Thomas Merton, Dorothy Day, Flannery O'Connor, and Walker Percy are "saints" after my own heart — consciously walking the line, as Paul Elie eloquently puts it, "between revelation and projection, between holiness and human frailty."
Alone among them, O'Connor was a lifelong Christian, a cradle Catholic. The other three converted to Catholicism as adults, after previous lives of "unbelief." Merton began as a pleasure-seeking sophisticate, Percy as a physician prone to despair, and Day as a Bohemian journalist. The power of their faith was rooted in the fierceness with which they first rejected it, then wrestled with and claimed it. The power of their writing is rooted in the fearlessness with which they pursued meaning and purpose in life. Both their faith and their writings are instructive in the extent to which they grapple frankly with human reality, including mistakes, questions, catastrophes, and changes of heart and mind.
I love learning more about Thomas Merton, whose writings have influenced me deeply, in a larger context. I love hearing about how Walker Percy saw the relationship between his previous life as a physician and coroner, his religious faith, and the writing of novels. He moved, as Elie tells it, from diagnosing the ill and the dead to diagnosing the living: "Judeo-Christianity," Percy once wrote, "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."
I love the description Paul Elie offers of Flannery O'Connor's vigorous reflection on disbelief as an enlivening fact of human experience — disbelief, that is, in tension with "an attraction to the Holy."
And I am fascinated to hear Paul Elie tell about the catalyzing experience of Dorothy Day's childhood: her experience of the San Francisco earthquake of 1906. Seeing the way people formed intense and sudden bonds of community, rallying to care for strangers in crisis, she asked, why can't people be this way all the time?
Rather than outgrowing that question, she pursued it the rest of her life, eventually creating places where strangers could come for solace and care. To her childhood epiphany she added and addressed the adult observation that in many lives, crisis is ordinary and everyday.
This is a very full and enriching hour of conversation, story, and idea. It opens up a slice of American religious history that still forms us today — and that might provoke us to think, believe, act, read, and write more boldly.
Like Merton, Day, O'Connor and Percy, many in our time are probing large ideas and longed-for belief by way of reading and writing. In that act, we naturally rediscover the necessary, animating convergence of faith and narrative, religion and real life.
I'll let Paul Elie have the last word, from his book's summary, with which we also close the program this week:
"We are all skeptics now … 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 … There is no way to seek truth except personally. Every story worth knowing is a life story.
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."