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Adult Ed Session 5: The End of the Pilgrimage

August 30, 2010

Yesterday, we completed Part 5 of our Adult Ed series on living life as a pilgrimage by reflecting on the final days and deaths of Dorothy Day, Thomas Merton, Walker Percy and Flannery O’Connor (as described in Paul Elie’s book, The Life You Save May Be Your Own: An American Pilgrimage). Click the link below for the complete Session 5 reading. But before you did into all that, here’s Elie on living one’s life as a pilgrimage toward and with God in contemporary American society:

We are all skeptics now, believer and unbeliever alike. There is no one true faith, evident at all times and places. Every religion is one among many. The clear lines of any orthodoxy are made crooked by our experience, are complicated by our lives. Believer and unbeliever are in the same predicament, thrown back onto themselves in complex circumstances, looking for a sign. As ever, religious belief makes its claim somewhere between revelation and projection, between holiness and human frailty; but the burden of proof, indeed the burden of belief, for so long upheld by society, is now back on the believer, where it belongs…

In their different ways, the four writers this book is about sought the truth personally—in charity, in prayer, in art, in philosophy. Their writing was the most personal way of all, for in the act of reading and writing one stranger and another go forth to meet in an encounter of the profoundest sort. In this encounter, there are no self-evident truths. Nothing can be taken for granted or asserted outright. The case must be made to each of us individually, with fierce attention on both sides; we must be persuaded one at a time…

Like it or not, we come to life in the middle of stories that are not ours. The way to knowledge, and self-knowledge, is through pilgrimage. We imitate our way to the truth, finding our lives—saving them—in the process. Then we pass it on. (471-472)

Session 5: The End of the Journey

Flannery O’Connor

She had gone in for the removal of a fibroid tumor… There was a chance that the surgery would reactivate the lupus. She risked it, and by March 25, [1964] her thirty-ninth birthday, the lupus had returned… She returned to the hospital in Milledgeville. In the hospital, she wrote “Parker’s Back.” After beginning the story in 1960 she had set it aside, then come back to it and kept at it, a few pages at a time, until she had a rough draft which told the story from beginning to end. Now, as she went in and out of the hospital, she worked on the story any way she was able: writing longhand in a notebook; revising pages in a shaky hand; and, when she was discharged from the hospital, typing at her desk at Andalusia. “I have worked one hour each day and my my I do like to work… I et up that one hour like it was filet mignon.”

She went with Parker to the tattoo parlor… she set Parker rifling through the tattooist’s stock book of religious images, his brainstorm on him like a fever: “The idea had him him so quickly and the sheer brilliance of it had dazzled him so completely that it was an hour or more after the artist had set to work before Parker began to be suspicious that what he was doing might have some drawback to it.” Thus inspired, she wrote the story from beginning to end: the story of a man who tries to please his pious shrew of a wife by getting Jesus Christ tattooed on his back…

Her strength had not returned… She left Milledgeville for the hospital in Atlanta. There her real work began. As Caroline Gordon, who visited her, recalled, “She told me that the doctor had forbidden her to do any work. He said that it was all right to write a little fiction, though, she added with a grin and drew a notebook out from under her pillow.” She had brought “Parker’s Back” along with her… The “stout stake” of this story is the tattoo itself, and the passages describing it are heavily worked over, inked and re-inked in a shaky hand. It seems likely that O’Connor had in mind the great mosaic of Christ of Santa Sophia in Istanbul, pictured in André Malraux’s The Voices of Silence, a book she had read in her twenties… The description of Christ is the key to the descriptive method of the story… The language is more direct, less embroidered. The descriptions are less subtle, more pointed…

There is a theological point to the new style. Malraux in The Voices of Silence had described the Byzantine art of Santa Sophia as art which sought to overcome the conventional realism of antiquity, with its worldly drama, through a technique of “superb negation,” a stripping away of all but the essential qualities so that the figures stood out starkly against a transcendent background. Now O’Connor, the transcendent realist par excellence, strove for a like starkness. She stripped away the sky, the moon, the clouds, and the mountains, leaving only the story of a stranger entering a new country as though at the end of a pilgrimage—a pilgrimage whose destination, she meant to make clear, is Jesus Christ himself.

