August 15, 2011
This year, for me, has been the Year of Biography. I've been reading memoirs, autobiographies, histories of particular historical figures, that sort of thing, almost exclusively since January 1. I've read books by two winners of the Mark Twain Prize for American Humor as well as a posthumous autobiography by Mark Twain himself; I've read an authorized biography of Nelson Mandela and a somewhat jaded story about the breakup of three pop superstar groups in 1970. If it's biographical, or autobiographical, or memoirish, or at all defensible as fitting those categories, I'll read it.
Lately I've been reading a book by Paul Elie that collects the stories of four American Catholic writers from the twentieth century: Flannery O'Connor, Thomas Merton, Walker Percy and Dorothy Day. I was pleased to find these writers described in Elie's The Life You Save May Be Your Own as what I might (somewhat self-servingly) call "original Likewise." If our line of books might reasonably be described as "contemplative activism," then these four writers would have fit the bill: "four individuals who glimpsed a way of life in their reading and evoked it in their writing, so as to make their readers yearn to go and do likewise."
Today's subject was Dorothy Day, at the founding of her newspaper Catholic Worker. Contained in its first issue (if I'm reading Elie correctly) was the following "easy essay" by Peter Maurin, a French Catholic who served as the catalyst for Catholic Worker and who set Day on the path toward sainthood. Check this out:
Chew on that for a while. This is the sort of plainspoken elegance that wisdom dresses itself in, the kind that we aspire to publish, the kind our authors aspire to write. Elie sums up the power of this kind of writing, which inspires readers and writers alike:
Here's hoping that you and we and all of us read or write something life-changing today, and every day. And here's to the great writers in the long tradition of the church--the "original Likewise" from the first century A.D. to the twenty-first--who help us see that hope not as mere idealistic fantasy but as a particular vocation of the church in every age. Books can still change lives, we contend, when they're written by people who seek all manner of salvation, when they're inspired by a God who makes a habit of changing things for the better.