Walker Percy’s eucharistic vision
Desmond, John F
DURING the last few years of his life, Walker Percy corresponded with Kenneth Laine Ketner, professor of philosophy at Texas Tech University and an authority on Charles Sanders Peirce, the American philosopher generally credited with being the founder of modern semiotics.1 This correspondence was subsequently published as A Thief of Peirce: The Letters of Kenneth Laine Ketner and Walker Percy, edited by Patrick Samway, S.J. In his letters to Ketner, Percy was especially interested in learning more about Peirce’s triadic theory of language, and more particularly, about the mysterious role of the “interpretant” or “coupler” in the act of naming reality and in acts of communication between human beings. After several years of studying theories of language developed by Cassirer, Langer, Saussure and many others, Percy was not wholly satisfied with the explanations of human communication he had investigated. He came to believe that Peirce’s triadic theory of language offered the best hope for a modern, scientific understanding of the mystery of language. Nevertheless, Percy was not entirely convinced that Peirce had adequately explained the role of the “interpretant” in the language act, and he turned to Professor Ketner for help. The question was of utmost importance to Percy. Since he believed man’s uniqueness lay in his ability to symbolize, the question of the mystery of language was central to his whole anthropology, or how to define man qua man. Percy’s plan, then, as he revealed to Ketner, was to use Peircean triadicity as a pillar for constructing a Christian apologetic suitable to the twentieth century. As he informed Ketner in a letter dated February 27, 1989, Percy hoped to use Peirce to construct a “new anthropology . . . a theory of man by virtue of which he is understood to be by his very nature open to kerygma and news” (131-32).
Ketner discussed the role of the “interpretant” in Peirce’s triadicity in several letters, attempting to clarify the concept. Nevertheless, Percy was not fully persuaded, and so voiced his doubts to Ketner:
“Okay. But what I want CSP to tell me or draw me is not an existential graph or a trivalent node, but a picture of the sort of thing which is happening in the brain of the speaker. And I am not talking about the latest in neurology and electro-chemistry of the synapses. I am talking about this sort of thing. Of course I believe that there is no escaping some sort of non-chemical, non-electrical agent, call it mind, soul, whatever you like. Our problem, of course, is whether this lands us back in (sic) Descartes’ old dualism, the mind-body split, the only progress being that instead of locating the mind in the pineal gland, now we locate it in the Brodman language area.” (25)
(In an earlier interview with Sr. Bernadette Prochaska, Percy said that the “interpretant” was God [Delta 21.) Percy was especially bothered by certain aspects of Peirce’s idealism, especially his view, explained by Ketner, that matter was only “effete mind.” Such a view, Percy believed, dissolved the mystery of the relationship between spirit and matter through a kind of gnosis. Hence his response to Ketner:
“Re: the Nag Hammadi stuff: Interesting, but I cannot but express mild surprise. Which is to say, I don’t see how a Peircean scholar can go for this ancient gnosis which seems not to require a semeiosis, that is to say, a transaction in signs between people, an intersubjectivity, a realism to the degree that the transaction is taken to be about something which, to some degree, can be known and talked about. Whereas all this gnosis requires is oneself.” (25) Percy objected to this viewpoint on two grounds; first, because it was to
him scientifically undemonstrable; and secondly, more importantly, because it ran counter to his religious belief. He objected to Peirce’s gnostic idealism precisely in terms of his Catholic belief in the sacrament of the Eucharist.
