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The Walker Percy Project

A Caution to Serve Faith Well: An Appealing Aspect of Walker Percy's Fiction


John R. May is an Alumni Professor of English and Religious Studies, Emeritus at Louisiana State University, and the author of numerous scholarly works, including Nourishing Faith through Fiction: Reflections of the Apostles' Creed in Literature and Film (2001). He is a founding board member of The Walker Percy Project. This essay originally appeared in Faith & Culture Vol. 1, No. 5, pp. 14, 23.

What I have come to appreciate the most about Walker Percy's novels from a Catholic perspective is the manner in which he portrays processes of faith that make full sense only within the context of a thoroughly Christian, if not Catholic, faith. I don't mean to suggest that "representation of processes of faith" is what precisely constitutes their "Catholicism" (I actually prefer "openness to the Catholic faith") because that is a complex critical issue that exceeds the scope of this brief essay. All that I wish to say here is that Percy's portrayal of faith's processes is an aspect of his fiction that is especially appealing to me as a Catholic. Percy also exhibited a tendency, which seems to me to be specifically Catholic, to associate major insights or experiences of conversion, not just with the liturgical calendar (e.g., with important Christian feast-days, as many writers do), but with the Eucharistic liturgy itself. This is particularly true in his two novels about Dr. Thomas More, Percy's self-confessed "bad" Catholic — Love in the Ruins and The Thanatos Syndrome.

The representation of the process of reconciliation in Love in the Ruins (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1971) — which is also the novel's climactic moment of truth — comes just before Midnight Mass on a Christmas Eve five years into the new age that follows the story's averted apocalypse. Thomas More, by a most tortuous path, comes finally to admit that he experiences sorrow, or at least shame, for his sins, but it is only after a prolonged examination of his attitudes by his confessor. After accusing himself of "drunkenness, lusts, envies, fornication, delight in the misfortunes of others, and loving [himself] better than God and other men," More tells Father Smith that he feels no sorrow, then acknowledges that he feels sorry for "not being sorry," and later says that he'll pray for sorrow. His exasperated confessor, after laboring hard to elicit contrition from him and appearing ready to bring the session to an end, says at last:

"Meanwhile, forgive me but there are other things we must think about: like doing our jobs, you being a better doctor, I being a better priest, showing a bit of ordinary kindness to people, particularly our own families-unkindness to those close to us is such a pitiful thing — doing what we can for our poor unhappy country — things which, please forgive me, sometimes seem more important than dwelling on a few middle-aged daydreams."
"You're right. I'm sorry," I say instantly, scalded.
"You're sorry for your sins?"
"Yes. Ashamed rather."
"That will do" (399).

That More is scalded finally by images of possibilities, of the good things he has failed to do, rather than by an analysis of his misdeeds, is not surprising. He is, after all, preparing to participate in the Christmas liturgy, the remembrance and renewal of the new creation.

The experience of hope as a response to signs, so characteristic of Percy's fictional world, can be observed in a Catholic setting at the end of The Thanatos Syndrome (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1987), his last novel and, for me at least, one of his best, second perhaps only to The Moviegoer (Knopf, 1961). Tom More, having exposed the criminal experiment on human behavior in Feliciana Parish, faces a choice about his future (either to work at a nearby psychiatric facility or to take the directorship of a hospice), when his wife, Ellen, comes to his office to tell him that he's received a phone call from Father Smith, now a patient at his own hospice. More assists the priest at Mass occasionally when his regular server, Milton, is too ill to do so. Ellen, however, thinks that it's an invitation to meet the new king and queen of Spain, who are visiting New Orleans. More recounts the conversation with his wife in this fashion:

"The priest wants you to meet them out there. Tomorrow."
"I see." ...
"He only gave me three hints. Royalty, a visit, gifts and – a Jewish connection." ...
"That's four."
"Right. Now get this. I happen to know that the new queen, Margarita, has Jewish blood. ..."
"I see."
"Tomorrow morning at eight – why eight I don't know." She's briskly writing down the appointment. "Out there."
"Very good," I say as briskly, frowning to keep from smiling. "Why don't you call him and tell him I'll be there."
"Don't you worry." She's already on the phone.
What Father Smith has told her and she me without knowing it is that he needs me tomorrow morning. Milton must be sick again. It's a little code. Neither of us likes to upset Ellen. Tomorrow is the Feast of the Epiphany. A Jewish girl, a visit from royalty. Gifts.
"He says fine." She's pleased. "I think it's a valuable connection for you."
"You may be right" (369-70).

The subtle affirmation of the passage results from the playful conflict of attitudes, one secular, the other possibly sacred, and from the juxtaposition of the three hints about the Feast of the Epiphany with "a Jewish connection," which for Father Smith points less to Mary than to "the only sign of God which has not been evacuated by an evacuator" (123), namely, the unsubsumability of the Jews. With a caution typical of Percy's fictional characters, More casts his anticipation of the possibility of epiphany in the subjunctive mood: "You may be right." This is a caution, it seems to me, that serves faith well.