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A Pilgrimage Begins

August 2, 2010

Yesterday, during the Sunday, 9 am, Adult Education Hour, we began a five part series on the lives of Thomas Merton, Dorothy Day, Flannery O’Connor and Walker Percy (as described by Paul Elie in his book, The Life You Save May Be Your Own). It was a great conversation and I look forward to where the discussion will take us as it continues over the next four weeks.

For those who missed yesterday’s session but are still interested in what all we discussed, check out the hand-out from yesterday–which contains excerpts describing key childhood moments of each of these four great American Christians. Or you can join us this Thursday, Aug. 5, at 6 pm in the narthex, when we will repeat this past Sunday’s session.

Click below for the complete text of the hand-out.

On Pilgrimage:
A pilgrimage is a journey undertaken in the light of a story. A great event has happened; the pilgrim hears the reports and goes in search of the evidence, aspiring to be an eyewitness. The pilgrim seeks not only to confirm the experience of others firsthand but to be changed by the experience… And as they return to ordinary life the pilgrims must tell others what they saw, recasting the story in their own terms. (x)

In the story of these four writers, the pattern of pilgrimage is also a pattern of reading and writing… Three were Catholic converts, but it was literature, first of all, that they found religious experience most convincingly described… Emboldened by books, they set out to have for themselves the experiences they had read about, measuring their lives against the books that had struck them the most powerfully. (x – xi)

It is writing that invites the reader on a pilgrimage. Because it has to do with questions of belief—questions of how to live—it makes the pattern of pilgrimage explicit… Certain books, certain writers, reach us at the center of ourselves, and we come to them in fear and trembling, in hope and expectation—reading so as to change, and perhaps, save our lives. (xiii – xiv)

The pilgrimage of these four writers is part of a larger story of the convergence of literature and religion in the twentieth century, the effects of which are still being felt in our own time. It is a story that runs parallel to the modern history of the United States. As James Wood has pointed out, the decline of the Bible’s authority in the nineteenth century coincided with the rise of the modern novel, which aspired to have something like a religious authority over the reader. (xi)

Ours is an age suspicious, and rightly so, of religious experience and religious tradition alike—suspicious of forms inherited secondhand from our predecessors, but also skeptical of any claim to firsthand experience of the divine… In these circumstances… they [Day, Merton, Percy and O’Connor) speak to us and invite us to reply, to transpose their stories from their lives to our own. That, if nothing else, is what this telling of their story hopes to accomplish—through their pilgrimage to begin to understand ours, which is already in progress. (xiv)

Dorothy Day
The night the earthquake struck San Francisco—April 18, 1906—Dorothy Day was there. Startled awake, she lay alone in bed in the dark in the still-strange house, trying to understand what was happening and what it meant, for she was confident that it had a meaning, a significance beyond itself.

Some years later she described that night in her autobiography… the most haunting of her early “remembrances of God.” … “The very remembrance of the noise, which kept getting louder and louder, and the keen fear of death… They were linked up with my idea of God as tremendous Force, a frightening impersonal God, a Hand stretched out to seize me, His child, and not in love.” …

“While the crisis lasted, people loved each other,” she wrote in her autobiography. “It was as though they were united in Christian solidarity. It makes one think of how people could, if they would, care for each other in times of stress, unjudgingly in pity and love.”

A whole life is prefigured in that episode… Dorothy Day felt the fear of God and witnessed elemental, biblical charity, the remedy for human loneliness. (3-5)

Walker Percy
In the South [at the turn of the century] the sense of loss was out in the open. The region had been settled—founded—on an ideal of decline and fall, and the Civil War gave this ideal a powerful, biblical warrant. With defeat (the white planters concluded) all was lost: the lives of the young men who had died in the fighting, the free labor of the slaves, the civilization their big houses embodied, their sense of dominion over the territory…

So it was that even before his father killed himself and his mother drowned, Walker Percy was haunted by loss, beset by the sense that a better time had preceded his, that he was living in the aftermath of his people’s story. The Percys were a self-fashioned great family of the South… melancholy people, and their prominence seems to have compounded their sadness. There was a suicide in nearly every generation… John Walker Percy—Walker Percy’s grandfather—went up to the attic in 1917 and shot himself in the head. LeRoy Pratt Percy—Walker Percy’s father—committed suicide in 1929 [when Walker was 13] in precisely the same manner…

