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

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9780374529215: The Life You Save May Be Your Own: An American Pilgrimage

The story of four modern American Catholics who made literature out of their search for God

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. The Life You Save May Be Your Own 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, ardently read one another's books, and grappled with what one of them called a "predicament shared in common."

A pilgrimage is a journey taken in light of a story; and in The Life You Save May Be Your Own 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.

"Sinopsis" puede pertenecer a otra edición de este libro.

About the Author:

Paul Elie, an editor at FSG, has written for The New York Times Magazine, The New Republic, and Commonweal. He lives in Manhattan.

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

The Life You Save May Be Your Own
ONE Experience  
 
The night the earthquake struck San Francisco--April 18, 1906--Dorothy Day was there. Startled awake, she lay alone in bed in the dark in the still-strange house, trying to understand what was happening and what it meant, for she was confident that it had a meaning, a significance beyond itself. Some years later she described that night in her autobiography. By then she was known as an organizer and agitator, a living saint, the prioress of the Bowery. But she saw herself as a journalist, first of all, and gave a journalist's eyewitness account of the event, which had brought on the most haunting of her early "remembrances of God." "The earthquake started with a deep rumbling and the convulsions of the earth started afterward, so that the earth became a sea which rocked our house in a most tumultuous manner. There was a large windmill and water tank in back of the house and I can remember the splashing of the water from the tank on top of our roof." She was eight years old, the third child of four. Her family had moved from New York to Oakland earlier in the year after her father, a journalist, found work with one of the local papers. Back in Brooklyn she had shared a bedroom with their Irish servant girl. Here she shared a room with her baby sister, who slept in her arms. "My father took my brothers from their beds and rushed to the front door, where my mother stood with my sister, whom she had snatched from me. I was left in a big brass bed, which rolled back and forth on a polished floor." Before getting into bed she had knelt at the bedside to say her prayers. Of all her family, she alone was religious: she prayed in school, sang hymns with neighbors, went to church by herself because the others would not go. She was "disgustingly, proudly pious." In bed, however, she would have nightmares about God, "a great noise that became louder and louder, and approached nearer and nearer to me until I woke up sweating with fear and shrieking for my mother." And that night, alone in the dark on the big rolling bed, shaken by the earth, left behind by her mother and father, she felt God upon her once again, a figure stalking her in the dark. Or was that night the first time? "Even as I write this I am wondering if I had these nightmares before the San Francisco earthquake or afterward. The very remembrance of the noise, which kept getting louder and louder, and the keen fear of death, makes me think now that it might have been due only to the earthquake ... . They were linked up with my idea of God as a tremendous Force, a frightening impersonal God, a Hand stretched out to seize me, His child, and not in love." The earthquake went on two minutes and twenty seconds. Then it was over. The world returned to normal. She got out of bed and went down the stairs and out to the street and looked around. She was startled all over again by what she saw: buildings wobbling on their foundations, smoke rising from small fires, parents calming strange children and passing jugs of water back and forth. People were helping one another. For two days refugees from the city came to Oakland in boats across San Francisco Bay, making camp in a nearby park. The people of Oakland helped them--the men pitching tents and contriving lean-tos, the women cooking and lending their spare clothing. What did Dorothy Day do? She stood on the street, watching, and felt her fear and loneliness drawn out of her by what she saw. "While the crisis lasted, people loved each other," she wrote in her autobiography. "It was as though they were united in Christian solidarity. It makes one think of how people could, if they would, care for each other in times of stress, unjudgingly in pity and love."  
A whole life is prefigured in that episode. In a moment in history--front-page news--Dorothy Day felt the fear of God and witnessed elemental, biblicalcharity, the remedy for human loneliness. All her life she would try to recapture the sense of real and spontaneous community she felt then, and would strive to reform the world around her so as to make such community possible. From the beginning, she had the gift of good timing, a knack for situating herself and her story in a larger story. Her first significant religious experience took place during the first great event of the American century, a cataclysm in the city named for St. Francis, the patron saint of "unjudging pity and love" for one's neighbor. Moreover, it took place at a moment of great change (seismic change, one might say) in religion in America, and also in the interpretation of religion--changes to which she would spend the rest of her life responding. There is little question that America at the turn of the century was a religious place. The question, then as now, was this: religious how? At the time, the answer to the question was usually theological, grounded in stock ideas about Catholicism and Protestantism that had been developing since the sixteenth century. Catholics (it was thought) were