'These people were trying to make points with their whole lives'

An interview with Paul Elie, author of 'The Life You Save May Be Your Own.'

 
The middle of the 20th century is often cited as the most recent high-tide of Catholic intellectualism, when writers and thinkers on both sides of the Atlantic converted or rededicated themselves to the Catholic faith. Paul Elie's book "The Life You Save May Be Your Own" attempts to capture the spirit of that time with a group biography of four mid-century Catholic Americans--Flannery O'Connor, Dorothy Day, Walker Percy and Thomas Merton. Paul O'Donnell spoke to him recently about his book, which is Beliefnet's 2003 Book of the Year, and how that era differs from our own.

Part of the story of your book is how three of these four writers converted to Catholicism. What drew them and many others to Catholicism in the middle of the 20th century?

It's one of the hardest questions to answer. I'm suspicious of the usual explanation, that it was a kind of Catholic moment, when immigrant Catholics were coming of age, having assimilated to a certain degree, but not having lost their distinctiveness. Another explanation is that the world had been through a war, and the Catholic faith offered a solidity and promise in dispairing times; yet another is that Catholicism represented something other for Americans--like Percy or Day--who were all too assimilated.



People may look back and see a sort of golden age of Catholicism at this time. But something like 100 million Catholics lived in this country between 1933 when the Catholic Worker was founded and now. There's incredible diversity in that group, the motives for being Catholic, the ways of being Catholic, the significance of it and the expression. So most of the generalizations don't hold up. I said to myself, let's go deep, looking at four lives and try to point toward the whole. That to me is how best to understand religious experience in this country.

These four weren't alone though. They existed within a larger realm of Catholic intellectuals.

They did. There was Jacques Maritain. There were the English Catholics, Waugh and Greene and their associates. There was Claire Booth Luce and her circle. The example of Bellocq and Chesterton was still very strong. There were crypto-Catholics like Czeslaw Milosz and Boris Pasternak, whom Merton entered into dialogue with. There was Caroline Gordon and a lot of other people now forgotten.

So it was a golden age of Catholicism in a sense.

There were others out there, and they were stimulating one another. But it's too easy to suppose that everything happening was coherent. "Wise Blood" sold fewer than 2,000 copies. A lot of the books by these people weren't especially well read or were forbidden. There was a lot going on, but it was more complicated than to say it was a golden age.

Do you think we'll look back to today and find people like these folks in our times?

It seems that writers these days tend to touch on something powerfully Catholic, then move on. "Ironweed" by William Kennedy is just a great Catholic novel. But he seems to be able to write other books that don't make that central to the story. What's apparently missing are people living those emblematically Catholic lives who are also writers.

Why is that?

Protestants always said the problem with Catholics was that we modelled our lives on saints, rather than Christ. To some degree the Second Vatican Council corrected that. It put the emphasis on Christ, where it belonged. But one consequence was that imitating those who have gone before us, being called to do so, becomes less important. The four people in my book imitated their way to the lives they ended up leading. Those who followed either modelled their lives directly on Christ, or they lived in a way that was not based on imitation.

In the book, you're dismissive of more recent Catholic figures, like the Berrigans.

One of the main traits I champion in the people in my book is their ability to write about matters of faith in terms the nonbeliever can appreciate. The ability of Merton or Dorothy Day to maintain a dialogue with the modern world--as Vatican II urged Catholics to do--is just profound. They stayed in touch with the average middle-class person who thinks religion is bosh.

Those who undertook the later protests against the Vietnam War don't seem interested in dialogue. They don't seem to have met those who supported the war with mutual respect. Dialogue wasn't really attempted. That was Merton's objection to them. He said nobody's mind was changed through those symbolic actions.

You say American Catholics are constantly grappling with the gap between their religion and their experience. What do you mean by that?

In theological terms, it's a product of our fallenness. Our experience of life doesn't meet our expectation of it. That's a starting point for what someone like Flannery O'Connor would call the realism of Christianity. But for many people, that's a starting point for either an indictment of the Church or an indictment of society. It becomes one sided and simplistic.

So you have people trying to close that gap by force. They try to remodel the Church along the lines of the early Christians, or the Middle Ages, or some time when religion and life were supposedly integrated. My argument is that there has never been a good society, or a society in which the church was properly integrated. The distance we feel between religious aspirations and everyday reality is the gap that, in religious terms, we can discuss by discussing our fallen nature.

In a sense, isn't that gap between religion and experience the subject of these writers' work?

To a certain degree, and Merton would be the most emphatic in that way. What's striking to me is how they tried to close the gap through fidelity to their own callings. Merton finally understood that the best way to close the gap was to be a monk, and live that calling in the deepest and most complicated way possible. Day had a fidelity to her vision of how life should be lived. That's true to to a certain extent with O'Connor and Percy too.

Though they weren't setting the Mass to music or making stained glass, these four were in a sense Church artists. How do these writers fit in that tradition?

The Church has always made use of the figurative. The novelty and vexing quality of Christianity is that it's insisted that its figures are true. These artists had a profound respect for art, but their goal was the expression of truth or truths. In that respect they fit into the whole tradition of Catholic art. And yet they were all powerfully isolated, which is uncharacteristic of church artists through the ages.

Their isolation is one of the saddest elements of the book. You said before that these four were skilled at dialogue. But four more lonely people would be hard to find.

Here's Dorothy Day who founds a whole movement to bring people together, and yet the title of her own autobiography is "The Long Loneliness." Her movement is a remedy for the loneliness. Merton's sense of himself was so strong-he had a very large ego, I guessed you'd say; it was oppressive to him-that he required the renunciation of self in order to get into dialogue with others. But what's more social than entering a community of monks, taking two or three hundred other men as your brothers? O'Connor might be a better example of this. She was cut off, but even so, there is a great deal of sociability in her letters.

So they were anti-social people who were constantly reaching out.

It's a paradox. They had the courage to live lives that were almost entirely paradoxical, and kept on that way instead of resolving the tension.

Our age, on the other hand, doesn't seem to like paradox. It seems to be an age of argument.

It's an age of public religion, where to be religious is to have positions on certain questions. These four writers are considered responsible for sowing the seeds of Vatican II in this country--Merton and Day especially, but the other two in their ways. But in their journals and their letters, they hardly said anything about it. Today people of that prominence would be expected to comment a lot more. A typical person is supposed to have big ideas about what's wrong with the church and how to fix it, instead of attending to the particulars of his or her vocation and how to live it. I deliberately wrote the book in the other direction. I said I'm not going to make this about a big Catholic moment in the '50s. It's going to be about four people and their pilgrimages and resist the generalizations and the public pronouncements. These people were trying to make points with their whole lives.

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