Will Barrett, the protagonist of Walker Percy’s novel The Last Gentleman, complains that he cannot figure out “how to live from one minute to the next on a Wednesday afternoon.” Even Christians, with a solid theological and philosophical grounding, can find the question troubling. So you believe in God, and you believe the Second Person of the Trinity became incarnate and died for your sins. You have been baptized. You have been saved. Now what?
Here is where Walker Percy’s existentialist-inclined Christianity comes in, and his famous paean to the South’s whiskey. In his essay, Bourbon, Neat, Mr. Percy’s literary mind was perceptive enough to find the connection between taking an evening drink and finding meaning in a daily life. The mind inclined to the questions of existentialism, like Walker Percy’s, struggles with a particular problem: the question of how to be in a particular time and place. Mr. Percy slyly suggests that bourbon is the answer. No, not in the sense of drowning sorrows in alcoholic stupor, but in recognizing that it is in concrete things and acts that we are able to be in the world. “What, after all, is the use,” he asks, “of not having cancer, cirrhosis, and such, if a man comes home from work every day at five-thirty…thinking: ‘Jesus, is this it? Listening to Cronkite and the grass growing?’”
No, this is not it, says Walker Percy. It is not all just about the fatal acts of nature and the crass manipulation of mass society. It is distinctively personal acts, like having an evening glass of bourbon, that construct a life. It is this aesthetic, this incarnation, simply this way to be, which gives a glass of bourbon its real value. But this incarnation of being extends beyond evening drinks, and informs every action we make in our lives. Take affection, for instance. Husbands and wives do not merely sit across the room maintaining a cerebral love for each other. Affection is made concrete with actions. Handshakes between colleagues, hugs and kisses between friends not only display, but actually create or make real the respect and affection between people. The true value of a family dinner lies at this level: We are a family because we eat together; we eat together because we are a family. It is in this act that our being as a family is made real, not fantasy. To take what may be the most powerful example: martial love is incarnated in the marital act. The coy euphemism “making love” has more truth to it than we may realize.
Looking to the concrete helps us discover the Christian notion of sacramentality. It is in water that we are born again; it is with bread and wine that we encounter Christ in the flesh in today’s world. It is these things that make our Christianity more than an academic exercise. So Walker Percy would answer Will Barrett’s question by saying: “just do it.” It is Wednesday afternoon and you are a Christian: sing a song of praise, or go to Mass and eat God’s flesh. You are a loving husband, so kiss your wife. You are a father: play catch with your son, or help him with his homework. You are a man at the end of a day of work: make a cocktail. If you want to be these things ”a husband, a father, a son of God” there are things to do to make it real.
Christians must choose among myriad options how to be in specific ways in the world. But how do we know what to choose? Walker Percy’s own conversion was motivated by his reading of the Catholic realist Saint Thomas Aquinas, in addition to the Christian existentialist Søren Kierkegaard. Rejecting the nihilistic varieties of existentialism, Mr. Percy recognized that there is an absolute truth surrounding the multiple ways to choose to be. Some ways are in more conformity with truth and happiness than others.
The Christian answer to the dilemma of how to be lies in the concept of grace and vocation. Here is where the Holy Spirit comes in. Vocation is the Christian call to be in a specific way in the world. It is a call to truly be, in a concrete way, who God has called you to be. It is not to be a robot obeying a program; it is to be an eagle joyfully choosing to fly or a mole enthusiastically choosing to dig, because that is what you are, what you are good at, what you love. It is an existential choice, but one that is grounded in God, outside of the isolated self.
The apostles recognized this call to distinctive ways of being. The New Testament epistles are replete with exhortations to recognize that each has been given a different gift to serve the Church. This is also a key to understanding the gift of the Spirit. Earlier I asked: Christ saved me, now what? The Holy Spirit is the answer to that question. Upon encountering fellow Christians early in the Acts of the Apostles, The Apostles are astonished that the new converts know nothing of the Spirit, which The Apostles view as crucial to the faith. Our faith is rightly Christocentric, but the Spirit is truly God, too. Christ has saved us, and it is in uniting ourselves with him that we grow in salvation. The Spirit, however, enables us to be and to be as Christians in particular ways in the world.
To return to more earthly spirits, bourbon is for Walker Percy a way to be for a moment in the evening. Why might one take an evening cocktail? Baser reasons are: an addiction to alcohol, or the desire to appear sophisticated. Better reasons, according to Mr. Percy, are the aesthetic experience of the drink itself; the appearance, the aroma, the taste, the cheering effect of (moderate) ethanol on the brain. Another reason is that a drink incarnates the evening; it marks the shift from the active workday to a reflective time at home. One simply must choose a way to be at a five o’clock on a Wednesday evening. Instead of surrendering to television, Walker Percy recommends making a proper southern julep. I prefer my bourbon as an old-fashioned, a drink that reflects the colors of an autumn day. “Love God and do what you will,” Saint Augustine advised. This presumes that you have allowed God’s grace to order you to love properly and you have taken proper note of your own God-given gifts and dispositions. Then, praise God, and be .
Books on the topic of this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore. Republished with gracious permission of First Things.