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.
[Music: “Seven League Boots” by Zoe Keating]
I’m Krista Tippett and this is On Being.
Paul Elie is a senior fellow with Georgetown University’s Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs. He was previously a senior editor at the Farrar, Straus and Giroux, known commonly as FSG, the august publishing house with intimate connection to the writers who captured Paul Elie’s own religious imagination. I interviewed him in 2005, a year after he published his book about them, The Life You Save May Be Your Own.
Ms. Tippett: I’d like to start by hearing how you came to write this book.
Mr. Elie: I think I wanted to be a writer ever since I was a teenager. Inspired by John McPhee and Tom Wolfe. Two writers that I then got a chance to work with as an editor at FSG. When I got to college I had relatively little knowledge of Catholic history. I’d grown up in the suburbs in upstate New York in a modern church. Gone to public schools and gone through the whole catholic formation experience in a very present tense sort of way. Suddenly 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. A professor recommended Flannery O’Connor. I thought Flannery O’Connor was a man, like Tennessee Williams, one of these colorful, double-barreled Southern names.
Ms. Tippett: Southern names, yes.
Mr. Elie: Well, I got the complete stories with some money for Christmas my freshman year, I’d gone to Fordham by the way, a Jesuit college in the Bronx. Started reading the introduction by Robert Giroux, and just the best introduction to a book, I think, that I’ve 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. Took the book home and was just knocked out by it, as so many people have been — the power of the narrative, the genuineness of his searching, but especially, and 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 observed by going to church every Sunday. I was just knocked out by it and I tried to follow his path really for a year or so. I made a little space in the library that was a kind of monastic meditation space with books all around. The library at Fordham looked like a church and read my way through his stuff.
After college, I was living in way uptown Manhattan. I read some Dorothy Day in an anthology put together by Robert Ellsberg. It was sold at the basement of Corpus Christi Church. Many people will know this church as the one where Merton was baptized up 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. 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, a 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. And 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. Meanwhile these four, the references to them kept showing up in books. I’d read about Percy and there’d be a reference to Merton. I’d read about O’Connor and there would be a reference to Dorothy Day. So inadvertently they started emerging as a group and I started thinking about them that way. And one thing led to another and a couple of people suggested I should write about this very obvious passion I had for these writers. And I decided to take the leap.
Ms. Tippett: You know you make this statement, 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 as 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." I wonder if you could say something about how that conviction has developed in your mind and in your life and what you mean by that?
Mr. Elie: Well, first of all, it’s something that I needed to write the book to figure out. We entered the story in the middle. The story precedes us. It’s the stories of our families, of our parents, the story of our region, the story of our religious tradition or the religious tradition to which we come on pilgrimage. We have certain expectations because of that story that we want to test with our lives and see if they stand up, to sound them and see if they’re genuine. This, for example, 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 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: Yeah, 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. And their pilgrimages were really pilgrimages of adulthood. 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 their time is different from our time. Perhaps, maybe I’m wrong, maybe you’ll correct me on this. But the incredible convergence of literature and religion sort of in the mid 20th century. You know, 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. 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 40’s and basically read his way through existentialist fiction and philosophy. Dostoevsky and Kierkegaard and recognized himself in those stories 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 is a sense of the human race as one family in those books and the interdependence of people that she wanted for herself and sought and found it in the catholic religion. 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, was the incredibly high expectations for life that they had. Here was a country that had 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: Let’s put them in time. I mean, 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, The Seven Storey Mountain, his autobiography, was published when he was a young man in his middle 30s. In 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 experience 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 Gethsemani 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.
Ms. Tippett: And when I think...
Mr. Elie: Dorothy Day.
Ms. Tippett: Yeah. Dorothy Day sort of immersed herself in humanity, but also, I remember, there was a line — was it Peter Maurin, her companion, her co-founder of Catholic Worker, who said that they needed to create a place where it will 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 that they weren’t content to just rest in their alienation and sense of disappointment with life. They really — it sounds cliche 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.
[Music: “Receives” by Keith Kenniff]
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 and 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 physically 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.
Ms. Tippett: OK, all right.
Mr. Elie: She was living with an anarchist, philosopher-type man named Forester, 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 and 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 doorstep 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 Worker said to themselves, ‘Well, we got to practice what we preach. So let’s feed them and clothe them and shelter them,’ and the rest is history.
