Flannery O’Connor’s story, “The Enduring Chill,” contains one of the most entertaining confrontations between the Church and the world in modern literature. In the story, Asbury, the spoiled son of a Southern farmer, has been forced to return home from New York City because of illness. Asbury fancied himself a highly sophisticated artist. In fact, he was an abject failure. But now, he’s convinced that he’s dying and has badgered his mother into calling a Roman Catholic priest to visit him. Asbury had met a Jesuit priest in New York who was hip, witty, intellectual—all the things he fancied himself to be. Starved for intellectual stimulation, Asbury assumed that another priest would be the perfect conversation partner. At least he would be far better qualified than any of the narrow minded, uneducated Protestant clergy in town. When the local priest finally arrives, however, he is not at all what Asbury was expecting. What entered his room was not a polished intellectual but “a massive old man” who introduced himself as “Father Finn—from Purgatory”:
“It’s so nice to have you come,” Asbury said. “This place is incredibly dreary. There’s no one here an intelligent person can talk to. I wonder what you think of Joyce, Father?”
The priest lifted his chair and pushed closer. “You’ll have to shout,” he said. “Blind in one eye and deaf in one ear.”
“What do yo think of Joyce?” Asbury said louder.
“Joyce? Joyce who?” asked the priest.
“James Joyce,” Asbury said and laughed.
The priest brushed his huge hand in the air as if he were bothered by gnats. “I haven’t met him,” he said. “Now. Do you say your morning and night prayers?”
Asbury appeared confused, “Joyce was a great writer,” he murmured forgetting to shout.
“You don’t eh? Well you’ll never learn to be good unless you pray regularly. You cannot love Jesus unless you speak to Him.”
“The myth of a dying god has always fascinated me,” Asbury shouted, but the priest did not appear to catch it.
“Do you have trouble with purity?” he demanded, and as Asbury paled, he went on without waiting for an answer. “We all do but you must pray to the Holy Ghost for it. Mind, heart and body. Nothing is overcome without prayer. Pray with your family. Do you ever pray with your family?”
“God forbid,” Asbury murmured. “My mother doesn’t have time to pray and my sister is an atheist,” he shouted.
“A shame!” said the priest. “Then you must pray for them.”
“The artist prays by creating,” Asbury ventured.
“Not enough!” snapped the priest. “If you don’t pray daily, you are neglecting your immortal soul. Do you know your catechism?”
“Certainly not,” Asbury muttered.
“Who made you,” the priest asked in a martial tone.
“Different people believe different things about that,” Asbury said.
“God made you,” the priest said shortly. “Who is God?”
“God is an idea created by man,” Asbury said, feeling that he was getting into stride, that two could play at this.
“God is a spirit infinitely perfect,” the priest said. “You are a very ignorant boy. Why did God make you?”
“God didn’t. . . .”
“God made you to know Him, to love Him, to serve Him in this world and to be happy with Him in the next!” the old priest said in a battering voice, “If you don’t apply yourself to the catechism how do you expect to know how to save your immortal soul?”
Asbury saw he had made a mistake and that it was time to get rid of the old fool. “Listen,” he said, “I am not a Roman.”
“A poor excuse for not saying your prayers!” the old man snorted.
Asbury slumped slightly in the bed. “I’m dying,” he shouted.
“But you’re not dead yet!” said the priest, “and how do you expect to meet God face to face when you’ve never spoken to Him? . . . How can the Holy Ghost fill your soul when it’s full of trash?” the priest roared. “The Holy Ghost will not come until you see yourself as you are—a lazy, ignorant, conceited youth!”
(from “The Enduring Chill,” O’Connor: Collected Works, Library of America)