traditional, communal, submissive to higher authority, taking faith at second hand from pope and clergy, whereas the Protestant was individualistic, improvisatory, devoted to progress, bent on having a direct experience of God, obedient to no authority save the Bible and the individual conscience. From the time of Columbus, according to this scheme, which was accepted by Catholics and Protestants alike, the religious history of America was a running conflict between Catholic missionaries, who saw America as an annex of Catholic Europe, and Protestant pioneers, who saw it as a frontier to be settled according to the directives in the Bible. In the nineteenth century Protestantism became dominant, and religion in America came to be characterized by the rivalry between different Protestant churches, whose circuit-riding evangelists would travel on horseback from one town to the next, each of them preaching a creed and a way of life that he claimed was more faithful to the Gospel than those his competitors were offering. Thus the country, discovered by Catholics, was settled by Protestants, whose work ethic became the basis of the national character. Around 1900, however, the situation began to change. Because of immigration from Europe the Roman Catholic Church was suddenly the largest single church in America, with twelve million members. Taken all together, Protestants outnumbered Catholics seven to one, but when they thought of themselves separately, denominationally--as Baptists, Presbyterians, Unitarians,Methodists, and the like--they were outnumbered by Catholics, more of whom arrived each day. As Catholics settled in New York, Boston, Chicago, San Francisco, New Orleans, and other cities, the emphasis in American religion shifted from village and town to the metropolis. The spectacle of poor, dirty, ill-nourished people making camp on the outskirts of the city--such as the people Dorothy Day saw displaced by the San Francisco earthquake--became a familiar one, the subject of countless cautionary tales told among Protestants. And because so many of those people were Catholics, immigrant Catholics were the poor in the Protestant mind, and Protestant leaders, to care for them, devised the "social gospel," which sought to apply the New Testament to modern city life. Competition between different Protestant churches, then, was overlaid by the competition between Protestants and Catholics, each group a majority that felt like a minority. At the same time, conventional notions of Catholicism and Protestantism were being upended by the best and the brightest of the Protestant elite, in ways that challenged the standard account of American religious history and the usual understanding of religion generally. In The Varieties of Religious Experience (1902) William James, who had had a religious experience all alone on a mountaintop after a long hike, defined religion as "the feelings, acts, and experiences of individual men in their solitude, so far as they apprehend themselves to stand in relation to whatever they consider the divine." For making the solitary individual the measure of religion, James is generally credited with shifting the study of religion in America away from institutions and toward experience. But his method of jumbling together believers of all sorts was just as important. He assembled his lectures from newspaper clippings about odd religious occurrences, and in his view the familiar distinctions between Protestants and Catholics, poets and saints, self-taught preachers and learned divines, were less telling than those between different religious temperaments: the "sick-souled" and the "healthy-minded," or the "once-born" and the "twice-born." Meanwhile, James's Harvard colleague Henry Adams was being born again. In France in 1895 Adams, whose chronicle of the history of America ran to nine volumes, had undergone a religious conversion of sorts--not to God or Christ but to a mystical sense of history grounded in the Middle Ages and epitomized by the order and beauty and fixity, the sheer absoluteness, of the great French cathedrals. Declaring himself "head of the ConservativeChristian Anarchists, a party numbering one member," Adams wrote two books in which he sought to impress his vision of things upon the reader as boldly as possible. First came Mont-Saint-Michel and Chartres (1904), which is not so much a work of history as an imaginative pilgrimage, in which Adams slips into the skin of a French peasant who, in his view, saw and felt and understood life more directly than the stereotypical industrial-age American. Three years later came The Education of Henry Adams, Adams's third-person account of himself as a representative American man called Adams--whose problem, as he sees it, is that he is the descendant of pragmatic Enlightenment Protestants rather than of French Catholics, and so grew up with no knowledge of the religious energy that had inspired the cathedral builders of Europe--"the highest energy ever known to man." Adams turned out to be a more representative man than he could have expected. Over the next twenty years, as The Education was read and embraced as a sacred text by the expatriate writers of the Lost Generation, France became, in American writing, a heaven, set in contrast to the hell of capitalist America, and the descent from the age of faith to an era of industry came to be seen as the fall from order to chaos, from civilization to barbarism, from community to an awful alienation.  
