Krista Tippett, host: I'm Krista Tippett. This hour, art, life, and religious faith converge in Paul Elie's unusual biography of the intersecting stories of four literary religious Americans of the mid-20th century whose writings still form readers today: the Trappist monk Thomas Merton, social activist Dorothy Day, and fiction writers Walker Percy and Flannery O'Connor.
Mr. Paul Elie: O'Connor believed that one breathed in the air of disbelief. I believe she said it was disbelief combined with attraction for the holy. They weren't content to settle in that place and say, 'This is my lot' or 'This is the lot of our time.' Their hunger for something more, for something deeper, was so strong that they made that unbelief or disbelief a starting point and then a continual testing ground for their religious convictions.
Ms. Tippett: This is Speaking of Faith. Stay with us for "Faith Fired by Literature."
Ms. Tippett: I'm Krista Tippett. Dorothy Day, Thomas Merton, Flannery O'Connor, Walker Percy: four extraordinarily engaged and literate Americans of the last century. Through their lives and writings, my guest today, Paul Elie, has explored the convergence of books, life, and modern faith.
From American Public Media, this is Speaking of Faith, public radio's conversation about religion, meaning, ethics, and ideas. Today, "Faith Fired by Literature." We'll explore Paul Elie's creative work of biography, The Life You Save May Be Your Own: An American Pilgrimage.
Dorothy Day was a bohemian writer and social agitator who founded The Catholic Worker newspaper, shelter, and soup kitchen in New York. Walker Percy was a New Orleans physician who left medicine to write. Thomas Merton was a pleasure-seeking sophisticate who became a Trappist monk and a prolific and revered author, beginning with a best-selling early autobiography, The Seven Storey Mountain. Flannery O'Connor was an eccentric, deeply gifted southern writer. Alone among them, O'Connor was born Catholic. The other three converted to Catholicism as adults.
These four writers never met as a group, but they corresponded for decades. And as Paul Elie tells it, they all had in common a faith that was fired by literature. They became pilgrims in midlife, each of them following a new way of life that they had glimpsed first by way of reading.
Mr. Elie: Thomas Merton read about monasteries and read medieval philosophy and read Dante, and thought, 'This is the life for me,' and became a monk in a very medieval abbey. Flannery O'Connor had a breakthrough as a young writer of fiction when she realized the stories of the Old Testament threw a special light on the rural South where she was living. Walker Percy had tuberculosis in the middle '40s and basically read his way through existentialist fiction and philosophy — and it's a long story how he got from that to Catholicism — and thought, 'This is who I am, these books are explaining me to myself.' And Dorothy Day read the 19th-century novels, Dickens, Tolstoy, and thought there's a sense of the human race as one family in those books and of the interdependence of people that she wanted for herself and thought this is true, and sought and found it in the Catholic religion.
Ms. Tippett: Paul Elie grew up in the suburbs of upstate New York and attended a modern Catholic church. He went through a traditional upbringing, he says, without much knowledge of Catholic literature and history. He's written for The New York Times Magazine, The New Republic, and Commonweal. Most recently he reported for The Atlantic Monthly on the papal conclave that elected Pope Benedict. He's a senior editor at the literary publishing house, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, known commonly as FSG. FSG's legendary founders had intimate connections with the writers who captured Paul Elie's imagination. But he discovered them on his own when he first came as a student to live in New York City.
Mr. Elie: One day I get to the city, and Catholic history and ethnicity is everywhere: the Irish, the Italians, the old churches, places where people go to become monks, and so on and so forth. The history is very thick in New York, and I needed to understand that. It was natural to look to books. The professor recommended Flannery O'Connor. I thought Flannery O'Connor was a man like Tennessee Williams, one of these colorful, double-barreled, southern names.
Well, I got the complete stories with some money for Christmas my freshman year, started reading the introduction by Robert Giroux, and just the best introduction to a book, I think, that I've ever — still ever found. He just portrays her so vividly in a few words, and one of the ways that he does it is by comparing her to Thomas Merton and describing his visits when he edited both of their books, to the south. He'd go visit Merton, this renowned monk at his monastery and they'd talk about Flannery O'Connor. Then he'd go to Georgia to visit Flannery O'Connor, the celebrated young southern writer, and they'd talk about Thomas Merton. And he said that they had in common deep faith, great intelligence, and a highly developed sense of comedy. So naturally I wanted to know more about this Thomas Merton and I bought The Seven Storey Mountain one summer day a couple of years later in the middle of an internship.
Ms. Tippett: What years are we talking here?