Three years later [when Walker was 16] Mrs. Percy died in a car accident, driving off the road and into a creek, where she drowned. Walker Percy, now nearly sixteen, was riding in the car not far behind; he leaped out, but bystanders kept him from seeing the accident site firsthand. He and his brothers were now orphans—their mother’s accident was a suicide, some said…

[Walker Percy] later claimed he was “a youth whose only talent was a knack for looking and listening, for tuning in and soaking up.” [His Uncle Will, who had adopted him after his parents’ deaths] gave him “a vocation and in a real sense a second self,” inspiring him to become a writer…

Walker Percy evidently glimpsed early on what his own calling would be… He was called at once to uphold the family history and to defy it, at once to emulate it and diagnose it—to find the way of being a Percy that was distinctly his, so as to break the pattern of melancholy, loss, and violence against the self that ran down the generations. (9-12)

Flannery O’Connor
“When I was five,” Flannery O’Connor recalled, “I had an experience that marked me for life. The Pathé News sent a photographer from New York to Savannah to take a picture of a chicken of mine. This chicken… had the distinction of being able to walk either forward or backward…” Compared to an earthquake or a parent’s suicide, a chicken’s fleeting fame seems hardly revelatory. But this story is the most personal story O’Connor every told, and, along with the Pathé short, it is the most vivid picture there is of her earliest years…

As Catholics, her family were exceptional in Georgia… As prosperous people, they were exceptional among the Catholics… As Southerners, moreover, they were exceptional in the eyes of people from the North, such as the Pathé cameraman from New York. Mary Flannery O’Connor hadn’t asked him to come, but he came into their yard and stuck his camera into her life and gave her the idea that she was up to something out of the ordinary.

The episode was shown in movie houses not long afterward… A girl in a black coat and skullcap comes along cradling a chicken in her hands. She sets it down and watches it with eyes full of concentration as it begins to walk, forward and then back. “Odd fowl goes backward to go forward so she can look back to see where she went,” says the caption…

The episode lasts less than minute. Yet Mary Flannery O’Connor had been changed by it. She perceived that she had an unusual gift, even if it was just a gift for getting a certain kind of chicken to walk a certain way; and she saw that her challenge in life would be to make the nature of her gift clear to people who wouldn’t understand it otherwise.

She began to collect chickens, to give them striking names, to dress them in little outfits she sewed for them… “I favored those with one green eye and one orange one or with overlong necks and crooked combs… I pondered over the picture in Robert Ripley’s book, Believe It or Not, of a rooster that had survived thirty days without his head.”

She was drawn to what she would call “mystery and the unexpected.” It was a mystery why the chicken could walk either forward or backward… The chicken was a freak, a grotesque, and when a cameraman came all the way from New York to Savannah to photograph her just because she had trained it, she was suddenly a kind of freak, too. When she told the story in an essay thirty years later, she had devoted her life to the aesthetic contemplation of the grotesque. (12-14)

Thomas Merton
Thomas Merton was ten years old when he first went back to France, the place of his birth and the setting of his father’s paintings… He was a son of two artists… He was born [in Paris] in 1915… As America entered the world war they all went to New York to stay with [his mother’s] family. Three years later she entered Bellevue Hospital, with stomach cancer, and she sent Thomas Merton a note from her hospital bed to inform him matter-of-factly that she would never see him again. He was six years old when his mother died.

The next few years were hard ones… Then in the summer of 1925, [his father] Owen and Thomas Merton went to France. As they settled one night in a small hotel in an ancient village, “I felt at home” [he writes in The Seven Storey Mountain]. “Father threw open the shutters of the room, and looked out on the quiet night, without stars, and said: ‘Do you smell the woodsmoke in the air?’” …

St. Antonin was an ordinary village, encircled by a road where the ancient ramparts had been… But it was the plan of the town, not its beauty or its history, that struck Merton most powerfully. He explained, “The church had been fitted into the landscape in such a way as to become the keystone of its intelligibility… The whole landscape, unified by the church and its heavenward spire, seemed to say: this is the meaning of all created things: we have been made for no other purpose than that men may use us in raising themselves to God, in proclaiming the glory of God.” …

The son of painter, he describes the village so as to give it the wholeness and harmony and radiance of a landscape painting. He, too, will wind up a painter of landscapes in his way, for in entering a monastery he has sought not just to return to France of the Middle Ages but to enter into the vision he had seen over his father’s shoulder in St. Antonin that summer, in which the imperfect world was made perfect in the mind’s eye. (7-9)

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