The lives of four spiritually hungry, sometimes renegade, and now well-known American Catholics meet in a thoughtful study of ideas in action.
They were “ordinary people, on the face of it,” writes FSG editor Elie (ed., A Tremor of Bliss, 1994)—“but for many of us . . . icons.” Each in his or her own way, Thomas Merton, Dorothy Day, Flannery O’Connor, and Walker Percy, brought intellectual power and activist vigor to a conservative American Catholic Church, courting controversy with their heterodoxical writings and deeds. Merton and Day, writes Elie, came to Christianity through the back door of Marxism. Day, who founded the Catholic Workers movement (and is now a candidate for sainthood), came to the conclusion that “while Communism claimed to represent the masses, the masses ‘accepted the Church’ instead, and put their faith in it,” such that it seemed the most revolutionary thing to do was to go where the masses (and Mass) were and reform from within. More withdrawn from the world until the end of his life, when he became an activist against the war in Vietnam, Merton was a contemplative monk whose writings, such as The Seven Storey Mountain, became handbooks for spiritual seekers; ever self-critical, Merton always “worried that he was serving up ‘professional spirituality’ instead of describing what the experience of God was like,” an experience that the Georgia-born novelist O’Connor wrestled to put on the page as well, while the Louisiana writer and physician Percy strived ever to balance the sacred and the profane in works such as the roman à clef The Moviegoer. These four, contemporaries all, were only dimly aware of each other at the outset, but as time went on, scattered across the country, they came to form something of a school—a unity, Elie gracefully observes, “will be that of pilgrims who are taking different routes to the same destination, conversing at long distance from time to time.”
That conversation—and this lucid work—will greatly interest readers on literary and spiritual quests of their own.