“I guess I find myself on the side of the Apostle and my friend Flannery O’Connor. Paul said (to fuse two passages): If Christ is not God himself entered into history and if he did not die and was in fact resurrected from the dead, then our teaching is in vain and we’re back in our sins. Flannery (answering an Anglican): If the Eucharist (the bread and the wine) is nothing more than a symbol of Christ, I say to hell with it:’ (26)
Following his Catholic beliefs, Percy saw the mind/body question, and the relation between spirit and matter, in terms of mankind’s fall, i.e., as an ontological lapse in the order of being. The “scandal” and mystery of the Eucharist is that it radically affirms the real presence of the risen Christ in matter (bread and wine), as the act of transubstantiation in the Mass enacts the incarnation and resurrection of the God-man. The Eucharist, then, becomes the real substance of the risen Christ. If it were only a symbol, in Percy’s and O’Connor’s view, that would separate matter and spirit and therefore involve a gnostic dualism. For Percy the believer, then, the Eucharist as the real presence of God transforms the ontological condition caused by the fall in that it makes redemption possible by giving spiritual life to those who receive it. It is not surprising, then, that the sacrament of the Eucharist as a reality, not as a symbol, was a focal point of meaning in several of Walker Percy’s novels, as a way of defining the real, of suggesting the presence of the divine in the concrete world, and of focussing the development of his various protagonists.
In his first novel, The Moviegoer, a key to understanding the spiritual meaning of Binx Bolling’s search is his relationship with his sickly halfbrother, Lonnie Smith, a relationship defined principally in terms of the meaning of the Eucharist. Although Binx obliquely demurs when he speculates about whether or not his search is a religious search for God, since he believes such a question has become linguistically devalued in modern culture, he acknowledges when talking about the presence or absence of God in the world that he is “on to” Him, and he vows to continue his search. Binx is not a practicing Catholic, but when he visits his devout half-brother Lonnie, much of their conversation is about sin and doing penance for sin, about the afterlife, and about the power of the Eucharist to affect the soul not only of the individual who receives it, but also the mystical community of the living and the dead. Speaking of Lonnie’s spirituality, Binx says that the sickly youth is able to offer his suffering as reparation for men’s “indifference to the bleeding heart of Jesus” (137). When Lonnie tells Binx that he is fasting as a penance to help him overcome an habitual disposition to envy his dead brother Duval, Binx suggests that Lonnie should instead concentrate on the Eucharist as a more positive spiritual act. Later, when Binx is preparing to leave the Smiths’ fishing camp, Lonnie tells Binx that he is offering his communion for Binx, and they exchange expressions of deep love for each other.
Lonnie’s offered Eucharistic gift of grace to Binx does not result in Binx’s explicit conversion in the novel. However, at the novel’s end, Binx’s remains open to his search and to the possibility of the presence of God in the ordinary world. In the scene in which he and Kate agree to marry, Binx watches a Negro man leaving the church on Ash Wednesday, wonders if he has received the ashes of repentance, and wonders whether “God Himself is not present here at the comer of Elysian Fields and Bon Enfants” (235). Equally important, when Lonnie is dying Binx affirms to his siblings the doctrine of the resurrection of the body, telling them that Lonnie will be resurrected as a whole being on the last day. Binx’s stated belief (he never lies to the children) implicitly affirms the incarnation, redemption, and resurrection of the body, the real, living substance and mystery of the Eucharist, connecting the transfigured material world of the here-and-now to its mystical center in eternity.
In Percy’s second novel, The Last Gentleman, his protagonist Will Barrett is neither a Catholic nor is he conversant with the doctrines of Catholicism, as Binx Boning is. In this novel, Percy is more concerned with dramatizing the disastrous condition of Western culture, and American culture in particular, once it has lost its sacramental center. The “post-Christian” age Will Barrett inhabits is one that nominally professes Christian belief while in fact giving its allegiance to the idols of secular humanism and scientism. More specifically, in The Last Gentleman Percy focusses on the body/spirit Cartesian dualism which afflicts the major characters in the novel. Behind Percy’s critique of this regnant dualism, informing it at every turn, is his belief in the real presence of Christ in the eucharist, and the mysterious interpenetration of matter/spirit that contravenes dualism.
