National Catholic Reporter
The Independent Newsweekly
Issue Date:  September 5, 2003

By Paul Elie
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 477 pages, $27
Four Catholic writers who read their way to faith

A new book considers the life and work of America’s outstanding Catholic writers


Paul Elie believes that good literature can change or even save us. To prove his point, he has written a hefty yet graceful book about four American Catholic writers who read their way toward faith and then went on to write about religious belief in works that readers of all kinds could understand and admire. The Life You Save May Be Your Own, his first book, skillfully weaves together the biographies of Dorothy Day, Thomas Merton, Flannery O’Connor and Walker Percy into a single eloquent story about how writing and religious faith inform one another.

An editor at Farrar, Straus and Giroux, Elie understands the validity of Christian belief as a writer’s point of view. With tender attention, he charts these writers’ religious conversions as well as their more conventional search for voice and means of approach. The book includes long passages devoted to analyzing plot and character in the works of O’Connor and Percy and some of these read like well-written lecture notes from an intriguing presentation on literary criticism. But there is no temptation to fall asleep. The “lecturer” clearly loves his subjects and believes their faith and literary ability produced works that we could read with our whole selves. “Certain books, certain writers,” writes Elie, “reach us at the center of ourselves, and we come to them in fear and trembling, in hope and expectation -- reading so as to change, and perhaps to save our lives.”

Elie’s four writers are typically understood as great individuals “who came out of nowhere and stood alone,” but he sees a common pattern in their lives and binds their stories into “a narrative of pilgrimage, a journey in which art, life and religious faith converge.”

Dorothy Day
-- CNS photo

A pilgrimage, Elie explains, is a “journey taken in light of a story.” Day, Merton, O’Connor and Percy were avid readers before they became great writers. Three were converts who first found “religious experience most convincingly described” in literature. Although their lives converged in a desire to write well and believe well, they began their journeys from four very distinct points. Day, a journalist with socialist leanings, wanted to become like the characters she had read about in the Russian novels of Dostoevsky and Tolstoy. After her conversion, she founded the Catholic Worker movement and became one of the most articulate voices for Catholic pacifism. Merton, also a convert and at one point an aspiring journalist, initially encountered a plausible conception of God through his reading of medieval philosophy. “What a relief,” he recalled, “to discover that no idea of ours, let alone any image could adequately represent God but also that we should not allow ourselves to be satisfied with any such knowledge of him.” His desire to experience this God beyond our knowing led him to become a Trappist monk in a monastery in Kentucky and, in the last year of his life, to make a pilgrimage to Asia. O’Connor, the only cradle Catholic among them, was a “Christ-haunted literary prodigy” from Georgia. She wrote fiction that featured outsized characters, making them “protagonists, in spite of themselves, in religious works of art.” Percy left medicine to become a writer of philosophical novels. His conversion, the most innocuous of the three recorded, was prompted by his desire to find a standard, other than science, for measuring a human being. He found it in the Catholic faith.

Thomas Merton
-- CNS photo

All four were solitary independents who lived apart from the literary crowd and even from their coreligionists. Elie suggests that the very separateness of their lives inspired their vocation as writers to make “oratory out of solitude.” It certainly enabled them to describe religious experience in language that was fresh, vivid and recognizable to the modern reader.

Through autobiography, two of the writers provide compelling conversion narratives. Merton’s The Seven Storey Mountain became a bestseller, Elie notes, “because it was a religious book, not in spite of the fact.” The author is able to tell the reader “what it feels like to be in the grip of God.” And in The Long Loneliness, Day candidly articulates religious yearning and a sense of the workings of grace in language and circumstances familiar to many. “We have all known the long loneliness,” she writes “and we have learned that the only solution is love and that love comes with community.”

Flannery O'Connor
-- Flannery O'Connor Collection/
Georgia College & State University

In more subtle forms, belief permeates the fiction of O’Connor and Percy. Their commentaries on faith are indirect or, in the case of O’Connor, complex and at times, even shocking. The most religious image in Percy’s novel, The Last Gentleman, is a camper trailer built by the Travel Aire Company of Sheboygan, Wis., “in the world yet not of the world, sampling the particularities of place yet cabined off from the sadness of place.” Elie adds, “It is the missionary wagon of Father Vaillant in Death Comes for the Archbishop updated for the Vatican II era, the age of the split-level homestead and the interstate highway.”

Central to The Life You Save is the question of whether or not a person can be a believer and a good artist. Skeptical of O’Connor’s unusual fiction, Southern writer Shelby Foote is quoted in the book as telling his best friend Percy that you have to “turn your back on Christ” in order to write a good novel. In contrast to Shelby is Catholic novelist Caroline Gordon who believes religious orthodoxy makes for good fiction. A friend of Day and self-appointed literary guide to O’Connor and Percy, Gordon once proposed establishing a School of the Holy Ghost to develop Catholic writers. Elie’s four writers stand between these two extremes, refusing to renounce Christ for the sake of their craft, refusing also to contort their writing to accommodate an orthodox party line. All are influenced by French philosopher Jacques Maritain who, as Elie explains, believes subject matter does not Christianize a work of art. “Nor do virtuous characters, happy endings, or sermons from the artist.” According to Maritain, the artist serves God most faithfully by simply being a good artist.

Walker Percy
-- CNS photo

Gordon’s School of the Holy Ghost is never built and the four writers never convene in one place, but by the middle of The Life You Save, they are known to one another. Percy and O’Connor have read each other’s works and are commenting on their common predicament of being Southern Catholic writers. Merton and Day are in frequent correspondence. This communion from afar between the four of them is eloquently documented in the chapter titled Convergences, perhaps one of the best sections of the book. Reading it you feel privy to the inspiring crosstalk of four very thoughtful Catholics.

The correspondence between Day and Merton, the two most restless and politically active of the four pilgrims, yields fascinating information about the emergence of a Catholic peace movement during the Vietnam era and shows how the dialogue between a monk in the woods and an activist in the world helped to develop an authentic American Catholic commentary on war and the nuclear age. Merton clearly admires Day, who is struggling to shelter the poor and speak of Christ’s peace during a time of great social upheaval and believes she has the better view of God. Their correspondence, Elie argues, marks the beginning of Merton’s turn toward matters of the world.

This is a heady book, simply written, packed with enough literary and religious insight to ponder for a lifetime. You could read it as an unconventional guide on writing and faith with tips on how to practice both disciplines given by four Catholic writers. Here you will learn about their literary and religious habits. You will also learn how they dealt with the rejection of a manuscript and how they faced their own deaths. Day prayed her way to the end. O’Connor, who died of lupus at age 39, lay on her hospital bed and revised drafts of “Parker’s Back,” a short story about the body conveying the image of God.

All four led lives worth reading about and wrote works that deserve to be read, works that could nourish your faith. The story Elie tells about these writers is a vital and consoling reminder of the breadth and depth of American Catholicism.

Claire Schaeffer-Duffy is a freelance writer and member of the Worcester, Mass., St. Therese Catholic Worker Community.

National Catholic Reporter, September 5, 2003

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