Inspiration from the page

Maureen Abood interviews Paul Elie

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 others 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 post-modern 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.

Elie bookHow 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. It suggests the ability of books to not only change our lives, but in some sense to save them.

By offering us what?

Genuine patterns of how to live. An understanding of the ways that we’re bound together with people whom we don’t necessarily know. The way my book is structured is meant to suggest that we’re bound to one another in ways we hardly understand. That’s what the books I most admire do. They make us realize how connected we are to other people, specifically the writer or the character, but also make us feel the more general sense of belonging to the human race that you get when you read something extraordinary.

And what about the subtitle, An American Pilgrimage?

I thought it important to find an image that comes from our tradition in order to understand these writers who are in our tradition. And as I was reading these authors, the terms pilgrim and pilgrimage showed up everywhere. One of the biographies of Walker Percy is called Pilgrim in the Ruins. Dorothy Day’s column in the Catholic Worker was called “On Pilgrimage.” So I consulted Catholic tradition to see what it had to say about pilgrimage, but I also had to define pilgrimage for myself.

image6.jpgDorothy Day (1897-1980)

Cofounder of the Catholic Worker movement, Day was a convert to Catholicism. She lived in San Francisco, where she survived the 1906 earthquake, as well as Chicago and New York, where she came to understand what it meant to live in poverty. Day is known for her pacifism and her commitment to the poor. The Claretians, who publish U.S. Catholic, have promoted the effort for Day’s canonization. Among her written works are The Long Loneliness (HarperSanFrancisco), On Pilgrimage (Eerdmans), and Dorothy Day: Writings from Commonweal, edited by Patrick Jordan (Liturgical Press).

image7.jpgThomas Merton (1915-1968)

Merton is the author of some 70 books about his life as a Trappist monk and his approach to spirituality, faith, and nonviolence. His conversion to Catholicism led him to the priesthood and life as a contemplative monk at the Abbey of Our Lady of Gethsemani in Kentucky. He was what Daniel Berrigan called “the conscience of the peace movement” of the 1960s. His writings include The Seven Storey Mountain (Harcourt Brace Jovanovich), Seeds of Contemplation (New Directions), as well as collections of his poetry and journals.

image8.jpgWalker Percy (1916-1990)

Percy was born and raised in Greenville, Mississippi. When he was 13, his father, a successful Birmingham lawyer, took his own life in the attic of their home with a shotgun. Two years later his mother drove her car off a country bridge. Percy and his brothers then lived with their father ’s cousin, Uncle Will, a writer. Percy, a convert to Catholicism, quit his medical practice to write. Among his 16 titles are The Moviegoer (Knopf), Love in the Ruins: The Adventures of a Bad Catholic at a Time Near the End of the World, and The Second Coming (both Farrar, Straus & Giroux).

image9.jpgFlannery O’Connor (1925-1964)

One of the South ’s best-loved writers, O’Connor’s short life was focused on her writing, her correspondences, and her Catholic faith. Her astonishing stories explore questions of race and spirituality through grotesque characters and shocking situations. Though her work initially had a hostile reception, it has since received tremendous critical acclaim. Her works include A Good Man Is Hard to Find (Harcourt), Everything That Rises Must Converge (Farrar, Straus & Giroux), and The Complete Stories (Farrar, Straus & Giroux).

Pilgrimage is basic to Catholicism. We go on the path that others have taken, and we want to see what they saw. We’re not trying to do something totally original, but we do yearn to see for ourselves. Then we return and tell others about our experience.

The Catholic cultural economy and pattern means that we are raised to take things as true based on the testimony of others. It is secondhand knowledge that we have to test with our lives. Our faith isn’t real if it’s not our own faith. This is what it means to imitate Christ: to try to do it ourselves, not simply know how other people have imitated him along the way.

And going inward, going on pilgrimage by the reading path, can also lead us to a deeper understanding of belonging in the human community?

Yes, we enter the solitary experience of reading and end up feeling a profound sense of how joined we are with others. That’s the best explanation for what happens to the figures in my book. It offers many instances of people’s lives being changed by books. It is more useful to talk about those particular instances than to theorize about reading in the abstract.

I wanted to write a book that would dramatize this process and not simply describe it. Flannery O’Connor said that a novelist’s moral sense must coincide at every point with his or her dramatic sense. This is her way of saying that if you’re going to make a moral point, you have to dramatize it, not just declare it. That holds true for a nonfiction writer as well. The work has to work as art.

Flannery O’Connor said, “I write the way I do because, not though, I’m Catholic.” The moniker of “Catholic writer” seems almost dangerous today, particularly for the writer of fiction. Do you think there are Catholic writers today who could be considered part of that “Holy Ghost school of writers”—writers as Catholics—found in your book?

There are such writers today. One major difference between that period and ours is that the writers in the book were exemplars. By this I don’t mean that they were perfect, but that they had a sense of themselves as representative figures whose struggles were those of lots of people like them. They had a sense that the way they lived and the way they were seen to be living was important, almost an artistic statement, a religious statement.

That willingness to be an exemplary figure is less common in our time. Instead, you have many writers who write a very powerfully Catholic book and then move on. Why? It’s mysterious. But Catholic writing today seems to emerge book by book, not over a writer’s entire career in the way that it did in the 1950s and ’60s.

Do you think young people today have any interest in looking up to writers? There’s so much interest and focus now on other media—television and advertising and sports in particular—where young people seem to be getting their icons and their examples of how to live.

I’m suspicious of those generalizations, maybe because my sons are toddlers, not teenagers. Reading, in some sense, has always been a minority practice. In every age, plenty of people have had things they would rather do than read books.

