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The Life You Save May Be Your Own: An American Pilgrimage (2003)

de Paul Elie

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6871427,279 (4.08)11
In the mid-twentieth century four American Catholics came to believe that the best way to explore the questions of religious faith was to write about them, in works that readers of all kinds could admire. This book is their story, a vivid and enthralling account of great writers and their power over us. Thomas Merton was a Trappist monk in Kentucky; Dorothy Day the founder of the Catholic Worker in New York; Flannery O'Connor a "Christ-haunted" literary prodigy in Georgia; Walker Percy a doctor in New Orleans who quit medicine to write fiction and philosophy. A friend came up with a name for them--the School of the Holy Ghost--and for three decades they exchanged letters, read one another's books, and grappled with what one of them called a "predicament shared in common." In this book Paul Elie tells these writers' story as a pilgrimage from the God-obsessed literary past of Dante and Dostoevsky out into the thrilling chaos of postwar American life. It is a story of how the Catholic faith, in their vision of things, took on forms the faithful could not have anticipated. And it is a story about the ways we look to great books and writers to help us make sense of our experience, about the power of literature to change--to save--our lives.… (més)
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The ultimate goal, I believe, of reading is to develop as a person, to take tiny steps towards wholeness, maturity and wisdom. And, I’ve known for some time that my emphasis on non-fiction reflects my overemphasis of the head over the heart.

Paul Elie’s The Life You Save May Be Your Own was that perfect mixture of head and heart where you’re introduced to some of the most compelling people of the 20th century along with their ideas and convictions. Simply put, I loved it, and I’m so thankful for Nate suggesting it. (I had read and didn't like or understand Flannery O’Connor’s first book Wise Blood, to which he recommended this.) Their lives pulled your forward with zest; their thoughts, questions and exploits inspired; and on top of it, Elie included ample literary reflection and insight, not to mention perspective particularly on the American 1950s and 60s.

The book interweaves the stories of 4 of the most influential Catholics of the 20th century – Thomas Merton, Flannery O’Connor, Walker Percy, and Dorothy Day. All were writers and all sought after truth and God in their own ways. Here Elie tells of their pilgrimages and particular journeys.

Before reading this book, I had read a bit of O’Connor, Day, and Merton, and knew just bits of their lives, but I was downright shocked at some of the twists in their stories, which I won't spoil here. Many of their ideas, enacted in their lives, were powerful. Here are a few: a theology of the grotesque or “freaks” seen particularly in O’Connor’s fiction. Love for the poor and Therese of Lisieux’s Little Way (mentioned, I believe, by all). The importance of place and committing to a place. Care for the poor. The practice of letter writing. The love of the written word and literature! I hope to read many more of the classics, particularly Dickens, Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Orwell, James, not to mention many more by these 4 authors. And perhaps most of all – the emphasis on solitude, silence and contemplation. I was left with a yearning for depth.

It is a book to savor, to grow deeper in love with life, and to be inspired by their lives. And, if done well, a 4 part biography cannot be short. So be prepared to read.

Some quotes noted mostly for personal significance:
A quote from Walker Percy: “Life is a mystery, love is a delight. Therefore I take it as axiomatic that one should settle for nothing less than the infinite mystery and the infinite delight, i.e., God. In fact I demand it. I refuse to settle for anything less.”

A quote from Day: “Buddhists teach that a man’s life is divided into three parts: the first part for education and growing up; the second for continued learning, through marriage and raising a family, involvement with the life of the senses, the mind, and the spirit; and the third period, the time of withdrawal from responsibility, letting go of the things of this life, letting God take over.” And that was how she announced her retirement from the Catholic Worker.

Merton: “Can I tell you that I have found answers to the questions that torment the man of our time? I do not know if I have found answers. When I first became a monk, yes, I was more sure of ‘answers.’ But as I grow old in the monastic life I become aware that I have only begun to seek the questions. And what are the questions? Can a man make sense of his existence? Can a man honestly give his life meaning merely by adopting a certain set of explanations which pretend to tell him why the world began and where it will end, why there is evil and what is necessary for a good life? … I have been summoned to explore a desert area of man’s heart in which explanations no longer suffice, and in which one learns that only experience counts.”

One from O’Connor retelling a conversation she had with “Big Intellectuals”:
I hadn’t opened my mouth once, there being nothing for me in such company to say. The people who took me were Robert Lowell and his now wife, Elizabeth Hardwick. Having me there was like having a dog present who had been trained to say a few words but overcome with inadequacy had forgotten them.

Well, toward morning the conversation turned on the Eucharist, which I, being the Catholic, was obviously supposed to defend. Mrs. Broadwater said when she was a child and received the Host, she thought of it as the Holy Ghost, He being the ‘most portable’ person of the Trinity; now she thought of it as a symbol and implied that it was a pretty good one.

I then said, in a very shaky voice, ‘Well, if it’s a symbol, to hell with it.’ That was all the defense I was capable of but I realize now that this is all I will ever be able to say about it, outside of a story, except that it is the center of existence for me; all the rest of life is expendable.”

Lastly in the concluding epilogue Elie writes, “What is the meaning of their lives? It is a presumptuous question, and yet one that demands to be asked.” To which he then describes his own pilgrimage to each of their main stomping grounds. He continues: “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.” A lovely summary, I thought. ( )
  nrt43 | Dec 29, 2020 |
purchased due to rec in Common Reader catalogue ( )
  Overgaard | Jun 21, 2020 |
A great, enjoyable read covering four major American Catholic writers in the 20th century. Highly recommend to anyone interested in the faith. ( )
  jeterat | Apr 10, 2020 |
Lovely book about lovely (not at all to say perfect) human lives. It lengthened my books-to-read list by several titles too. I read most of it at about 10 pages a day as a devotional text, and that was great. ( )
  nicholasjjordan | Nov 13, 2019 |
Featuring biographies of two of my favorite writers, Walker Percy and Flannery O'Connor, this book introduced me to the world of two other religious writer/thinkers, Thomas Merton and Dorothy Day. It also expanded my limited knowledge of Roman Catholicism since I was raised a heathen (Methodist version). Of course, these writers were not necessarily orthodox in their religious beliefs, but they were definitely interesting.
The book is a rich tapestry that features connections, both curious and serious, between the subject writers. It is this that raises this book above average biographies. Even though the book does not provide the detail that separate biographies might offer, Elie focuses on the essential nature of each writer's personal pilgrimage discussing how they fit into the modern literary tradition. The marriage of Paul Elie's wonderful prose with such fecund material made a biographical exploration of literary and religious ideas one that I can heartily recommend to anyone who enjoys reading. ( )
  jwhenderson | Jul 29, 2017 |
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In the mid-twentieth century four American Catholics came to believe that the best way to explore the questions of religious faith was to write about them, in works that readers of all kinds could admire. This book is their story, a vivid and enthralling account of great writers and their power over us. Thomas Merton was a Trappist monk in Kentucky; Dorothy Day the founder of the Catholic Worker in New York; Flannery O'Connor a "Christ-haunted" literary prodigy in Georgia; Walker Percy a doctor in New Orleans who quit medicine to write fiction and philosophy. A friend came up with a name for them--the School of the Holy Ghost--and for three decades they exchanged letters, read one another's books, and grappled with what one of them called a "predicament shared in common." In this book Paul Elie tells these writers' story as a pilgrimage from the God-obsessed literary past of Dante and Dostoevsky out into the thrilling chaos of postwar American life. It is a story of how the Catholic faith, in their vision of things, took on forms the faithful could not have anticipated. And it is a story about the ways we look to great books and writers to help us make sense of our experience, about the power of literature to change--to save--our lives.

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