Walker Percy

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 Being on Pilgrimage

Paul Elie Cover photo

 

I have been reading and learning from a wonderfully perceptive book. It’s about the converging lives and work of four modern Roman Catholic authors. In it, Paul Elie explores the writing of Dorothy Day, Thomas Merton, Walker Percy and Flannery O’Conor. The book’s subtitle is, An American Pilgrimage. This theme of pilgrimage provides a meaningful metaphor. For, as we grow up, we gradually discern that we are on pilgrimage ~ both to find ourselves, and, to find the God who has already found us. And all the while, we seek to find our place in the world.

In one fashion or another, we are all on the road to Emmaus. We are like the earliest Christian pilgrims, not knowing that we have been found, and joined, by the One who is at first not seen nor recognized. With those first two on the way to Emmaus, we ponder the meaning of the mysterious Passover events in Jerusalem, and our apparent place within them. Regardless of whether we’re physically traveling or not, we are on Camino-like journeys. Our pilgrimage takes us from the partial to the whole, from brokenness to healing, and from darkness into light. We are therefore always on the way. We are on the way towards something whose meaning may not yet be clear. Yet, it still draws us onward.

Have you seen Martin Sheen’s evocative movie about the Camino de Santiago? It is called The Way (which refers to the Way of St. James). The title has layers of meaning. To be on the way to some place, is to journey toward it. Journeying is something that we do. This is the first meaning.

Yet, a “way” can also be a thing in itself, and not just the means for getting somewhere. A way is something we can be part of. In Acts, we find several references to what Luke calls “the Way,” spelled with a capital “W.” For example, we learn about the pre-conversion Paul, who was “breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord,” and asking for letters from the hight priest. This was “so that, if he found any who belonged to the Way,” he might arrest them. Then, we read of a man named Apollos, who “had been instructed in the Way of the Lord; and [who] spoke with burning enthusiasm and taught accurately the things concerning Jesus.” And later, when Paul is under arrest and brought before the governor Felix, we are told that even Felix was “well informed about the Way”!

The Way was and is what Presiding Bishop Michael Curry calls ‘The Jesus Movement.” It’s more than a set of beliefs and a body of teaching, for it is something to which we can belong. The Way is a community of pilgrims, united by a common vision and a shared spirit. We travel through this world together on a path shaped by grace.

 

This is based on my sermon for Sunday, May 14, 2017. I make reference here to Paul Elie’s book, The Life You Save May Be Your Own. You can access my sermon (“Our House of Pilgrimage”) by clicking here.