Mr. Elie: This is the mid-'80s. That was about 1985. I took the book home, was just knocked out by it, as so many people have been, the power of the narrative, the genuineness of his searching, but especially, for the Catholic reader, the sense of strangeness and recognition. Here's this guy who comes from no belief at all, who becomes a Catholic, and then the next thing you know he's becoming a Trappist monk. And reading the book as a Catholic, you think, 'Is this really my religion? It sounds just so wonderfully strange and powerful. I never realized there were such depths to this thing that I observe by going to church every Sunday.'
Reader: From Thomas Merton's The Seven Storey Mountain.
"God made it a very beautiful Sunday. And since it was the first time I had ever really spent a sober Sunday in New York, I was surprised at the clean, quiet atmosphere of the empty streets uptown. … Then, from the high, grey, expensive tower of the Rockefeller Church, huge bells began to boom. It served very well for the eleven o'clock Mass at the little brick Church of Corpus Christi.
"…The sun shone on the clean bricks. People were going in the wide open door, into the cool darkness and, all at once, all the churches of Italy and France came back to me. The richness and fullness of the atmosphere of Catholicism that I had not been able to avoid apprehending and loving as a child, came back to me with a rush: but now I was to enter it fully for the first time. So far, I had known nothing but the outward surface."
Ms. Tippett: A reading from Thomas Merton's 1948 autobiography, The Seven Storey Mountain. Now back to my conversation with author Paul Elie on his discovery of the religious ideas and lives of Thomas Merton and his literary contemporaries, Walker Percy, Flannery O'Connor, and Dorothy Day.
Mr. Elie: After college, I was living in way uptown Manhattan. I read some Dorothy Day in an anthology put together by Robert Ellsberg that was sold at the basement of Corpus Christi Church. Many people will know this church. It's the one where Merton was baptized, out by Columbia University. Well, six weeks later came Lent, and I went down to the Catholic Worker on the Lower East Side to volunteer.
Ms. Tippett: Which is the community that Dorothy Day founded.
Mr. Elie: Right. She founded it in 1933 and they had various headquarters around the Lower East Side, and now they're in two places on East 3rd Street and East 1st. I went down there for a few weeks and helped out. And I didn't stick around beyond Lent, but it was very powerful to see people who had dedicated their lives or parts of their lives to helping the poor.
And then Percy — I was already working at FSG as an editor, the literary publishing house in Manhattan, and the books are all over the place and you get to take them home and read them and mark them up if you want. So I read my way through his nonfiction and then went to The Moviegoer, which I'd tried reading once before. This time it just made sense as the portrait of a man on the cusp of 30, trying to figure out what significance his life has and what he's supposed to do about it.
Ms. Tippett: You tell these stories and you describe them, in a large sense, as a collective story of pilgrimage and a reflection on the meaning of pilgrimage, I think, in the 20th century and in our time. And here's a sentence — and it strikes me — it was interesting to me that this is your declarative, definitive, thesis sentence before you launch into a much more complex definition of what pilgrimage means. You say, "Pilgrimage is a journey undertaken in the light of a story."
Mr. Elie: Well, first of all, it's something that I needed to write the book to figure out. We enter the story in the middle. The story precedes us. It's the stories of our families, of our parents, the story of our region, story of our religious tradition or the religion tradition to which we come on pilgrimage. We have certain expectations because of that story that we want to test with our eyes and see if they stand up, to sound them and see if they're genuine. This, for example, explains — helps to explain to me why so many people in the United States move from one religious tradition to another. We somehow don't consider it authentic just to carry on in the story that has preceded us. We need to encounter a story for ourselves, and that's what happens many times when a person converts from one religion to another.
Ms. Tippett: You know, that's really interesting. And that is also something that I would say Walker Percy and Flannery O'Connor and Thomas Merton and Dorothy Day — I mean, only one of them was born Catholic, Flannery O'Connor, the others were converts as adults. But before we talk about them — and I do want to get to talking about them specifically — I want to ask you to tell some of the story of the incredible convergence of literature and religion sort of in the mid-20th century. Now, these were people who became deeply religious — you might even say obsessively religious — and something they had in common was that they read Dickens and Joyce and Pasternak and Eliot and Augustine and Kierkegaard. Tell me the story of the times that formed them all in that particular way.
Mr. Elie: Well, you're right to say that books were the medium for them. I think of them as people converted by books. In all four cases, it was through the written word, and through literary books especially, that they had their deepest encounter with Catholicism. They had an incredible openness to the written word as a conduit for experience, let's say, inviting them to go further. Why in that time more than in this? What stands out about that age, and these four people in particular for me — and I'm talking about the years before the war, around World War II and just after--with incredibly high expectations for life that they had. Here was a country that had a depression, two world wars, and for some reason people knew what was at stake in a human life. Dorothy Day said to herself, 'I have one life and I'm going to really live it to the fullest by trying to be a saint.'