Percy concentrates specifically on sexual malaise in this culture as a flagrant sign of the society’s rejection of sacramentalism in favor of a secularism that cannot resolve the issue of dualism. Several of his major and minor characters-Will Barrett, his fiance Kitty Vaught, Rita Vaught and her ex-husband Dr. Sutter Vaught, and minor characters like Mort Prince and Junior Thigpen-are trapped in this sexual malaise and confusion. Will Barrett has been raised in a stoic ethic of Southern honor that, . in dualistic fashion, teaches him to “treat a lady like a lady and a whore like a whore,” and to revere ladies while satisfying his lust with whores. But in his actual relations with women, especially Kitty, the dualism breaks down. The neat distinctions between “lady” and “whore” are blurred, and to complicate matters, Will is torn between his own instinctual sexual drives and his “spiritual” commitment to the code of honor. In these situations, he literally does not know how to act. Comically, his own body refuses to submit to control; his knee jerks uncontrollably, and he is beset by fugue states that dislocate him from time, the intersection of matter and spirit, and for Percy the point of interpenetration of the divine spirit into history in the Incarnation of Christ.2 For her part, his fiance Kitty Vaught is likewise confused about her sexual identity. At times she is the shy girl of his affections; at other times the “lady” who wishes to be courted honorably; at other times she is the bold sexual adventuress trying to seduce Will to “prove” herself, quite willing to be his whore; and yet at other times she displays lesbian affection toward “the Handsome Woman,” her ex-sister-in-law Rita Vaught.
Sutter Vaught and his ex-wife Rita also exemplify the sexual malaise that results from dualism. Sutter, fully aware of the transcendenceimmanence split that characterizes the age, tries to overcome transcendence by flagrant acts of satyrism. In his notebook he writes: “Lewdness = sole concrete metaphysic of layman in the age of science = sacrament of the dispossessed. Things, persons, relations emptied out, not by theory but by lay reading of theory. There remains only relation of skin to skin and hand under dress” (279-80). To his sister Valentine, a nun, he proclaims:
“I do not deny, Val, that a revival of your sacramental system is an alternative to lewdness (the only other alternative is the forgetting of the old sacrament), for lewdness itself is a kind of sacrament (devilish, if you like). The difference is that my sacrament is operational and yours is not.” (281)
But Sutter’s lewd behavior does not appease his spirit; rather, it leaves him in despair and suicidal: “Suicide considered as consequence of the spirit of abstraction and of transcendence; lewdness a sole portal or reentry into world demoted to immanence; reentry into immanence via orgasm; but post-orgasmic transcendence 7 devils worse than the first” (345). On the other hand, his ex-wife Rita, the quintessential humanist, believes in enhanced sexual “performance” as a way to happiness, claiming that she and Sutter were “good in bed” when they were married. But their sexual harmony failed when Sutter began seducing other women, and for her part, Rita seems not to acknowledge the sexual ambivalence-and her own manipulativeness-in her relationships with Kitty and Jamie Vaught.
Percy dramatizes the sacramental vision and the visible manifestations of the eucharistic belief in the novel through Valentine Vaught-Sister Johnette Mary Vianney. A convert to Catholicism and a nun, Val has dedicated her life to helping the mute Tyree children at her mission in Alabama. Val concentrates especially on teaching the children to speak and to name things, because she knows that language will enable them to hear the “good news” of salvation-that if they hear the Gospel, obey God’s commandments, and receive Him in the eucharist-they will gain eternal life. Moreover, she vigorously disputes Sutter’s dualism, his claim that there is no resolution to the transcendence/immanence split, and that the language of belief is now canceled-out and meaningless. Against her brother Sutter, Val affirms (and demonstrates by her life) the mystery of the Real Presence of Christ in the here-and-now concrete world: “I tell them (the Tyree children) that God made them to be happy and that if they love one another and keep the commandments and receive the Sacrament, they’ll be happy now and forever” (301-02). This belief leads her to enjoin Will Barrett to “see to” the baptism of her dying brother Jamie if she is not present. Near the end of the novel, Percy presents this baptism in a profoundly mysterious way, with oblique signs in word and action as the holy water is poured over the dying youth. Against his own initial wish, Will Barrett comes to participate in this baptism as a “transmitter” in this crucial action. When Jamie’s voice begins to falter, Will becomes the “interpreter” of his responses to Father Boomer’s questions in preparation for baptism. In this way, Will becomes a mediator in the dying boy’s entrance into the sacramental life. Word and act are mysteriously united. Significantly, a “Hokum bread truck” passes by the hospital window during this climactic scene.
