Human efforts all show their fault lines sooner or later—Rome fell, Communism crumbled, and even the flag on the moon will tip over eventually. But Pentecost is the perpetual reminder that the limits of our strength should lead us to hope, not despair.
Strength, and it limits, are the obsessions of Asbury Fox, the main character in Flannery O’Connor’s short story “The Enduring Chill.” At twenty-five, Asbury returns from New York City to his country hometown a tragic figure—a failed writer, a half-baked ideologue, and a loveless man—who, after trying and failing to control his own life, struggles to control his own death, orchestrating the perfect finale for a misunderstood artist surrounded by tone-deaf cretins and, what’s worse, family.
Asbury is apparently dying of a mysterious chill that has sapped his strength and left him almost unable to move. Although ignorant of the true cause of his illness, Asbury imagines that Art is coming to take his soul as a recompense for a life of genius frustrated by his mother’s provincial narrow-mindedness. But while Art remains distant, he finds himself all too close to an ominous water stain on the ceiling above his bed in the shape of a “fierce bird with spread wings” bearing an icicle in its mouth.
As he worsens, he attempts to craft his death into his last work of art, a last culminating experience that would give meaning to his entire life. He fills two notebooks with “such a letter as Kafka had addressed to his father” that his mother is to discover and read after his death, thereby leaving her with “an enduring chill” about her wretchedness.
He also sends for a Jesuit, whom he hopes to engage in cynical, urbane debate about “the myth of the dying god.” Instead he gets a red-faced, half-blind Father Finn, who knows nothing of Joyce and spends his time grilling Asbury on the Baltimore Catechism, commanding him to pray because “God does not send the Holy Ghost to those who don’t ask for Him.”
His last effort is to express his solidarity with the black farmhands his mother employs. The year before he had made a similar gambit by working in the dairy with them and encouraging them to break his mother’s rules by smoking and drinking fresh raw milk. But his final act fails, too, as the farmhands awkwardly toss off assurances that Asbury looks fine and will be back on his feet in no time.
In total despair, Asbury realizes he will be unable to create a “significant experience” before he dies. As he prepares for his final hours, however, his mother and the country doctor burst in with news—the rebellious stunt of drinking raw milk the previous year has given Asbury undulant fever, an incurable disease that will recur throughout his life but will not kill him.
Yet in a sense he does die—the three-fold realization of his inability to create meaning, of his responsibility for his illness, and of the lifelong suffering ahead shatters the insular, self-obsessed man he had been. At that moment, the water-stain bird above his bed finally begins to move: “A feeble cry, a last impossible protest escaped him. But the Holy Ghost, emblazoned in ice instead of fire, continued, implacable, to descend.”
The closing scene of the story is a Pentecost event, marking the destruction of Asbury’s self-reliance and his rebirth in the “purifying terror” of the Holy Spirit. The first Pentecost played a similar role in the Apostles’ lives. Even after three years spent with Jesus during his public ministry, the horror of the crucifixion, the glory of the resurrection, and forty days of encounters with the risen Lord, the Apostles could think only in terms of human strength, assuming that the Ascension marked the return of the earthly kingdom to Israel.
At Pentecost the Holy Spirit revealed the true horizon of the kingdom—not a political regime or an earthly majesty, but a community of adopted sons and daughters of God, made one by their rebirth in the Spirit. The Spirit’s gift fulfilled the promises of the Old Covenant and the inchoate longings of the pagan religions more resplendently than the human mind could have imagined.
Human strength cannot give our lives meaning. Our own efforts cannot save us. Asbury’s melodramatic attempts to manipulate his own life and death end in complete failure, and the well-intentioned but wrongheaded Father Finn’s blind reliance on rote repetition of the Baltimore Catechism errs by assuming that human action can earn the Holy Spirit. Likewise, the response to atheist philosophies that idolize human power must not be a pat moralism that reduces the encounter with Christ to a quid-pro-quo exchange of goods.
But the weakness of human strength is itself a gift from God. We do not have to save ourselves—we cannot save ourselves—because Jesus Christ already has. “The wind blows where it wills,” and we respond to it by God’s grace, living a dialogue of love with love.
Gabriel Torretta, OP is a summer fellow at First Things and is studying for the priesthood in the Dominican Order.