Ms. Tippett: Publisher and author Paul Elie. I'm Krista Tippett and this is Speaking of Faith from American Public Media. Today, "Faith Fired by Literature." We're speaking about the intersecting stories of Dorothy Day, Thomas Merton, Flannery O'Connor, and Walker Percy, the subjects of Paul Elie's book The Life You Save May Be Your Own.
Ms. Tippett: Let's put them in time. I mean they — I think they all began publishing in the late '40s and early '50s, is that right? So really, as you say, coming out of World War II.
Mr. Elie: Dorothy Day started the Catholic Worker in May of 1933. She was a generation older than the others. But her literary career really came together after the war and with the publication of her memoirs, The Long Loneliness, in 1952. Thomas Merton, Seven Storey Mountain, his autobiography, was published when he was a young man in his middle 30s, 1948. O'Connor's first novel, Wise Blood was published in 1952. Walker Percy's first essays were published in 1952 or 1953.
Ms. Tippett: I think something that strikes me, at the same time that they all really now have gone down in history as sort of emblematically religious, emblematically Catholic, in fact, they seem to all be looking for a configuration of place and companions where it would be possible to lead a holy life, and they all experienced discomfort with where they were planted and they all looked for the right context for that. I thought that was intriguing.
Mr. Elie: I think that's right. It's most pronounced in Thomas Merton's life. He, having gotten to the monastery of Gethsemane in Kentucky, which he thinks is really the perfect place on God's earth for him, he then proceeds to imagine other places that would be more perfect, and he does this scarcely leaving the monastery for the next 20 years. The monks were not allowed to go out except to the doctor. He imagines monasteries in the Andes or on an Indian reservation, or hermitages in France or in the hills of Italy, or in the Far West or in Alaska, again and again thinking, 'If I could only find this place that was ordered to my peace and solitude and experience of God, everything would be right.' And this is what, in his case, one of his mentors early on, the Thomistic philosopher Jacques Maritain, identified as Augustinian restlessness. "I am restless until I rest in you," Augustine said. Or I think he said, "We are restless until we rest in you." And this feeling of restlessness was the core of Merton's spirituality. But you're right to say it was very true for the others, Dorothy Day…
Ms. Tippett: And when I think — yeah, Dorothy Day sort of immersed herself in humanity, but also I remember there was a line — was it Peter Maurin, her companion, her cofounder of Catholic Worker, who said that they needed to create a place where it would be easy to be good.
Mr. Elie: Or easier to be good.
Ms. Tippett: Easier to be good.
Mr. Elie: Which gives a good sense of the realism of the Catholic Worker. Just a little easier to be good. And this--as you say, they had an incredible sense of how society could be ordered a little differently than it was. And this connects to what I was saying earlier. Their expectations were so high they weren't content to just rest in their alienation and sense of disappointment with life. They really — it sounds cliché to say they sought to do something about it, but they had an incredible imagination for the way in which, in their small fashion, they could make the world different and make it a place where it was a little easier to be good.
Ms. Tippett: I need to ask you, because there may be people who listen who don't know Dorothy Day — I'm sure there will be. I mean, tell the story of what she did, what she created, she and Peter Maurin there.
Mr. Elie: So Day, who was from New York, lived in California and Chicago, lived the bohemian life of artists in New York, in Staten Island, and also lived as a radical, a member of radical political groups, but none of them spoke to her deepest instincts, which she said were religious. And she thought they talked more about solidarity and friendship with the poor than actually enacting it. The poor were in the Catholic Church at that time. She felt she wanted, in the most physical way possible, to be joined to the poor; and the way for that to happen was for her to become a Catholic. I'm not giving a full sense of the religious implication of this. She didn't just, you know, want to be among them for an hour a week, she wanted to be joined to them. So she became a Catholic around the time her daughter was baptized, but she still had all her radical instincts.
Ms. Tippett: And let's just remind that she had this daughter, this was a daughter who was born out of wedlock, right?
Mr. Elie: That's right. And I'm skipping the most interesting parts of the story, I guess. She was living with an anarchist, philosopher-type man named Forster, and because she'd had an abortion in the teens and because of how it was performed, she thought that she would not be able to have another child. So when she became pregnant, she was joyful beyond measure. She was determined to have the child baptized. She didn't even quite understand this instinct, but she knew that it had to be so. Well, her husband — he was a common-law husband, so I guess it's correct to say the child was born out of wedlock — wouldn't have anything of religion, so baptizing the child, that ended the marriage. Dorothy Day then took the natural next step, which was to become a Catholic herself.
