The Life You Save May Be Your Own: An American Pilgrimage by Paul Elie is a book I was fascinated with the from start to finish. It is the intertwined biographies of four Christian writers in the mid-20th century as they made their personal pilgrimage to find and serve God.
Paul Elie defines pilgrimage as:
…a journey undertaken in the light of a story. A great event has happened…the pilgrim seeks not only to confirm the experience of others but to be changed by the experience…In the story of these four writers, the pattern of pilgrimage is also a pattern of reading and writing.
The great event for these four is Christianity and this book is about how that journey affected their lives and what they wrote about. That the four happened to be Catholic is an integral part of the story. One was a “cradle” Catholic and the others were baptized as adults. Thomas Merton became a contemplative monk and peace advocate after college. I became interested in him after reading his autobiography The Seven Storey Mountain. Dorothy Day was the founder of the Catholic Worker movement. I have been looking for a bio on her after a series of seminars about her and her movement was given at Cornerstone this summer. Percy Walker and Flannery O’Connor are both novelists I have heard of but have never read. (I have to confess here that I have a hard time reading serious fiction these days and may never read their novels.) The book tells the story of how these four were interconnected. Elie writes:
Dorothy Day could have been speaking for the group when she said the meaning of her life was to live out the imperatives found in the Gospels and in her favorite novels…It was in literature, first of all, that they found religious experience most convincingly described. As they read Dickens and Joyce, Blake and Eliot, Augustine and Kierkegaard, they recognized themselves as people with religious temperaments and quandaries.
This resonated with me as I am a lover of reading. As a side note, I am surprised that the Marion Library had this bio. I seem to be reserving a lot of books from their collection.
In the author’s conclusion he writes:
In their different ways, the four writers this book is about sought the truth personally – in charity, in prayer, in art, in philosophy. Their writing was the most personal way of all, for in the act of reading and writing one stranger and another go forth to meet in an encounter of the profoundest sort. In this encounter, there are no self-evident truths. Nothing can be taken for granted or asserted outright. The case must be made to each of us individually, with fierce attention on both sides; we must be persuaded one at a time.
This book may go on my desert island list…or it may persuade me to read all of their writings. Either way it was a great read…I gotta go…