The National Catholic Review

I have been on pilgrimage this spring and traveled with boon companions. I’ve kept late nights with Dorothy Day, toted Thomas Merton on the train, chuckled with Flannery O’Connor over her tales of kindred freaks, and got lost with Walker Percy in the cosmos. They’ve come with me across the country, tucked in my over-packed bag—from Boston to Austin, Florida to Minnesota, Manhattan to the Bronx. No matter that all four of these fellow pilgrims are dead, for the books they left behind have rendered each a perpetual Lazarus, resurrecting the writer with each (re)reading.

Moreover, I’ve had the pleasure of reading these writers in community. One of the joys of teaching is sharing powerful, life-changing books with my students. Each spring semester, I ritually invite the men and women in my American Catholic Studies Seminar to accompany me on this literary pilgrimage. From January to April, we read Seven Storey Mountain, The Long Loneliness, Wise Blood and Love in the Ruins. Together we trace the steps of young Merton as he becomes an accidental pilgrim in Rome, haunting her churches and devouring her art; we sit with Day in the dark of prison and walk beside her through the gritty streets of the Lower East Side; we follow O’Connor from rural Georgia to the literary metropolis of New York, and follow her back to Georgia when illness condemns her to a life of exile; we accompany Percy as he discovers his vocation to be not doctor of the body but physician of the soul, trading his Columbia M.D. for the considerably less prestigious role of Catholic novelist.  We conclude the course by reading Paul Elie’s literary biography of the Fabulous Four, The Life You Save May Be Your Own, the narrative of “a journey in which art, life, and religious faith converge.”

The students learn from Elie that the lives of these four contemporaries were interwoven yet never physically intersected. Instead, their moments of connection occurred through acts of imagination. They were all engaged in the same project—the pursuit of meaning in a chaotic and fallen world, and the search for God in a world that denies his existence. Each carried out this search by means of the word, writing the stories of their own lives, both directly, in the form of essays and memoirs, and indirectly, in the form of fiction and poetry.  

As fellow Catholics, they were members of the same brother- and sisterhood, the Mystical Body of Christ. They shared in common the idea of the word being born of the Spirit and, also, of the Word (or the Logos) as sign of God in the World. For them the act of writing was sacramental, inspired by the Spirit in the same way the disciples were inspired to speak in tongues. They believed that through the use of mortal materials (pen, ink paper), writing connects the ephemeral with the eternal, the material with the spiritual, the human with the divine—to disclose what St. Ignatius termed, “God in All Things.” While it’s true they never met in person, clearly they didn’t have to. United by this ambitious, counter-cultural project, they already knew one another in a deep, essential way.

The discovery of this “virtual community” of writers is thrilling to my students. Saavy users of social media, they have discovered that technology-driven attempts to create community often foster alienation instead. The cumulative effect of seeing endless pictures of Facebook friends traveling, going to parties, and having fun tends to make one feel deprived and depressed. Instead of the false bonhomie of FB, they sense in this “School of the Holy Ghost” genuine community, one founded on shared faith and vocation, and shored by sacrament and sign rather than posts and status updates. They also realize that the “church” formed by these four wisdom-seekers is not unlike the shared community we have formed in our own classroom.

On the last day of the semester, we observed a final spring ritual—I asked the students to identify which of the writers each felt the strongest connection with. As the conversation moved around the table, I was touched by the poignancy of their responses. Through the agency of the imagination and the power of the word, each had discovered a deep kinship with one of these four fellow travelers whose skin we’d lived in for a while. The final student concluded the class by quoting the best lesson Thomas Merton had taught him: “Friendship is the most important thing, and it is the true cement of the Church built by Christ.” Then we parted friends, our time together having come to an end.  We resumed our separate journeys beyond the classroom door, together and alone, with Merton, Day, O’Connor and Percy walking beside us.

Angela Alaimo O’Donnell, a columnist for America, is a poet, professor of English and associate director of the Curran Center for American Catholic Studies at Fordham University.


Bill Mazzella | 5/11/2013 - 6:25pm

Notable how Eli stresses the literary talents of this fab four as a conduit for their spiritual lives. Certainly, a long way from the Apostles, most of whom were illiterate. Perhaps conscious of this Eli inserts that the literary way is not the only way but one of the ways. When Eli's book came out many writers wrote, with admiration and perhaps envy, that this was a book they would have liked to write. At any rate these four are Catholics who took their faith seriously and their writings reflect that. More than any of these, Merton seemed to have the greatest impact. While Day may be higher on some scales. It is really striking the effect Merton had on American (literary) Catholics in the 40's and 50's, with his stirring book, the Seven Storey Mountain. Church officials promoted that book, because of Merton's orthodoxy at the time. Contrarily, Day did not seem to be on the Catholic radar because of official disapproval. Especially with her total anti-war position. Flannery and Percy were not close to the fame of Merton. All four today have more fame than they did in their lifetimes. Merton with hardly a dramatic difference. What is interesting is that both the right and the left claim Merton as their own. In my Franciscan seminary, circa 1957, our professor of English brandished a MFA, (early fifties) from Fordham U. He introduced us to Catcher in the Rye and the Great Gatsby. Nothing about the above four.

Do others belong on this list? Dan Berrigan comes to mind. After Vatican II I was interested in meeting those who were making news in the church. I did visit Berrigan but had no idea about the four above. Lost track of Merton at that time. When I visited, 1965-67, Dan was so upset about the sharp criticisms of his fellow Jesuits for his anti-war acttiviities that he could barely keep a conversation with me. The attitude of his confreres has changed today.

At any rate this was a stirring post, Angela. Perhaps you can continue posting on "The Life you Save May be Your Own.", with tidbits here and there. As this post did it can stimulate me to revisit the book and pick up some things I didn't notice on the first read. .

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