“Prayers requested,” she informed Sally Fitzgerald. “I am sick of being sick.” …To Janet McKane, who was also sick, she sent the Prayer of St. Raphael, which the Catholic Worker people had sent her on a postcard in 1953. She had said it daily for some years: “O Raphael, lead us toward those we are waiting for, those who are waiting for us: Raphael, angel of happy meeting, lead us by the hand toward those we are looking for… Lonely and tired, crushed by the separations and sorrows of life, we feel the need of calling you and of pleading for the protection of your wings, so that we may not be as strangers in the province of joy, all ignorant of the concerns of our country. Remember the weak, you who are strong, you whose home lies beyond the region of thunder, in a land that is always peaceful, always serene and bright with the resplendent glory of God.”

She sent “Parker’s Back” to [her friend] Hester and Catherine Carver, her agent. To Carver she wrote, “I have drug another out of myself and enclose it.” To Hester, she wrote, “This here instead of a letter.” Caroline Gordon had already criticized the story as awkward and undramatic, she told Hester, “but I’m letting it lay. I did well to write it at all.” And then she was dead, age thirty-nine. Her kidneys had failed and she had been taken to the hospital one last time, and there, August 2, she went into a coma, never to emerge.

Thomas Merton

He wrote a letter to be sent to all his correspondents, explaining where he was going. It is as if he sought to defend or justify the trip, to rebel once and more against the notion that he was needed in America as house priest of the antiwar movement. “The length of my stay in Asia is indeterminate,” he declared. He would not be answering mail or signing letters of protest. He would not be going to Vietnam. “Our real journey in life is interior,” he concluded, clearly choosing his words with care, “…a matter of growth, deepening, and an ever greater surrender to the creative action of love and grace in our hearts…”

Merton told the other monks what good Samaritans the Trappists of Gethsemani had been to him. He said it was as though he had been found dying at the roadside and been brought to the monastery to recuperate, as though his time there—twenty-seven years—had been a long overnight. Then he was gone, joining an inward journey to an outward one at last. He was fifty-three years old… He had left his black-and-white wool Trappist habit behind…

He took a long flight to Bangkok October 15 [1968], traveling west to go east. He had two practical objectives: to gain firsthand experience of the monastic life of Buddhist Asia, and to spend time with “important people in the Buddhist monastic field.” Accordingly, he had arranged a series of visits with lamas and holy men across Asia—Bangkok, Calcutta, Dharamsala, Madras, Ceylon—in the eight weeks before his speech in Bangkok in December…

Dharamsala was the fulfillment of a dream: a working city full of monks, a place of literal exile, a world within a world… The Dalai Lama was thirty-three years old and still in training. Even so, an audience with him was uncommon, and Merton… felt like a member of the spiritual elite, an honorary lama from the West. They met for a whole morning and “spoke almost entirely about the life of meditation, about Samadhi (concentration),” and the “higher forms of prayer.” …The Dalai Lama doubtless understood Merton’s renown as a man of prayer and his role in popularizing Buddhism in the West. Whatever the reason, Merton was invited to come back a second day, then a third…

Merton identified strongly with the Dalai Lama, and “felt we had become very good friends and were somehow quite close to one another.”…Like Merton, the Dalai Lama, given a notoriety he had not chosen, sought to make it an aspect of his calling. He told Merton that he understood the monk as a person “for the world,” and Merton, in turn, defined the vocation of monks like themselves in public terms, as a calling to be “living examples of the freedom and transformation of consciousness which meditation can give.”

A month into his Asian journey, Merton was intensely alive, obviously happy, an honored guest in a place of beauty, splendor and holiness. In the journal he kept, the literary Merton has gone missing. Gone is the self-doubt, the relentless scrutiny of his motives. Gone is the self-deprecating wit that serves as a check on his enthusiasms… Gone, especially, is Merton’s identification with the reader, a pilgrim like himself… He is traveling for his own fulfillment, not the reader’s, and for once the experience outstrips what he can think or write about it…

On December 8 Merton returned to Bangkok… The conference was taking place at the International Red Cross compound—a group of cottages surrounding a meeting house—but to arrive there was to return, momentarily, to the world of the Church and Catholicism… A Trappist habit had been sent to Merton from America… Speaking from a prepared text… he told the monks and nuns about some student revolutionaries in California who described themselves as monks. He related his conversations with Tibetan lamas. He suggested that the real dialogue warranting further exploration, the division worth overcoming, was not between Marxism and monasticism, but between East and West, Asian and European, Buddhism and Christianity.