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 this 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.
Ms. Tippett: Yeah.
Mr. Elie: She has an almost Victorian reticence. She does say, at one point, "About the next few years, there’s little to say." And 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 head mistress 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’s 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 see 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 lovingness, 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 a 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.
[Music: “Knights of Columbus” by Halloween]
I’m Krista Tippett. On Being continues in a moment.
[Music: “Masollan” by Balmorhea]
The Life You Save May Be Your Own was the title of a short story by the 20th century Southern writer Flannery O’Connor. Paul Elie juxtaposed her life and ideas with those of the Trappist monk Thomas Merton, the philosophical novelist Walker Percy and bohemian journalist and social organizer Dorothy Day.
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 loathe 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 wonder 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 within 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 you look back now, it seems like a relatively religious time if compared to our own or compared to the situation in Europe now, let’s say. But she thought it was in the air we breathe, this disbelief.
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 teen-age 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: Yeah, here’s another sentence from this, what was this essay you sent from Walker Percy?
Mr. Elie: It’s called “Another Message in the Bottle.”
Ms. Tippett: Oh okay.
Mr. Elie: He had written an essay called “A Message in the Bottle” in the 50s and for him that was an essay that — he would use essays to solve his problems, intellectual problems, and then go into fiction. He solved certain problems about how to diagnose the “contemporary malaise,” as he called it in this essay, “The Message in the Bottle,” and then dramatized those same problems in The Moviegoer, his first and best novel. So at the end of his life he revisited “The Message in the Bottle” again and tried to make explicit this parallel between Christianity and fiction that had been implicit in so much of his fiction up to that point.
Ms. Tippett: Here’s another sentence: “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.”
Mr. Elie: It would fit a lot of novels if you think about it. Percy liked to emphasize that the pilgrim’s search is outside the self, the guru searches within. And he liked to distinguish, a little too glibly in my opinion, between Western and Eastern religion on this score. That Christianity and also fiction, even though they’re capable of some introspection, finally point the reader or the seeker outward into the world of other people and events to find the meaning of things. And for him who was so prone to introspection, this was a kind of rescue.
Ms. Tippett: It’s clear to hear the echoes, it’s easy to hear the echoes here with this idea that we began with that you’ve traced in the book of pilgrimage and story. And I think Percy said something like “The modern predicament makes pilgrimage impossible.” He makes this interesting observation, I mean, it’s one of these things it’s obvious but people don’t point it out very often that, he says that modern experience often comes second hand. Okay. But then he makes this other point that even when we have direct experiences we’re so self conscious that it ruins it. That we’re doomed to imitate life but I think you said that his point was still we have to keep trying to really live.
Mr. Elie: I think that’s right. He used to express this an image of people going to the Grand Canyon and not being able to see the Grand Canyon because they were too busy trying to measure the distance between what they were seeing and the expectation that they had of it from postcards and documentaries and such like. But again, his expectations were great, he was not willing to settle for that and just say this is how it is. So the pilgrim takes that dissatisfaction or that lack of [inaudible] or or that self consciousness and tries to push beyond it, to push through to authentic first hand experience.
In the case of Percy, the way out of his self consciousness, which was acute, was to write in the point of view of a character that was not himself. So, in The Moviegoer, it’s narrated by a man named Binx Bolling. He’s a Southerner like Percy, he’s from a wealthy family like Percy, he has a noble ancestor who has kind of raised him, like Percy, and yet he’s not Walker Percy. He’s a much more callow and limited figure but the book is told in the first person so Percy finds his way out of himself by imagining himself into a fictional character. And it was just an incredible breakthrough for him and a sense of the possibilities of art to get beyond self consciousness.
Ms. Tippett: So for him to be a novelist really came to seem the solution to grappling with the human condition in his time, in his particular life.
Mr. Elie: Right. And he articulated this in a number of ways. Partly the novelist as a diagnostician, a kind of soul doctor, and partly the novelist as an artist who, who’s trying to lose himself in the work made. That’s the way Maritain, the Catholic philosopher understood art, as self-forgetfulness. And this was true for really all the people this book is about, was different ways of trying to do the fundamental Christian thing of losing oneself in order to find oneself, and to lose oneself in imitation of the divine.