Different media have different, distinct properties. What is remarkable about books in our time is that though a book is published by a publisher, distributed several thousand copies at a time, written about in the press, and discussed in book groups and review sections, it is in most cases still written alone and read alone.

When a writer and reader click then, there’s an extraordinary intimacy—one person in a room is writing to another person in a room. That’s not true of most other media. As TVs and computers become more and more prevalent, what we have to hope continues is this one-to-one exchange between writer and reader that books alone make possible.

We can understand this exchange in Catholic terms. Our conception of the church is as a social organism, but Catholicism has always insisted, too, that every person has to believe for himself or herself. It comes down to what you personally believe, whether you accept or reject certain things. There’s a real analogy between religious experience and the experience of reading.

What is the best Catholic book you’ve read lately?

It happens to be a book that I edited for North Point Press. It’s Robert Ellsberg’s 2003 book, The Saints’ Guide to Happiness: Everyday Wisdom from the Lives of Saints. It has certain lessons that our tradition teaches us about how to live, from learning to feel, which means cultivating a practice of detachment so you can actually feel things, to learning to see and learning to love and learning to suffer. It’s beautifully done.

What are you reading now?

I have only two subway stops on my way to work. So, a page a day, I’m reading Jaroslav Pelikan’s The Christian Tradition: A History of the Development of Doctrine (University of Chicago Press, 1975). Something important comes up every day.

It’s a multivolume book, and I’m currently reading the book on the Reformation. Pelikan is a Lutheran, but he writes out of the whole Christian tradition. He offers real balance about the Catholic position and the positions of the various Protestant reformers.

What books have been most influential on your pilgrimage?

The books of the four writers in The Life You Save May Be Your Own have been most important, but there are a few others. One book I found important was Evelyn Waugh’s biography of St. Edmund Campion. Campion was a martyred English Jesuit.

Waugh understood the way we enter into other people’s lives imaginatively through art, through good writing. He used this biography of the martyred Jesuit to evoke the Catholic dimension of English history, which has been overlooked. He did it not just by declaring that England was Catholic for many centuries and that there was a Catholic remnant surviving after Henry VIII—he evokes Catholic society so that you can feel it.

It was very useful to me, suggesting certain techniques that I then tried to use in my book. You don’t just read or hear reports about the way things were; you’re drawn in imaginatively.

Do you think a book like yours could be written in years to come about communities of writers living now? There is not necessarily going to be the rich resource of correspondence on which your inquiry, and biography in general, depends.

It’s true that the personal letters that are the basis of my book are probably not being written the way they once were. Ten years ago I would have said that this is a real worry. But now people are using written communication more than ever through e-mail. Kids now know how to type when they’re 8 years old. I don’t think Walker Percy knew how to type.

E-mail seems to both devalue the correspondence and heighten it, because of its immediacy. I wonder if writers are saving their e-mails for posterity.

It’s always a worry. But the fact is that it was a worry then. The writers in my book were highly self-conscious about saving their own writing. And their recipients were highly self-consciously saving the letters they got from these writers. Flannery O’Connor kept carbons of all her letters, as far as I can tell. But she didn’t want people to know. She said she kept carbons so that she didn’t repeat herself. She didn’t want to seem self-important.

Merton saved a lot of his letters. Dorothy Day published so much of what she wrote. In a sense it was similar to e-mail today because the Catholic Worker was then thrown away by most people. But a few libraries kept a complete set.

Percy’s letters to his friend Shelby Foote until the ’60s have gone missing, with a couple of exceptions, so we only have Foote’s side of the correspondence. Even in an earlier time with two writers with a high reputation corresponding, there was no guarantee that the letters would be kept. The challenge for the biographer always is to understand subjects based on limited knowledge.

There’s little point in saying things used to be better at some other point in time. Thomas Merton denounced the modern age in his early books, but he was incredibly creative about how to be a modern monk at the same time. If you read his letters, he writes about how much better the Middle Ages were, and yet he used every ounce of cunning he could muster to figure out how to be an authentic monk in 1952 in Kentucky.

There’s a passage in your book about Walker Percy’s visit to Merton at Gethsemani. Percy was so surprised to walk up and find Merton was standing there in a T-shirt and jeans, conversing in a very casual manner. Percy’s image of a monk was not that.

Merton changed so fast. He was already several steps ahead of what was being published from his work at any given time. If he wrote a book in 1965, and it didn’t come out until 1967, he had already gone through three more new passions and obsessions. By the time someone read his book on Buddhism, he was thinking about something else. Percy visited in 1967, and Merton at that point had decided that the best way to be a monk was not to wear the habit.

What do you think the others, like Merton, were ultimately trying to express through their lives and work?

None of them was trying to do just one thing with his or her life and work, but certain essential strivings stand out.

In The Moviegoer and his strongest essays—and really, I suppose, in all his fiction—Percy was trying to dramatize a representative man’s search for the significance of his life

O’Connor, in much of her fiction, was trying to dramatize what might be called the crisis of religious faith, zeroing in on the moment when the decision for belief or disbelief comes to a head for the would-be believer. At the same time, in her essays and letters, she was, whether she said so or not, dramatizing the life of a committed and confident believer, namely herself.

Day took literally the injunction that the Christian’s life is meant to be an imitation of Christ—that the believer is called to see Christ in others, in the poor especially, and to see, or to find, in our common life, the gospel life. Not only her life but all her writing is an exploration, and at the same time a kind of demonstration, of how this might be done in modern American society. And if you ask me, it’s a pretty convincing one.

Maureen Abood is the literary editor of U.S. Catholic. This article appeared in the May 2004 (Volume 69, Number 5) issue of U.S. Catholic.

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