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Day/Merton/O’Connor/Percy Part 3

August 16, 2010

Yesterday, during the 9 am, Sunday Adult Education Hour, we discussed the following excerpts from Paul Elie’s The Life You Save May Be Your Own, as Part 3 of our five-part series on the lives of Dorothy Day, Thomas Merton, Flannery O’Connor and Walker Percy. We will revisit these excerpts when Session 3 repeats itself this coming Thursday evening, Aug. 19, 6-7 pm.

On Pilgrimage

“Man instinctively regards himself as a wanderer and wayfarer,” [Merton writes,]  “and it is second nature for him to go on pilgrimage in search of a privileged and holy place, a center and source of indefectible life… the place of the creation of the world, paradise itself, with its sacred tree of life.” …[But] there is no earthly paradise to escape to… no desert island to find and claim as one’s own. Rather, the human race, scattered to the four winds, is God’s own archipelago, and we are the islands, “pieces of paradise isle.” The modern pilgrimage in our time, then, is a continual voyage out to the other—“to the stranger who is Christ and our fellow-pilgrim and our brother.” (371-372)

Flannery O’Connor

Wise Blood was published May 15, 1952 [when O’Connor was 27]. The ladies of Milledgeville gave a party at the college library in honor of the author… “Cocktails were not served but I lived through it anyway,” she told a friend in a letter. “It was funny to see relics like Miss N. toting home a copy and to imagine it going on inside particular minds, etc.” …Reviewers were perplexed, and legend says that one of those Milledgeville ladies burned her copy….

In many ways [Wise Blood] was akin to the other great novels published that year, a year as rich in new fiction as any in American literary history. The Catcher in the Rye, Go Tell It on the Mountain, Invisible Man, The Adventures of Augie March: these novels (published between mid-1951 and mid-1953) were the first works of distinctly postwar American fiction, in that they push past the standard theme of lost illusions and make disillusionment a starting point and a reason for being… these [novels’] characters are all variants on the stranger or outsider, whom Albert Camus had made the postwar era’s representative figure. “In a universe suddenly divested of illusions and lights, man feels an alien, a stranger,” Camus had written. “His exile is without remedy since he is deprived of the memory of a lost home or the hope of a promised land.”

…But [Wise Blood’s Hazel Motes] is distinctly different from the other strangers of postwar fiction. His problems are the opposite of theirs. He is neither secular nor especially modern. He is not rootless; rather, his roots go deeper than he would like, and he remembers his lost home… all too vividly. No dangling man, he has a distinct calling: to be an evangelist like his grandfather… As he sets out for the city, he is dogged by faith, not doubt: although he is determined not to believe, indeed to preach the gospel of disbelief, he is haunted by Jesus, a “wild ragged figure” moving from tree to tree in the back of his mind…

Motes is the postwar American pilgrim, the age’s representative figure. He is a person who is trapped between belief and unbelief, torn between the promised land of religious faith and the fallen world of his own religious experience, in which God is profaned in absentia, so to speak, by the very people who call themselves believers… Odd as he is, he is utterly recognizable, for his predicament is that of what might be called the Christian diaspora in postwar American society, a whole people caught between belief and unbelief. As a child he was brought up to believe in Jesus as his Lord and Savior. Now he yearns to know whether that is true and what it might mean. To come of age he must come to terms with Jesus. Only firsthand experience will do. Unless he sees the evidence of his redemption for himself, he will not believe…

On the face of it, Motes is a blasphemer who believes that the only way to truth is through blasphemy. But his ministry consists of lashing out at other blasphemers… in which religious faith is divorced from religious experience… Hazel Motes elicits the reader’s identification in spite of himself, as his rejection of Jesus, at first so forceful as to be repellent, comes to seem, as O’Connor observed, a kind of integrity, and then, by a reversal as strange as any in modern fiction, so does his underlying religious faith… O’Connor’s admirers have always seen Motes as a saint in the making, a witness against the blindness of modern society. But the book… is more equivocal than that. At the end of it Hazel Motes is not a prophet or a saint or a wise man or even a religious believer—not yet. He is a person walking in darkness, a blind man stabbing the ground with his cane. Walking in darkness is his religious experience… (201-208)

Thomas Merton

The Seven Storey Mountain was published October 4, 1948 [when Merton was 33]…Why was the book such a best seller? Most explanations are variations on the idea that Merton was the right man at the right time. One view is that twentieth-century America was ready for a searching spiritual autobiography, and Merton, in this account, anticipated the craving for order and stability that would characterize the 1950s; his disgust for the American century gave voice to public doubts about the nation’s ideals, prosperity, optimism, and military might, and his flight to a Trappist monastery, a world where order prevailed and life made sense, proposed a striking alternative…

There is doubtless some truth to these conjectures… As Merton described his entry into a monastery… the reader identified with him, all the more so because of the book’s chatty and deprecatory style, through which Merton confided in the reader as a person like himself. But even this view misses the essential spirit of The Seven Storey Mountain. The book became a best-seller because it was a religious book, not in spite of the fact.

