The Beauty of Knowing Who We Are



Walker Percy’s second novel, The Last Gentleman, begins with this apparently unpromising start: a nameless young man is lying on the grass in New York’s Central Park. He is referred to anonymously, as “the engineer,” and as a man who is lost in thought. How odd that the author does not identify him in any concrete way. We also might notice a curious fact; that this man is resting his head upon his jacket, which is folded inside-out. Given this small detail, that his jacket is wrongside-in, we may infer that the young man himself is in some way ‘outside-in.’ Unknown to us— he may also be unknown to himself. The mystery of his exterior personhood reflects the probable mystery of his interior identity.

Having bought a very expensive telescope, our young man oddly finds himself looking at other people in the park. Through the eyepiece, the engineer becomes an observer of others by means of a scientific instrument. Nevertheless, this approach to learning about other people, and therefore about himself, will never bear much fruit. For the self that he seeks is not accessible through scientific inquiry.

Walker Percy presents the young man as a cypher ~ that is, at first, he is a secret to us, as much as he is to himself. His life is like the proverbial blank canvas with its endless possibilities. But he has no freedom. Freedom only comes from knowing what you have to do, and then choosing to do it. And he does not yet know what to do. Instead, he has become a master at conforming to what other people think and do. A wise grandmother or mother will tell us, ‘remember who you are!’ Yet, struggling with bouts of amnesia, the engineer at times cannot remember who he is. And so he does not know what he has to do. For when we do not remember who we are, we cannot remind ourselves of what we are called to do.

Like all of us, in one way or another, this young man is on a journey ~ he is a kind of wayfarer through life. He is seeking to ‘get home.’ Getting home will require coming to know who he is.


This posting is based on my homily for Sunday, June 10, 2018, which can be accessed by clicking here. My focus on this book by Percy was inspired by my recent attendance at the Annual Walker Percy Weekend in my former community of St. Francisville, LA.

The Beauty of Freedom

Books_The Life of Pi_cover_large

One of the most creative and thoughtful novels in recent years is Yann Martel’s, The Life of Pi. It’s both imaginative and evocative. The novel explores our knowledge and wisdom about animals, while also reflecting on our knowledge and wisdom about God. Pi, the narrator, was a double major at the University of Toronto, in religious studies and zoology. Before that, he grew up in southeast India, where his father had run a small zoo.

Near the beginning of the book, Pi reflects on an unexpected reality about zoo animals. Most of us assume that zoos should be large open parks having extensive land preserves, with all the animals roaming about together. Otherwise, we think zoos are cruel, artificially propagated institutions, which have no genuine respect for fellow members of the animal kingdom. Pi challenges us with some interesting empirical observation. Zoo’s actually resemble our own houses, in a positive way! In prehistoric times, our ancient forebears had to roam, from cave to stream, and from animal habitat to places where fruit bearing plants could be found. Now, we have the modern equivalent of these things in a limited spacial structure we call our home. Animals in the wild face immense challenges: how to find food and water, safe places to rest, to mate and rear young, and free of predators. Usually this requires large tracts of land. But zoos, like the houses that serve us, provide these things in a limited compass, which actually contributes to animal contentment and well-being! Their enclosures provide the security of a known-place, which they feel is theirs. Like us, animals are territorial.

Pi tells us this: when animals happen to get out of their enclosures at a zoos—in what we are likely to call ‘escapes’—they most often go right back to their pens or cages, especially when they encounter anything that frightens them. Generally, they do not head out for the open and unknown! Pi then offers a critical insight: “I know zoos are no longer in people’s good graces. Religion faces the same problem. Certain illusions about freedom plague them both.”

A modern notion of freedom has thoroughly permeated our culture. We assume that freedom is best defined in one way ~ ‘freedom is the absence of limits.’ Freedom is ‘no one getting in my way,’ no rules limiting me, and no constraints on what I want to do. So, we imagine that the same must be true for animals, and especially those in zoos. As exciting and liberating as this may sound, it is actually contrary to animal nature—and therefore, probably also to our nature.

Pi offers this observation: “An animal inhabits its space, whether in a zoo or in the wild, in the same way chess pieces move about a chessboard— significantly. There is no more happenstance, no more ‘freedom’, involved in the whereabouts of a lizard or a bear or a deer than in the location of a knight on a chessboard. Both speak of pattern and purpose.” But, ironically, this is the very thing we resist! We somehow assume that we are less than human when we go through life wedded to pattern and purpose, and when we adopt habits that shape our character in enduring ways. These are precisely the features of the modern mind, which make it so hard for us to hear what Paul says about freedom, in Galatians (For freedom, Christ has set us free). Our modern notions also separate us from our nation’s Founders, who were just as concerned with what freedom is for, and not simply what freedom is from.


Adapted from my homily for Sunday, June 26, 2016, which may be accessed by clicking here.