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The Hope of Walker Percy

May 23, 2017


If anyone should have killed himself, it should have been Walker Percy. After all, suicide ran in his family and it went back generations. One Percy overdosed on morphine—another jumped into a creek with a sugar kettle tied around his neck. Even Percy’s grandfather took his life. And when Walker was only 13 years old, his own father shot himself dead in the attic of the family home.

It gets worse.

Three years after Percy’s father died, Percy’s mother drove off a road into a creek and drowned. Walker was driving down that same road, just a few minutes behind the wreck. When he saw the crowd gathered around the scene, he jumped out of his car and tried to get close, but the bystanders held him back from the horror. Some called it a terrible accident, but others whispered “suicide.” Just before he turned 16, Walker Percy was an orphan.

Percy and his two young brothers were taken in by their uncle, Will Percy, who was a proud Southerner, a Renaissance man and a Roman Catholic. (Percy’s parents were nominal Presbyterians, but he and his brothers were never baptized—they were raised agnostic.) Uncle Will introduced the boys to great books, he read them poetry, encouraged them to write, and wanted them to experience the world, especially the South. Walker was the most receptive to Uncle Will’s formation, and continued his formal education at the University of North Carolina.

Walker Percy had a very successful college career at UNC, and although he loved reading novels and writing, he was convinced that the answers to life’s deepest questions would not be found in the liberal arts, but in science. Moreover, he thought he needed to get out of the South in order to find himself, so he enrolled in the School of Medicine at Columbia University and also began psychotherapy in order to address the suicidal tendencies in his family.

Percy was a few weeks into his residency at Bellevue Hospital when his Uncle Will died. Although he was unable to make it back for his Uncle’s funeral Mass, Will Percy’s death was a turning point in Walker Percy’s life. His Uncle was naturally a father figure to him, and was one of the few Percy men who died of natural causes. His uncle gave him hope—and now he was gone.

However, a year before he died, Will Percy penned a book titled Lanterns on the Levee, which he dedicated to Walker and his little brothers. Paul Elie, a biographer of Walker Percy, describes the book as “Will Percy’s memorial to himself and his philosophy of life.” What is most interesting about Uncle Will’s book is his treatment of religion. Although he didn’t speak much to Walker and his brothers about his faith, and although Will Percy was not a model Catholic, he nonetheless treated religion with an astute seriousness in his autobiography.

He wrote, “Without faith, people perish, and they are perishing before our eyes.”

In a sense, Walker was one of them.

Upon returning to New York, Walker Percy literally went to work on those who were perishing or had perished. He spent his days as an intern at Bellevue working with the sick as well as performing autopsies on drunks, murder and suicide victims, and the homeless of New York City. Soon, Percy became very ill and thought he was dying—he had contracted tuberculosis and was sent to a sanatorium in the Adirondacks for treatment. He would never practice medicine again.

Percy’s time at the sanatorium was like a long retreat. Reflecting on his experience, he wrote, “I was in bed so much, alone so much, I had nothing to do but read and think. I began to question everything I had once believed.” Percy’s sickness forced him to question the meaning of suffering and the meaning of life and of his own existence—questions that science was not equipped to answer.

He turned to Dostoevsky, Sartre, Mann, and Kierkegaard and he found that they all diagnosed the modern human experience as one of isolation, anxiety and loss of meaning. However, rather than falling into despair, this diagnosis of the human experience gave Percy hope. He recognized that it is only when we honestly acknowledge the human condition—in all its alienation, limitation, sadness and gravity—that we can seriously consider a fitting remedy.

For most of his life, Walker Percy believed that science contained the answers to all of life’s questions. But his time at the sanatorium convinced him that the human experience was too complex and too mysterious to be reduced to science alone. Science was true, yet it had no answers to the most important questions, specifically those dealing with human suffering and the meaning of life. He learned from Kierkegaard that faith was also a way to knowledge, and that faith actually gave him access to more satisfactory answers to his deepest questions than science ever could.

Percy’s conversion to Catholicism was not dramatic—there was no big moment. There was, however, a recognition that Catholic Christianity did not run from the most important questions, but spoke to them, and not with the abstract and technical truth of science, but with the beauty, nuance, complexity and mystery of the truth of faith.

He remembered his Uncle Will telling him that when he was young, he wanted to be a priest. He remembered the quiet witness of a college fraternity brother who would wake early to attend daily Mass. He remembered a Catholic patient at the sanatorium who made convincing arguments on a wide variety of topics, with the help of St. Augustine and St. Thomas Aquinas. Percy respected the intellectual tradition of the Church, and was deeply moved by the Church’s insistence on the harmony of faith and reason—that real faith was not opposed to science, but actually enhanced it.

Walker Percy and his new bride Mary Bernice “Bunt” Townsend (a nurse whom he met in medical school), moved to New Orleans and took instructions from a Jesuit priest at Loyola University. A year later they were baptized, confirmed, and received their first communion. Soon the couple would head about twenty miles north, across Lake Pontchartrain to Covington, where they would move into a new house, making St. Joseph’s Benedictine Abbey their new spiritual home.

When asked why he became Catholic, Percy would simply answer, “I believe what the Catholic Church proposes is true.” He believed in the truth of science, but Percy was sure that without the truth of faith, science alone would eventually lead to the gas chambers—this is no exaggeration. A year before he died, Percy received the Laetare Medal from the University of Notre Dame, and he said this to the graduating class of 1989:

While truth should prevail, it is a disaster when only one kind of truth prevails at the expense of another. If only one kind of truth prevails, the abstract and technical truth of science, then, nothing stands in the way of a demeaning of, and a destruction of, human life, for what appear to be short-term goals. It’s no accident, I think, that German science—great as it was—ended in the destruction of the holocaust.

As Paul Elie notes, Percy also became Catholic because the Church stood above and apart from the present age, which he called the age of the “theorist-consumer.” In Percy’s view, rather than restricting people to the values of this world, the Church offered true freedom, satisfying community and real transcendence. Catholic Christianity did not deny the reality of the human experience of isolation, suffering and sadness, but spoke directly to it in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, who is Emmanuel. In other words, God is with us, even in—and especially in—our isolation. And at the end of the day, because of the Incarnation, suffering and death do give way to life.

I was thinking of all of these things when I made a recent pilgrimage to Percy’s Louisiana. A good friend, whom I received into the Church a few years back, and who now lives and teaches in “The Big Easy,” brought to my attention the ubiquitous fleur-de-lis of New Orleans. Everywhere you turn, it’s there—you simply can’t miss that rich, royal, intertwined symbol. It not only adorns the helmets of the New Orleans Saints, it’s also on shirts, earrings, scarves, flags, car bumpers, trash cans, store-front windows and tattooed on the arms and legs of more than a few locals. My young friend informed me that the fleur-de-lis is a symbol of hope, which has taken-on added significance for the people of New Orleans since Hurricane Katrina and the Saints’ Super Bowl victory of 2010.

In the Christian tradition, the fleur-de-lis is an ancient symbol of both the Trinity and Our Lady, which is how I imagine Walker Percy saw it. When I visited Percy’s grave on a sunny Sunday afternoon at the Cemetery of St. Joseph’s Abbey in Covington, I couldn’t help but wonder what would have happened if he hadn’t found his faith and his hope in the midst of his terrible suffering and isolation. Perhaps ‘prostate cancer’ would have been replaced with ‘suicide’ on his death certificate—God only knows. But what I do know is this: the Church and the world would be poorer without the life, and the work, and the witness of Walker Percy.

(Image Credit: Christopher R. Harris Photography)