Although Will Barrett does not profess knowledge of or belief in the traditional sacramental doctrines, he implicitly acknowledges the sacramental vision when he rejects the dualism that led his father to commit suicide, a suicide that was in great measure prompted by his father’s despair over the corruption of sexual values. When Will “returns” in memory to the night of his father’s suicide, he sees the flaw in his father’s stoicism, and then rejects it in favor of a view of reality wherein matter and spirit, immanence and transcendence, are mysteriously interpenetrated. In this, Will’s vision is sacramental. Touching an iron horsehead, he thinks:
“Wait. While his fingers explored the juncture of iron and bark, his eyes narrowed as if he caught a glimmer of light on the cold iron skull. Wait. I think he was wrong and that he was looking in the wrong place. No, not he but the times were wrong. The times were wrong and one looked in the wrong place. It wasn’t even his fault because that was the way he was and the way the times were, and there was no other place a man could look. It was the worst of times, a time of fake beauty and fake victory. Wait. He had missed it! It was not in the Brahms that one looked and not in solitariness and not in the old sad poetry but-he wrung his ear-but here, under your nose, here in the very curiousness and droll and extraness of the iron and the bark that-he shook his headthat-.” (332, emphasis added)
In Percy’s third novel, Love in the Ruins, eucharistic vision is manifested more explicitly. In this “confession of a bad Catholic,” protagonist Dr. Tom More describes how he fell into despair after his daughter Samantha died and his wife Doris left him. Now, More has taken to heavy drinking and pursuing sexual liaisons with Moira Schaffner, a vacuous romantic who works as a technician at Love Clinic, and Lola Rhodes, a lusty cellist from Texas. Throughout his various misadventures, More intermittently recalls his moments of happiness before Samantha died, moments explicitly related to the practice of his faith, going to mass and receiving the Eucharist:
The best of times were after mass on summer evenings when Samantha and I would walk home in the purple dusk, we having received communion and I rejoicing afterwards, caring nought for my fellow Catholics but only for myself and Samantha and Christ swallowed, remembering what he promised me for eating him, that I would have life in me, and I did, feeling so good that I’d sing and cut the fool all the way home like King David before the Ark. (12)
More describes attending mass and “eating Christ” in communion as “the thread in the labyrinth.” Receiving the sacrament, he insists, kept him “human” (241-42). That is, the incarnational essence of the sacrament helped him to live as enfleshed spirit in the concrete world, and avoid the dualism of “angelism” and “bestialism” that has riven modern man. More especially identifies his practice of faith with Samantha, remembering their happy times together after “eating Christ” at mass. Indeed, Samantha stands as a vessel of faith in the ruins of Mores spiritual world, and his recurrent memory of her is itself a “thread” that will help lead him out of the labyrinth of despair.
However, when the novel opens More himself is riven with dualism. At one extreme he pursues a gnostic dream of being a world-savior by scientifically correcting man’s fallen condition through his invention, an “ontological lapsometer.” At the other extreme, More pursues sexual conquests in an attempt to appease his “longings” for love. His abandonment of faith and the sacraments is emphasized in his relationship with Moira Schaffner. Moira is a debased alter-image of Samantha. In one scene, she sits child-like on Mores knee, as his daughter often did. Significantly, More dreams of “eating” her “biscuit-like” knees, a perverse counter-image to his “eating Christ” in communion (243).
Percy’s point is unmistakable: More has left off eating the life-giving sacrament in favor of a kind of pedophilic bestialism, an indulging of the sensual flesh for its own sake. (Later, More acknowledges that he “feasted” on Samantha’s death, using it to rationalize his despair and selfindulgence in bestialism.) Fortunately for More here, a sudden recollection of Samantha interrupts his tryst with Moira, leaving him in tears.
