All four were, in some sense, deeply marginal figures, being either adult converts to the Roman Catholic faith at a time when such conversion was costly, or, in the case of O Connor, being constrained to live out her Catholic life surrounded by a sea of Southern Protestants.
All four were deeply critical of the arrogant spirit of modernity and sought in Catholicism an escape from a progressive world which left no place of grace intact.
I did not, for example, find in Elies book any account of the early influences that helped make Dorothy Day and Flannery O Connor into such strange and formidable personalities; it all seems to emerge from nowhere, forming the set with which they make sense of subsequent experience.
Ultimately, it is a book about pilgrimage, and as the subtitle suggests, the pilgrimage is somehow the same for all of them.
Instead, it merely proposes to gather together these four figures, linked by the common theme of pilgrimage, and relying on the charm of an engaging narrative style to carry the intellectual burden of cohesiveness.
But even the most winsome individual stories do not automatically weave themselves together into a larger whole; they require the loom of an argument to bring them into a more meaningful unity.Its prose is pleasingly lean and astonishingly jargon-free, and its analysis of texts is nearly always fresh and engaging. But this fine work also has some considerable faults, and given its many commendable points, one comments upon those faults only with the greatest reluctance.But comment one must, and to begin with, one must remark upon the books perplexing and confusing structure.And”a matter very important to Elie”all four placed an extraordinarily high valuation upon the written and printed word as an avenue of spiritual inquiry.They were people who lived in and through books, in a way that is increasingly rare today.His book seeks to draw them together into a movement of sorts, a band of pilgrims, a loose coalition of inveterate seekers whose unflagging search for ultimate meaning is an example worthy of our study and our imitation. Although they did not quite form a proper intellectual circle in their actual lives, the similarities between them are complex but genuine.Obviously, for one thing, there were the shared profound religious concerns which informed their lives work and caused them to be labeled the School of the Holy Ghost. But the similarity goes further. We are all skeptics now, he writes, believer and unbeliever alike.There is no one true faith, evident at all times and places. The clear lines of any orthodoxy are made crooked by our experience, and complicated by our lives. It is as if one suddenly awakened from a noble dream to find oneself in a lecture hall at the Harvard Divinity School.That brings me to a final concern, well expressed by one of the books blurbs, from the literary scholar Harold Bloom: As a work of the spirit, [ ] is universal and in no way sectarian. Bloom of course meant this as praise, but I am not so sure that it should be taken thus.It is entirely misleading to think of these four Catholics, all of them Catholic by fierce or passionate choice, as nonsectarian pilgrims.