Embracing Your Catholic Strangeness: Walker Percy, Faith, and the Human Person

Have you ever had an out-of-body experience before? Neither have I.  What I have been experiencing most recently though are out-of-culture experiences.  By this I mean moments of unusual clarity in which I come to a somewhat profound understanding of just how peculiar my life as a Catholic really is compared to the wider cultural experience around me.

For example, as I processed forward in the communion line at mass the other day, it finally dawned on me in a wholly different way than before that I was walking forward to receive the body and blood (and I mean the actual body and blood) of a man who claimed to be God and was brutally murdered almost two thousand years ago.  Wait, what? I’m pretty sure the rest of my generational cohort is out somewhere playing Pokémon Go.

This keen awareness of the peculiarity of the Catholic life isn’t just limited to the sacraments though.  The strangeness of Catholicism dawns on me when I see the homeless, who are more than just the destitute, but are in fact my Lord and savior in disguise.  In love I am moved to encounter them; the Spirit awakens within and reminds me that I am in their debt because of their lowliness and humility.

I could go on, as you could too, with examples illustrating the strangeness of Catholicism, but the fact that the Catholic life is peculiar isn’t my point.  Rather, my point here is that I embrace the weirdness of the Catholic faith and you should too.

Walker Percy

We live in an increasingly disenchanted and pleasure-centered American society.  As incredible as scientific progress has been, we have allowed the scientific method to become the only real avenue to truth, a fallacy called scientism.  At the same time, we have become addicted to quick, immediate doses of entertainment and have become unable to really enter into an experience and allow the Spirit within us to awaken to a deeper reality.  This has all created a perfect storm for a purely profane and banal experience of human life, an experience in which everything seems so basic and ordinary as to be, well, boring.  But life isn’t ordinary or boring. Human life and the universe are strange and magnificent things.

I embrace the oddity of the Catholic life because it seems only fitting to live a strange faith in a strange world.  The Catholic novelist and existentialist Walker Percy (from my very own South Louisiana) understood this well.  In one of his most famous writings, Lost in the Cosmos: The Last Self-Help Book, which is alternatively titled “Why is it that of all the billions and billions of strange objects in the Cosmos – novas, quasars, pulsars, black holes – you are beyond doubt the strangest”, Percy writes,

The earth-self observing the Cosmos and trying to understand the Cosmos by scientific principles from which its self is excluded is, beyond doubt, the strangest phenomenon in all of the Cosmos, far stranger than the Ring Nebula in Lyra.

It, the self, is in fact the only alien in the entire Cosmos.

The modern objective consciousness will go to any length to prove that it is not unique in the Cosmos, and by this very effort establishes its own uniqueness. Name another entity in the Cosmos which tries to prove it is not unique.

In Percy’s understanding, with which I emphatically agree, humanity is not merely more strange than other creatures or things, but we are qualitatively stranger than anything else that is known to exist.  This is because each human is a unique “self”, which cannot be observed, weighed, measured, and, thereby, understood.  Instead, each human is a mystery that can only be known by its self-disclosure, but it always remains a mystery as such even to himself or herself.

For this reason it only seems fitting for a strange creature to live a strange faith.  It would be entirely too simplistic for me to live as if everything were “ordinary”, a word with a slippery meaning if you really think about it.  What could possibly be ordinary for such an extraordinary human species that prays, wonders, despairs, and hopes, often all at the same time?

Living a strange faith simply for being strange isn’t the point, though.  Instead, taking an extraordinary approach to life, of which the Catholic faith has no lack, seems to be at least the starting point to figuring out what human life is all about.  America has its full of secularized religions; what it needs now more than ever is a supernatural one.

So, as I walk down the aisle of the Church I will receive my eucharistic Lord.  I will love him through my wife to whom I am sacramentally married, and I will encounter him through the very person of the poor and suffering.  I will do all of this and more because I am strange, and my Catholic faith confirms me in this.


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The Last Supper by Juan de Juanes

Posted by JordanHaddad

Jordan Haddad earned his B.A. in Philosophy and B.S. in Psychology from Louisiana State University, his M.A. in Theological Studies from Notre Dame Seminary, and is currently enrolled as a doctoral student of Systematic Theology at The Catholic University of America. He is a Melkite Catholic from Houma, LA, and is most interested in Systematic Theology, the Second Vatican Council, Catholic Social Teaching, and the thought and writings of Joseph Ratzinger/Pope Benedict XVI. Jordan lives a joyful life with his wife and their daughter in the Washington, D.C., area.