Paul Elie — Faith Fired by Literature
February 20, 2014

The writers Flannery O’Connor and Walker Percy, social activist Dorothy Day, and the Trappist monk Thomas Merton — all four shared a complex Catholic faith. Paul Elie takes us on a kind of literary pilgrimage through a Catholic imagination that still resonates in our time.

Photo by Mauricio Lima/AFP/Getty Images


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Featured Writings

Paul Elie's Favorite Passages

Some of Paul Elie's favorite passages from Walker Percy, Flannery O’Connor, Thomas Merton, and Dorothy Day.

Giroux's Intro to O'Connor's Collection

Read Robert Giroux's complete introduction to Flannery O'Connor's collection of short stories. Elie notes that it's possibly the best opening to a book he's ever read.

SoundSeen (our multimedia stories)

Slideshow: Literary Giants in a Catholic Light

We've put together a gallery of images of Walker Percy, Thomas Merton, Dorothy Day, and Flannery O'Connor in their environs.

Pertinent Posts from the On Being Blog

The French geologist connects Dorothy Day, seismic activity, empathy, and the ability of the heart to continue to learn.

A creative illustration elevates Dorothy Day's words on "how to bring about a revolution of the heart" with a t-shirt design.

Beautiful, beautiful article by Louis Ruprecht at Religion Dispatches on the death of Fr. Matthew Kelty, long-time fellow monk and mentor of Thomas Merton at Gethsemani Abbey.

There are books that become so important to us they become like old friends. Or, books that we find so transformative our lives are never the same. What are the books that have changed your life? What are the books that became your best friend?

Charles Camosy argues that only in a world dominated by our lazy binaries could Pope Francis be considered "liberal" simply because he doesn't fit into "conservative" categories.


A fuller version of the quotation Brueggemann offered in our interview.

Writing in order to know. Writing in order to be changed. Writing as compassion.

Neil Gaiman's commencement speech is exactly what you need. Make mistakes, enjoy the journey, break the rules, make good art.

Flannery O'Connor's prayer journal offers a rare glimpse into the life of a brilliant writer, colored by doubt and uncertainty, preoccupied with both magnificent grace and the mundane absurdity of everyday life.

About the Image

Brazilian Flavia Goncalves, 52, who lost her sight at the age of 11, reads her Braille Bible at her bedroom, in Sao Paulo, Brazil.

Photo by Mauricio Lima/AFP/Getty Images

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I saw this today and wondered if the On Being family would be touched, too.

Thank you for all your good work! You guys are making a difference!

the very interesting guest speaks of the apartness of his subjects. the question is "apart from what?"
being on panels, lecturing, etc reminds me of wittgenstein who said words are a "public activity" something social. like panels, lecturing. one can't help but see merton as not quite able to relinquish public activity much of what amounts to somethng buddhists understand to be self-dramatization. i would also submit that dorothy day's soup kitchens were not the thing that is "apart" but the rest is.

I think the apartness being discussed in Elie's biography is about that aspect in each of these writers as writers and as Catholics. This apartness is something I very much recognize both in the practice of my faith and in my attempts to write. It's a place of solitude we find in a world so often demanding of us that we engage, plug in, network. In a recent On Being they were talking to Ann Hamilton about being "alone together" —she tries to offer this experience through her art. I think these artists found some aspect of the same in their faith, their writing, and in what they hoped the reader would experience "with" them.

In the "Faith Fired by Literature" program there were references to writers who were "born Catholic." How can anyone be born Catholic, or Muslim, or any other denomination? "Raised Catholic" would be more accurate. If anything, we are all born atheist (born not believing in the gods imagined by some of the people around us). Happily, some of us live to adulthood without having any religion forced upon us.

The usage and promotion of the term Pilgrimage as espoused by Paul Elie is in the context of the American perspective once again a denial of Truth and a setting aside of the Truth of the continuance of modern form of genocide of indigenous cultures and their beliefs in the Creator we all share. Mr.Elie presents a continuance of the illusion that connection with the Truth Christ reveals is to undertake a pilgrimage of whatever manifestation of the term pilgrim is the flavor of the day. While those Mr. Elie cites were gifted people with their own beautiful connection to the message Christ brings, the journey Christ engages us in is one toward the Light of forgiveness.
Bright Light
Your sadness covers all.
The mangled corpses
Of a never ending Genocide,
Are removed from the depths,
Of darkness and despair,
As You pass over and within.

The souls of those worldwide,
Who by circumstance of location,
Of birthplace predetermined,
Have been judged,
By despotic minds,
Preying on the innocent.

You alone decide,
The place and time of vengeance,
Today You are Risen,
Emerging from stone rolled back,
Bright Light of Hope,
Brings healing and forgiveness.

Respectfully, I believe you are perverting the term as Elie intends it, burdening it with your particular (and peculiar) historical and political connotation.

Mr Elie should know that he most certainly succeeded in his pilgrimage, in that journey to others made one's own. His book is probably one of the most personally important I ever read. It opened a path for my own pilgrimage and faith. I don't know if I can call myself a writer, but I know I write. The examples Elie found and shared in Day, Merton, Percy and O'Connor helped me to understand why.

Voices on the Radio

is a senior fellow with the Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs and the director of the American Pilgrimage Project. His books include The Life You Save May Be Your Own: An American Pilgrimage and Reinventing Bach. He blogs at Everything That Rises.

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