IVP - Strangely Dim - Every Journey Begins

September 6, 2011

Every Journey Begins

"The Seven Storey Mountain was published October 4, 1948, . . . but the book did not begin to sell until Christmastime. Then it began to sell strongly: 31,000 copies in December, 60,000 in January, with 10,000 sold on one singularly lively day. The Seven Storey Mountain was a best-seller, but the New York Times refused to list it as one, on the grounds that it was a religious book, like the Bible."

life you save.jpgPaul Elie writes in his book The Life You Save May Be Your Own about four significant American Catholic writers of the mid-twentieth century--Thomas Merton (author of the aforementioned Seven Storey Mountain and countless other significant writings), Flannery O'Connor, Walker Percy and Dorothy Day--about their overlapping literary and personal lives, and the times that led to their prominence and shaped their worldview. In an earlier post I likened them to the authors of our Likewise books, mainly because of Elie's repeated return to the words of Jesus that connected these authors and which function as a common theme of our books: "Go and do likewise." Here, midway through his book, Elie starts to dig into the question: What made the moment right for for this renaissance of literary American Catholicism?

The answer is perplexing, especially given the various insurmountables in place:

  • The New York Times has since made room among its bestseller lists for religious writings, but at the time to write religiously was to court literary anonymity.
  • Catholicism in mid-century America, despite its cultural strength, was still broadly considered an immigrant's religion.
  • In the wake of victory in World War II and a roaring postwar economy, to question American greatness was to invite suspicion on yourself.
  • In the midst of broad prosperity after a long economic depression, to suggest the inability of wealth to satisfy the soul's longing was, to borrow from St. Paul, to kick against the goads.
Really, given the times, Merton's success doesn't make much sense. The memoir of an intellectual hedonist turned Trappist monk could hardly tap into the lived experience of a broad reading public. The journey toward Catholicism was not a journey that many people were prepared to undertake, and the stops along the way--a remote village in France, a boarding school in Britain, long conversations with a Buddhist--were literally far-fetched for the average reader. And yet The Seven Storey Mountain sold in quantities and at a pace that makes publishing professionals like myself salivate and would-be bestselling authors (also like myself) wail and grind our teeth.

Elie's take on the matter?

The book became a best-seller because it was a religious book, not in spite of the fact. It is . . . a firsthand account of one person's religious experience, the aspect of religious life so many books . . . left out of the story. Not only does Merton tell about what life is like behind the walls of a cloistered monastery; he tells what it feels like to be in the grip of God. And he does so in such a way as to make the reader feel not only that such an experience is possible, but that it is necessary, vital, and attractive, the center of life, just as the Catholic tradition insists it is. The Latin motto he uses to close the book--SIT FINIS LIBRI, NON FINIS QUARENDI--makes his point clear. Let this be the end of the book, not the end of the search. Merton's search will go on--and so, it is hoped, will the reader's, as the reader takes the book's insights beyond the book and into his or her own life.
seven storey.jpgMerton, you might say, was launching a shot across the bow of contemporary religiosity. Christian faith is not a static thing, a fixed position or "standing" that one achieves, but rather a journey that one undertakes. This is not a new idea nor a uniquely Catholic one; writers from the foundation of the church to the present have argued and illustrated the pilgrim nature of the Christian faith. But stasis is the constant threat looming on the horizon of any faith practice; meanwhile, any faith that is vital is on the move, entering constantly into the tension of life as it is handed to us, bearing the faith that has been handed down to us.

Merton's book is considered acceptable and orthodox among Catholics, as evidenced by the imprimaturs of his abbot at Our Lady of Gethsemani and of the Archbishop of New York, Francis Cardinal Spellman included on the copyright page. Imprimaturs scare us; they suggest something asserted rather than embraced. But Merton's book is an example of a faith that is only constrained enough to run free. It declares allegiance not only to the faith once for always delivered to the saints but to the human condition and spiritual quest that all people share. Merton's book, and the books of Elie's other writers, are Catholic, but they are also catholic--universally significant, inviting all with legs to walk on a journey with the God who created them in love, and who loves to recreate them.

Elie ends his assessment of Seven Storey Mountain's successful launch with the agenda of all his Catholic authors, and I would argue, a challenge to all authors with the audacity to think that their book might carry the imprimatur of God's blessing:
The spirit of the age; the nature of the Church; postwar anxiety; divine providence--these abstractions pale in light of the personal challenge Merton [and, by extension, Day and Percy and O'Connor] makes to the reader. . . . God exists, he insists. The way to seek God is firsthand, through religious experience. So I have done. Here is the story. Now go and do likewise.
Posted by Dave Zimmerman at September 6, 2011 1:26 PM Bookmark and Share

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Behind the Strangeness

Lisa Rieck is a reader and writer who likes to discuss good ideas over hot drinks and gets inspired by the sky. She takes in all kinds of good ideas as a proofreader for InterVarsity Press.

Rebecca Larson is a writer/designer/creative type who has infiltrated IVP's web department, where she writes and edits online content. She enjoys a good pun and loves the smell of freshly printed books.

David A. Zimmerman is an editor for Likewise Books and a columnist for Burnside Writers Collective. He's written three books, most recently The Parable of the Unexpected Guest. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/unexpguest. Find his personal blog at loud-time.com.

Suanne Camfield is a publicist for InterVarsity Press and a freelance writer. She floats ungracefully between work, parenting and writing, and (much to her dismay) finds it impossible to read on a treadmill. She is a member of the Redbud Writers Guild and blogs at The Rough Cut.

Likewise Books from InterVarsity Press explore a thoughtful, active faith lived out in real time in the midst of an emerging culture.

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