Then she looked around. The world is still broken, she's still eager as ever to fix things and make the world a better place. She's a talented journalist and organizer. What is she going to do with this very strong religious faith that makes her more than ever want to see justice in society? She's not sure. But one day this man named Peter Maurin, recommended by a mutual friend, shows up on her doorsteps and just starts talking this philosophy of communal Catholic life. They put their heads together and a few months later they put out a newspaper, The Catholic Worker, May 1st, 1933. Then, in the way she describes in the excerpt, people just started hanging around the office and then wanting to sleep there and eat there. It was the middle of the depression and the Catholic workers said to themselves, 'Well, we got to practice what we preach, so let's feed them, and cloth them and shelter them.' And the rest is history.
Ms. Tippett: Publisher and author Paul Elie. He's written about a vivid and influential American Catholic tradition of literary pilgrimage. Dorothy Day's 1952 memoir of her spiritual journey, The Long Loneliness, is still widely read and admired today.
Ms. Tippett: Of course, Dorothy Day is someone who — of these four, maybe Dorothy Day and Thomas Merton are more famous in our time. I'm not sure that I had a memory — I know of her as the saint working with the poor. I didn't have such a memory of her as this wild bohemian who lived with several men, who had an abortion and then was a single mother.
Mr. Elie: She left a lot of that out and it's told very elliptically in The Long Loneliness. She has an almost Victorian reticence. She does say at one point, 'About the next few years, there is little to say.' That's when she was off being married and traveling around Europe with her husband and…
Ms. Tippett: Oh, right, I forgot about that marriage, yeah, that brief marriage.
Mr. Elie: Well, she wasn't dishonest. It was — there's a headmistress sternness about her sometimes where she'll just insist, 'I'm not going to go into this,' and she doesn't. But we now know a good deal more about just how complex her bohemian life was.
Ms. Tippett: You identify with all of these people. I think in each of them there is one sort of vital religious question or yearning around which their pilgrimage hinged. What would you say that is in Dorothy Day?
Mr. Elie: Well, she's the person who could always imagine society better than it is. It stemmed from her experience in the San Francisco earthquake. She was an eight-year-old girl. She lived in Oakland. She stood on the street watching for the next few days as the people of Oakland helped each other and helped the people of San Francisco who were coming across the bay in boats. And for the rest of her life, she just thought, 'People helped each other. Why can't we just keep doing that? Why can't society be organized so that we can help each other a little more, so that that stranger who asks for food, that I actually recognize that that person is a brother or sister to me in a way?' So she had a reformer's imagination of how the world might be other than it is.
Ms. Tippett: You know, what's so interesting to me about that image of her standing before the San Francisco earthquake, seeing how people could love each other and help one another, you can dismiss that, you can say, 'Well, that's one of those extreme moments in life, we've all seen that. There's crisis and then it passes.' But then what she went on to do is to create communities of that same kind of crisis and intensity on a day-to-day basis with the poor.
Mr. Elie: Well, that's right, and it's partly out of the recognition that it doesn't have to be merely the crisis moments that call forth that love in us, and also the recognition that, at some moment, everyone is having a crisis of that magnitude.
Ms. Tippett: Yeah, that the crisis is among us all the time.
Mr. Elie: Yeah. And that you have to be there when the person is having his or her crisis, and not wait for the city to burn down.
Ms. Tippett: So here's this reading from the postscript. She says: "We were just sitting there talking when lines of people began to form, saying, 'We need bread.' We could not say, 'Go, be thou filled.' If there were six small loaves and a few fishes, we had to divide them. There was always bread. We were just sitting there talking and people moved in on us. Let those who can take it, take it. Some moved out and that made room for more. And somehow the walls expanded. We were just sitting there talking and someone said, 'Let's all go live on a farm.' It was as casual as all that, I often think. It just came about. It just happened. I found myself, a barren woman, the joyful mother of children. It is not easy always to be joyful, to keep in mind the duty of delight. The most significant thing about the Catholic Worker is poverty, some say. The most significant thing is community, others say. We are not alone any more. But the final word is love. We have all known the long loneliness and we have learned that the only solution is love and that love comes with community. It all happened while we sat there talking, and it is still going on."
Why did you send me that piece of hers?