Thomas Merton was ten years old when he first went back to France, the place of his birth and the setting of his father's paintings. Father and son set out by ship from New York, sailed to London and Calais, went by train to Paris and then to the south of France, the train racing through fields and towns--"over the brown Loire, by a long, long bridge at Orléans," Merton recalled in his autobiography, "and from then on I was home, although I had never seen it before, and shall never see it again." He was a son of two artists. His parents--Owen Merton from New Zealand, Ruth Jenkins from New York--had met and been married in London, and Owen Merton, a landscape painter at a time when the French landscape was on the frontier of art, had gone to the Midi in search of an ideal place to paint. Thomas Merton was born there in 1915, and a brother, John Paul, in 1918. As America entered the world war they all went to New York to stay with Ruth Merton's family. Three years later she entered Bellevue Hospital, with stomach cancer, and she sent her elder son a note from her hospital bed to inform him matter-of-factly that she would never see him again. Thomas Merton was six years old when his mother died. The next few years were hard ones. His father would go away to paint or to show his work, leaving him and his brother on Long Island with their grandparents. He went to school on and off. He read the Tom Swift books at his grandfather's office in a New York publishing house. He watched W. C. Fields make a movie in a vacant lot. And he prayed, following his father's instructions, asking God "to help him paint, to help him have a successful exhibition, and to find us a place to live." Then, in the summer of 1925, Owen and Thomas Merton went to France. As they settled one night in a small hotel in an ancient village, "I felt at home. Father threw open the shutters of the room, and looked out on the quiet night, without stars, and said: 'Do you smell the woodsmoke in the air? That is the smell of the Midi.'" They traveled for several weeks. In The Seven Storey Mountain Merton recalls the places they passed through--a bend at the base of a cliff with a castle on top; hayfields running down to the river, crossed by cattle tracks or dirt roads; a gorge with cliffs rising away on both sides, dotted with caves to explore--and describes them with painterly precision, until the point in the story when they reach their destination, the village of St. Antonin, whereupon he reverts to his own language, that of religious experience. St. Antonin was an ordinary village, encircled by a road where the ancient ramparts had been. The ruined buildings were recognizably medieval, except for the church in the center, which was modern. But it was the plan of the town, not its beauty or its history, that struck Merton most powerfully. He explained, "The church had been fitted into the landscape in such a way as to become the keystone of its intelligibility ... . The whole landscape, unified by the church and its heavenward spire, seemed to say: this is the meaning of all created things: we have been made for no other purpose than that men may use us in raising themselves to God, in proclaiming the glory of God." As he writes, twenty years have passed and he is cloistered in the Abbey of Gethsemani, the closest thing to a medieval French village to be found in America. The order and unity of the French village, he believes, are the attributes of the Catholic faith, and their fulfillment is the monastery; the longing he first felt as a boy in France he has satisfied as a Trappist. There is more to it than that, however. The son of a painter, he describes the village so as to give it the wholeness and harmony and radiance of a landscape painting. He, too, will wind up a painter of landscapes in his way,for in entering a monastery he has sought not just to return to France or the Middle Ages but to enter into the vision he had seen over his father's shoulder in St. Antonin that summer, in which the imperfect world was made perfect in the mind's eye.  
The Catholic immigrants who came to America came for good: most of them never returned to the old country. Yet in America, as in Europe, they still clustered by nationality: Irish, German, Italian, Polish, Mexican, canadien français. They had their own folkways and old-style devotions, a certain way of kneeling or clasping the hands. Their parish churches went up brick by brick in their neighborhoods: St. Stanislaus for the Poles, St. Philip Neri for the Italians, Our Lady Star of the Sea for the Irish longshoremen. Their processions filled the narrow streets where they were tenemented, the plaster Virgin or patron saint bobbing above a great wave of them during the feast-day parade. Today those immigrant neighborhoods are romanticized as outposts of the Old World, where community was palpable and the Church was at the center of people's lives. But to the Catholic i...

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Descripción Farrar, Straus and Giroux, United States, 2004. Paperback. Estado de conservación: New. Reprint. Language: English . Brand New Book. The story of four modern American Catholics who made literature out of their search for God 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. The Life You Save May Be Your Own 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, ardently read one another s books, and grappled with what one of them called a predicament shared in common. A pilgrimage is a journey taken in light of a story; and in The Life You Save May Be Your Own 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. Nº de ref. de la librería AAS9780374529215

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Descripción Farrar, Straus and Giroux, United States, 2004. Paperback. Estado de conservación: New. Reprint. Language: English . Brand New Book. The story of four modern American Catholics who made literature out of their search for GodIn 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. The Life You Save May Be Your Own 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, ardently read one another s books, and grappled with what one of them called a predicament shared in common. A pilgrimage is a journey taken in light of a story; and in The Life You Save May Be Your Own 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. Nº de ref. de la librería AAS9780374529215

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