As the novel progresses, More is able eventually to reestablish his link to “the thread in the labyrinth,” recover his incarnate humanity and a measure of faith. By invoking his ancestor, St. Thomas More, in prayer, he comes to renounce his bond with Art Immelman, the Mephistopheles who seduced him with dreams of sex and fame. At the same time, More overcomes the sexual temptations of Moira Schaffner and Lola Rhodes, instead marrying his nurse Ellen Oglethorpe, a “staunch Presbyterian” and the voice of his better self. In the Epilogue-five years later-we find More as husband and father, a practicing physician, and committed citizen. He still drinks, but in happiness rather than despair. He still hopes to perfect his lapsometer, but as a means to help mankind rather than as a way to fame and fortune. Most importantly, his recovered humanity is related directly to his reawakened faith and religious practice. On Christmas Eve, he goes to confession to Father Rinaldo Smith, and although More feels ashamed of his sins rather than acknowledging complete contrition, he receives absolution and penance from the priest. Then, dressed in sackcloth, he “eats Christ” again in communion, and joyously goes home to barbecue the Christmas feast.
However, in Percy’s fourth novel, Lancelot, “feasting” and partaking joyously of the life-giving sacrament of the eucharist is sacrilegiously perverted by Lance Lamar. In the early years of his marriage to Margot Reilly, a Texas heiress, Lance profanely elevated human sexuality and the sex act with Margot to the level of a sacrament, displacing the love of God and His Son. His acts of inverted “sacramentalism” are a working out of Sutter Vaught’s theory of transcendence-through-lewdness. Lance insists to his listener, Father John, that sexual intercourse is the only earthly absolute. He describes one such sexual episode as follows:
“She stood naked before the mirror, hands at her hair, one knee bent, pelvis aslant. She turned to me and put her hands under my coat and in her funny way took hold of a big pinch of my flank on each side. Gollee. Could any woman have been as lovely? She was like a feast. She was a feast. I wanted to eat her. I ate her. That was my communion, Father-no offense intended, that sweet dark sanctuary guarded by the heavy gold columns of her thighs, the ark of her covenant.” ( 182)
Earlier in the novel, Lance describes his first sexual union with Margot as a “coming home.” In what Lance sees as their sexual bliss, he has transformed Margot’s body into a profane church and decadent communion-feast, the sole object of his human desire. But Margot intuits how Lance has objectified her and she eventually rebels, seeking her independence as a woman and taking other lovers. When Lance discovers her adultery, the betrayal of his misguided “faith” in sex as absolute is so devastating that it drives him to near madness and bloody revenge, the cutting of her lover Jacoby’s throat.
In contrast to Lance, Percy offers a vision of hope in the novel through Father John, a hope expressed specifically in terms of practicing faith through the sacraments. The priest has undergone his own crisis of faith, it is inferred, since he has given up missionary work in Biafra and now works and resides in the Center for Aberrant Behavior where Lance is imprisoned. In the early part of the novel he does not wear clerical garb, suggestive of his defection. But by the end Father John has reassumed his priestly garb and decided to serve in a small parish in Alabama, administering communion to Buick dealers and suburban housewives (277). His recommitment to the sacramental life, to the transforming grace of Christ’s redemption made available in the eucharist, stands in sharp contrast to Lance’s perversion of that belief. For Father John, spiritual love-love of God and man-reigns supreme over carnal gratification as the means to both earthly and eternal happiness. Fortunately for Lance, Father John is still present at the end, ready to tell him the “good news:’
PERCY Said that his fifth novel, The Second Coming, “may be the first unalienated novel written since Tolstoy” (Conversations 182). More specifically, he claimed that the novel’s protagonists, Will Barrett and Allison Huger, solve their alienation through “a true communion,” a mutual love by which “the two create a new world. At the end of The Second Coming, it [overcoming alienation] takes place through a recovery of Christianity” (Conversations 182). In the conclusion of the novel, Will and Allie are to be married by Father Weatherbee, whose dispensation is Anglican. There is no talk of sacramental communion, as neither Will nor Allie acknowledge belief or profess to be communicants of any church. In fact, throughout the novel, Percy delivers a scathing report on the state of modern American Christianity-on its “incoherent” fragmentation into personally-designed modes of belief, its hypocrisy, and the indifference of nominal Christians to the serious existential predicament of those searching for God in a consumer culture. How, then, to understand Will and Allies discovery of “a true communion” (a eucharistic metaphor) in a “new world” through a “recovery of Christianity”?