Mr. Elie: Well, it's one of the most powerfully written things that she did, and as the postscript to her autobiography, it's one that obviously she considered important and representative. But what it really gets at is something that I think you were pointing toward in all the remarks of the past few minutes. She thought it possible for society to be different than it is because she thought that we're naturally oriented toward love, we're made to love one another. That's natural, and strife and war are a deformity of that. But what we're created for is to love one another, and to love one another in community. So she was trying to make clear in that passage that though she was a radical and formidable organizer, it was not a programmatic effort that got the Catholic Worker going. It was people doing what came naturally, which was loving one another in community and talking about it.
Ms. Tippett: Author and publisher Paul Elie. This is Speaking of Faith. After a short break, more conversation about Paul Elie's book The Life You Save May Be Your Own. He'll reflect in-depth on Thomas Merton's legacy as well as the ideas of fiction writers Walker Percy and Flannery O'Connor.
At speakingoffaith.org, we've posted Robert Giroux's essay on Flannery O'Connor's short stories. This essay, Paul Elie says, is the best introduction to a book he's ever read. And you can listen to this program again on demand. Download an MP3 to your desktop or subscribe to our free weekly podcast. Listen when you want, wherever you want. All this and more at speakingoffaith.org.
I'm Krista Tippett. Stay with us. Speaking of Faith comes to you from American Public Media.
Ms. Tippett: Welcome back to Speaking of Faith, public radio's conversation about religion, meaning, ethics, and ideas. I'm Krista Tippett. Today we're speaking with publisher and author Paul Elie on his creative work of biography, The Life You Save May Be Your Own: An American Pilgrimage.
The book's title is taken from the title of a short story by the 20th-century southern writer, Flannery O'Connor, whose life and religious ideas Paul Elie has juxtaposed with the lives and ideas of the Trappist monk and author Thomas Merton, the philosophical novelist Walker Percy, and bohemian journalist and social organizer Dorothy Day. "Certain books, certain writers," he says, "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."
We've been talking about the singular life of Dorothy Day, who in our time has become a candidate for Catholic sainthood. In his book, Paul Elie traces animating questions and ideas that drove Dorothy Day and the other subjects of his interest, questions and ideas that continue to penetrate modern imaginations by way of these authors' books.
Ms. Tippett: You know, there's something in the story of Dorothy Day and, in fact, all these people you write about, Flannery O'Connor, Walker Percy, Thomas Merton. There's a real fierceness and directness in the way they pursue faith and pursue God. It strikes me as very bold compared to the way I think that pursuit at least is articulated in our time.
Mr. Elie: I think you're right that their fierceness is not typical in any time, but it certainly seems a better fit in their age than it does in ours. There were many, many associates of Dorothy Day and Thomas Merton who were pretty militant atheists, who thought that religion is the opiate of the people and could go on at great length saying that. It was one of their core convictions. So for Dorothy Day to go over to the other side, she had to be very definite about what she believed.
Another thing — and I'm loath to reduce people's behavior to grand historical circumstances, but you had a depression and you had two world wars. There was a certain clarity lent to Dorothy Day's experience or Thomas Merton's by the fact that they were deciding for religion, Day in the midst of depression and Thomas Merton literally in the days before the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor. They were around and forced to make sense, as relatively new Christians, of the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and to figure out what that meant for their age.
Ms. Tippett: They struggled with unbelief as much as they struggled with belief. Or they struggled against unbelief. And I wondered if that also created a special fierceness in the way they pursued faith. But I mean, you know, here's Flannery O'Connor writing, "I don't know how the kind of faith required of a Christian living in the 20th century can be at all if it is not grounded on this experience that you are having right now of unbelief. This may be the case always and not just in the 20th century. Peter said, 'Lord, I believe. Help my unbelief.' It is the most natural and most human and most agonizing prayer in the gospels, and I think it is the foundation prayer of faith."
But what strikes me also in the way Dorothy Day, Thomas Merton, Flannery O'Connor, they all experienced faith to come at a cost, and unbelief something that they had to reckon with when they experienced it in themselves.
Mr. Elie: Again, you can look at it culturally or you can look at it personally. Culturally, O'Connor believed that one breathed in the air of disbelief, living in 20th-century America. When we look back, it now seems like a relatively religious time maybe compared to our own or compared to the situation in Europe now, let's say. I believe she said it was disbelief combined with attraction for the holy is the characteristic of her time.
And then personally, the three of them, leaving out O'Connor, all came from places of unbelief or disbelief. Day among the radicals who thought religion was an opiate. Merton among radicals in Cambridge and at Columbia but also as a kind of teenage nihilist who just thought the pursuit of pleasure was an end in itself. Walker Percy as a person prone to despair, his father and grandfather both committed suicide. His mother was killed in a car accident. His cousin, called Uncle Will, who raised him, was a person who was immensely cultivated, successful, admired, and yet wasn't sure there was any point to it all.
