome’s wilderness into the desert of her world, a society that she was at odds with and loved at the same time.

Editor’s note: The image above is a detail of “Monk in White, Seated Reading” painted by Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot between 1850 and 1855.


  • Kenneth J. Howell

    Kenneth J. Howell taught for thirty years in various colleges and universities before taking his present position as Resident Theologian of the Coming Home Network. He has published seven books including two on the early Church Fathers.

Join the Conversation

in our Telegram Chat

Or find us on

Editor's picks

Item added to cart.
0 items - $0.00

Orthodox. Faithful. Free.

Signup to receive new Crisis articles daily

Email subscribe stack
Share to...