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Walker Percy Weekend Wrap

A meeting of the Holy Synod of St. Francisville

I would say that since starting St. John’s Orthodox Mission in St. Francisville, the number of crawfish-eating episodes involving Orthodox priest in the world has more than doubled.

Those gents were enjoying the final night of this year’s Walker Percy Weekend — a soggy affair, given the intermittent thunderstorms this weekend, but one in which no spirits seemed dampened.

We started on Friday afternoon, with a showing of The Seer before a packed house at the screening room of the local library. I had seen this documentary about Wendell Berry before, but not on a big screen. Filmmakers Laura Dunn and Jef Sewell graciously gave us permission to show it at Walker Percy Weekend. I’m so grateful to have had the chance to see it a second time, and on a proper screen. It is a remarkable piece of work about a remarkable man. At one point, off camera, Dunn speaks to Berry about how we are supposed to live in such a fragmented world. She begins, “I’m a child of divorce –”

“We are all children of divorce today,” Berry interjects. He means that our lives do not cohere, because we are cut off from the conditions that make for true human flourishing. The only way to put things back together is to start by repairing one piece at a time. I was in the back thinking, “That’s a big part of the Benedict Option, right there.”

The opening night cocktail part in the churchyard didn’t come off as planned, on account of the rain. But Grace Episcopal Church kindly opened the church hall to us, and the caterers set up tents outside in the parking lot. The food was quite good, and folks were convivial and undeterred by the weather. I saw lots of seersucker, which gladdens my heart. This blog was well represented at the crowd. I saw commenters Bernie, Franklin Evans, Pacopond, and Isidore the Farmer, as well as a couple of others who were traveling incognito. I also met a number of this blog’s readers. That was a particular pleasure. Thank you all from the bottom of my heart for coming to our town to celebrate with us, and for your kind words to me this weekend about the blog.

Saturday morning began with two panel discussions: one on “The Moviegoer at 50” and the other on Percy and Catholicism. I was at the Percy in Catholicism event because I introduced the speakers. I noticed something interesting in the Q&A period after the talk. There were at least two Catholic seminarians in the audience, and a number of young orthodox Catholics from Georgetown, the West Coast, and elsewhere. One of the seminarians, who looked to be in his mid-20s, asked a question about Percy and the Second Vatican Council. I don’t remember precisely what Father Patrick Samway, SJ, one of Percy’s biographers, had to say about it, but I do recall that he stated firmly his own support for it.

Later in the day, the seminarian who asked the question introduced himself to me. He had overheard Father Samway and another older, liberal-minded Catholic after the talk discussing their enthusiasm for the Council, and their frustrations over how it had not been fully implemented. The orthodox young seminarian, who described himself as of “the Benedict XVI generation,” said, “You can see right here the real difference between generations in the Church.”

It’s interesting to contemplate which of the two sides Percy would prefer were to alive today.

After that session, we had the awful drama of Franklin taking a wrong step on the staircase and breaking his leg. He had been headed out to lunch with Bernie and with David J. White, who had rolled into town from Waco that morning. By his own admission to me later, Franklin was bounding down the stairs, with his head turned back, talking, when he wrong-footed the landing. He sat at the foot of the stairs in shock. Bernie called 911, and I ran out to the curb to direct the EMTs.

During the excruciating wait, Dr. O.L. “Lee” Burnett III, an oncologist who teaches at the University of Alabama-Birmingham’s med school, attended Franklin. Dr. Lee had been in the lecture. Thank God he was there. What a caring physician he is. Alabama is lucky to have such a man.

Off went Franklin in the ambulance. Later, he would be X-rayed and go into orthopedic surgery, then overnight in the hospital. We all

Dr. Burnett, our hero
Dr. Burnett, our hero

knew that was a possibility, so it made for a fretful lunch break. But mine was redeemed by having lunch with Isidore, with whom I discussed the Benedict Option, among other things. Isidore works in the economics profession, and said that it shocks and worries him to observe that 80 percent of our economy is, as he put it, “hollowed out.” He said that it’s as if the mighty oak was still standing, but it had been devoured internally by termites, and awaited only a strong wind to topple. Having seen the Wendell Berry film the day before, Isidore said the story of the destruction of small farmers depicted in the movie is also the story of his Midwestern family. He said that it’s almost mind-boggling to him to realize that he’s got a much higher income than his farmer grandfather did, but that he can’t accumulate as much working capital as the old man was able to back in the day. (That’s what led Isidore to talk about the hollowing out of the economy.)

This gave me an idea for next year’s festival: a lecture on Walker Percy, Wendell Berry, and the Idea of Place.