What strikes me again when I mentioned earlier how high their expectations for life were, they weren't content to settle in that place and say, 'This is my lot' or 'This is the lot of our time, I'll just bear it.' Their hunger for something more, for something deeper, was so strong that they made that unbelief or disbelief a starting point and then a continual testing ground for their religious convictions.
Ms. Tippett: You just mentioned Walker Percy and how much suicide and tragedy of that sort there was in his family. And it seemed to me that the animating religious question for him had to do with death.
Mr. Elie: He also nearly died himself of tuberculosis. He was a pathologist, studying dead bodies, basically, of tuberculosis patients, corpses that came in, sometimes washing up out of the East River, and instead of diagnosing the dead, in a way he thought, 'I'd like to diagnose the living.' And when he himself was struck with tuberculosis, he lay down a doctor and got up a novelist, but remained all the while a diagnostician. The living, individual, human person would be his subject.
Ms. Tippett: What did he mean when he wrote, "There is a special kinship between the novel as an art form and Christianity as an ethos, Catholicism in particular"?
Mr. Elie: What he meant is that the novel as a form is distinguished from other forms in the broad sense, like a play or an epic poem, in that it deals with narrative events in the lives of ordinary people. There are exceptions to this, but in the main, if you looked at the history of the novel over 250 years that would be true. With the novel, the ordinary person comes on stage.
Well, theologically, the coming of Christ is the entry of God into the life of an ordinary person, that Jesus is just an ordinary man in 1st-century Palestine, walking the earth like the rest of us, having problems, encountering opposition, dying a violent death. So in this sense, Christianity is seen as sanctifying and directing us to ordinary lives as a place where the divine is to be found, and so you can see the parallel between that and the novel, which looks for meaning in precisely the same place.
Ms. Tippett: Author and publisher Paul Elie. Here's a reading from an essay by Walker Percy on writing, religion, and morality.
Reader: "A good novel is like a good table. The parts have to fit; it has to work, that is, sit foursquare and at the right level. And it has to please. Its truth lies in the way it looks, feels, hefts — the touch and the grain of the thing. Its morality follows from the form and excellence of the thing. That is to say, its morality comes from within, follows naturally from its making and is not imposed from without. It does not preach.
"I can only give my own conviction. It is that there is a special kinship between the novel as an art form and Christianity as an ethos, Catholicism in particular. … It is the narrativity and commonplaceness of the novel which is unique. Something is happening in ordinary time to ordinary people, not to epic heroes in mythic time. … Judeo-Christianity is about pilgrims who have something wrong with them and are embarked on a search to find a way out. This is also what novels are about."
From Signposts in a Strange Land, a collection of essays by Walker Percy.
Ms. Tippett: I'm Krista Tippett, and this is Speaking of Faith from American Public Media. My guest, Paul Elie, has written an unusual biography of art and faith, exploring the converging lives of Walker Percy and three other Catholic writers of the 20th century.
Of Paul Elie's four subjects, Thomas Merton is perhaps the most widely esteemed among contemporary readers and spiritual seekers. After an early life as a secular sophisticate, Thomas Merton chose the cloistered life of a Trappist monk. But within a very few years, he gained phenomenal success and visibility as a writer with his spiritual autobiography, The Seven Storey Mountain. He published it in 1948 when he was 33 years old. Over the next 20 years, until his accidental early death, Merton wrote poems, articles, and over 60 contemplative books read by millions. He also wrote politically during the 1960s and became fascinated with Eastern contemplative traditions, especially Zen Buddhism.
Ms. Tippett: Let's talk about Thomas Merton, who may be the person who people are more consciously shaped by in terms of just reading his books in our time. And I'll have to say again there's something about the way you've written about him — his thought is in there, the shape pilgrimage took in his life, but it's all embedded in the life he lived and the person he was. And it's easy to idealize Merton, this monk, this Trappist monk, with these incredibly wise, wonderful, beautiful writings. And there's something, at one and the same time, that's sort of disappointing and also encouraging to get more flesh on those bones and to know how very human he was and that his journey had lots of dark places and lots of confusion and failings.
Mr. Elie: Well, Merton kept very detailed journals, published in seven volumes. These journals are a remarkable account of his life and his inner life. In my view, they're a lot more honest than a lot of his published writing. In his published work, he became famous with his first book really, The Seven Storey Mountain, and there were all sorts of expectations that — what the monks should be and what the monks should do and what the monks should say. And he tried to go to the monastery to get away from himself and suddenly he was the most famous monk in the world because of his autobiography, which sold 600,000 copies, an astonishing number at that time.
