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Merton/Day/O’Connor/Percy, Part 2

August 9, 2010

Yesterday, we continued our Adult Education series by discussing the early adult experiences of Merton, Day, O’Connor and Percy. Click below to read the excerpts we discussed, taken from Paul Elie’s book, The Life You Save May Be Your Own. We will again consider these excerpts when we repeat yesterday’s program this coming Thursday, Aug. 12 at 6 pm. Then, this coming Sunday, Aug. 15, we will take on stories from these four writers mature adult-hood, when they began to truly find their voices as writers and as Christians.

Dorothy Day
Dorothy Day hardly knew the church’s teachings. She had gone to Sunday Mass… for only a few weeks. Yet she was ready not only to have her child baptized (plenty of bohemian women did that, she says) but to believe for herself…

 At the time, the Catholic Church, as Day’s father scornfully put it, was the church “of Irish cops and washerwomen.” But this, for Day, was part of its appeal. My very experience as a radical, my whole make-up, made me want to associate myself with others, with the masses, in loving and praising God”… The identification of the masses with the Church seemed absolute. As she watched them, she wanted to belong, to know the experience firsthand. Yet she was too bashful to speak to the Catholics at the church… Alone and at a distance, at one remove from experience, she did what she had always done: she read her way in…

She had read the Imitation of Christ in high school; but now, reading it again, she was struck by its simple and direct everyday piety. The author, Thomas a Kempis, was an Augustinian monk and a contemporary of Luther… His message is simple: Being a Christian means imitating Christ, nothing more, nothing less: “If we desire to have a true understanding of his Gospels, we must study to conform our life as nearly as we can to His,” striving to “follow His teachings and His manner of living” as faithfully as possible…

Ever since she was a girl she had read books in search of a pattern to set against her own experience as a measure and a guide. Lately she had taken the downward path, going out into the wilderness of a life without examples or models. Now she was ready to… conform her character and experiences to those she read about. The Imitation of Christ made the process explicit. It identified her approach to life as religious. It made Christ the model for imitation and the Bible the book of books… And it insisted that the process of imitation is a matter of life and death, for in the end, Thomas a Kempis wrote, we shall be judged not by what we have read but by what we have done.

Day knew what she would do: she would imitate Christ by imitating the Catholic masses—their poverty, their dignity, their communal spirit, their devotion to church and family, their special generosity to the brother who was down on his luck… That ideal image of the masses was not one she conceived herself. It was one she read in the papers. All during the time she was turning religious, the press was telling the story of two Italians whose Christlike acts of self-sacrifice made her yearn to be like them… Sacco and Vanzetti… “These men were Catholics, inasmuch as they were Italians,” Day later wrote. “Catholics by tradition but they had rejected the church.” In the press, they were secular saints, and by 1925 they were beginning to look like martyrs as well. (50-53)

Walker Percy
Walker Percy had gone up north [to Columbia in New York City] for medical school… He had hoped to study medicine at Harvard, where his father, his uncle and Quentin Compson in [William Faulkner’s] The Sound and the Fury had studied at one time or another, but Harvard had rejected his application… Columbia had a reputation as a center for “scientific medicine”: it emphasized the study of the nature of illness and the “mechanism of disease” rather than the care of sick people…

Once school began he fell into the student regimen: classes in anatomy, physiology… evenings spent drinking beer with classmates at a bar-and-grill on Broadway… At the same time he carried on downtown, following a social schedule [his uncle and guardian] Will Percy had helped arrange for him. He met women under the clock at the Biltmore Hotel and squired them to debutante balls; he went to the opera and the symphony with a male friend of Will’s… He wrote a short story describing his double life. It isn’t much of story but the fact that he wrote it at all suggests that, far from renouncing art while he sought to be a doctor, he simply made fiction a kind of hobby…

Percy spent the summer after that first year at Will Percy’s mountain “cottage” in Tennessee, called Brinkwood, in flight from medicine and the city grind… With Shelby Foote, he… went on a pilgrimage to Rowan Oak, William Faulkner’s whitewashed house near Oxford, Mississippi, but stayed in the car while Foote spoke with Faulkner.

In New York the next fall, he began to see a psychoanalyst… named Janet Rioch…Percy himself, recollecting the experience, concluded ruefully that after three years neither he nor Rioch knew what ailed him. His biggest problem, it seemed, was that he didn’t want to be a doctor—that he didn’t want to be anything in particular. He had said so in a tormented letter to Uncle Will, who had replied that “glory and accomplishment are of far less importance than the creation of character and the individual good life.”…

The third year of medical school was the year when he finally became serious about medicine. It was the year when he commenced work with live patients. In a sense, it was the year when, for the first time, he left the South behind… Pathology, the study of disease as such, was the specialty of the Columbia medical program… And it was the field most congenial to Percy as a man whose parents were dead and whose uncle was a poet of decline and fall…

“It was the elegance and order and, yes, the beauty of science that attracted me,” he recalled, its “constant movement… in the direction of ordering the endless variety and seeming haphazardness of ordinary life… Under the microscope… one could actually see the beautiful theater of disease.” …Perhaps he disdained the “art” of medicine in favor of the science of it, but he described it with the ardor of a poet or mystic.