He evoked for those present an image of the monk who is concerned for society and yet is not a revolutionary. Marxism and monasticism, he proposed, are alike in their suspicion of social structures. Marxists look toward the eradication of such structures. Monks are confident that, though structures change, the monastic impulse will endure wherever people believe that at the root of ordinary experience, there is transcendence to be found… He had spoken for nearly an hour. It was lunchtime… The group scattered, and Merton, like the others, went to his cottage, to be alone, to rest, to read and to write in his journal.

A cry of pain came from his room shortly afterward. That he was killed instantly no one seems to doubt. He had taken a shower; coming out, he slipped on the floor and grasped a fan whirling on a stand. He cried out, but there was no immediate response. Some time later the door was broken down and the monks and nuns gathered around him… In the weeks to follow… people who knew Thomas Merton would seek the meaning of his death and of the grotesque fashion in which it came about. Some hinted at suicide. Others suggested that he had attained nirvana. A friend determined that after twenty-seven years in the world and twenty-seven in the monastery, he had just begun the third half of life. But there was no great significance to be found in Merton’s sudden death. In that year of grandiose acts, of blood and fire, it was a spasm of direct and terrible experience, with no significance outside itself.

Dorothy Day

She spent the winter [of 1977] confined to her room at Maryhouse. In Union Square, on picket lines, editing the newspaper, in jail, she had inspired others to go and do likewise. Now she was a holy person, who inspired others to come to see her, to be in her presence, to enjoy the favor it bestowed, and to recall the encounter precisely. Cesar Chavez came. So did Mother Teresa. So did dozens of the less celebrated people who had been her co-workers over the years… Daniel Berrigan saw the debate between prayer and social action resolved in her person, the peace of a life well lived; at the same time, her achievement as a writer called forth, from him, the most eloquent words ever said about her… “At length, all was said and done; no more needed saying or doing. She stood there, or sat down, like Christ, like Buddha. This is the image of her last years. Her life passed over into the passive voice. Now she was served, reverenced, cherished, protected. Her flame was failing; her memory glimmered and guttered; ‘On Pilgrimage’ [one of her last works of writing] became a barely audible murmur of spaces and silences as she struggled to say farewell to the world.”

Day struggled to walk across her room, which “feels like the Russian tenement in Dostoevsky’s ‘The Honest Thief,’ where people live in corners.” Even at its most strenuous, her life had been a Tolstoyan adventure, a hard road but one she had chosen to take. Now she was diminished, suffering against her will. Her limbs were tired. Her heart was weak… Day liked to quote a retreat master who told the people in his care that they should start stripping themselves of worldly cares as soon as possible, because, no matter who we are, in the end “we shall be stripped”—stripped of health, wealth, body, breath, and finally, of life itself…

She ate, slept, prayed, worshipped, waited, and made notes in her journal: “There was a mini-earthquake in Brooklyn, Staten Island, and New Jersey. Why was not Manhattan affected? What a thought? Unimaginable to think of those two, fantastic World Trade Center towers swaying with the sudden jarring of what we have come to think of as solid earth beneath our feet. Yet I sat one day in a rocking chair, fifty years ago, nursing my tiny daughter in front of a large mirror which hung on the wall in my beach bungalow on Staten Island, and suddenly saw the mirror begin to quiver, as though a train or a truck (neither of which could have been within miles of us) had suddenly passed the little house, making it tremble.” …

“Transit strike has ended,” Day wrote in her journal that April [1980]. “It is very exciting to watch its coverage on television—the whole city moving to work on foot, through rain part of the time, moving over bridges from borough to borough… On November 8 she turned eighty-three. A foe of the New Deal because it forfeited the duty of charity to Holy Mother the State, she now saw Ronald Reagan elected president. Already Catholic Workers were protesting U.S. military policy in Central America. Three weeks later, November 29, 1980, a Saturday evening, she died…