Back to town, in yet another subtropical torrent, for the afternoon sessions. Over at the recently restored Temple Sinai, a synagogue that served St. Francisville’s Jewish community a century ago, the great Ralph Wood from Baylor took the stage with his former student Jessica Hooten Wilson of John Brown University. They talked about Percy and Dostoevsky. I wasn’t at that lecture, but my friend texted me throughout saying that the room was jam-packed, and that Ralph and Jessica were dazzling — a judgment I kept hearing confirmed by others the rest of the evening.

I was over at the Courthouse introducing my friend Matt Sitman, who delivered a thought-provoking analysis of our current political situation as seen through the lens of Percy’s dystopian political novel Love In The Ruins. I was sitting in the front of the courtroom over to the side. It must have looked like I was playing on my smartphone, but in truth I was taking notes. Matt made so many good points that I couldn’t keep up. At one point, Matt, or maybe a professor in the audience (my notes don’t say), read this passage from a letter Percy wrote to his friend Shelby Foote:

I have in mind a futuristic novel dealing with the decline and fall of the U.S.; the country rent almost hopelessly between the rural Knothead right and the godless alienated left, worse than the Civil War. Of that and the goodness of God, and of the merriness of living quite anonymously in the suburbs, drinking well, cooking out, attending Mass at the usual silo-and-barn, the goodness of Brunswick bowling alleys (the good white maple and plastic balls), coming home of an evening, with the twin rubies of the TV transmitter in the evening sky, having four drinks of good sour mash and assaulting one’s wife in the armchair etc. What we Catholics call the sacramental life.

That brought laughter from the audience, but I must say that this is also an element of the Benedict Option, as I see it. Matt had said in his lecture that Love In The Ruins is a novel about the quest for real community when the whole world has gone crazy around you, and the organized Left and its counterparts on the Right are extreme and appalling. A real community, in the novel’s vision, is an imperfect one marked by love and mercy, and united by the Eucharist, or at least by the recognition that God is in our midst, and behaving as if that were true. (I’m paraphrasing Matt; my notes are sketchy).

In light of that, and of the quote from Percy’s letter, and with a phrase Matt used to sum up the moral strategy of Percy’s fiction (“Attack the fake in the name of the real”), it occurred to me that this offers a way to explain to readers the Benedict Option’s promise of happiness: through re-sacramentalizing everyday life. Real life, not just the life inside our heads. The idea is to re-orient our lives such that we can hear God’s voice, and see signs of His presence among us. It sounds distressingly simple, but as the monks will tell you, it is hard enough to pull off inside a monastery, much less living in the world. But as Percy might have said, “What else is there?”

The final panel of the day was an easygoing discussion among five folks who had known Walker Percy at some point in life, the best informed being his daughter, Mary Pratt. This is Mary Pratt’s third Percy Weekend, and she has become a beloved mainstay. She is a natural-born storyteller, and regaled the capacity courtroom crowd with tales of life with Daddy. Did you know that Walker Percy drove an AMC Pacer in the Seventies? Now you do.

One festivalgoer told me that if he had come all this way just to hear Mary Pratt alone, it would have been worth it. There was an especially poignant moment in which an audience member asked Mary Pratt about the legacy of suicide in the Percy family, and how that affected her father.

“Some people say Daddy was manic-depressive,” she said. “Mama always said that she never did see the manic.”

Everybody laughed at that, but then Mary Pratt got serious, and said that in her estimation the things that saved her father from such a dark destiny were his Roman Catholic faith and the love of her mother, Bunt.

The session ended with Mary Pratt telling a funny whiskey story, which was just perfect, as the Bourbon Stroll down Royal Street was just beginning. Walker must have been interceding for us, because the rain stopped during that event, which is the highlight of the festival for many people. Here are some festivalgoers on the front porch of Seabrook Cottage, enjoying mint juleps.

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What’s so much fun about the Bourbon Stroll is it gives folks a chance to get to know each other, and to talk about all the things they’ve heard that day, with benefit of drink in hand. I got so busy talking that I only made it through three of my allotted four cocktails, which is probably a good thing. The Royal Street residents who opened their homes to visitors for this very special Southern hospitality are lovely, generous people who represent the best of our town.

On Royal Street outside Seabrook, I ran into Dr. Adam Whatley, the local orthopedist who had seen Franklin. An hour and a half earlier, Dr. Whatley had been operating on Franklin, pinning his broken bones back together. Now he was chilling out with a glass of bourbon. He’s been a sponsor of the Percy weekend since the beginning, but this is the first time it’s brought him business.

At Propinquity house, I ran into Jessica Wilson having a drink with my friend Ashley Fox-Smith:

Ashley Fox-Smith, left, and Jessica Hooten Wilson
Ashley Fox-Smith, left, and Jessica Hooten Wilson

I told Jessica that people were raving about her talk. Said Ashley, “Did you hear about Jessica and the unpublished Flannery O’Connor novel?”

