National Catholic Reporter
The Independent Newsweekly
Issue Date:  August 1, 2003

When Catholic giants walked the land

Remembering Merton, Day, O'Connor and Percy


About 50 pounds ago, in 1949, I was teaching in a Catholic grammar school in New York’s Spanish Harlem. It was an immense parish that had a dozen Redemptorist priests, about 45,000 parishioners, and a Congressman named Vito Marcantonio who used to give the students rulers with his name on them. (He also supplied an orange, a few cuts of bread, a hard-boiled egg and a mug of milk to the often hungry kids in the poor neighborhood.)

Thomas Merton
-- CNS photos

It was just 11 years since Thomas Merton had become a Catholic and only eight since he entered Gethsemani Abbey to become a Trappist monk. Just a year before, in 1948, he had released his autobiography, The Seven Storey Mountain, his most famous book, which became a huge bestseller. (I still have a duplicate copy of the first edition -- at least a second-class relic.)

Merton had gone to Columbia University on Morningside Heights, a brisk shake of the leg across 125th Street. He had volunteered at Friendship House, a shelter at 135th and Lenox Avenue in Harlem, just 11 blocks from where I lived. I had heard that his picture was in the Columbia yearbook. He had already published three books of poems and a biography of a Trappist nun and I wanted to see what he looked like.

I never did get into the library, but I did visit Corpus Christi Church where he had been baptized. I breathed some of the same air.

Before entering the Trappists, Merton taught at St. Bonaventure University in upstate New York. A few years later, a high school classmate of mine occupied the same room where the famous monk once studied and slept. It was a shrine -- a third-class relic.

Merton wrote prolifically for the next 20 years. He died in an electrical accident in Thailand in 1968 at only 53, leaving behind an enormous pile of well-chosen words.

Dorothy Day

That same year, I took the subway down to Mott Street to visit the Catholic Worker and to catch a glimpse of Dorothy Day, the journalist and pacifist, co-founder with Peter Maurin of The Catholic Worker newspaper, which the forward-thinking brothers who taught me in high school used to put on our desks.

Dorothy Day centered her life on Christian personalism, stressing the value and dignity of the human person. She’s now up for canonization although she often protested that such a promotion would trivialize her.

Day was there, standing in the doorway, talking to a rather nervous priest from New York’s chancery office (often referred to as the “Powerhouse”) where Cardinal Francis Spellman reigned for nearly 30 years. It was the year that the cemetery workers of the archdiocese went out on strike. They then earned about $80 a week. Some had 10 children. Members of the Catholic Worker community picketed outside the cardinal’s Madison Avenue mansion, chanting, “The priests in your own rectory are against you!”

Spellman wanted to ferret out the offending clerics and appoint them lighthouse chaplains. Day told the priest that she had not sent the picketers there. But the poor guy was visibly nervous. Whole unions had withdrawn their support from the working area parishes and workers’ sons had left the seminary. Meanwhile, Spellman had ordered his seminarians to dig graves or to hang up their cassocks.

Dorothy Day was then in her early 50s and had been a Catholic for 22 years. She seemed so calm, even as grubby, homeless and smelly men stood close by and listened.

Years later, I moved to Chicago and close to the Episcopal church where she had been baptized as a young girl, not far from Webster Avenue where she lived until entering college. I met her again when I worked at DePaul University in Chicago and they presented her with their highest award, the St. Vincent de Paul Medal. (The university gave her a generous check together with the medal but she couldn’t cash the check since she had no bank account.) Day had visited Chicago at an earlier time and had taken a spill, breaking her arm. The sisters at a local Catholic hospital were honored to take care of her but when they learned that her physician of choice was a black Catholic, they refused to let him treat her. (Eventually, she was treated by the black doctor under the name of a white doctor on the staff.)

And she wrote and wrote. Not as much as Merton and perhaps not as well. But her thoughts could touch the heart of a medieval bishop.

I taught Flannery O’Connor’s short stories in the late ’50s and through the ’60s. She died of lupus in 1964 when she was only 39.

O’Connor created memorable fictional characters who were often drowning in fundamentalist convictions. Her stories always held out the possibility of redemption. My favorite is “Parker’s Back.” It’s about a mean-spirited drunk who often got loaded and went to a tattoo parlor to have his body decorated -- everywhere except on his back, which he was saving for the Big Tattoo. His nagging, Bible-thumping wife never let up on him about the fact that he was hell-bound. So, one night, when he got plastered, he went back to the parlor and instructed the artist to install a huge panel of Jesus on his back. He staggered home; she charged at him.

“Aw shuddup,” he said and then bared his back. “Look!” he shouted. “Who’s that?” she answered.

Her irony was wonderful. Lupus prevented her from traveling from her Georgia home. She once wrote a friend that she desired to go to Los Angeles some day for five minutes to study the culture.

Flannery O’Connor’s entire oeuvre consisted of two short novels and two collections of short stories. But her characters burned holes in their readers. They were unsmiling monuments to the strangeness of ordinary life.

Walker Percy was just a year younger than Thomas Merton and the last to die (1990). He was from a prominent, though troubled Southern family. He trained as a pathologist but didn’t practice because of illness and because he felt drawn to writing.

His first novel, The Moviegoer, was about a New Orleans stockbroker who was addicted to the movies and his relationship with a depressed woman from whom he learns compassion. It won the National Book Award. His later books were also about Southern gentlemen who were feeling the effects of changing times.

He became a Catholic in 1947 and gradually moved to the theological right aisle in the church.

Percy spoke at Chicago’s Loyola University where my wife was a professor of Fine Arts. We went; noshed on finger sandwiches and went to the little auditorium to snatch a good seat.

It was empty except for Walker Percy who was sitting in the back, reviewing his lecture.

Percy isn’t easy. His sentences can be as dense as hard salami. But he’s worth the effort.

Now comes Paul Elie, an editor with Farrar, Straus & Giroux, who has written a wonderful book about all four of them titled The Life You Save May Be Your Own, a title taken from Flannery O’Connor.

The last of these four American masters died in 1990. Three of them were converts to the church. There simply aren’t another four like them in our present Catholic writers’ roster.

Catholic writers are like vintage grapes. They come in bunches. The British have Graham Greene, Evelyn Waugh and G.K. Chesterton; the French have François Mauriac, Léon Bloy and Georges Bernanos. It was a blessed period.

Virtually every word Merton, Day, O’Connor and Percy wrote is still available in bookstores and libraries -- a remarkable achievement in an age when the shelf life of a book is about four months.

Read Elie’s book. It’s a huge bowl of literary popcorn. Then, go back to your bookstore or library and check out the four authors’ books. It’s not too late, in Flannery O’Connor’s words, to be “spattered with the blood of redemption.”

Tim Unsworth writes from Chicago. Write him at

National Catholic Reporter, August 1, 2003

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