Sex, God And Writing

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In 1971 Walker Percy sent a draft of his new novel, Love in the Ruins, to his old friend Shelby Foote. "What's it about?" Percy teased. "Screwing and God (which all Catholic novels since Augustine have been about)."

Both themes (in that order) figure in Paul Elie's The Life You Save May Be Your Own: An American Pilgrimage (Farrar, Straus & Giroux; 555 pages), an ingeniously woven literary tapestry that tells the stories of four great American Catholic writers of the 20th century — Percy, Flannery O'Connor, Thomas Merton and Dorothy Day.

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The Augustinian motif of sinning one's way to God shows up even in the early life of Dorothy Day, saintly founder of the Catholic Worker movement. The wild young Day studied Emma Goldman's anarchism. She interviewed Leon Trotsky. She had an abortion. She climbed into bed with the dead-drunk Eugene O'Neill to keep him warm until he fell asleep. Now Rome is seriously considering her for canonization.

Thomas Merton, who accomplished the only-in-America oxymoronic feat of becoming a celebrity Trappist monk (his memoir, The Seven Storey Mountain, was a best seller in 1948), fathered a child out of wedlock before taking his vows; later, as a middle-aged hermit with a taste for bourbon, he had a brief love affair with a nurse. Walker Percy drank too much. Poor Flannery O'Connor, crippled by lupus, dead at 39, sometimes sounded alarmingly like a racial bigot.

In Elie's deeply moving study, imperfection is both the starting point of spiritual journeys and the stuff of which wisdom literature is made. Elie, an editor at Farrar, Straus & Giroux, uses the four authors' lives and work — their pilgrimages, as he says — to explore "a larger story of the convergence of literature and religion in the 20th century" and to learn from their complicated struggles toward God in a country that is at the same time abnormally religious and unusually devoted to Mammon.

The critic James Wood has pointed out that the decline of the Bible's authority in the 19th century coincided with the rise of the modern novel. Elie reminds a wistful 21st century reader how urgently books used to matter. Books — by Dante, Blake, Flaubert, Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy, Joyce, Jacques Maritain, Etienne-Henry Gilson and hundreds of others — served as spiritual guides for Elie's quartet in their journeys, shaping them in a life-or-death way that one senses would not be possible now.

Day embraced the world as a social activist — a Catholic anarchist. Merton withdrew from the world to become a monk, memoirist, essayist. O'Connor lived surrounded by her famous peacocks on a farm in Milledgeville, Ga., her body restricted by disease, her imagination ranging with strange originality through a universe of her creation. Percy labored on, exploring the modern self that he considered essentially empty. Elie braids these four distinctive strands into a story, both inspiring and deeply intelligent, in which, as he says, "art, life and religious faith converge."