Of Prodigals and Pig Parlors

Rembrandt, The Return of the Prodigal Son, 166...

Rembrandt's conception of "The Return of the Prodigal Son" is one of my favorites. A copy hangs in our living room, a tangible reminder of the patient grace of the Father. (Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Mrs. Turpin and Mary Grace sat opposing one another there in the doctor’s office.

Grace wore her wounds upon her face though Mrs. Turpin’s demeanor announced the complacent wholeness of her entire being. As the wife of a well-to-do hog farmer, Mrs. Turpin did not normally keep close company with the sick and infirm, but her husband had been poorly and so they had come. Respectable as always (and glad of it she was), she noted the rag-tag collection of humanity on the other side of the room. A scrap of boy (“white trash,” as Mrs. Turpin would say) squirmed in his seat. Small, feverish, and absolutely miserable, he sucked his dirty thumb and tried to sleep.

At least she was not like that—like him. Dirty. Unkempt. Illiterate and poor. For that she was grateful. Yes. God had been good. Why, she could almost cry for the gladness of it! God had been good. And if it seemed He had been less than good to others? Well, who was she to wonder why? Surely they deserved it. Just as she deserved it. (His goodness, I mean.) And my goodness! Wasn’t He good!

Now, I will not disappoint you with a recitation of the story—nor mortify myself with a vain attempt at Flannery O’Connor’s incomparable style—however, I will add that the climax includes an exasperated Grace rising up to pitch her book (sadly, not a Bible) headlong into the face of the smug Mrs. Turpin! Thus the freshly grieved matron returns home to attend her chores and her hogs and her pride. As she does, she falls to brooding upon the recent assault of Grace until finally, standing prodigal-like at the edge of her pig parlor, and having raised her complaint to Heaven, she noticed—

“… 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 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 [her husband], 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.”[1]

[1] Flannery O’Connor, Flannery O’Connor : Collected Works : Wise Blood / A Good Man Is Hard to Find / The Violent Bear It Away / Everything That Rises Must Converge / Essays & Letters, 1St ed. (Library of America, 1988), 653-654.


4 thoughts on “Of Prodigals and Pig Parlors

  1. Love it! “even their virtues were being burned away.” Oh, take heed all you who are of good order, common sense, and respectable behavior… and so darn proud of it, comparing yourselves, not with Christ, but with other creatures.

  2. Pingback: Of Prodigals and Pig Parlors | Music from Broken Chords

  3. This ripped my heart into shreds this morning, which is a good thing. This was so timely for me, I had to share it on my blog. I hope that is ok….thank you so much for posting this!

  4. I think there comes into the life of every true believer that moment when Jesus draws back the veil that surrounds the heart. Then comes the shock of what we never suspected was there. At least, that has been my experience. Healing as it is, it is an altogether shattering experience (no doubt, as it is intended by our Lord to be). Petra, you are absolutely right — the problem lies in comparison with the creature rather than the Christ. (Ouch!)

    (And Theresa, I’m so grateful you were blessed! I never post anything that has not already torn my heart. I’m right there with you! :o)

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