Michael Baruzzini at First Things has a thoughtful discussion of novelist Walker Percy, bourbon, and existentialism. But it all comes down to vocation:
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’ve been baptized. You’ve been saved. Now what?
Here is where Percy’s existentialist-inclined Christianity comes in, and his famous paean to the South’s whiskey. In his essay, “Bourbon, Neat,” 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 Percy’s, struggles with a particular problem: the question of how to be in a particular time and place. 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,” Percy 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 isn’t it, says Percy. It isn’t 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, marital 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 Percy would answer 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? Percy’s own conversion was motivated by his reading of the Catholic realist Thomas Aquinas, in addition to the Christian existentialist Kierkegaard. Rejecting the nihilistic varieties of existentialism, 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.