I will ignore all the news, political and social, as I sit quietly on this Friday morning (10/25/19) writing in my 19 Cent Notebook in my corner of my tin house in Lot 46 in Largo, Florida. News is noise, especially when it blasts into every corner from the flat-screened amplifier that is my Panasonic TV. It is silent now; just a big black tabula rasa. I might turn it on for the World Series tonight.
I browse in my personal library — half of which I purged, half saved — and come upon that wonderful and renowned Harvard child psychologist Dr. Robert Coles and his Harvard Diary. He is still, so far as I know, living and hopefully writing among us here on earth. I should write him a fan letter. I should do it quickly, because he was born in 1929, which means he’s 90. Dear God, he might feel ready to go Home. Or maybe, God knows, he still has work to do.
I’ll do some of his work for him this morning by propagating some of his thoughts about a writer we both admire. That would be another doctor-turned award-winning novelist and Catholic convert: Walker Percy who went home to God in the spring of 1990. Percy — Doctor Percy, we’ll call him just this one time, for he prescribed wonderful remedies through his writing — was Louisiana-born and chose to remain there unpretentiously and obscurely all his life, specifically in the city (or town) of Covington, which he called, “the perfect non-place for me.”
In Dr. Coles book, Walker Percy: An American Search, he writes that Percy “saw the emptiness, the shallowness abroad in the land; he saw the ‘quiet desperation,’ if not the noisy despair. He saw the confusion, covered by hustle or bustle or faddish commitments, one after the other. He pronounced himself lost, said that to acknowledge so was at least a first, and thoroughly necessary, step. Those who are lost and don’t know it are in even greater danger. And, like anyone lost, he was not only seeking a way back (seeking to find himself), but he was also upset, anxious, angry. ”
Dr. Coles notes that the 19th Century Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard was among Percy’s intellectual forebears. The books I “purged” before my recent move included my paperback copy of Percy’s novel, The Moviegoer, winner of the 1962 National Book Award. I’d already read it more than once, beginning in high school, puzzling each time, admittedly, over its more intellectual content, being as I was — and always will be — a lightweight reader of some heavyweight scribes. The novel’s translated epigraph comes from Kierkegaard’s book, Sickness Unto Death. I repeat it here: The specific character of despair is precisely this: it is unaware of being despair.
In other words, as Coles gathers from Percy, we often go to the multiplex or mall or otherwise busily or amusingly occupy ourselves, unaware that we are just distracting ourselves from the reality of our faithless emptiness, selfishness and hopelessness.
At this point I must note — making an evangelizing “plug” for my cradle faith and the faith of my spiritual forebears — that Percy, sometime after tuberculosis forced him out of his medical vocation and before becoming a writer, became, as I noted, a Catholic. (He’d been raised, I believe, a rock-ribbed Presbyterian.) And while he was always clearly an intellectual, it was the quiet witness and example of a Catholic college roommate that began his journey into the Church — that and, of course, grace.
In an essay entitled, “Why Are You A Catholic?”, Percy gives many intellectual reasons for the choice. But, he adds that, when the question was put to him more or less directly, he usually replied, “what else is there?” That must have come as a jolt to his interlocutors, inciting them to laugh dismissively and walk away, or ponder the notion that something so seemingly paltry as religion might offer propositions even a man with Percy’s great mind could find persuasive.
So how does a writer who repeatedly found himself diagnosing the world’s and his own despair square that experience with the tenets of something so easily caricatured and dismissed (in Percy’s words) as “red candles and beads and priest in a box”?
Well, here’s some of what he had to say about that:
…people no longer understand themselves, as they understood themselves for some fifteen hundred years, as ensouled creatures under God, born to trouble, and whose salvation depends upon the entrance of God into history as Jesus Christ.
It is post-modern because the Age of Enlightenment with its vision of man as a rational creature, naturally good and part of the cosmos, which itself is understandable by natural science — this age has also ended. It ended with the catastrophes of the twentieth century.
The present age is demented. It is possessed by a sense of dislocation, a lost of personal identity, an alternating sentimentality and rage which , in an individual patient, could be characterized as dementia.
As I mentioned, Percy died in 1990. I submit that the last twenty years have more than confirmed his diagnosis. We have seen a revolt even against biology, with souls whose sense of dislocation has driven them to try to climb out of their own skins and into another gender. (I guess I’m lucky my sense of dislocation has only prompted me to change geographic states, for better or worse; it is the “geographic cure” a late, lamented spiritual mentor warned me against as a teenager.) As evidence of our rage — political and social — just go to the Twittersphere. Sentimental thinking, meanwhile, infects even the most harsh and violent cinematic and literary modern narratives and social movements, giving evidence of a universe governed by feelings and emotions, not to mention a child’s willful need to have what it wants when it wants it. Dr. Coles, the compassionate child psychologist, author of Children in Crisis, has certainly seen the recalcitrant child in all of us.
In his 1982 essay, “The Psychiatric Stations of the Cross,” Coles tells of a young medical student dying of cancer, visited by a Catholic priest, who instead of speaking to the patient of gospel truths, commenced a relentless psychological inquiry, asking how the patient was “feeling” and how were his “spirits”? How was he “managing?” (Herein, find evidence that even alleged “physicians of the soul,” including generations of poorly-formed Catholic priests, have contributed to our malaise.) Coles, who visited the patient/doctor after the priest, found him in a rage. He’d wanted to the priest to talk to him about Heaven, Hell and Redemption.
Coles acknowledges the priest was likely just being discreet and well-meaning. ( I can’t find it in my heart to be too tough on him.) But once upon a time ( in those lost generations of faith over which Walker Percy performed a funeral oration), an evangelical fervor and fire in the priest’s soul would have overridden discretion and his need to recite only some “psychological” Stations of the Cross. Especially if the priest knew the patient was Catholic, or, at least Christian, as was this patient. Even non-believers might want to hear more than psychological banalities at the hour of their deaths. How, asks Coles — as, I believe, Walker Percy would ask — did psychiatry gain so much moral authority, even among the clergy?
The priest was about to leave the dying medical student’s bedside when the student asked him at least to read to him from The Lord’s Book. Obligingly, the doctor opened the Bible (let’s hope he had it with him) and read from the page that happened to be there: Psalm 69.
And there is the Good News, in which Coles found an act of grace, as would Walker Percy had he known of the incident. For Psalm 69 reads, “Save me, O God; for the waters are come into my soul. I sink in deep mire, where there is no standing: I am come into deprivation, where the flood overflow me.”
Let’s meditate on that, along with Dr. Robert Coles whom I pray is still with us at this hour just as faith tells me Walker Percy is sharing the moment with us and with his God, as I finish here on this Good Friday Out of Season — in this autumn of the world’s unending anguish.