It is an account of religious experience… a firsthand account of one person’s religious experience, the aspect of religious life so many books about American Catholicism left out of the story. Not only does Merton tell about what life was like behind the walls of a cloistered monastery; he tells what it feels like to be in the grip of God. And he does so in such a way as to make the reader feel not only that such an experience is real and possible, but that it is necessary, vital, and attractive, the center of life… [at the heart of the book is] the personal challenge Merton makes to the reader of his autobiography. God exists, he insists. The way to seek God is firsthand, through religious experience. So I have done. Here is the story. Now go and do likewise…

Inwardly, [Merton] still sought God in the same way that had led him to the monastery: through prayer, ritual, and self-denial in a place silent, austere, medieval, and essentially out of this world. Outwardly, he was in circumstances that by his own account made it even harder for him to grow in the experience of God. He was thirty-four years old, a priest, a writer, and a celebrity whose earnings were suddenly the monastery’s largest source of income… Many men had come to the monastery gate, inspired by The Seven Storey Mountain, and announced their desire to leave the world… Merton generally diagnosed his problems as a conflict between two aspects of himself: the writer and the monk, the public figure and the Trappist “hidden in God.” …But Merton’s most telling conflict in those years was actually between two places, the world and the monastery… 

He had left the world for the monastery. Now he could see that the monastery was far from ideal… it was all too much like the world he had left behind. At the same time the world seemed less detestable than he had thought it to be. The proof (though he was loath to acknowledge it) was the success of his autobiography. The American public, supposedly so oblivious of real religion, so contemptuous of the life of the spirit, had bought half a million copies of a book which was explicitly “the odyssey of a soul”—his soul… The writing of his autobiography enabled him to bring his two selves, his two lives, into phase. Then the success of his autobiography set the two at odds once more…

The real drama here… is the struggle between the monk who finds God in consecrated brick-and-mortar places and the pure contemplative who finds God only in a realm of selfless attention, an indescribable inner darkness. “There is greater comfort in the substance of silence than in the answer to a question,” he says, and goes on: “The things of time are in connivance with eternity. All things change and die and disappear. Questions arise, assume their actuality, and also disappear. In this hour, I shall cease to ask them, and silence shall be my answer.”

…Although he will remain faithful to his calling as a Trappist, he will no longer write about Gethsemani as an ideal place, a world unto itself. Rather, he will see it as a place of imaginative possibility… On June 22, 1951, he became an American citizen, a commitment that would lead him to engage directly with the world he supposedly had left forever. At the same time… [he went] deeper inward, to the place of solitary prayer he describes [as]… “the darkness of my empty mind, this sea that opens within me as soon as I close my eyes.” There… like Hazel Motes at the end of Wise Blood, he finds that “everything is charged with intelligence, though all is night.” (169-170, 184-187, 208 – 210)

Dorothy Day

The Catholic Worker was thriving. The first issue [dated May 1, 1933—May Day, the Communist workers’ holiday, when Day was 35 years old] had drawn letters, subscriptions, donations of cash and supplies. Several dozen volunteers came to Dorothy Day’s apartment, eager to pitch in… A second issue was produced, then a new issue each month… Within a year they were printing a hundred thousand copies of each issue and mailing them to people all over the country. In many ways, the paper’s editorial mix… was not remarkable among the progressive papers of the era. What was remarkable was the movement that, seemingly from the start, emerged around the paper, a movement which the paper seemed not just to address but to embody. Soon the paper’s volunteers were known as Catholic Workers. The name of the paper, meant to refer to its readers, had affixed itself to them…

The work, like the newspaper, had spread beyond Manhattan, and within a few years there were thirty-three Catholic Worker “houses of hospitality” in cities across America, many of them founded by Catholic college graduates who had no job prospects… Day, recalling the early years several decades later, suggested that the Catholic Worker was transformed from newspaper to social movement not programmatically but by accident: “What do I do? That’s how our houses of hospitality started during the Depression. A girl came in. She had read a letter we sent to the bishops about the Church’s tradition. She had been evicted from her furnished room. She had a couple of shopping bags and was sleeping in the subway. We didn’t have any room, we were all filled up. We didn’t know of any place that could take her. The girl looks at us and says: ‘Why do you write about things like that when you can’t do anything about it?’ It shamed us, you know?”