Wait … there is an unpublished Flannery O’Connor novel?!

It turns out there is — and the O’Connor estate has tapped Jessica to finish it! My jaw literally dropped. Jessica explained how this came to be, and I literally had goosebumps skitter along my arm. Can you imagine that kind of honor? Jessica’s name will go down in history. And we will be able to say that we knew her when. Must book her and Ralph for next year’s Percyfest to talk about Flannery O’Connor.

We all trundled back down Ferdinand Street to the park for the crawfish boil. Here’s the View From My Table:

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Turns out that Alex Ignatiev, the julep-sipper with the beard pictured above, won the raffle of the framed Christopher Harris photograph of Walker Percy. It is beautiful, just beautiful. I also ran into an old friend, a local who had been next door at Al Aqaba, our town’s Arabic restaurant, having dinner with his family.

“They have two belly dancers there tonight,” my friend said. “They’re good, too. They were showing the kids how to do it.”

Said I, “Did you ever think you would live to see the day when St. Francisville had an Arabic restaurant where you can watch belly dancers while smoking a hookah pipe?”

He grinned big and shook his head, no. Progress! I say Belly Dancer Night henceforth must be declared as the St. Francisville Ballet in performance.

Me, I was so busy talking to people at the crawfish boil that I neglected to eat much crawfish or drink adequate amounts of beer. But I made up for it later when a crew of young out-of-towners, including Matt Sitman, descended on my house bearing bottles of bourbon, for an impromptu afterparty. That was a blast, though regrettably I had to close down the celebration as we came up on 1 am, because Julie is the parish choir director, and needed rest before liturgy, and I had to be awake in four hours to take Matt to the airport for an early morning flight back to New York.

Fueled by coffee, Matt and I made it to his plane on time, somehow, motoring through the fog. It was such a pleasure to have been able to spend time with Matt, whose writing I’ve admired for years on Andrew Sullivan’s blog (he was its literary editor). I hope this is not the last we see of him down here.

Then to church later in the morning. We had several Percyfest attendees from out of town in the liturgy. One of them said to me later, “I hope you all realize what a treasure you have in Father Matthew.” We do!

I was scheduled to take Franklin, now in a cast, back to the New Orleans airport for a flight home to Philly, but for a few reasons, including feeling the need to rest before undertaking the journey, he stayed over in town an extra night. I’ll be taking him down later today. I’m glad he stayed, because it gave us a chance to visit. I took him to lunch across the street at The Francis, where he ate like a horse, and after all that, deserved to.

Franklin being Franklin, he was in good spirits, despite the crutches, the cast, and the fact that his Walker Percy Weekend had been ruined. He told me how good it felt to him to have been helped by people at every step of the way after his fall. “I was aware the whole time that at least one person was standing right next to me to take care of me,” he said. From Dr. Burnett, who waited with him and treated him until the ambulance got there, to Dr. Whatley, to the EMT crew, to festivalgoers who stood nearby and prayed for him, Franklin says he felt carried through the crisis by these folks.

“I knew what kind of people I was among before I fell,” he told me. “That was confirmed by what you all did for me after. You live in a blessed place, Rod.”

Yes, I said, I know.

He looked at me more intently.

You live in a blessed place,” he said, with deliberate emphasis. “I wish I had this in my life.”

After I made it home from our dinner, I wrote to the committee of very hard-working people who organized and executed all the events — and who pulled off a successful festival despite the rain. Even a festival as small as ours requires an unbelievable amount of planning and work, but our crew does it as a labor of love. The speakers and panelists also came as a labor of love for Percy and the literary South. We operate on a shoestring budget, and can’t afford to do much more for our speakers than give them a hotel room and tickets to all the events. But they still come, and make our lives smarter and happier. And the good folks from Hot Tails Restaurant worked in the rain to set up the crawfish boil, which was a hard thing, but they did it anyway.

The whole weekend vindicates Franklin’s judgment, and not only that, it reminded me of why I chose to come home.

I hope we see you at next year’s Walker Percy Weekend. Mary Pratt’s coming back for sure. As she told me goodbye at the crawfish boil, “See you next year!”

about the author

Rod Dreher is a senior editor at The American Conservative. He has written and edited for the New York Post, The Dallas Morning News, National Review, the South Florida Sun-Sentinel, the Washington Times, and the Baton Rouge Advocate. Rod’s commentary has been published in The Wall Street Journal, Commentary, the Weekly Standard, Beliefnet, and Real Simple, among other publications, and he has appeared on NPR, ABC News, CNN, Fox News, MSNBC, and the BBC. He lives in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, with his wife Julie and their three children. He has also written four books, The Little Way of Ruthie Leming, Crunchy Cons, How Dante Can Save Your Life, and The Benedict Option.

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