Friday, September 30, 2011

The Real Realists: Paul Elie's The Life You Save May Be Your Own

The Life You Save May Be Your Own: An American PilgrimageThe Life You Save May Be Your Own: An American Pilgrimage by Paul Elie
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

It's hard to communicate how very much I enjoyed this book. It took me forever to read, but that's partly because I didn't want to rush my way through it. On its face it's pretty innocuous--four Catholic writers from the mid-twentieth century and how their lives intersected--but the intersections are more profound than mere acquaintance, correspondence or coincidence. Walker Percy and Thomas Merton, for example, apparently only met once and didn't actually click, and Merton and Dorothy Day never met, only corresponded. Flannery O'Connor bears almost no formal connection to any of them, beyond a bit of correspondence with Percy and Merton's surprisingly familiar eulogy of her. So the literal ties barely bind them to one another, and yet taken together they can be considered to define American Catholicism before Vatican II, and the American post-war postmodern spiritual condition along with it.

I've read quite a bit of Merton and the slightest bit of O'Connor; I'm a fan from afar of Dorothy Day and almost completely unfamiliar with Walker Percy. But in the terms laid out by Paul Elie, by which we're meant to understand them, I found myself toggling back and forth regularly among all four of them as saints and icons of my own spiritual pilgrimage. Elie starts with a common thread of a desire for direct experience--first of life in its fullness, then of faith in its full depth. Merton and Day both experience profound spiritual conversions, guided second-handedly by the writers they read but driven by a desire for a direct encounter with God. Both became icons of Catholicism for the twentieth century and moderating voices during the turbulent anti-war, pro-civil-rights 1960s. O'Connor and Percy, Southern whites and cradle Catholics both, explored the human condition through the lens of Catholic theology without seeing their art corrupted by their piety. The "grotesque," O'Connor's word for her milieu, was the point of entry for both of them to a deeper understanding of grace. Both wrote uncomfortably about the South during perhaps its most uncomfortable era, but as local and contextual as their work is, it transcends place and time to continue to make us uncomfortable.

I found myself moved as each of the four died, years apart from each other, each in some ways more tragic than the previous. O'Connor, the benign racist who dreamed progressive dreams for her beloved South but resented the intrusion of outsiders, died first from complications brought about by lupus. Merton, the monk who strayed from his calling and perhaps never should have been cloistered in the first place, was electrocuted halfway around the world from home. Day died at a ripe old age, content and serene as one might expect a candidate for sainthood to be, but her death and the mystique that's surrounded her since have presented peculiar challenges for those who have followed in her footsteps. By the time Percy, the least natural writer of the four, died, he had seemingly deconstructed himself again and again with each new novel, in an effort to shake off the shackles his readers had forced on him. We get the sense in Percy's death that he was right from the start, that "even the rare authentically direct experience is spoiled by modern self-consciousness" (p. 278), that our desire to be fully human is hopelessly complicated by the culture we've cultivated that encourages mediated experience, secondhand faith, indirect encounters, half-humanness. Only God, any one of these four might argue, can save us now.

The impact of two world wars, a holocaust and nuclear madness on the idea of a God who created us and continues to care for us is well documented. But the idea of God, these four would suggest, is not the issue. "We who live the contemplative life," Merton acknowledged, "have learned by experience that one cannot know God as long as one seeks to solve 'the problem of God.'" Instead we ought to avail ourselves of God, to look for God in the shadow of the people who surround us, to listen for God in their laments, and to love our neighbors as ourselves. An odd call to live in the real world from people who made their marks as writers in the marketplace of ideas, but 472 pages later I'm convinced that Merton and O'Connor and Percy and Day were the real realists; everybody else was one degree removed. Would that we all could be realists of their ilk; the world would be more as God imagined it, and a much better place.

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