…“We never started a bread line… During the Seamen’s Strike of 1937, six of them showed up… While we were doing that for the seamen, one of the fellows on the Bowery said, ‘What the hell are you doing down there feeding the seamen? What about the men on the Bowery? Nobody’s feeding them.’…We brought out everything  we had in the house to eat. That’s how the first bread line started. Pretty soon we had a thousand men coming in a day, during the Depression. It started simply because that Bowery guy got mad.”

…On Friday evenings workers and scholars and interested others would meet at St. Joseph’s House [named for the patron saint of workers] to join guest speakers in discussions on labor, poverty, papal encyclicals, the lives of the saints. Like those of countless other radical groups of the period, these meetings were meant to reconcile theory and practice, to bring about clarification of action as well as thought…

Day’s conversion to Catholicism turned her against war once and for all. In a sense, her pacifism was an outgrowth of her emerging philosophy… She and her movement had embraced personalism, the view that the human person is the basic unit of society, and that all forms of social organization—family, nation, church, state—are sound only insofar as they uphold the dignity of each and every person and prompt every person into direct encounters with others.

But in another sense her pacifism—and her personalism—was grounded uncomplicatedly in the imitation of Christ. Christ was a man of peace; therefore the Christian should be one as well. “Today the whole world has turned to the use of force,” she remarked, but the Christian faith and its “counsels of perfection” urged the believer to seek change by other means: prayer, the sacraments, personal striving for sanctity…

Then as now the complaint against pacifism was that it was unrealistic… So Day sought to establish pacifism as practical… “We cannot sit back and say ‘human nature being what it is, you cannot get a man to overcome his adversary by love.’ …Love and prayer are not passive, but an active glowing force.” Was Christian love impractical? There was no way of knowing. It had never really been tried… “We must prepare now,” she declared. “There must be disarmament of the heart.”…Pacifism cost the Catholic Worker popular support. Parish priests canceled their bulk orders for the newspaper. Subscriptions dropped by two-thirds. (88-89, 98-103)

Walker Percy

In February 1954 [when Percy was 38] his second novel… was sent to publishers around [New York], who turned it down one after another. The whole business was over in a year… Why didn’t the novel come off? The answer lay right under Percy’s nose, in the philosophy he was reading. For all his commitment to the individual rather than a type, to the concrete predicament of a particular person, he was still writing about character types familiar to him chiefly from other novels. Although he was telling his own story, that of a religious conversion through an encounter with ideas at a TB sanatorium, he was still imitating Dostoevsky and Thomas Mann…

A comparison with O’Connor is revealing here. Whereas O’Connor, an independent, set out from the beginning to tell the story in her own distinctive way, Percy searched for his own story within the stories of his predecessors. Whereas she transposed her own displacement imaginatively onto fictional characters… he sought models for his alienation in alienated antiheroes created by other writers. Whereas she embodied her symbolism within the manners of life… he put his symbols in plain sight. Whereas she was instinctively drawn to making even the least character colorful and distinctive of speech, he was drawn to depicting blank slates… He had not figured out how to create a character, to tell a story, to dramatize the inward back-and-forth of ideas that his conversion had brought about…

Percy read Feeling and Form, by Susanne K. Langer, the best known younger philosopher in America. He had read Langer’s previous book, Philosophy in a New Key… As he read Langer, he later recalled, Percy was at once thrilled and annoyed. Her synthesis of science and humanism was what he had sought in his reading. But her invocation of “need” made him suspicious, for the scientists who had trained him held that there are finally only two human needs: survival and propagation of the species. Why does humanity “need” symbols? What are they the “key” to?

…Emboldened he roughed out an essay, following Langer’s argument step by step… In the essay… Percy… tells a story—a conversion story—and as he leads the reader along a path he has already taken to a place he has already reached, he speaks in the first person… What Percy suggests is what he himself believes. The first proposition of philosophy… is not “I think,” but “we are.” Knowledge is intersubjective. We know, in the end, by knowing one another. The goal of this kind of knowing is the knowledge of the truth, which… is the knowledge of God. The story Percy has just told, of the movement from symbolism to theism, from I to we, is his own story.

He sent the essay to Thought, a journal of Catholic philosophy published at Fordham… Thought’s editor accepted the essay… The person most surprised by this outcome was Percy himself. Sloughing off the conceits of fiction, he had gone at ideas directly, and had wound up telling a story. Writing a philosophical essay had produced the effect of authentic discovery, and had made him a published writer at last. (225-229)

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