"A pilgrimage is a journey undertaken in the light of a story. A great event has happened; the pilgrim hears the report and goes in search of the evidence, aspiring to be an eyewitness.... Pilgrims often make the journey in company, but each must be changed individually; they must see for themselves, each with his or her own eyes. And as they return to ordinary life the pilgrims must tell others what they saw, recasting the story in their own terms."
In The Life You Save May Be Your Own, first-time author Paul Elie traces the lives and pilgrimages of four prolific Catholic writers of the last century. The journeys of Dorothy Day, Thomas Merton, Flannery O'Connor, and Walker Percy paralleled one another in many ways, yet all four related accounts of their travelsboth internal and in the worldwith narratives utterly their own.
In this exhaustive, nearly 600-page account, Elie does an impressive job of weaving together and wandering between their life stories, especially considering that interactions between the four were uneven and infrequent, if marked by revealing details. Day and Merton carried on a lengthy correspondence, but never met. Percy and Merton drank bourbon together on the porch at Merton's hermitage in Kentucky, and found they had little to say to one another. In 1961, O'Connor congratulated Percy with a short note: "Dear Mr. Percy, I'm glad we lost the War and you won the Nat'l Book Award." (O'Connor's comment came in response to Percy's declaration that the South produced fine literature because defeat had joined Southerners together and given them something to defend.)
Three of the four shared an active pursuit of Catholicism, O'Connor being the sole cradle Catholic among them. All were confirmed intellectuals and avid book readers, as well. Elie does a fine job tracing the influences of these influential people. The young Day in particular comes vividly alive during accounts of the profound impact that Russian writers Tolstoy and Dostoevsky made on her. One of the most interesting features of Elie's book, in fact, is learning where these pilgrims turned for inspiration in their own journeys, and seeing the cross-fertilization that took place as each explored similar writers and themes.
BESIDES BEING a personal account of four extremely full lives, this book also serves as a cultural exploration. It spans the 20th century, from Day's recollections of the 1906 San Francisco earthquake (she was 8 and later recalled the event as one of her early "remembrances of God") to Percy's death in 1990. In between, of course, fell two world wars, the Great Depression, the civil rights and peace movements, Vietnam, and the Cold War. These writers fulfill their roles as pilgrims by documenting their eyewitness accounts from unique vantage points: Merton in a Kentucky Trappist monastery; Day on the frontlines always, whether in New York City or traveling across the country; O'Connor confined by lupus to her farm in Milledgeville, Georgia; and Percy deeply situated in his beloved South, in small Covington, Louisiana. All, of course, also held the shared vantage point of the believer, their observances shaped by their relationship and struggles.
Elie is clearly sympathetic to and admires each of his subjects, but this is not a hagiography of anyone. Difficult subjects are covered, including Day's abortion, Merton's love affair with his nurse late in his life, and O'Connor's views on race and "Northern interference," which were often painfully in line with her time and community. Each of these four was, thankfully, a flawed believer, human and redeemed. That makes their stories all the more readable.
Although the narrative bounces among the four lives, the book is almost stridently chronological, which, given its length, can make some passages feel trudging. Elie admittedly relied almost exclusively on secondary literature about these writers. He perhaps is inclined toward the sin of excessive material rather than omission, but he also seems to know when to draw conclusions and when to let facts speak for themselves. A notable exception to this ability, however, is his tortured description of O'Connor's reluctant pilgrimage to Lourdes. Elie tries too hard to shadow O'Connor's every movement with those of characters from her stories. The embellished account does not work at all.
Mostly, though, Elie has some beautiful moments of spare prose, such as this description of a black-and-white illustration of Day by Fritz Eichenberg: "It is night, and she is barefoot, on the beach, standing in tall grass, wearing a dress that reveals her to be narrow-waisted and curvaceous. Her back is turned, for she is watching a boat on the water, hewing to the horizon, as if sailing away."
With their impassioned beliefs, insatiable intellectual appetites, and frequently wry observations, Day, Merton, O'Connor, and Percy all make worthy traveling companions on any pilgrimage. Elie has done a superb job allowing us to join them.
Kimberly Burge, a Sojourners contributing writer, is senior writer and editor for Bread for the World in Washington, D.C.