Percy’s achievement in The Second Coming is to infuse the love relationship of Will and Allie with the mystery of divine presence as that presence is infused throughout creation by Christ’s Incarnation. In fact, this novel can well be called Percy’s most “Christian” novel, justifying his claims for it. For Will, Allie is an embodiment of grace, a “savior” who rescues him after his “fall” from the dark cave, then rescues him from despair by her love. She is throughout associated with light (sunlight, lightning, fire), warmth (her iron stove), and generation (her greenhouse, her sexuality). Her abode, the greenhouse, is an Eden-like locus amoenus, both natural (garden) and supernatural (“cathedral-like,” with stainedglass windows). She is a font of charity, who dispenses food (oatmeal) and drink (water) that are sacramental signs of the transforming grace of love, the “new life,” she offers to Will. But at the heart of their loving relationship-its most eucharistic sign-is Allies strange language, which creates a “communion” of spirit between them by breaking through the dead husk of conventional speech with a language that mysteriously fuses literal and metaphorical meanings. Her strange words are signs whose inner truth Will can “read”; they are mysterious revelations of spirit that touch his deepest core so that they resonate personally for him, as indeed Christ’s words do for “those who can hear.”
For his part, through Allies love Will is able to overcome the death of the spirit his father inflicted on him when he tried to kill him while hunting when Will was twelve years old. Stricken with despair over what he perceived as the moral collapse of society, lawyer Barrett told his son: “There is no word for this” (126), i.e., death-in-life. Unable to name his predicament, he retreats into silence, moral isolation, and eventually suicide. Moreover, he convinces young Will that he is “one of us,” that is, a fellow moral isolato trapped in the modern dissolution of values. So Will lives much of his life as a passive role-player, unwilling to confront his own spiritual predicament. However, a series of crises lead him to discover his spiritual predicament and then presumptuously challenge God for an answer-sign. He descends into a cave, where God will either reveal Himself or “cause” Will’s death. His challenge fails when, comically, a severe toothache interrupts it, whereupon Will escapes by “falling” out of the cave into the ministering arms of Allie. Percy’s imagery makes clear that she is the sign of grace Will longs for and needs. The only explicit reference to the Eucharist in the novel occurs when Allie tells Will how she was visited by her aunt, Sister Johnette Vianney, while in the sanatarium. Allie says that Val now works for the “Little Eucharistic Sisters of St. Dominic” in “Pass Christian,” and while they laugh over the peculiar name of the order, lightning crackles overhead, then flashes inside the greenhouse. At this hierophany, Allie exclaims: “Jesus Christ” (262-64). In Will Allie finds the love that answers her “longens” for fulfillment; in Allie Will finds the love that enables him to transcend his solitary despair. Together they find love incarnate, the “it” by which word and deed are united in a linguistic/sexual union, a union that is both physical and metaphysical. Each is a gift to the other in a eucharistic exchange. As Allie recognizes in a love scene between them:
“Me good is all over me, starting with my back. Now I understand how the two work.”
“The it and the doing, the noun and the verb, sweet sweet love and a putting it to you, loving and hating, you and L” (263)
Through the experience of love incarnate and word-made-flesh with Allie, Will is able to overcome the death-in-life paralysis inherited from his suicide-father. Will’s exposure to Allies new language in love also enables him to become a namer of truth, one who triumphs over the silent despair of his father and the ethos of death. In a long catalog, Will names the various forms of death that plague the culture, the powers and principalities that have held him in thrall, and for which his father claimed “There is no name” (270-74). But Will does name them. “Death in none of its guises shall prevail over me, because I know all the names of death” (274). Like St. Paul, Will declares that death shall have no dominion. Through love he becomes the “new man” of hope, and his love extends outward so that by the end of the novel, he and Allie are working in charity to rebuild the community. In the last lines of the novel, Will affirms the connection between the God-Father from whom he sought a sign and the incarnate manifestation of the divine he has found in his love with Allie, the gift granted. After his final conversation with Father Weatherbee to arrange his marriage to Allie, Will’s “heart leapt with a secret joy,” and he thinks:
What is it I want from her and him, he wondered, not only want but must have? Is she a gift and therefore a sign of a giver? Could it be that the Lord is here, masquerading behind this simple silly holy face? Am I crazy to want both, her and Him? No, not want, must have. And will have. (360)
Will Barrett’s discovery of the word of Truth, through love with Allie, enables him to name death in all the guises perpetrated by the great deceiver, Satan. Appropriately, Will’s final vision leads him to begin a life of communal charity. This ideal of communal charity becomes the center of Percy’s eucharistic vision in his last novel, The Thanatos Syndrome, through the actions of protagonist Dr. Tom More, and more significantly through the words and deeds of Father Rinaldo Smith.
