The Unrecognized Christ

I recently re-read J.D. Salinger’s Franny and Zooey, an engaging novel about two completely different people who happen to be brother and sister. 

Franny is a mystic, who tries to achieve oneness with God by repeating a Buddhist-like “Jesus prayer” over and over until it becomes a very part of her heartbeat. She got the idea from a book, which belonged to her deceased brother, Seymour. Zooey is a practical, down-to-earth fellow, whose I,Q. allows him to be anything he wants. He chose to be a TV actor, and has achieved considerable success. All seven children were geniuses and for sixteen years they thrilled radio audiences on a children’s quiz show, “It’s a Wise Child.” The book hinges on Franny’s behavior in repeating the “Jesus’ prayer,” and on Zooey’s confronting her with herself. 

In the last pages of the book, Zooey recalls an incident with his brother, Seymour. Zooey was substituting for his brother Walt on the radio program and Seymour had told him to shine his shoes. This made Zooey furious. He thought that the studio audience, the announcer, the sponsor were all morons. Zooey wasn’t about to shine his shoes for them, he told Seymour. As Zooey tells Fanny: “I said they couldn’t see them anyway, where we sat. He said to shine them for the Fat Lady. I didn’t know what the hell he was talking about, but he had a very Seymour look on his face, and so I did it. He never did tell me who the Fat Lady was, but I shined my shoes for the Fat Lady every time I ever went on the air again….” 

Zooey says that he pictured the Fat Lady sitting on a porch all day, swatting flies, with her radio going full-blast. And she probably had cancer, and whatever. 

Franny is excited. Seymour had told her to be funny for the Fat Lady. And he had seen her much the same as Zooey. Then Zooey, tells her who the Fat Lady is: “. . . I’ll tell you a terrible secret ….There isn’t anyone out there who isn’t Seymour’s Fat Lady. . .There isn’t anyone anywhere that isn’t Seymour’s Fat Lady. Don’t you know that? Don’t you know that . . . secret yet? And don’t you know – listen to me, now – don’t you know who that Fat Lady really is? . . Ah, buddy. Ah, buddy. It’s Christ Himself. Christ Himself, buddy.” 

Countless people are like Franny. They search for authentic religious experience in mysticism, but are disappointed. A dimension of depth is lacking. Christ never becomes clear, but remains hidden in the mists. For Franny, the turning point in her life was this conversation with Zooey. The Fat Lady of Seymour’s was, at first, a mythical character whose only form appeared in the minds of Franny and Zooey. But Zooey came to recognize that the Fat Lady was concrete in every person everywhere – “There isn’t anyone anywhere that isn’t Seymour’s Fat Lady.” And the Fat Lady was a symbol for Christ. 

Yes, Jesus Christ is King, Savior, Redeemer, Son of Man, Son of God, Lord – all of these. But he is the neighbor, too. He is the Fat Lady. And to find him as Lord, we must also find him as the Fat Lady, “Truly, I say unto you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brethren, you did it to me.”

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