Four True Pilgrims

[A review of Paul Elie. The Life You Save May Be Your Own: An American Pilgrimage.New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux. 2003. 472 pages plus notes and index.]

Dorothy Day, Thomas Merton, Flannery O’Connor and Walker Percy lived parallel 20th century lives, often overlapping, as Catholic pilgrims, writers and searching human beings. This book seeks to make sense of their lives, to show their existential explorations, to illustrate the ways in which they influenced the world and each other, and it does so remarkably well. Thomas Merton, the Columbia graduate become Trappist Monk. Dorothy Day a journalist struggling to find her way in the world becomes Catholic reformer. Flannery O’Connor a southerner whose sole ambition was to become a Catholic writer of fiction, and Walker Percy trained as a doctor, nearly dying of TB and then leaving medicine to write. As Paul Elie puts it, “Four like-minded writers had become aware of one another . . . Already they are skeletally joined, as members of a body are joined. They will have no headquarters, no neighborhood, no university fiefdom or corner bar. They will write no manifesto pose for no group portrait. Their unity, rather, will be that of pilgrims who are taking different routes to the same destination . . .” (p. 200)

Three were converted Catholics and one (O’Connor) was a Catholic from birth, but all would wrestle with the meaning of their faith in the 20th century post-modern world. Each would share many of their struggles with the world through their published writings, and in some cases with one another. Day and Merton would never meet face-to-face but would carry on an extensive correspondence. Percy and O’Connor, both southerners, would meet only once yet Percy, the last of these four to die, would claim “Flannery” as his friend. The four would share several mutual friends whose roles in their lives would help carry their stories forward. All the while, as their stories are being told, we are getting a history lesson that spans from World War I through to Viet Nam, and much in between. We find that Dorothy Day was inspired by the work of Rose Hawthorne, the little-known (but my students should know) daughter of Nathaniel Hawthorne. They will all reject the “modern liberal Protestantism” that turns “religion into poetry and therapy, to make truth vaguer and vaguer and more and more relative, to banish intellectual distinctions, to depend on feeling instead of thought, and gradually to come to believe that God has no power . . .” [quoted from a letter of O’Connor’s, pp. 340, 341].

All four would in one way or another continue to answer for themselves and for others, “Why believe?” And each in his or her own way would seek to answer this perennial question in writing, sometimes in fiction writing, most notably Percy and O’Connor. Their styles were radically different, reminding us that there is more than one way to seek and arrive at the same destination, that truth, while not relative is richly manifold. Percy would speak for all of them in answering the self-assigned question, Why not just believe in “scientific humanism?” His reply; “This life is too much trouble, far to strange, to arrive at the end of it and have to answer, ‘Scientific humanism.’ That won’t do. A poor show. Life is a mystery, love is a delight. Therefore I take it as axiomatic that one should settle for nothing less than the infinite mystery and the infinite delight, i.e. God. In fact I demand it. I refuse to settle for anything less.” (p 446).

This is one of the most engaging books I have read in a while. It kept me up at night and eager to see what would happen next in these four engaging intertwined lives. Highly recommended.