His attraction to the science of pathology was not an aversion to life: it was an attraction to another life, a world apart, one different from the world in which he had been raised. In the “beautiful theater of disease,” he could forget his personal history. There his parents were not dead. There, world war did not threaten… In the “beautiful theater of disease,” Percy felt unique and alive. (82-84, 106-107)

Thomas Merton
In 1937, the Metropolitan Museum of Art opened a museum of medival art. The Cloisters, as it is called, was like no other museum in America: an odd and remote outpost compounded from the ruins of several disused European monasteries… Thomas Merton went to the Cloisters on a date on Sunday the summer after it opened, then returned by himself later in the year. Looking back, he described those visits as the happiest days he spent in New York—happier, it seems, than the days he spent in actual churches… Better than any symbol he himself chose, the Cloisters, a blend of the medieval and the modern, of church and museum, of religion and art and worldly striving, embodies his religious life in the time after his baptism.

In becoming a Catholic, Merton sought to leave 1930s Manhattan behind and enter the world he had read about… a world oriented around the Church and shot through with divine purpose. Whereas Walker Percy was in search of a life outside the vexed history of his family and region, Merton sought a lost world he had lived in once and, in a sense, had fallen from, then had glimpsed again in literature and philosophy. He yearned for an ideal he could live in, in which he could immerse himself and be surrounded

The story of his life during the next few years is the story of his search for that ideal. A rebel, he will stop rebelling against himself and rebel instead against the modern world, which stands between himself and the ideal. He will try to find an ideal medieval world but will wind up incorporating medieval elements into a modern structure…

“The book said the room should be darkened”—Merton read the instructions carefully… “And the book also invited me to consider what kind of a position I should take for my meditation… So I thought and prayed a while over this momentous problem and finally decided to make my meditations sitting cross-legged on the floor. I think the Jesuits would have had a nasty shock if they had walked in and seen me doing their Spiritual Exercises sitting there like Mahatma Gandhi.”

The Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius were not recommended for home use… The [Jesuit] order had invested the Exercises with otherworldly mystery, making them seem to Merton less a text than a strange intoxicant that might “plunge you headfirst into mysticism.” Merton, once again, was undeterred. A Ph.D. candidate, fluent in languages, self-directed in his reading, confident in his ability to grasp difficult texts on his own, he undertook the Spiritual Exercises alone in his apartment, communing with the text directly…

They invited him to envision the supernatural world in all its vividness, to imagine himself present at the great events of sacred history, and to identify with the people there, the better to grasp the religious significance of what had taken place. Such an approach was akin to Merton’s own approach to religious experience… He had meditated on the texts of Joyce and Blake and Hopkins, putting himself imaginatively in the religiously tormented protagonist’s place. Even as the Exercises enjoined him to meditate on sacred history, he was meditating on personal history as well…

In graduate school he had roughed out several novels… The last of these… he deposited the manuscript in the mailbox… then went to Our Lady of Guadalupe to light a candle and say a prayer that it might be published. The manuscript came right back, rejected as dull and “an unresolved narrative.” Merton took it as a sign… surmised his talent was not for autobiographical fiction so much as “straight” autobiography… He was still taking after Joyce, who had shown in Ulysses that everybody’s life is prospectively of literary interest. Although disillusioned with fiction, Merton had not abandoned the Joycean notion that every life is somehow significant. He merely seeks to apply it to his own experience… From 1939 on his voice will be an unabashed I, and his approach that of spiritual autobiography. (95-96, 104-106)

Flannery O’Connor
O’Connor left Georgia for Iowa City in August 1945, taking a muskrat fur coat and a new moniker. Mary F. O’Connor, she had concluded, sounded like an Irish washwoman, not a writer… Her scholarship was in journalism, but she called on the director of the Writers’ Workshop, named Paul Engle, and made a special request in her best Deep South voice. He asked her to say it again. She did so. He looked at her as if she had spoken in tongues. Then gave her a pad and pencil and asked her to write it down. In her schoolteacherly script, she explained herself: My name is Flannery O’Connor. I am not a journalist. Can I come to the Writers’ Workshop?

She spent three years at the Writers’ Workshop, the longest time she spent anywhere outside of Georgia, and when she emerged it was with the ardor of a recent convert. She was doubtless precocious and confident from the beginning. But the story of her time there is not the story of a prodigy amazing the teachers and taking the top prizes. It is the story of a conversion to fiction, and then to a certain kind of fiction that was recognizably hers and no one else’s…

She read and read, making up for her supposedly spotty education. She later remarked that the beginning writer is inspired less by life than by books… “I read all the Catholic novelists… I read all the nuts like… Virginia Woolfe (unfair to the dear lady of course); I read the best Southern writers… read the Russians, not Tolstoy so much, but Dostoevsky, Turgenev, Checkov and Gogol… I have learned something from Kafka, though I have never been able to finish one of his novels.”…

But there was one bookthat influenced her directly. [Cleanth] Brooks and [Robert Penn] Warren’s Understanding Fiction was the standard textbook in the fiction courses. O’Connor read it carefully, and later urged it on another writer, describing it as “a book that has been of invaluable help to me.” …Brooks and Warren were what O’Connor aspired to be: Southern independents, who had transplanted themselves to the North and gained their independence without losing their native accents… From their notion that “a piece of fiction is a tissue of significances” came her sense of the “total effect” of a story. From the recognition that “there is no sanctified way of handling things” is derived her remark that “you can do whatever you can get away with, but nobody has ever gotten away with much.

All the while she was reading, she was also writing fiction, but poorly and conventionally. There is no high comedy in her early work, no artful dramatic structure, no stern and judgmental narrator, no extravagantly barbed metaphor and symbolism… There is a basic trouble with the Iowa fiction, one seen plainly in the story called “The Crop,” which depicts a Miss Willerton, a writer of potboilers who lacks material and doesn’t know what to write. Evidently that was O’Connor’s problem as well. (145-149)

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