“Fitness entrepreneurs” Julie Rice and Elizabeth Cutler co-founded Soulcycle, a chain of chi-chi Manhattan-based gyms whose aim is to sculpt spirits as well as bodies.
In their new venture, Peoplehood, members will pay to participate in 60-minute “gathers,” facilitated by influencer-type guides.
“Connection should be its own product,” Rice explains. “We are modern medicine for the loneliness epidemic.”
I sympathize completely with any and all real spiritual hunger.
But I couldn’t help but think of “Wise Blood,” the 1952 novel by Catholic writer Flannery O’Connor. In the preface, she observed:
“It is a comic novel about a Christian malgré lui, and as such, very serious, for all comic novels that are any good must be about matters of life and death. That belief in Christ is to some a matter of life and death has been a stumbling block for readers who would prefer to think it a matter of no great consequence. For them Hazel Motes’ integrity lies in his trying with such vigor to get rid of the ragged figure who moves from tree to tree in the back of his mind. For the author, Hazel’s integrity lies in his not being able to.”
The theme of the novel is vision. Hazel (Haze for short), a self-proclaimed backwoods preacher, sees dimly. Motes is a play on Christ’s exhortation in Matthew 7:5 to take the beam out of your own eye before you start trying to remove the mote from your neighbor’s eye.
Haze is a man with neither country, family, nor friend. Returning to Georgia after a four-year stint in the army, he finds his childhood home abandoned. Raised by evangelicals, he figured out a long time ago that the way to avoid Jesus is to avoid sin.
Like Dostoevsky’s Raskolnikov in “Crime and Punishment,” he commits a sin deliberately, daring the God in whom he doesn’t believe to respond. He visits a prostitute with green-speckled teeth named Leora Watts.
Then he buys himself a “glare-blue” suit and a black preacher’s hat and takes to the streets. “Nothing matters but that Jesus don’t exist,” he stubbornly declares. He preaches a kingdom “where the blind don’t see and the lame don’t walk and what’s dead stays that way.”
He names his venture The Church of Christ Without Christ. He’s the only member.
He’s surrounded by hucksters: a charlatan preacher named Asa Hawks, Hawks’ seductress daughter Lily Sabbath. Hoover Shoats cribs Haze’s ideas, recruits a consumptive named Solace Layfield to impersonate him and, with far more flash than Haze, starts raking in money.
Incensed at the impersonator — “You ain’t true,” Haze said. “You believe in Jesus” — he runs Solace down with his car and drives back and forth over the body.
The next day he has a kind of epiphany. He walks the three miles back to town, buys a sack of quicklime, returns to his rooming house, and blinds himself.
His landlady — who “was not religious or morbid” and “liked to see things clearly” — thinks Haze has lost his mind. “What possible reason could a sane person have for wanting not to enjoy himself any more?”
Still, she has to admit, “The blind man had the look of seeing. … Even when he was sitting motionless in a chair, his face had the look of straining toward something.”
Haze eats little. His cough worsens. Having lined his shoes with gravel and broken glass, he develops a limp.
“What do you walk on rocks for?” the landlady asks him.
“To pay,” he said in a harsh voice.
He also wraps his chest with barbed wire.
That’s not normal, she tells him. “It’s like one of them gory stories, it’s something that people have quit doing — like boiling in oil or being a saint or walling up cats.”
“They ain’t quit doing it as long as I’m doing it,” he said. “I’m not clean.”
“You must believe in Jesus or you wouldn’t do such foolish things,” she continues. “I wouldn’t be surprised if you weren’t some kind of a agent of the pope.”
When she proposes marriage, Haze sets out in an icy rain, is found three days later face down in a drainage ditch, and dies in the squad car.
Commentators tend to portray Hazel as a Southern grotesque; in fact, O’Connor invites us to see, he’s far less spiritually grotesque than any of the people with whom he’s surrounded — and far less blind than those who market their own version of the Church Without Christ.
He’s driven by a search for truth. He won’t live a false life, nor will he stoop to hawking snake oil.
He’s murdered a man in cold blood, after all. He imposes his own penance. He points to a kingdom beyond this world: the pinpoint of light on which the novel ends.
We, too, tell ourselves that the way to avoid Jesus is to avoid sin — or rather, to avoid the concept, the word, and the reality of sin. Like the landlady, we prefer to think of doing penance as something medieval, for crazy people.
But even a secular culture can’t kill the dreadful existential loneliness, the urge to kneel, the nagging thought, deep in our hearts, that at the end of our lives we will be called to give an account of ourselves. Even in a secular culture, we can’t get rid of the ragged figure who moves from tree to tree in the back of our minds.