Tom Mores religious faith has declined since the ending of Love in the Ruins. Saying that he is “no longer sure what he believes,” More is a lapsed Catholic who has left off eating the body of Christ (363). His wife Ellen, once a Presbyterian, has now become a pentecostal who believes in “the Holy Spirit.” Tom remarks:
“Even when she was a Presbyterian and I was a Catholic, I remember that she was horrified by the Eucharist. Eating the body of Christ. That’s pagan and barbaric, she said. What she meant and what horrified her was the mixing up of body and spirit, Catholic trafficking in bread, wine, oil, salt, water, body, blood, spitthings. What does the Holy Spirit need with things? Body does body things. Spirit does spirit things.” (353)
Yet despite his lapsed faith, More takes his children to Christmas mass, insists they are Catholics, and himself occasionally attends mass, acting as server when Father Smith asks him.
Father Smith sympathizes with Mores lapse of faith. “It is to be expected. It is only necessary to wait and be of good heart. It is not your fault . . . You have been deprived of faith” (363-64). The priest sees Mores deprivation as due to the “great Prince Satan” who has deprived language of meaning so that words no longer signify. The spirit of the age has become the very gnosticism that Percy rejected in his letter to Professor Ketner, a spirit that separates word from flesh in a manner that leads to the gnosticism of Mores wife Ellen on the one hand, and the degradation of the body by Doctors Comeaux and Van Dorn on the other. In this age, the sacramental-eucharistic center does not seem to hold.
Nevertheless, Father Smith is able, like the mature Will Barrett, to name the truth of their condition, and so not fall victim to the great depriver, Satan. The living word of Truth is incarnated in both More and Father Smith, especially in the priest’s prophetic speech at the rededication of St. Margaret’s Hospice. Most importantly, in this fractured age Father Smith finds the body of Christ in the broken bodies of the dying patients at the hospice.3 By ministering to them in truth, love, and compassion, he enacts the meaning of the eucharist through charity. In this community, the Word and Act of redemptive love and sacrifice truly signify, truly live.
1. Peirce’s terms for his linguistic project was “semeiotic:’ In his essays, Percy used the more familiar “semiotic,” a practice I follow here.
2. In an interview with Ashley Brown, Percy referred to Eric Voegelin’s theory of two senses of time-unhistorical cyclical time and historical linear time-and said: “Barrett’s
amnesia suggests a post-Christian shakiness about historic time” (Lawson, Conversations with Walker Percy 13).
3. I am indebted to Professor Richard Giannone for helping me refine this insight.
Lawson, Lewis A. and Victor Kramer, eds. Conversations with Walker Percy. Jackson: U of Mississippi P, 1985.
Percy, Walker. Lancelot. New York: Avon, 1977.
The Last Gentleman. New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 1966. – Love in the Ruins. New York: Dell, 1972.
– The Moviegoer. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux. 1960.
– The Second Coming. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1980. – The Thanatos Syndrome. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1987.
Prochaska, Sr. Bernadette, F.S.P.A. “A Conversation with Walker Percy.” Delta Factor 5.2 (1998): 1-5.
Samway, Patrick H, ed. A Thief of Peirce: The Letters of Kenneth Laine Ketner and Walker Percy. Jackson: U of Mississippi P, 1995.
Copyright Marquette University Spring 2000
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