In “The Life You Save May Be Your Own,” Paul Elie weaves together the historically parallel stories of Dorothy Day, Thomas Merton, Walker Percy, and Flannery O’Connor. Truly these were four of the last century’s most remarkable Catholic writers.
The Life You Save May Be Your Own: An American Pilgrimage, by Paul Elie (554 pages, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2004)
In The Life You Save May Be Your Own, Paul Elie weaves together the historically parallel stories of Dorothy Day, Thomas Merton, Walker Percy, and Flannery O’Connor. Truly these were four of the last century’s most remarkable Catholic writers. The first, presently being considered for canonization as a saint, persisted in “comforting the afflicted and afflicting the comfortable,” as Theodore Hesburgh once remarked. The second, an authentic countercultural rebel, famously retreated from mundane contemporaneity to live in cowled solitude. The third, a physician by nature and training, forewent a medical career to pen philosophical novels and essays diagnosing the ontological malaise of postwar America. The fourth, a latter-day seer, centered her vatic body of fiction around the ideas of sin and redemption through God’s mysterious grace.
Day, born in 1897, recoiled from the sham and “ugliness of life in a world that professed to be Christian.” Everywhere she looked, finance capitalism had “dispossessed” the poor man, the advertisers had inflamed “his useless desires,” the radio and cinema had “enslaved him.” By the time she matriculated at the University of Illinois, Day fancied herself a Communist. In New York, where her family moved when she was nineteen, she wrote regularly for The Call, The Masses, and other stylish left-wing journals. She interviewed Leon Trotsky, propounded the anarchist views of Emma Goldman, and, in 1917, accompanied comrades to Madison Square Garden to celebrate the Bolshevik revolt.
At length, however, Day found Marxist ideology unable to satisfy her hunger for something otherworldly to expound and dignify the human predicament. Hence, after a series of lovers and a rued abortion, she embarked upon a religious quest that led her by degrees to the Catholic Church, in which she was determined to have her next and only other child baptized, despite the protests of the baby’s atheistic father, whom she lovingly renounced to receive the sacrament herself.
In the doctrine and dogma of Mother Kirk, Day discovered truths more real and palpable than any she had ever discerned in Communism. Moreover, Catholicism provided her with a supernatural warrant for her ardent concern for the needy. “What you do to the least of these,” Christ said, “you do to me.” Mindful of these words Day, with her inspiring counterpart, former French peasant and champion of Distributism Peter Maurin, established the Catholic Worker, a newspaper committed to social reform and world peace. They also opened and struggled to maintain a shelter for Manhattan’s homeless.
Day’s became an agitation not for the “natural rights” of man, but rather for the natural law of his Creator. Consequently, she vexed Americans of all political persuasions. She condemned the New Deal because it removed the ennobling burden of charity from the individual and placed it on the Holy Mother State. Later, she published her disapproval of the bombing of Hiroshima, decried the Spanish Civil War, and protested America’s involvement in Vietnam. In short, she objected to every armed conflict of her time.
Merton, who questioned Day’s unconditional pacifism, had his nativity in Prades, France. Eighteen years her junior, he was, like Day, a writer chiefly of autobiography. If Day’s essential work is The Long Loneliness, Merton’s is The Seven Storey Mountain, a confession structurally reminiscent of Dante’s Purgatorio.
Merton’s mother, an artist and a native of New York, died of stomach cancer before her son was six years old. Her husband, a New Zealand landscape painter with a passion for rural spaces and antiquated places, died ten years later of a brain tumor. His father’s death left Merton uprooted and answerable to nobody but himself. At sixteen, he recollected, “I had become the complete twentieth-century man.”
After studying briefly at Cambridge, Merton enrolled at Columbia University, where he became painfully conscious of being ill-suited for modernity, even though the writers with whom he most identified—James Joyce, in particular—were central to literary modernism. As his alienation verged on despair, he searched about for something purposeful to embrace. Like Day, he, too, ran directly into the arms of God. What impelled Merton toward conversion was a chance encounter with Etienne Gilson’s The Spirit of Medieval Philosophy in a Fifth Avenue bookstore. Gilson’s study, observes Mr. Elie, gave Merton his first “sense of God as a living reality, existing beyond all human approximations, and also of the claim to realism at the heart of the Catholic intellectual enterprise.”
Upon completing his master’s thesis on William Blake, Merton taught English, worked in a Harlem settlement house, and then decided to become a monk. In 1941, he traveled by train to the Abbey of Our Lady of Gethsemani, a rustic monastery near Louisville, Kentucky, to be received into the Trappist order, a community known for its discipline of silence and reclusion, where he remained for the next twenty-seven years, serving as master of students and novices, writing poetry and social criticism, feeling ambivalent about the commercial success of The Seven Storey Mountain, which became a bestseller and a boon for monastic life in America.
