Sitting in the darkened chapel here at OSV, watching the flame of the sanctuary candle flicker, my thoughts turn often to the two greatest Catholic novelists of the 20th century (at least in my estimation): Evelyn Waugh and Walker Percy.
In Waugh’s case, the sanctuary candle calls to my mind the opening and closing chapters of “Brideshead Revisited.” I suspect I’ll have more to say about “Brideshead” in a future reflection from the chapel, but if you’re looking for a book to read while you’re sheltering in place at home, I can strongly recommend “Brideshead.” And if you’d rather listen to an audiobook, there’s an excellent version read by Jeremy Irons, who played Charles Ryder in the BBC production of “Brideshead Revisited” from 1981. That BBC production, by the way, is available to stream for free on Amazon Prime.
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In Walker Percy’s case, his entire body of work — novels, short fiction, and nonfiction — seems more relevant today than at any point in my lifetime. As a trained psychiatrist, a convert to Catholicism, a novelist and a victim of poor physical and (at times) mental health, Percy was fascinated by the way in which people reacted to dire situations — war, hurricanes, epidemics.
In the second half of the 20th century, Percy noted, many people wandered aimlessly through life, going through the motions, or found themselves depressed in the midst of times of peace and prosperity. They didn’t know how to cope with everyday life. But when faced with adversity — especially the kind of adversity that requires action, and requires that action now — their depression vanished, they gained strength and focus, and they rose to the occasion.
And when things returned to normal, some of them found themselves worse off than ever before — but many found the will to go on.
There’s something about a crisis that gives us meaning and purpose, that makes our petty concerns and our abstractions seem selfish and frivolous. The 90-pound mother who lifts the car off of her child trapped under a tire is usually described as having accomplished a great feat of physical strength through adrenaline, but the reality goes much deeper: She overcame the limitations of her body because she first (in a split-second) overcame the limitations of her mind.
Through most of human history, man has lived from day to day. The kind of life that most of us have lived throughout much of the 20th century and into the 21st has not been normal, in the fullest sense of the word. In the midst of this pandemic, we’re getting a glimpse of what life has been like for most people throughout most of human history.
The good news, as Walker Percy understood, is that we’re hardwired to respond to crises, great and small. Channeling that reaction to adversity, and directing it in charity through the hope that comes from our Christian faith, we’ll get through this together, and emerge on the other side with a better understanding of what it has always meant to be human.
Scott P. Richert is publisher for OSV.