Inspiration from the Page: An Interview with Paul Elie

Article excerpt

When curled up with a good book, we may not even realize that reading can be a part of our spiritual growth. Often only in retrospect or in dialogue with ethers do we come to recognize the influential role certain books have in our lives.

Author Paul Elie takes a retrospective look at the influence and confluence of four of the finest Catholic writers of the 20th century in The Life You Save May Be Your Own: An American Pilgrimage (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2003). Dorothy Day, Thomas Merton, Walker Percy, and Flannery O'Connor have inspired generations of readers, converts, and activists to recognize that we are, in our most humble humanity, capable of the kind of holiness that can spring forth only by facing that humanity head on--and from it, learning how to live well.

Elie shares with his readers the rich pilgrimage of faith that was made by these writers, both in their solitary faith journeys and in their remarkable communion with one another and the world. Both Elie and his subjects offer us the chance to reflect on the pilgrimage of faith we too make as readers, and seekers, of spiritual truth.

Why did you choose to write about these particular four Catholic authors--Flannery O'Connor, Thomas Merton, Dorothy Day, and Walker Percy?

I came to them one at a time, really, but I kept reading references to these four in books about the others, so I thought I'd like to take a look at them together. Then the theme emerged of reading books one's whole life and being emboldened by a book to move in a certain direction in one's life.

Certain books affect us enough to make us want to change our lives. We're looking for something more than entertainment or diversion or information when we read. We're trying to figure out how to live. It seems to me that these four writers wrote with that in mind. And if we can understand how that process works, we will have a better understanding of both our faith and our reading life.

I hope people who read this book will get a sense of the power of these four writers and understand why people have revered Dorothy Day all these years, why Merton has so great a following, why Flannery O'Connor is marveled at, why Walker Percy is thought by some to be the first postmodern American writer.

What did you learn about how to live from these writers?

That at some point you have to have your own encounter with the Catholic faith tradition. I think a lot of people look to a Dorothy Day or a Thomas Merton and say, "I could never be as great as they were." We try to believe as they believed, we try to think the way they thought. We lose ourselves in admiration of these great figures from the past. What these four writers understood was this: I have my one life. It can be lived in a certain way or not lived, and it's time to get down to it and figure out what I believe, what I'm called to do, and where I stand in relation to the Catholic tradition.

It was a happy day for me when I stopped writing fiction and realized that a book of history is the kind of book I'm called to write. Instead of imitating Flannery O'Connor and trying to write fiction that wasn't coming out very well, I tried to do something different and write a book unlike any that those four had written. None of them wrote a book of cultural history.

How did you choose the title of the book, The Life You Save May Be Your Own?

The title was drawn from a short story by Flannery O'Connor. Not only is it one of her greatest stories, but the discussion of it falls at the exact center of the narrative of my book. And it hints at the theme of the book: the attempt to be faithful to one's tradition but to make it one's own. I had a desire to make the tradition of these four writers my own in some way. The natural way to do it was to adopt one of their titles and try to make it my own. So you can see the title works on several levels.

That phrase suggests the kind of expectation we bring to the books that might truly change us. …