How to be

Photo courtesy of Maker’s Mark Facebook page.

There are few things as enjoyable as sitting outside on a cool autumn twilight and enjoying a glass of bourbon, whether with company or in solitude. It is one of the many small things that makes this my favorite time of year.

Southern writer Walker Percy wrote a terrific essay titled “Bourbon, Neat” that I became aware of while reading Michael Baruzzini at First Things this morning. I admit that the title is what caught my eye: “Walker Percy, Bourbon, and the Holy Ghost.” I mean, how could I not read something with that headline? Baruzzini delivers with a provocative column on the question of how to be in a particular time and place. It is all too easy to fall prey to the hustle and bustle of the world where we run around but accomplish little, or feel overwhelmed and numbed by the overpowering media messages of the day. It’s easy to get lost. What to do?

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 he is talking about is something I’ve written of before as well. Moments. Of being, not just physically, but mentally and emotionally as well, right where we are and finding ways to do things that keep us grounded in that place and time where we have been placed by God. A gifted writer I once knew referred to this as marking the moment. Percy’s choice was to enjoy a bourbon. Baruzzini offers other ways, all of them worthy, to make the moments real.

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.

You can read the whole Percy essay here (and I encourage you to do so as it’s not that long). I’ve pulled a few of my favorite bits from it and placed them below.

Ever have a piece of writing literally sing to you? This one did. Bravo, Mr. Percy.

What, after all, is the use of not having cancer, cirrhosis, and such, if a man comes home from work every day at five-thirty to the exurbs of Montclair or Memphis and there is the grass growing and the little family looking not quite at him but just past the side of his head, and there’s Cronkite on the tube and the smell of pot roast in the living room, and inside the house and outside in the pretty exurb has settled the noxious particles and the sadness of the old dying Western world, and him thinking: “Jesus, is this it? Listening to Cronkite and the grass growing?”

<snip>

If I should appear to be suggesting that such a man proceed as quickly as possible to anesthetize his cerebral cortex by ingesting ethyl alcohol, the point is being missed. Or part of the point. The joy of bourbon drinking is not the pharmacological effect of the C2H5OH on the cortex but rather the instant of the whiskey being knocked back and the little explosion of Kentucky U.S.A. sunshine in the cavity of the nasopharynx and the hot bosky bite of Tennessee summertime—aesthetic considerations to which the effect of the alcohol is, if not dispensable, at least secondary.

<snip>

Bourbon does for me what the piece of cake did for Proust.

<snip>

1935: Drinking at a football game in college. UNC versus Duke. One has a blind date. One is lucky. She is beautiful. Her clothes are the color of the fall leaves and her face turns up like a flower. But what to say to her, let alone what to do, and whether she is “nice” or “hot”—a distinction made in those days. But what to say? Take a drink, by now from a proper concave hip flask (a long way from the Delta Coke bottle) with a hinged top. Will she have a drink? No, but that’s all right. The taste of bourbon (Cream of Kentucky) and the smell of her fuse with the brilliant Carolina fall and the sounds of the crowd and the hit of the linemen in the single synthesis.

As Baruzzini writes in the final paragraph of his article, bourbon was for Percy a way to be for a moment in the evening. It “incarnates the evening” and marks the shift “from the active workday to a reflective time at home.”

So tonight after work, shut off the television and the SmartPhone. Play with your kids. Sit on the porch with a book. Or a bourbon. Talk with your spouse, significant other, your neighbor, or with God. Do something to mark the moment in your life. Reflect upon your day if even for a few minutes. Then, as Baruzzini writes: “Praise God, and be.

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