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An American Pilgrimage, Session 4

August 24, 2010

Click the “Read More” link below for the complete text of the handout for Session 4 of our Adult Ed series on living life as a pilgrimage, for which we have been reflecting on the lives of Dorothy Day, Thomas Merton, Flannery O’Connor and Walker Percy. All excerpted text is taken from Paul Elie’s wonderful book, The Life You Save May Be Your Own: An American Pilgrimage.

This Thursday, Aug. 26, at 6 pm, we will repeat Session 4. Then, on Sunday, Aug. 29, at 9 am and on the following Thursday, Sep. 2, at 6 pm, we will end the series during Session 5, by reading about and discussing the last days and deaths of these four great American Christians.

Session 4: Self-Reflection – Later Years

Flannery O’Connor
After the publication of A Good Man Is Hard to Find, Flannery O’Connor had returned to her second novel, and an early chapter appeared in a quarterly in the fall of 1955. She was not pleased with the way it was going, however, and the title she gave the chapter—“You Can’t Be Any Poorer Than Dead”—suggests the exasperation she felt about it. “My novel is at an impasse,” she reported early the next year. “In fact it has been at one for as long as I can remember.”

She turned to other writing… Like her novel, her stories had attracted freakish admirers, whose letters she delightedly answered: several patients in insane asylums, a truck driver who insisted that a good man really wasn’t so hard to find, and a woman who read “A Temple of the Holy Ghost” as a lesbian allegory… A letter then came from Elizabeth Hester, a reader in Atlanta, who proposed that the stories in A Good Man Is Hard to Find were stories about God.

In her farmhouse study, O’Connor crafted a long reply. “I am very pleased to have your letter,” she began. “Perhaps it is even more startling to find someone who recognizes my work for what I try to make it than it is for you to find a God-conscious writer near at hand. The distance is 87 miles but I feel the spiritual distance is shorter… I write the way I do because (not though) I am a Catholic… However, I am a Catholic peculiarly possessed of a modern consciousness, that thing Jung describes as unhistorical, solitary, and guilty… I think that the Church is the only thing that is going to make the terrible world we are coming to endurable; the only thing that makes the Church endurable is that somehow she is the body of Christ and that on this we are fed. It seems to be a fact that you have to suffer as much from the Church as for it but if you believe in the divinity of Christ, you have to cherish the world at the same time that you struggle to endure it…”

“I am mighty tired of reading reviews that call A Good Man Is Hard to Find brutal and sarcastic. The stories are hard but they are hard because there is nothing harder or less sentimental than Christian realism… You were very kind to write to me and the measure of my appreciation must be to ask you to write me again. I would like to know who this is who understands my stories.”

…Her letter naturally called forth a reply [and O’Connor replied in turn]… “My audience are the people who think God is dead. At least these are the people I am conscious of writing for,” she told Hester, and proceeded to explain religious faith in existentially bleak terms. Jesus was no realist: he was either God or a liar. Dogma is an “instrument of freedom,” a protector of mystery. Religion is not a “blueprint” but an act of faith: “When I ask myself how I know I believe, I have no answer at all, no assurance at all, no feeling at all. I can only say with Peter, Lord I believe, help me in my unbelief…”

She worried that Hester might not care to keep writing, whereas she was “afflicted with time.” But Hester wrote back, and their correspondence was begun… She would write twenty-five letters in the first year… Soon they were swapping books through the mail… In time, each told the other what she looked like… Mainly, they exchanged ideas, in a kind of lovers’ quarrel of the mind…

In their exchange about the depiction of poverty in fiction, O’Connor told Hester that in writing of the poor one had to consider what one lacked oneself. Her stories, as Hester had pointed out, were stories about God, and yet she herself lacked the usual religious experiences… As a cradle Catholic, whose faith had never been sorely tried, she lacked even the experience of the archetypal modern believer, who found a way to faith through despair and doubt. “If you live today you breathe in nihilism. In or out of the Church, it’s the gas you breathe,” she told Hester. “If I hadn’t had the Church to fight it with or to tell me the necessity of fighting it, I would be the stinkingest logical  positivist you ever saw right now”…

She was an odd kind of believer, one situated in modernity but not formed by it, indeed formed in opposition to modernity… In Elizabeth Hester, she saw her opposite, the modern unbeliever, the kind of person she wrote about. “I will never have the experience of the convert, or of the one who fails to be converted, or even in all probability of the formidable sinner; but your effort not to be seduced by the Church moves me greatly,” she told Hester. “God permits it for some reason though it is the devil’s greatest work of hallucination.” …The wish to evangelize, for some readers the least attractive aspect of O’Connor’s correspondence, is for others its essence. Although she claimed a lack of religious experience, the power of her letters comes from the sense that they are written from experience, with an authentic knowledge of the life of faith and a genuine desire to share it with another.

