Something you are unlikely to come across in your “church life” is the fact that Catholicism has produced a surprisingly large number of first-rate writers and novelists. I am not talking so much about the academic world, though American Catholic theology has improved exponentially since the nadir of the 1950’s. In that decade Church historian Msgr. John Tracy Ellis dropped a bombshell of a critique on the entire Catholic educational enterprise in the U.S. in an elegant journal piece describing Catholic study as a mile wide and a foot deep. [Unfortunately, the ballooning costs of college and the overdependence upon marginal catechists may put us back to the 1950’s, if it hasn’t already.]
As one might expect, devotional writing was never in short supply in the U.S., and every household probably owned a book from the television bishop, Fulton J. Sheen. The Catholic market today is glutted with devotional literature, particularly with the arrival of e-books. But writers who bore considerable influence among critical reading Catholics in the twentieth century United States, were for the most part Catholic lay novelists or individuals of letters. In his The Life You Save May Be Your Own: An American Pilgrimage  Paul Elie profiles what was called at the time the “School of the Holy Ghost,” a circle of American Catholic writers who make their mark from after World War II till virtually the end of the twentieth century.
Elie identifies these four authors as Thomas Merton, Dorothy Day, Flannery O’Connor, and Walker Percy. Percy was the last to die in 1990. To varying degrees, they knew each other and read each other’s books. Amazon’s commentary describes the unconventional nature of their work:
“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.” Put in my more pedestrian language, these artists sought to bring the saving essence of Christian faith in eccentric and imaginative ways.
Talk about unique personalities. Merton, the Cistercian monk who spent most of his adult life in the cloistered Abbey of Gethsemane in Bardstown, Kentucky, was the most voluminous writer of the group. To my knowledge the only format he did not employ was the novel. His autobiographical journey to the monastery, Seven Storey Mountain, is one of Catholicism’s all-time best sellers, along with a series of works on prayer and communion with God, a seven-volume diary of his monastic life, and several volumes of his letters, entertaining and intriguing.
Dorothy Day [1897-1980] is well-known as the co-founder of the Catholic Worker Movement after a restless and complicated youth. Her writing genre might be titled “inspired journalist,” for she is remembered for her daily paper, The Catholic Worker, which began in New York City in 1933 and sold for a penny. Her autobiography is titled The Long Loneliness. A convert to Catholicism, she labored at her radical ministry of social justice for most of her life under the autocrat Cardinal Francis Spellman; my impression is that they made each other quite nervous. Thomas Merton wrote frequent editorials for the Catholic Worker, though in the 1960’s they had something of a falling out. Day was a pacifist and felt that Merton’s critique of the Viet Nam War was soft and safe. She was not the only critic of Merton’s distance from the battles in the streets.
Flannery O’Connor [1925-1964] is a product of the Old South, a devout and at times contentious Catholic. She supposedly exclaimed at a dinner party that if the Eucharist was just a symbol, “then the hell with it.” Her short life was plagued with lupus, and she did much of her writing on her family’s peacock farm. O’Connor’s writings—two novels and multiple short stories—are the subject of literary and theological research to this day. Commentators and readers alike are often taken aback at the intensity of violence in her works. I read Wise Blood some years ago and caught something of the author’s belief that redemption is hard fought and hard won. I would recommend that a potential reader may wish to read a good introduction to O’Connor’s works before plunging in, though it is indeed worth the effort.
Many years ago, I attempted to read The Thanatos Syndrome by Walker Percy. I did not know Percy well, except that he was a perceptive observer of the human species and something of a philosopher. I did not finish the book then, and it was not until reading Paul Elie’s biographical sketch this year that I realized that, like Flannery O’Connor, he was a voice of the South, a Catholic, and plagued with health difficulties. In addition, he was a physician, a true philosopher, anathema to the political left, and a profound ethicist. This remarkable 2013 review of The Thanatos Syndrome by George Wolfe explains Percy and the power of fiction to address contemporary society on matters of values. It is not hard to take from Wolfe Percy’s sympathetic Catholic plethora of values. Although this novel is Percy’s sixth, Wolfe recommends that it is the best book to enter the world of Percy’s thought.
Looking at the four Catholic authors presented by Elie, I am struck by the perception that their relationships with institutional Catholicism were far from ordinary. Merton and Day found the Church as adults after a number of personal storms. O’Connor was a rare Catholic in deep Georgia [one of her youthful homes is marked by a plaque across the street from the Savannah Diocesan Cathedral.] I doubt that they considered themselves in any sense catechists; they identify themselves as writers, which they certainly were, and I would add the moniker “Christian existentialists;” i.e., they extracted slices of life to seek the hidden veins of Christianity pulsing through confusion and sin.
Ironically, I had planned this post to feature two novels from an author who deserves at least honorable mention on this list, J.F. Powers, whose Morte d’Urban [1963 book of the year] and Wheat that Springeth Green  are two of the best fictional accounts of the Catholic priesthood in the United States. I will come back to them in due time, but for the moment consider the possibilities of faith enrichment in the arts.
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For Folks Who Can't Read Everything