This not being the season for long walks, it took me weeks of treadmill strolls* to finish “The Life You Save May Be Your Own: An American Pilgrimage” by Paul Ellie — an intertwined biography of Thomas Merton, Dorothy Day, Walker Percy and Flannery O’Connor, all 20th-century Catholic writers, informally referred to as the School of the Holy Ghost. They reminded me how cool it used to be to be Catholic. (Hmm… I’ve stopped myself cold with that statement. Now I’m thinking…)
It seems like the Catholicism of my intellectual youth was about grappling with existentialist philosophy, pondering tragic and absurdist Irish playwrights, and fighting for social justice. Thomas Merton was there, with his Seven-Story Mountain conversion from worldliness to Trappist monastery. Dorothy Day was there, with her Catholic Worker fight for poor folks and for the end of the war in Southeast Asia. Flannery O’Connor was there, with her funny and wise Southern characters. My teachers in Catholic high school and college were all about exploring and testing ideas, not about celebrating one’s faith. (Of course, the nuns were all in the process of leaving the convent in the late Sixties, so… the times were unique.)
I did drift far enough away from the Church so that now it only seems like a shrill scold against liberalism. You’re either a papist or a heretic. I know that’s an unfair oversimplification… right?
Anyway, it was nice to be reminded by this quartet of writers that Catholics can be a feisty bunch of rebels, wayfarers, and reformers.
*22 hours and 39 minutes to be precise