Rod Dreher, in a blog post for The American Conservative, ruined my morning on Tuesday. Quoting from Walker Percy’s epoch-making Christian existentialist novel The Moviegoer, Dreher uses Aunt Emily’s diatribe to her nephew Binx Bolling to illustrate a religious and social Stoicism still common to the South:
“All these years I have been assuming that between us words mean roughly the same thing, that among certain people, gentlefolk I don’t mind calling them, there exists a set of meanings held in common, that a certain manner and a certain grace come as naturally as breathing. At the great moments of life — success, failure, marriage, death — our kind of folks have always possessed a native instinct for behavior, a natural piety or grace, I don’t mind calling it. Whatever else we did or failed to do, we always had that.
We do not whine. We do not organize a minority group and blackmail the government. We do not prize mediocrity for mediocrity’s sake.”
Now my aunt swivels around to face me and not so bad-humoredly. “I did my best for you, son. I gave you all I had. More than anything I wanted to pass on to you the one heritage of the men of our family, a certain quality of spirit, a gaiety, a sense of duty, a nobility worn lightly, a sweetness, a gentleness with women — the only good things the South ever had and the only things that really matter in this life. Ah well. Still, can you tell me one thing. I know you’re not a bad boy — I wish you were. But how did it happen that none of this ever meant anything to you?”
[The entire excerpt and post are worth a read.]
Upon recalling this question Aunt Emily asks of Binx, I immediately flashed back to three years ago when, on a visit to my parents’ lake house in Virginia, I told my mother I believed some of the passages from the Bible are not meant to be taken literally. I told her she might consider that some its writings are purely spiritual, or in the language of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, its authors wrote with “allegorical, moral and anagogical senses.”
Having lived her entire life in a tradition not of Biblical literalism but of Scriptural plain meaning, my mother didn’t receive my views with enthusiasm, and she soon spoke to me behind a wall of tears. In not quite the same words as Aunt Emily, my mother finally lamented that day in our lake house living room, “I thought we had raised you differently. What happened?”
Three years later, and despite my becoming far less Stoic in my feelings on all matters God-related, my mother has begun to accept some of what I believe He teaches us about the gift of life and in Ron Belgau’s words, “What will I do with my life?” and “Who will I love?” But the vestiges of her disappointment still linger, and the painful memory of that first discussion often rears its ugly head, thanks in no small part to Dreher recently writing on his similar experiences.
To use humor in relieving my guilt sourced by the pain I continually cause my mother, I emailed her Dreher’s post and wrote that I’m sure she and my father, like Aunt Emily, thought, “How did this happen?!” My mother replied, “I sometimes wonder where all your thoughts and beliefs come from but I am glad that you have grown into your own person.” This is a polite, southern, and Stoic way of saying, Yes, we still wonder why you didn’t listen to us all of those years. It doesn’t help that my two younger brothers and plethora of first cousins are exemplars of the “kind of folks [that] have always possessed a native instinct for behavior, a natural piety or grace.”
But like Binx and Dreher, I didn’t reject the “set of meanings held in common” or the southern Stoic treatment of all impolite issues such as politics and religion. In fact, I take them more seriously today than ever before. But I just can’t “accept it and live by it,” as Dreher writes. Similarly,
For me, the Christian faith opened the door to life in its fullest dimension. It is only through passionate commitment to the Absolute that I can live by the Stoic code of my culture, which has only relative value.
This passionate commitment, to matters both secular and sacred, is fueled by the Liturgy, the Sacraments, and everything in between — from bells and candles to chants and vestments to poems and protests. They all have too much of an Aesthetic hold on me to rest solely upon the quiet, unassuming “natural piety or grace” of my heritage. And I’ve found it’s not too far of a journey for that passion to travel, in an un-Aunt Emily manner, from under my shirt pocket to the edge of my sleeve or to the margin of my paper.