Walker Percy
Walker Percy had begun writing a novel. From the start, “Confessions of a Movie-Goer,” as he was calling it, was a departure from his two previous novels and from his philosophical work… It was told from the point of view of an ordinary man, a small time stockbroker who was about to turn thirty. It was thick with the quotidian, the small details of a not unusual life. It was written in the first person and in the present tense—written directly at the reader, confided to the reader like a long-kept secret…

This novel will be a personal story, about family, relationships, communication, and the question of what a particular man ought to do with his life. The man in question is a certain kind of postwar man—a man who knows too much, who knows, or affects to know, the whole story… [Percy] later recalled the experience [of writing The Moviegoer] in an essay, and… echoed the Bible:

“And so it came to pass that he wrote a short novel in which he created a character… in order to see what would happen to him… What happens to him is that in the very anxiety of his despair, cool as it is—indeed as a very consequence of his despair—it occurs to him that a search is possible… So the novel, almost by accident, became a narrative of the search, the quest. And so the novel, again almost by accident—or was it an accident?—landed squarely in the oldest tradition of Western letters: the pilgrim’s search outside himself, rather than the guru’s search within.”

Percy’s search for himself had the outlines of a biblical parable. In order to find himself, he had to lose himself; he had to look outside of himself, going on pilgrimage. The novel, as he put it, would be the story of a “pilgrim’s search outside himself,” not an account of introspection. To put it differently, in order to find himself he had to search for himself indirectly, revealing mystery through manners…

As he wrote in the present tense, the past was vivid and accessible; as he wrote about [his character] Binx’s Aunt Emily, his own Uncle Will came alive on the page. As he worked up precise descriptions of every day life… his philosophical ideas fell into place. And as he wrote about an imagined character, there emerged a protagonist who was complex and fully alive… In depicting another person, identifying with him, inhabiting him, Walker Percy found his own voice and became his own person, telling the story of someone else.

The solitude of The Moviegoer isn’t the solitude of a rebel or an independent, but that of a man who is alone in a crowd… The oratory in the book isn’t that of the Bible or Stoic philosophy or a Russian novel but of a voice-over—the present tense monologue of the person who does not tell a story so much as offer a running commentary on life as it passes before his eyes.

The Moviegoer… seems to describe the way we live now, for it describes a society in which alienation is collective, whose every aspect seems mediated, contrived, statistically anticipated, manipulated in advance, so that the direct experience of life can seem as elusive as the experience of God…

It is a familiar story of quiet desperation, with a New Orleans twist. Mardi Gras is fast approaching. So is Jack [Binx] Bolling’s thirtieth birthday… Bolling spends his life watching other people… What he sees is phoniness and calculation, the gap between experience and what is said about it… What does Bolling believe? He is commonly described by critics as some sort of religious figure—a mystic, an anchorite in the “desert” of suburbia, a pilgrim and wayfarer—and his story, set during Holy Week, is read, on slender evidence, as a conversion story.

But what Bolling believes is less important than what he does not believe. Like Hazel Motes in Wise Blood, he is an admirable nihilist, whose main virtue is integrity—a refusal to believe what others believe just because they believe it… A comparison with Wise Blood is telling; it shows Hazel Motes and Binx Bolling as complementary figures, each professing what O’Connor called “a kind of sub-religion which expresses its ultimate concern in images that have not yet broken through to show any recognition of God who has revealed himself.”

Haze once believed; Binx never did. Haze was raised a strict Christian, Binx brought up on… a blend of Catholic, Episcopal, Buddhist, and classical teachings… Haze preaches outside a movie theater; Binx worships in one, so to speak. Whereas Haze… sees everybody else as dead to the radical challenge of Jesus, Binx sees people “dead, dead, dead” to the “mystery and wonder” of everyday existence…

Bolling’s struggle is not with the promise of the past but with the emptiness of the present. All he knows is that his own experience of life is not enough. What might the mystery of existence be? It is impossible to say. He will know it when he sees it, and the best sign of its authenticity will be that he wasn’t looking. Meanwhile, he will keep watching and wondering what it all means.

