the life you save may be your own
I have just concluded reading Paul Elie’s The Life You Save May Be Your Own. Subtitled “An American Pilgrimage”, it was published in 2003, and so is not a new release, and yet for some reason I have only come upon it recently. Elie chronicles the lives of four distinctively American (and Catholic) writers: Thomas Merton, Flannery O’ Connor, Dorothy Day and Walker Percy. The lens through which he reads the lives of each is that of pilgrimage, which is understood to be the journey from second hand to first hand experience.
My exposure to Merton, Percy and O’ Connor came in seminary; Merton was a graduate student at Columbia who entered a monastery in Kentucky and remained there for the rest of his life—along the way writing a best selling memoir of his young adult conversion, The Seven Storey Mountain; O’ Connor was a gifted writer of short stories who lived in Milledgeville, Georgia until her untimely death at age 39 from Lupus; and Percy hailed from an aristrocratic but troubled Mississippi family, graduating from Chapel Hill and training to be a physician at Columbia where he contracted Tuberculosis—in a sanitarium he read existential philosopy, and upon his release he converted to the Catholic faith and began to write novels, his first (The Moviegoer) winning the National Book Award. I had known Dorothy Day as a key figure in the Catholic Worker movement, a profoundly important response to the desperately poor in a number of urban settings across the U.S.
Over the years I have read and reviewed most of the Merton corpus (his journals were published 25 years after his death); he lived a life of solitude and yet was in touch with most of the artistic, intellectual and political movements of his time. Merton has had a strong influence on most of the best of Christian spirituality since his death in 1968. I have also appreciated Percy and O’ Connor, and this is due primarily to the teaching of a professor who was able to make their distinctive works clear and compelling; I recommend Percy’s The Moviegoer, his first novel, or any of the short interviews with him (collected in two volumes by the University Press of Mississippi), or his essay “The Man on The Train“, and O’ Connor’s story “Revelation” or her letters, collected after her death entitled The Habit of Being. Percy is literate, philosophical and humorous; O’ Connor is graphic, comic and startling. Their writings have aged well, and continue to speak to a region and the larger world.
Elie’s concept of pilgrimage resonates with the artistic achievements of americana. Our most moving music, film and literature is always a testimony to first hand experience, whether it be alienation or poverty, guilt or desolation. It is no accident that jazz, blues, country and bluegrass touch the nerve of profound first hand experience, and often describe the journey from one place to another, and the transformation that occurs along the way. The devastation of poverty, the burden of racism, and the consequences of violence continue to mark the south with the sign of a cross, aware of our limitations and yet, at our best, concious that we are marching toward a better place.