Monday, February 14, 2011

Four Last Words

At the end of his extraordinary book about Dorothy Day, Thomas Merton, Flannery O’Connor, and Walker Percy, Paul Elie asks, “What is the meaning of their lives?” The question is superfluous, because in the pages of The Life You Save May Be Your Own, these four Catholic writers have already told us. Bringing us to the end of each of their lives—O’Connor died first in 1964, Percy last in 1990—Elie offers us a parting message from each, and these four last words alone are worth pondering for a long time.

Near the end of his life, the religious sense of Trappist monk Thomas Merton was as alert as ever. He never stopped standing in front of the biggest questions. In a letter “to my brother who is in the world and who more and more often comes to me with his wounds which turn out to be also my own,” Merton wrote:

Can I tell you that I have found answers to the questions that torment the man of our time? I do not know if I have found answers. When I first became a monk, yes, I was more sure of “answers.” But as I grow old in the monastic life I become aware that I have only begun to seek the questions. And what are the questions? Can a man make sense of his existence? Can a man honestly give his life meaning merely by adopting a certain sense of explanations which pretend to tell him why the world began and where it will end, why there is evil and what is necessary for a good life? . . . I have been summoned to explore a desert area of man’s heart in which explanations no longer suffice, and in which one learns that only experience counts.

Pacifist Dorothy Day, founder of the Catholic Worker newspaper and movement, was called by Commonweal “the most significant, interesting, and influential person in the history of American Catholicism.” She had a less grandiose but more stirring image of herself, as Elie explains:

During a visit to St. Joseph’s House, one of Robert Coles’s students had asked her: What is the meaning of your life? How would you like to be remembered? She had replied at length, apologizing for her “rambling, disconnected thinking.” She said she had tried to treat the stranger as Christ: speaking kindly to the guests, making sure they were well fed, earning their respect. And she hoped she had lived a life worthy of the great books she had read. “I’d like people to say that ‘she really did love those books!’ You know, I’m always telling people to read Dickens or Tolstoi, or read Orwell, or read Silone. . . . I’m not a great one for analyzing those novels; I want to live by them. That’s the ‘meaning of my life’—to live up to the moral vision of the Church, and of some of my favorite writers . .  to take those artists and novelists to heart, and live up to their wisdom: a lot of it came from Jesus, as you probably know, because Dickens and Dostoevski and Tolstoi kept thinking of Jesus themselves all through their lives.”

Asked to give a speech before Pope John Paul II in Rome near the end of his life, Walker Percy

. . . defined what the Catholics of the new age would have in common. Why was he a Catholic? Because he believed that the Church’s teachings are true; and because the Church, in his view, stood above and apart from the present age, which he called the age of the “theorist-consumer.” In his view, the present age has no use for anything that cannot be bought and sold or theorized about. So the present age has no use for Christian faith. But the believer, he thought, should count this as an advantage, and see the present age as preferable to “Christendom,” when the churches prospered. “In the old Christendom,” he explained, ”everyone was a Christian and hardly anyone thought twice about it. But in the present age the survivor of theory and consumption becomes a wayfarer in the desert, like St. Anthony: which is to say, open to signs.”

The last words Elie attributes to Flannery O’Connor, who died at the age of 39, are a prayer to St. Raphael, which she had recited “daily for many years”:

O Raphael, lead us toward those we are waiting for, those who are waiting for us: Raphael, angel of happy meeting, lead us by the hand toward those we are looking for. . . . 

Lonely and tired, crushed by the separations and sorrows of life, we feel the need of calling you and of pleading for the protection of your wings, so that we may not be as strangers in the province of joy, all ignorant of the concerns of our country. Remember the weak, you who are strong, you whose home lies beyond the region of thunder, in a land that is always peaceful, always serene and bright with the resplendent glory of God.

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