One of Robert Coles’s students had asked her: What is the meaning of your life? How would you like to be remembered? She had replied at length… She said she had tried to treat the stranger as Christ… And she hoped she had lived a life worthy of the great books she had read. “I’d like people to say that ‘she really did love those books!’ You know, I’m always telling people to read Dickens or Tolstoy, or read Orwell… I could be one of your teachers—though I’m not a great one for analyzing those novels; I want to live by them! That’s the ‘meaning of my life’—to live up to the moral vision of the Church, and of some of my favorite writers… to take those artists and novelists to heart, and to live up to their wisdom: a lot of it came from Jesus, as you probably know, because Dickens and Dostoevsky and Tolstoy kept thinking of Jesus themselves all through their lives.”

Walker Percy

The problem with most contemporary philosophy, [Percy] like to say, was that it just didn’t apply—it didn’t capture what it felt like to be alive in the United States in the twentieth century. Now he sought to put that feeling in words himself. Lost in the Cosmos is a “thought experiment”: a counterblast to the messages that he heard society putting out. It is a philosophical grab bag written as a multiple-choice test about the self… What is the self? Why is the self so unhappy? Why are so many creative types unhappy people? Why is self-knowledge so elusive in an age enslaved to the self?

…Percy hectors the reader sarcastically until the book becomes not a test so much as a trap, a test only the all knowing author can hope to pass. Lost in the Cosmos—subtitled The Last Self-Help Book—is also a spoof of self-help books… it is a frontal assault on the audience… [Percy] reached out of the book and declared the reader bored, lonely, phony, and trapped in a meaningless existence. The reader winds up silently insisting otherwise…

In the fall of 1987 John Paul II, touring America, went on pilgrimage to New Orleans. He would celebrate mass for eighty thousand people in the Superdome, at a portable altar erected in one of the end zones. As a prominent Catholic, Percy was given tickets, but was ill and did not go. He wrote a piece for America setting out what he would say “If I Had Five Minutes with the Pope.” With friendly candor, he told the pope not to worry about Catholicism in America—to lay off the Jesuits, lay off the bishops, lay off the theologians; lay off the doctors about abortion, lay off the young people, and “do what you’ve been doing; that is, visiting ordinary Catholics around the world, concentrating on the poor of the Third World.”

It was a lark, and yet evidently it met with approval at the Vatican. At the year’s end he received an invitation to become a member of the Pontifical Council for Culture, and in January 1988 he went to Rome to give a speech before a group of bishops and the pope. This time he was altogether serious, arguing soberly that the very secularness and shallowness of America made it ready for re-evangelization. The chronicler of the adventures of a bad Catholic, the lover of bourbon and sass and slang, was giving advice to His Holiness…

He felt ill; a doctor diagnosed what ailed him as prostate cancer and treated it promptly, but the treatments left him feeling lousy… He thought of himself as a “cranky novelist,” and now he was playing the role. He wrote a letter to the New York Times about abortion, then a second claiming they were “suppressing dissent” by failing to publish the first. He wrote a loopy answer to the question “Why Are You a Catholic?” in which he gave all the reasons why he didn’t like to explain why he was a Catholic…

And yet he did answer the question… explaining his faith… a couple of years earlier introducing a book of Catholic conversion stories… Why was he a Catholic? Because he believed that the Church’s teachings are true; and because the Church, in his view, stood above and apart from the present age, which he called the age of the “theorist-consumer.” In his view, the present age has no use for anything that cannot be bought and sold or theorized about. So the present age has no use for Christian faith. But the believer, he thought, should count this as an advantage, and see the present age as preferable to “Christendom,” when the churches prospered. “In the old Christendom,” he explained, “everyone was a Christian and hardly anyone thought twice about it. But in the present age the survivor of theory and consumption becomes a wayfarer in the desert, like St. Anthony: which is to say, open to signs.”

He spent some months traveling back and forth to the Mayo Clinic, in Minnesota… Spiritually, he felt ready to die, prepared for death by religion, and he was surprised that irreligious people didn’t kill themselves. He kept writing. He wrote a piece about the Waffle house in town, and one about “the holiness of the ordinary.” After reading an article about the “Catholic imagination” in Bruce Springsteen’s songs, he wrote Springsteen a fan letter, asking him about his “spiritual journey.” …He died on May 10, 1990.

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