In cultural contrast to Day and Merton, Percy and O’Connor began their lives in the American South. O’Connor was born in Savannah, Georgia, the year of the Scopes trial. It seems somehow appropriate that the author who claimed to “see” everything “from the standpoint of Christian orthodoxy” should enter the world only a few months before William Jennings Bryan dared to uphold a state’s right to exclude Darwinian theory from its schools’ curricula and presumed to take the Absolute seriously. Bryan was as quixotic as O’Connor was eccentric—but neither was a fool. They were both prophetically aware that Christianity was under siege in America by a pervasive ideology hostile to notions of faith and revelation.
Notwithstanding his excessive and patronizing chiding of her undeniably retrograde personal views on race, Mr. Elie gives us a penetrating exegesis of O’Connor’s novels and short-story collections. What recommends his analysis above all else is its painstaking concentration on what is really significant in O’Connor’s symbolism. Indeed, Mr. Elie’s focus is right where O’Connor said it ought to be—not on “the dead bodies,” but rather on “the action of grace” in her characters’ souls.
Still, Mr. Elie’s discussion of O’Connor’s work is not without its lacunae. It omits, for instance, the considerable influence of T.S. Eliot. Although he was neither a trained theologian nor a Roman Catholic, Eliot was nonetheless an imposing philosopher-poet from whose work O’Connor early and continually gained inspiration.
If O’Connor stories can be seen as mirrored fictionalizations of The Waste Land, Percy’s “diagnostic” novels can be read as variations on major themes in The Brothers Karamazov. Dostoevsky’s classic drew Percy to literature in the first place and became his permanent touchstone of genius. When he discovered it, he read it “straight through over three or four days,” writes Mr. Elie, “hardly putting it down to live his own life.” At the time of this notable undertaking Percy was a high-school senior living in Greenville, Mississippi, where he and his brothers had been sent to be reared by their eminent cousin, poet and essayist William Alexander Percy. Mr. Elie accounts for Percy’s absorption as follows: “His father had killed himself [as Percy’s paternal grandfather had done], and here was a book about four brothers who wanted to kill their father; his mother had died [suicidally, most believed] in a car crash, and here was a book about the question of whether there can be a God in a world in which innocent people suffer.”
Like Day and Merton, Percy gradually made his way down the proverbial road to Rome; O’Connor had been born there. Why did Percy become a Catholic? Many and sundry are the answers given by his biographers. Percy himself answered the question simply: “I believe that what the Catholic Church proposes is true.” But there is more to it than that. After ultimately rejecting science as the final measure of man, Percy realized his art lacked what Mr. Elie describes as “an objective standard that lay outside himself.” In Catholicism, specifically in its anthropology, Percy ascertained the thing he wanted.
In 1964, O’Connor, the first of Mr. Elie’s subjects to die, lost a prolonged and excruciating battle to lupus. Percy had come to esteem her above all contemporary writers, referring to her as “my dear friend.” On the occasion of her death, Merton deemed her a modern Sophocles, praising “all the truth and all the craft with which she shows man’s fall and his dishonor.” What shocks today’s reader are not the depictions of violence and of the grotesque in O’Connor’s fiction. Tellingly, what shocks, says Mr. Elie, are “the religious faith” and “the religious challenge” informing her work, letters and essays included.
Merton and Percy concluded their own earthly sojourns within the next twenty-six years. The former, arguably the twentieth century’s most influential Catholic author, was accidentally electrocuted in 1968, while attending an ecumenical conference of Buddhist and Christian monks in Bangkok. In 1990, Percy succumbed to cancer of the prostate. But, like Merton, he never succumbed to the century’s disordered zeitgeist. Against it, Percy affirmed “that man is more than an organism in an environment, more than an integrated personality, more than a mature and creative individual, as the phrase goes. He is a wayfarer and a pilgrim.”
Day, the longest-lived in Mr. Elie’s history, waxed more and more conservative during the two decades leading up to her own death in 1980. She opposed the sexual revolution of the sixties as strongly as she regretted her part in the women’s liberation movement of the twenties. The sixties were, in her words, “a complete rebellion against authority, natural and supernatural, even against the body and its needs, its natural functions of child bearing.” Her most important comment on the selfishness of liberalism was made during a 1972 appearance on 60 Minutes, when she informed Mike Wallace and the nation that abortion is a grave iniquity.
He who believes in one God, in one Lord, in one holy catholic and apostolic Church may be suspicious of a biographer of Christians who feels compelled to end his book with sentences such as those we find in Mr. Elie’s concluding paragraphs: “We are all skeptics now, believers and unbelievers alike. There is no one true faith, evident at all times and places. Every religion is one among many.” Suspect though they are, Mr. Elie’s unfortunate postmodern ramblings should not cause us to repudiate the otherwise instructive study leading up to them. We must find wisdom where we can, even in the midst of moral absurdity. In The Life You Save May Be Your Own, Day, Merton, Percy, and O’Connor—all paradigms of character—speak for themselves through the teller of their tale, who is to be commended for a story extraordinarily well told, though certainly not for his relativistic confusion.
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