So a lot of his public work is informed or it's fraught with these questions of what the monk is supposed to be. And then in the journals, it's there, too, but just a lot more reliable to me. So as you say, there are some disappointments when you realize the banality of some of his days or worrying over things all the time, but I think of him as a person who risked the most of these four writers. He began as a perfectionist and ended somewhere else, much more understanding of his own frailty and just willing to even put it on the page, knowing that we'd be sitting here talking about it years after his death.
Ms. Tippett: You know, you point out something that I always felt. I read The Seven Storey Mountain after I read some of his other work, and I didn't really enjoy it. I mean, I find that obviously there's a great deal in it, but the tone of it is somewhat self-righteous. And you describe this later epiphany that he had, I think maybe a decade after he wrote The Seven Storey Mountain, where he sort of accepted himself as a full human being. There's this declaration he made: I have the immense joy of being a man.
Mr. Elie: Well, the autobiography was published when he was very young. He was 33, which means he wrote it shortly after turning 30. And he was flush with ardor over his still-new religion and still-new monastic calling.
Dorothy Day said that she thought he'd just gone too far into monastic mysticism in the book, especially at the end of the book. I say that he's a person who risked a great deal, and one of the risks he took was he was willing to change, even after a famous autobiography was out there saying who he was and what he believed. He recognized that he had identified being a Catholic and being a monk with apartness and, in a way, with superiority, as you suggest. And then he realized that that wasn't necessarily the essence of the Christian experience, to be apart or to be superior.
On the street that day in Louisville, he mentioned his epiphany. He was in Louisville to go to the doctor's, and walking down the street just in ordinary priest clothes but not set apart as a monk, and he just felt like a person walking in rush hour, like thousands of other people, and he felt joined to the whole human race. That insight was a reversal of the position of his autobiography, but he was willing to make it and willing to put it out there. And I think the people identify with Merton so much because, in a way, the entire Catholic Church was turning that corner in this country at that time, from a point of apartness to one of full participation in American society. Thousands of people thought, 'Wow, I don't have to flee the world to be a real believer. I can take part and keep faith.'
Ms. Tippett: He stands, for many people, for making this move away from the world even though his movements later were more and more towards others. You say that pilgrimage for him is a continual voyage out to the other. What do you mean by that?
Mr. Elie: In a sense, the autobiography was like a big letter to the world, the world he had supposedly left behind. Then all the readers that that attracted him created endless opportunities for dialogue and he just kept going farther or deeper with it, writing to readers, writing to other writers, writing…
Ms. Tippett: Yeah. You document that correspondence, yes.
Mr. Elie: …to Walker Percy, and he ends up spending three days with the young Dalai Lama in Dharamsala, and these two monks are sitting there, recognizing that what they have in common as monks is more profound than whatever might divide them.
Ms. Tippett: And he also died in the Far East, attending a conference of Buddhists and Christians.
Mr. Elie: He was in Bangkok. It was 1968. Keep in mind, this was a year of terrible violence in America. Martin Luther King had been killed. Robert F. Kennedy had been killed. Merton, in December, set out for Asia. It was his first long trip away from the monastery since he'd entered. The only other trip he'd made was one to Minnesota in 1958, to Saint John's Abbey in Collegeville. Well, he goes to Asia expecting to travel around for months, and he didn't know when or how he would come back. He gave a talk to some monastic superiors — Christians, but Asian Christians, many of them. He must have taken a shower and come out and slipped on the wet floor and touched a fan with a lose wire, and he was electrocuted. He was only 58, which is amazing to think. He'd be 89 now. Imagine if Thomas Merton had been around for another 30 years, to think of how much the American religious landscape would reflect his presence if he'd been around for that long.
Ms. Tippett: Publisher and author Paul Elie. Here is a passage selected by Paul Elie from Thomas Merton's collection of essays, Mystics and Zen Masters, published in 1967, the year before Merton's death.
Reader: "The story of man's pilgrimage and search has reached the end of a cycle and is starting on another. It is clear that there is no paradise on earth that is not defiled as well as limited. And yet the pilgrimage must continue, because it is an inescapable part of man's structure and program. The problem is, for his pilgrimage to make sense; it must represent a complete integration of his inner and outer life, of his relation to himself and to other men. The Bible has always taken man in the concrete, never in the abstract. Our task now is to learn that if we can voyage to the ends of the earth and there find ourselves in the aborigine who most differs from ourselves, we will have made a fruitful pilgrimage. That is why pilgrimage is necessary in some shape or other. Mere sitting at home and meditating on the divine presence is not enough for our time. We have to come to the end of a long journey and see that the stranger we meet there is no other than ourselves, which is the same as saying that we find Christ in him."
