Walker Percy

posted 4/1/20

When I was in seminary I was introduced to the work of the author Walker Percy.  Percy was a native of Alabama and after finishing college at the University of North Carolina went to study medicine at Columbia University in New York.  While working as an intern at Bellvue Hospital in 1942, Walker contracted tuberculosis and was forced to spend an extended period of time resting in a sanitorium in the Adirondacks.  Walker grew up an agnostic, and his family history was marked with tragedy – his grandfather, his father, and his mother all having taken their own lives.  During his convalescence, Walker read extensively in the fields of philosophy and literature and began to question the ability of science to explain the basic mysteries of human existence.  Influenced by the example of a friend, Percy began to attend daily Mass.  He became Catholic in 1947 and published several novels, including The Moviegoer which won the National Book Award in 1962.  Percy died in 1990 at the age of 73. 

I’ve read several of Percy’s novels and I find them to be, well, kind of odd.  Invariably when I finish one I’m not sure what I’m supposed to have learned from it.  But I do find it very helpful to read commentaries on Percy’s work, which illuminate the important points that Percy is making through his stories about life in the contemporary world.  The main characters in Walker’s novels are always people who suffer from spiritual loneliness and alienation.  They’re trying to figure out what life is about – if it has any meaning at all.  They are oddballs in their societies because they feel restless and sad in a world where the people around them seem perfectly content and apparently unconcerned with the aimlessness of their existence.    

A friend of mine recently shared with me an essay by a professor of literature named Jessica Hooten Wilson.  She describes Percy’s characters as men “who know they are pilgrims, that human beings are essentially wayfarers, yet they are none too sure about the destination.”  They long for earth-shattering and apocalyptic events because “if there are only moments left to live, these characters feel the urgency to love well, be good, do something that matters.”  In ordinary times, however, they wrestle with the banality of life.  “How to go on existing during an ordinary Wednesday afternoon?”  Most of the time, she writes, Walker Percy is arguing that we walk around in a death-like state, distracting ourselves by convincing ourselves that unimportant things are vitally important.  Quoting C.S. Lewis, she writes: “It would seem that Our Lord finds our desires not too strong, but too weak. We are half-hearted creatures, fooling with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea.” 

Walker Percy’s novels try to help us to see that we expend too much of ourselves obsessing about small and meaningless things and end up losing sight of the miracle of existence and the possibility that God – God! – desires a relationship with us.  All it requires is a slight shift in perspective, to recognize that God is present to us in this very moment and that everything we have is a gift given.  Jessica Hooten Wilson poses the question: What changes when we look for God in our daily activities or when we seek his face in those around us? Does it not make a great deal of difference to how you treat your child? For instance, if you see her as participating in God’s incarnation, a fellow pilgrim on the road to paradise, versus your property, your image, and thus your charge to form into a success story? And, when we consider the day before us not as an empty schedule to be filled, but God’s gracious and gratuitous gift of time, how then might we live differently? 

Maybe it seems strange to feel gratitude in the midst of a pandemic.  But perhaps in these days we should consider, as Wilson writes, “attending more to the bounty than the deprivation,” that in the midst of uncertainty we might find the One who is the destination of our earthly pilgrimage, and Who walks with us along the way. 

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