Thanks to a good friend here in Tyler, I am finally reading a book that has been on my radar screen for a while now: The Life You Save May Be Your Own, by Paul Elie, senior editor at Farrar, Straus, & Giroux. This book weaves together the life stories and religious journeys of four 20th century American Catholic writers: Thomas Merton, Dorothy Day, Flannery O’Connor, and Walker Percy.
About a year ago, I read for the first time Thomas Merton’s Seven Story Mountain. But there was something about the story that really bothered me, something I discussed with several people.
Merton’s story is the dramatic and sustained retelling (in the form of a Joycian “mosaic of jagged fragments”) of his journey to Christ, but it is a journey that, crucially for Merton, had to pass through the emptiness and disappointment of sin. And even though Merton does paint a compelling portrait of this emptiness, nevertheless one walks away from the story with the feeling that, well, his exploits just don’t seem all that bad. Yes, he gets drunk a few times. Yes, he hangs out with ladies and seems vaguely to be aroused by their company. Yes, he is clearly motivated by his own pride in his various affairs.
But, still, one gets the feeling that the story would be more filled-out, more complete, if he were to have included something really bad, something which, after coming to his senses (like the prodigal son in Luke 15) truly left him in the gutter, like a dog returning to its vomit.
But there is nothing like that in the whole story.
And now, thanks to Elie, I know why. There was, in fact, some kind of sexual misadventure which Merton engaged in, and which truly caused him to hit rock bottom, leaving him with the deep sense of the emptiness of life apart from God. However, his editors (monks at his monastery Gethsemani in Tennessee) censored this part of the story.
What is more, something similar is the case in Dorothy Day’s autobiography, as Elie points out. The key difference here, being, that her deletion was self-imposed, coming from her own sense that such a revelation would just be too scandalous for her readers.
Now, I find all this interesting for many reasons, but I will elaborate only on two.
First, I would like to compare this to the autobiography of St. Augustine. Even though I have read the Confessions two or three times, I cannot quite remember if, or how, Augustine casts his own sexual “misadventures,” and how he portrays them as playing a role in his journey to God.
Second, and more importantly, I am so happy to have my hunch confirmed that, actually, sexual sin played a central role in Merton’s story. (I think it is not just my own life experience but also years of reading Walker Percy novels, chock full of sexual smut, which created such a strong suspicion of this in my reading of The Seven Story Mountain).
Consider the personalities and characters of Merton and Day. They were true pilgrims. They were hard core and rigorous about separating mere convention from true meaning and responsibility. In this sense they were good existentialists in the tradition of Dostoevski. They were serious and disciplines about their journey into self-knowledge and truth.
Both had the ability to see through the false pretensions of puritan religious culture, bourgeois conservatism and mores. They were both willing to let the things that don’t really matter truly slide (Fight Club reference there). Both were more than willing, like Jesus, to flaunt and defy those who would create rules and regulations which are not truly about faithfulness to God, which are not truly about what it means to be genuinely human.
And yet, for both Day and Merton, when they in their 20th-century, American autonomy tasted the experience of “free,” unfettered sexual indulgence, completely isolated from any reference to God or the community of God’s people, they both realized that this experience, in particular, was bankrupt and destructive.
They both realized that, when it comes to sex, there is something more going on than just some kind of traditionalist attempt to impose rules on people and to stifle their freedom and fun.
Here, uniquely, is something sacred. Here, in human sexuality, is a signpost to God which compelled them both to hit the pause button, to reflect on the true nature of being human, and to strive toward a life lived in God’s presence.
One last thought: after I finish this book I need to finish James Baldwin’s Go Tell it on the Mountain, to compare and contrast.