Paul Elie's Favorite Passages

Thomas Merton

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.

"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.

"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."

–From The Seven Storey Mountain

Dorothy Day

"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."

– From The Long Loneliness, postscript

“For years we at the Catholic Worker performed all the works of mercy except visiting the prisoner. We had tried to accomplish the equivalent of this through working for the release of political prisoners and speaking in their behalf. We had a chance to practice this act of love in another way in recent years, when we made our stand against the yearly war game of taking shelter during the air-raid drill by refusing to comply with the law. We visited prisoners by becoming prisoners ourselves for five years running, until the Civil Defense Authority dropped the compulsory drills."

“. . . It was not a question of obedience to the law or to duly constituted authority. Law must be according to right reason, and the law that made it compulsory to take shelter was a mockery. In our disobedience we were trying to obey God rather than men, trying to follow a higher obedience. We did not wish to act in a spirit of defiance and rebellion. Ours was a small matter compared to the problem confronting the German, for instance, when he was called upon to obey Hitler. We were free to make our witness, and our jail sentences were light – five days on one occasion, thirty days on another, and fifteen days the last time. Fellow pacifists have spent months in jail since then . . .”

– From Loaves and Fishes

Flannery O'Connor

“I have observed that most of the best religious fiction of our time is most shocking precisely to those readers who claim to have an intense interest in finding more `spiritual purpose' – as they like to put it – in modern novels than they can at present detect in them. Today's reader, if he believes in grace at all, sees it as something which can be separated from nature and served to him raw as Instant Uplift. This reader's favorite word is compassion. I don't wish to defame the word. There is a better sense in which is can be used but seldom is – the sense of being in travail with and for creation in its subjection to vanity. This is a sense which implies a recognition of sin; this is a suffering-with, but one which blunts no edges and makes no excuses. Our age doesn't go for it.”

– From “Novelist and Believer,” in Mystery and Manners

Walker Percy

"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.

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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.