[Music: “Marmalade Fires” by mum]
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 in 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. And 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 it’s just a lot more reliable to me. So, as you say, there’s 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: Yeah. You point out something that I always felt I read The Seven Storey Mountain after I had 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 that he had 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’d 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, you mentioned his epiphany. He was in Louisville to go to the doctor’s and walking down the street just in ordinary priest’s 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 that 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 to him created endless opportunities for dialogue, and he just kept going farther or deeper with it, writing to readers, writing to other writers.
Ms. Tippett: Yeah. You document that correspondence, yes.
Mr. Elie: Writing 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 St. 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 loose 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.
People were so used to Merton investing everything that happened to him with such significance that they had to invest his death with significance. The point that I tried to make in my book is that he was felled by a random accident and it’s a terrible thing but its been suggested that he was moving to some higher plane or committing suicide or other things that I just don’t think make any sense.
Ms. Tippett: You know, you just said, “What would the American religious landscape be if he had lived another 30 years?” I wonder what other questions like that emerged for you, that are staying with you, that you’re pursuing or puzzling over.
Mr. Elie: Well, the big one has to do with the question you just asked, really. I said, and even now I’m not sure that it’s right, that Merton’s many years in the monastery prepared him for this eventual meeting with the Dalai Lama. In a sense, yes. But the four people my book is about all chose a kind of solitude or separateness for themselves. Merton in his monastery. Walker Percy by moving to what he called “the pleasant, non-place” of Covington, Louisiana. A pretty anonymous town at the time for someone who had grown up in one of the most illustrious families of the South, he didn’t have any family connections there or any reason to be there.
Flannery O’Connor when she became ill with lupus moved to a farmhouse in rural Georgia. And Dorothy Day, although she was in the thick of things in New York, she wasn’t part of the literary world per se, she was down putting out her penny newspaper on the Lower East Side. So they were all separate. And when I was putting the book together I’m just marveling at how separate they really were. Today these people would be on panels probably, they would get so many invitations they would never have any time to do anything else.
Ms. Tippett: Yeah.
Mr. Elie: It would be just natural to have a panel, let’s say in Collegeville, Minnesota, with Dorothy Day and Thomas Merton, and Walker Percy, and Dorothy Day, or Flannery O’Connor.
Ms. Tippett: It’s true, yeah.
Mr. Elie: So, then I ask, and going back to what you said at the beginning of our conversation about their fierceness, I wonder what I’m missing by not choosing that apartness. You know, am I missing a level of depth that they sought and I’m not going after? In our society we seem to just accept the level of busyness as a problem but one we’re not really determined to get past. Is that, are we missing out on something? Or did they actually miss out on something through their apartness? It’s not an answerable question it’s just a question when you’re trying to figure out your own religious life in terms of theirs. Do I go their way or not?
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 or reflect on what it is to be Catholic now personally?
Mr. Elie: Well, a lot of things come up, but I’m going to just tell you about two of them. One is it’s to realize how Catholic the Catholic tradition is. Here are four people all...
Ms. Tippett: Catholic with a small c.
Mr. Elie: Yeah. In a sense they’re 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 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 this family owned, 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 during 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 other 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.
[Music: “Knights of Columbus” by Halloween]
To listen again or share this show with Paul Elie, go to our website onbeing.org. There you’ll find some of his favorite passages from Walker Percy, Flannery O’Connor, Thomas Merton, and Dorothy Day. And follow everything we do through our weekly email newsletter. Just click the newsletter link to subscribe on any page at onbeing.org
On Being is Trent Gilliss, Chris Heagle, Lily Percy, Mikel Elcessor, Mariah Helgeson, Mary Sue Hannan, and Joshua Rae.
Xavier Le Pichon: You have this kind of big awakenings when the big catastrophe happens, either a collective one like a war or major accident, but it can be also a tragedy inside the family, not just outside. And they may react in a way that you cannot predict. Sometimes it’s very bad. Sometimes it opens them up. So it’s something difficult but my experience is that once you enter into this way of, I would call it companionship, you know, walking with the suffering person that has come into your life and that you have not rejected, then your heart progressively gets educated by them. You know, they teach you a new way of being.
Ms. Tippett: Right. Your heart gets educated. I like that.
Dr. Le Pichon: Yeah. Yes. We have to be educated by the other. Our heart cannot be educated by yourself. I mean, my heart cannot be educated by myself. It can only come out of relationship with others.