Thomas Merton & Dorothy Day
[In the fall of 1960], Merton was granted permission to erect a hermitage on the monastery grounds. He had picked the site himself, a natural clearing on a low rise of land… He picked up a shovel and helped dig the foundation, singing from a psalm about the house of the Lord being founded on a rock. Two months later, it was finished: a square house, built of cinder blocks, with a wide porch and a sloping roof, all surprisingly modern-looking. Inside, there was a sitting room with a stone hearth and another, smaller room, where, in time, he would sleep at night…

Merton had fashioned a house of his own, and he began to orient his life around it. “It is true, places and situations are not supposed to matter,” he wrote. But “this one makes a tremendous difference. Real silence. Real solitude.” …At the hermitage, Merton meant to dedicate himself to the experience of God in solitude. In his journal, he resolved: “For my own part, I have one task left. To pray, meditate, to enter into truth, to sit before the abyss…” Solitude, in a sense, was lonely and otherworldly, and the hermitage was inescapably an escape, a place for “the passage out of this world to the Father, entry into the Kingdom.”

Merton has become obsessed with the Desert Fathers and had translated their sayings [known as verba] from Latin into idiomatic English… He wrote an introduction of his own, stressing the importance of the verba in the Catholic tradition. In its clarity, its directness, its answers to obvious questions, “The Wisdom of the Desert” is one of Merton’s most appealing pieces. What is the experience of God? Why seek solitude in order to attain this experience? How does solitude fit with community? The questions are not answered so much as the answers are implied in an evocation of a community on pilgrimage.

“What the Fathers sought most of all was their own true self, in Christ. And in order to do this they had to reject completely the false, formal self, fabricated under social compulsion in ‘the world.’ They sought a way to God that was uncharted and freely chosen, not inherited from others who had mapped it out beforehand.” The Desert Fathers were not rebels so much as “anarchists,” in Merton’s estimation. They “did not believe in letting themselves be passively guided by a decadent state,” yet they “had no desire to rule over others themselves.” Rather, they sought a society “where men were all truly equal, where the only authority under God was the charismatic authority of wisdom, experience, and love.”

Described thus, the Desert Fathers are precursors of the Catholic Workers, and in his letters to Dorothy Day that year Merton made clear that he saw the movement as something like the modern communal ideal. She sought to disabuse him of the notion. He had praised the “beat people” as the ones God chiefly loved; she told him what life with such people was really like.

“Aside from a disturbed family for whom I beg your prayers, and two ex-seamen puttering around fixing screens, I am alone,” she wrote from Staten Island… “To be alone with eight people is be alone at the Catholic Worker.” One seaman was an ex-Trappist and “disturbed or a saint, who can tell. Both, probably.” The family was bitter and faithless…

Merton felt for Day the mixture of admiration and envy that he felt for all the figures he truly identified with. She knew the poor. She was poor herself. She even had the prayers of the poor, who loved her as one of them. She had an experience he knew he lacked, one that, unlike that of an anchorite or hermit, could not be entered readily through the imagination. “You are the richest woman in American spiritually, with such prayers behind you,” he told her. “You cannot fail even if you try to.”

She wrote back… The poor, and the voluntary poor, she made clear, are bitter, critical rebellious, and prone to see their rage as righteous anger. She thought of the woman at St. Joseph’s House who dosed herself with drugs and liquor, “crying out constantly against her fate”; she thought of the “angry young men” whose “bitterness and criticism” filled the house. She tried to tell herself that “ ‘they are prophets crying out in this time.’ But there are too many of them. All this rebellion makes me long for obedience, hunger and thirst for it, as a woman does for a husband whom she can esteem and who will direct her,” she confessed… “Trying to be obedient and also personally responsible, responsive to the daily calls made upon one, means we are overburdened.”

The admiring envy was mutual, in other words. So Merton, living out the Trappist vow of poverty, envied her direct and anarchist encounter with the poor? Well, she, the Anarch, who had to make and enforce the rules of “holy poverty,” yearned to be told what to do. He had asked for her prayers and for those of the poor. She assured him that he had them. But she did so in a way that gave him something more important. As believers, they belonged to the same community. More than he wanted the Catholic Workers’ prayers, she perceived, he wanted to pray along with them—to belong to the community of the poor she had founded.

So she described the motley crew at Peter Maurin Farm, including “a former teacher with one eye, a mother of an illegitimate child,” and the like. “Every night,” she told him, “we say the rosary and compline in our little chapel over the barn, heavy with the smell of the cow downstairs (one can hear her chewing her cud), and we have a bulletin board there with the names of those who ask prayers. Yours is there.”

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