Faith & Thought

Many Today Don’t Ask Big Questions About Their Lives

As I have been reflecting on the importance of the liberal arts in helping us to deal with what we often refer to as “ultimate questions,” questions about the meaning of our lives, the meaning of our death, the meaning of love, the meaning of God, the name of Catholic novelist Walker Percy keeps entering my mind. Back in 1996 I put out a book about Percy entitled “Walker Percy: Prophetic, Existentialist, Catholic Storyteller” (New York: Peter Lang Publishing, 1996, 127 pp.). Psychiatrist Robert Coles was kind enough to write the foreword. In it he wrote the following:

“Later in his life Walker Percy would often look back on his conversion to Catholicism as the shaping event of his writing career, not to mention his personal life. I knew him well, and once, when he said words to that effect, I asked him to explain himself, because I couldn’t see how his religious convictions had ‘that’ much authority over his efforts as a novelist. He was candidly forthcoming in his response: ‘It’s true, I don’t write directly as a Christian apologist — but in all my works I am responding to my faith. You’re who you are, and who you are has a lot to do with what you say. In any novelist, in any writer, there’s a point of view — even if it’s subjected to the (aesthetic) demands and needs of the ‘medium,’ the novel, the short story, the poem, the essay.’

“Vintage Percy — that mix of the vernacular and the intellectual, all rendered in accessible language, unpretentious language. He was forever taking the pulse of mid and late 20th-century America, trying to figure out what makes us the people we are — our assumptions, worries, hopes, expectations; and he was forever measuring what he heard by the moral and spiritual yardstick of the Catholic Church, whose principles and values he took seriously, indeed. He knew, of course, that an artist is one who hints, suggests rather than pronounces, hands down rules, and mandates, hence the wonderfully comic, yet knowing spirit that informs his fiction — which, at the same time, is full of moral alarm and spiritual energy. His characters make us laugh, entertain us, surprise us, but also bring us up short, bring us to our senses — ‘here’ is what is going on, and — ‘there’ is where we seem headed, and so, our jeopardy, our challenge” (p. 1x).

When I wrote my book about Percy’ novels I thought I had a fairly clear idea about what Percy thought and about what he was trying to do in writing his six novels but now I suspect there is even more depth and insight in his writing than I realized. In fact I am thinking of re-reading some of them now because the problems that deeply concerned Percy years ago may be even more serious today.

In his first and perhaps best novel “The Moviegoer” (New York: Alfred K. Knopf, 1961), he tells the story of Binx Bolling, a young man who manages a small branch office of his uncle’s brokerage firm. Binx seems to be very greatly influenced by the philosophies of consumerism and secularism. However Binx is on a search. The following is how he describes the search:

“The search is what anyone would undertake if he were not sunk in the everydayness of his own life. This morning, for example, I felt that I had come to myself on a strange island. And what does such a castaway do? Why, he pokes around the neighborhood and he doesn’t miss a trick.

“To become aware of the possibility of the search is to be onto something. Not to be onto something is to be in despair” (p. 13).

My impression of some Catholics who have stopped attending the Sunday Eucharist is that they have lost something precious but have no sense of loss. Recently I met with someone whom I taught many years ago who has given up attending the Eucharist. What bothered me most about our conversation about the Eucharist was that he seemed to have lost what should have been at the center of his life as a Catholic, but he seemed to have no experience of loss, no sense that something exceptionally important was no longer part of his life. It occurs to me that, unlike Percy’s fictional characters, many in the contemporary world are not searching or asking important questions about their lives. I find that very sad. I am saddened and disappointed but not discouraged. The Holy Spirit has not abandoned us. Those of us who believe in the Eucharist should try to live in a way that the central role that the Eucharist will have in our lives becomes apparent to others. If we do that we can then trust in the presence and power of the Holy Spirit.

Father Lauder is a philosophy professor at St. John’s University, Jamaica. He presents two 15-minute talks from his lecture series on the Catholic Novel, 10:30 a.m. Monday through Friday on NET-TV.