From Mystics and Zen Masters by Thomas Merton.
Ms. Tippett: How does immersing yourself in the thought and experiences of these four Catholics of the 20th century — how does that make you think differently about or reflect on what it is to be Catholic now personally?
Mr. Elie: Well, a lot of things come up, but I'm just going to tell you about two them. One is it's to realize how catholic the Catholic tradition is. Here are four people all believing…
Ms. Tippett: Catholic with a small c.
Mr. Elie: Yeah. In a sense, there are four answers to every question posed in the book. There's the way O'Connor would look at it, and the way Percy would look at it, and the way Merton would look at it, and the way Day would look at it. And they're all faithful, they're all oriented in the same way; but their different dispositions show different ways to approach these things. So you get a sense of the variety of this tradition, which is often thought to be monolithic or there's one answer that's handed down in the catechism and that's it for everybody.
The other is it's a book of history about a particular time. These people recognized that they at some point had to live in their own time and not another time. Merton yearned to be a monk of the middle ages, but he was a monk of the 1950s and he came to grips with that. Same with Dorothy Day, she wasn't living in Tolstoy's age, she was living in Henry Luce's age and she had to deal with that. So for me as a Catholic, I have to live in our time, and what are the challenges of our time? It's very tempting to imagine this golden age, their age, and to try to climb into the time capsule and pull up the ladder. But their lives say you can't do that, so don't even try.
Ms. Tippett: The title of the book is wonderfully evocative. It comes from Flannery O'Connor, "The Life You Save May Be Your Own." I think my last question is, tell me the story of the title, and I'd also like to know what that phrase means to you now after writing all of this down.
Mr. Elie: Well, it comes from a story of Flannery O'Connor's. The story was originally called "The World Is Almost Rotten." But O'Connor's friend, Sally Fitzgerald said, 'Call it "The Life You Save May Be Your Own"' because at the end of the story — it's about a handyman who moves in with a woman and her sort of mentally feeble daughter and marries the daughter evidently to get the car and house that this family own, and absconds with her and — I don't want to spoil the story, but he abandons his new bride and drives down the side of the road off into the distance, passing one of the signs that were on the side of the road in the '50s, telling people to wear their seatbelts because the life you save may be your own. This, to me, is the pattern of pilgrimage distilled into an expression: "The life you save may be your own."
Ms. Tippett: Do you think the title, that phrase, has some nuance to it, having written the book, that it didn't have before? Or did you choose the title after you'd written the book?
Mr. Elie: I chose it about halfway through. O'Connor's title is now my title. So the process of pilgrimage is how we take others' stories and, while remaining faithful to them, make them our own. O'Connor took the stories of her predecessors — and so did the other three people in the book — and made them her own. And I hope in some sense I've taken their stories and made them my own.
Ms. Tippett: Paul Elie ends his biography of Thomas Merton, Dorothy Day, Flannery O'Connor, and Walker Percy by extending his thought on what faith might mean in our time. He writes, "Believer and unbeliever are in the same predicament, thrown back onto themselves in complex circumstances, looking for a sign. As ever, religious belief makes its claim somewhere between revelation and projection, between holiness and human frailty. But the burden of proof, indeed, the business of belief for so long upheld by society, is back on the believer, where it belongs.
"… 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. In this encounter, there are no self-evident truths. Nothing can be taken for granted or asserted outright. The case must be made to each of us individually, with fierce attention on both sides. We must be persuaded one at a time.
"… Like it or not, we come to life in the middle of stories that are not ours. The way to knowledge and to self-knowledge is through pilgrimage. We imitate our way to the truth, finding our lives, saving them in the process."
Paul Elie is senior editor at Farrar, Straus and Giroux. His book is The Life You Save May Be Your Own: An American Pilgrimage.
We'd love to hear if you've been influenced by Thomas Merton, Dorothy Day, Flannery O'Connor, or Walker Percy. Tell us your story. Contact us at speakingoffaith.org. And listen to this program again. Download an MP3 to your desktop or subscribe to our free weekly podcast. Listen when you want, wherever you want. All this and more at speakingoffaith.org.
The senior producer of Speaking of Faith is Mitch Hanley, with producers Colleen Scheck and Jody Abramson and editor Ken Hom. Our Web producer is Trent Gilliss, with assistance from Jennifer Krause. Kate Moos is the managing producer of Speaking of Faith, the executive editor is Bill Buzenberg, and I'm Krista Tippett.