The Life You Save

May Be Your Own

In the photographs, they don’t look like people who might make you want to change your life. Flannery O’Connor’s black dress and big glasses suggest a pious and dutiful Georgia daughter. Thomas Merton seems to be uncomfortable in his Trappist habit – all the vitality is in the eyes. Walker Percy’s face frames a smile, as if he is just another duffer at the country clubs, nattering on about the Old South. In her castoff overcoat and kerchief Dorothy Day might be a nun or a social worker, not a radical under surveillance by the FBI…..[they are] four individuals who glimpsed a way of life in their reading and evoked it in their writing, so as to make their readers yearn to go and do likewise.

Pardon my enthusiasm, but the first thing to say, before we say anything else, is that if you are an American Catholic, Paul Elie’s new book The Life You Save May Be Your Own belongs on your bookshelf, and, more importantly, belongs in your hands, open, being read.

No, it is not a perfect book, and yes, it might be tough going at times, but the fact is that after forty years of post-Conciliar fractious, ideologically-driven and divided intellectual life, American Catholics need to get back on track and start thinking and talking in broader, deeper and more fundamental terms, both with each other and with the wider culture. The Life You Save May Be Your Own is a marvelous place to start the conversation.

What Elie has undertaken a daunting and impressive task: tell the stories of four important Catholic religious and literary voices of the last century: Thomas Merton, Dorothy Day, Flannery O’Connor and Walker Percy.

Although heavily biographical, the book has a purpose beyond biography. As different as they were, each of these figures traveled a generally similar path: their intellectual and spiritual lives were enlivened, nourished and sparked by their engagement with the written word. As Elie writes:

“In their different ways, the four writers this book is about sought the truth personally – in charity, in prayer, in art, in philosophy. Their writing was the most personal way of all, for in the act of reading and writing one stranger and another go forth to meet in an encounter of the profoundest sort..They saw religious experience out before them. They read their way toward it. They believed it. They lived it. They made it their own. With us in mind, they put it in writing.”

What Elie does, then, is present us with interwoven biographies of four American Catholic writers possessed of particularly powerful individual voices, worth listening to then – and now.. Thomas Merton, the son of expatriate artists, orphaned by the age of 16, a seeker, writer, Catholic convert and, by the age of 26, a monk enclosed in the Trappist monastery in Gethsemane, Kentucky, left voluminous journals, poetry and spiritual writings.

Dorothy Day also converted to Catholicism, but brought along with her an already firm commitment to the poor, honed by years of writing and working with communist and anarchist movements. The Catholic Worker is her organizational legacy, her collected newspaper columns and autobiographical works keep her ideas alive.

Percy and O’Connor were the fiction writers, Catholic southerners and Flannerykeenly, if sometimes uncomfortably aware of their identities. Percy was a son of the old, genteel aristocratic South, a physician forced into retirement by tuberculosis contracted in a pathology lab, a convert who left not only novels, but extensive philosophical writings behind.

Flannery O’Connor is the only cradle Catholic in the group, but her work is no easily digested diet of unconsidered orthodoxy. Her two novels and short stories (one of which provides the title for Elie’s book) are startling, disturbing and, despite first impressions, deeply spiritual. More obviously religious in nature is the other half of her intellectual bequest: her letters and essays, the spiritual insights from which have been collected in a lovely new volume, Flannery O’Connor: Spiritual Writings, published by Orbis Books as part of its “Modern Spiritual Masters” series.

The pilgrimages of the four begin separately, in different parts of the world, and, as they continue, converge and diverge as these men and women pursue truth, settle into it, question it and share it. They never all met each other, but they all knew of each other, the closest being Day and Merton who, strangely enough, never did meet in person, but shared an extended correspondence over many years.

There were other meetings and reactions. Merton welcomed Percy to his hermitage at Gethsemane one July afternoon. Percy met O’Connor, but only briefly, after a talk she gave at Loyola University in New Orleans.Walker Percy Merton wrote a heartfelt, knowing memorial to O’Connor after she died. O’Connor told Percy that his first published novel, The Moviegoer, was a good story and that he should “make up another one.” O’Connor expressed a mild disdain for Dorothy Day’s activism in the south, saying that she sure had traveled a “long way to get shot at.” Day didn’t much care for Percy’s novels.

Elie doesn’t force connections or commonalties, but when they arise, he presents them insightfully and gracefully, as he does here, speaking of Flannery O’Connor’s first major hospitalization for treatment of the lupus that eventually took her life at the age of 39:

“She was in the hospital for eight months, on and off….Dorothy Day had felt joined to all humanity as a new mother in Bellevue Hospital; Thomas Merton had thought St. Elizabeth’s Hospital a Dantean paradise; Walker Percy had found the Trudeau sanatorium hospitable to his calling as a writer. For O’Connor a hospital was a place where death roamed the halls.”

Such an ambitious project as this is bound to falter at spots. There are times that the theme Elie is pressing gets lost in the wealth of biographical detail. The space given to controversies about nonviolence and Merton and Day’s involvement in the issue seems out of proportion. The treatment of Percy’s later novels fails to do justice to what Percy was trying to accomplish in them.

But those are really minor quibbles. The Life You Save May Be Your Own is a fascinating and essential introduction to these figures, but more than that, it is a reminder of how Catholics used to talk to each other.

Merton explored the experience of the Divine. Day saw Christ in every person, and showed Him to us. Percy wondered why we don’t feel at home in the world and just who we are, anyway. O’Connor confronted us with hard questions of belief and grace. Does it matter if we believe? What does it take for us to recognize the presence of grace?

Questions that matter, answers that don't always agree, but all the fruit of painful, valiant pilgrimages generously shared through the grace of the written word, questions that have the power to move us beyond endless arguments about church politics, procedure and the ideological labels that have no place among Catholics.

As Elie says,

“…their world seems another world altogether; yet they are still very much alive. They speak to us and invite us to reply….”

Shall we?

Flannery O'Connor: Stalking Grace

Flannery O'Connor: Banned in Opelousas!

Walker Percy: A Courageous Life

Percy's The Thanatos Syndrome

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