Mass Appeal


Catholics are strange cats: Guilt-ridden for an unprovable sin, they exalt in self-denial. Their most sacred ritual is equal parts magic and cannibalism. Why anyone would want to become one is a mystery; it is a still greater mystery why a writer would choose to do so. In The Life You Save May Be Your Own, Paul Elie gives us four reasons in Dorothy Day, Thomas Merton, Walker Percy, and Flannery O’Connor.

After the religious model of pilgrimage set by Dante and Bunyan, Elie’s first chapter is called “Experience,” followed by the inevitable “Downward Path.” We learn that prior to her conversion to Catholicism and her founding of the Catholic Worker movement, Day had several affairs and an abortion. While an unmarried student at Cambridge, Merton fathered a child; as a monk, he had an affair with a nurse. Like Augustine, they had to sin in order to grow.

According to Elie, their respective descents, as well as the earnest pursuits of faith that followed, were motivated by experiences gleaned from books. Day’s social conscience was informed by an early reading of Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle, and she was enamored of the dystopic worlds of the Russian novelists. When jailed at a women’s suffrage rally, she requested a Bible “the way, seventy years earlier, in a prison in Siberia, Dostoevsky had asked a guard for a Bible, which he read over and over again until he was a believer. . . . The ancient words spoke to her.” She was changed. Merton was a Joyce disciple, a near Dedalus-doppelgänger, but in re-reading A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, he was so struck by the authenticity of the hellfire sermon that he decided to get the experience firsthand.

These writers were staunchly independent, but Elie deftly knits their lives together through favorite books, correspondence, and places they visited. They rarely met, but had what Percy called “a predicament shared in common.” Their faiths, rather than sites of self-abnegation, were quests for spiritual solitude which they transcribed in memoirs, fiction, and articles. Only O’Connor is assured a place in the canon; Percy is best remembered for The Moviegoer. But Elie’s story is less about literary status than the process of belief. For these writers, Catholicism was a “measure of man”—as much a testing ground for an artistic imperative as it was a personal pilgrimage.

Most Popular