Modern Religious Pilgrims; Four Catholic Writers and the Faith That Sustained Them

Article excerpt


Dorothy Day, Thomas Merton, Flannery O'Connor and Walker Percy are the most influential Catholic writers in America of the last century. They each found in Catholicism the intellectual resources to face the challenges of the modern world. They have also become modern examples of religious pilgrims. Cottage industries, complete with scholars, literary societies, dissertations and conferences, have sprung up around each. Writing a biography of only one of them would be a daunting task: Tackling all four of them in the same volume would appear foolhardy.

Yet that is what Paul Elie has attempted in "The Life You Save May Be Your Own: An American Pilgrimage," his important new book, and he does so admirably well.

Mr. Elie, a senior editor at publisher Farrar, Straus and Giroux, expertly traces the lives of these four figures and charts their literary and religious journeys across the backdrop of the turbulent "American century." In doing so, Mr. Elie helps to explain why these four authors continue to speak to us. His literary criticism is deft and understanding, but it does not dominate his narrative. Instead, he is properly focused on the worlds in which these four lived and wrote, and their contemporary importance.

Their stories, in outline, have become part of American literary history. Day (1897-1980), older than the others, was the Greenwich Village radical who became a lay apostle of Catholic charity and poverty through her founding of The Catholic Worker on New York's Lower East Side. Merton (1915-68) was the bright young man who retreated to a Carthusian monastery in Kentucky and revealed the holiness of monastic life to a nation in his classic book, "The Seven Storey Mountain" (1948).

Percy (1916-90) was the scion of an old Southern family who abandoned his medical training while recovering from tuberculosis to write diagnostics of the modern soul, including "The Moviegoer," which won the National Book Award in 1961.

And finally there was O'Connor (1925-64), the only one of the four born Catholic, a prodigy whose penetrating fiction and fierce intellect contrasted sharply with a young body wasted by lupus.

Together, they make up what Mr. Elie calls the "School of the Holy Ghost."

The world they inhabited is hard for contemporary Catholics, let alone anyone else, to imagine. Catholics lived in an intellectual and social ghetto, with their own schools, social services and publications. Their lives were circumscribed in numerous directions, yet embedded in a rich web of relationships that our individualist times are hardly able to appreciate.

Intellectually, Catholics in America were treated as second-class citizens. The hierarchical organization and discipline of Catholicism was thought to preclude the drama required of a novelist, which was (as George Orwell wrote) considered a "Protestant art form."

These four authors struggled with their relationship to that world as converts or authors, even as they were welcomed within it.

Each was able to find in Catholicism both the truth they were seeking and the resources to express that search in fiction. Now that they are gone, Mr. Elie allows us to see that their literary influence reaches beyond members of their own faith to anyone searching for transcendent meaning.

They are "representative figures, whose struggles with belief and unbelief are vivid and recognizable. At the same time, as they venture forth together, their story suggests a series of different ways of pilgrimage," both for their time and in our own day. Their work speaks to us still, but sometimes not for the same reasons it spoke to the original audiences.

The book proceeds in a generally chronological manner, rotating from one author's life to the next within each chapter. …