Once asked what book he’d like to be stuck with on a desert island, G.K. Chesterton reportedly responded in the way one would expect of him: Thomas’ Guide to Practical Shipbuilding. He was being facetious, and his real answer was The Pickwick Papers.
The question is a fun one to consider, but frankly, I’d beg for a larger suitcase and the ability to pack more. In fact, three books in particular are like a circle of close friends one can always turn to for trusted advice in the midst of a crisis—or for a hearty laugh on a dreary day.
These three books came to me at just the right time in life, in my years of high school and college, and turning to them also reminds me of those days when I was blessed with great teachers, great friends, great books, great discussions and little responsibility. Let’s take a look.
Orthodox. Faithful. Free.
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On the cover of my rather worn 1978 paperback volume of Thomas Merton’s The Seven Storey Mountain is a quote from Graham Greene, calling it “a book one reads with a pencil so as to make it one’s own.” So I have. One of the reasons I’m starting with this volume is because this observation of Greene’s is one that covers an important truth about reading, and all learning: The reader makes the book—the ideas, the truths, the values contained therein—one’s own.
I first came across Merton when I was in high school, through his poetry. I then discovered The Seven Storey Mountain, the 1948 story of his conversion from agnostic to Catholic to Trappist monk. If you are a young man considering a vocation, as I was, this is either a dangerous book to read, or just the right book.
For me, it actually was a little of both. At the boarding high school I attended, at St. Michael’s Abbey in Southern California, the students attended compline with the priests and seminarians each night, and we had to bring along something spiritual to read while the others were chanting. For me one time, it was Merton.
Frankly, Merton’s story is dangerous because it’s challenging. Do you want to reach perfection in consecrating yourself? Then surrender all—and he means all—and come under the obedience of someone else. This book is alive with his happiness at having found direction for his life. I only wish that for him, that initial joy of discovery would have lasted a lifetime.
Well-crafted books push you onward and upward, toward others. With Thomas Merton, that starts with his other volumes.
Here, a warning is in order. Many Catholics are concerned, not without good reason, about the direction Merton’s life took in the 1960s, when he began to explore Eastern religious traditions of contemplation. The restlessness that led him to the Trappists in the first place never went away and he often pined away for life as a hermit, not part of the traditional Cistercian vocation. At the same time, with his popularity he became attracted too much to things outside the monastery, developing finally an interest in Eastern religious traditions of contemplation that he had mocked, a little, a few decades earlier in Seven Storey Mountain. Sadly, this led to his death in 1968, in a freak accident in a hotel room in Bangkok, Thailand, where he was visiting for an interfaith conference. He was 53 years old.
I take the concern to heart, and pray for him, but his earlier writings have so much to recommend them. The Sign of Jonas serves as a sort of sequel to Mountain, a journal of his life before and after ordination to the priesthood. In it, he recounts the strain of quick growth of his abbey due to the popularity of his autobiography after World War II, when a lot of war-weary young men were seeking a peaceful oasis.
To this day, I have a healthy love for monks and silence—which is hard for a father of five with two little grandchildren nearby.
In 2003, the writer and book editor Paul Elie published The Life You Save May Be Your Own: An American Pilgrimage, which chronicles the story of Merton, Dorothy Day, Flannery O’Connor and Walker Percy. As I’ve appreciated the first and the last writers on this list, and have respect for the other two, I found this to be a good look at the ties that bind them together—especially looking at life and writing as a pilgrimage.
In his book on Merton and the others, Paul Elie talks about how the publisher of The Seven Storey Mountain sent the book around to some prominent Catholics to preview. That’s where the Graham Greene quote came from, originally. But it also gave Merton another fan at the time, Evelyn Waugh. Waugh not only helped edit the book, but got it published in England (shortened and under another title, Elected Silence, based on a poem by Gerard Manley Hopkins). Waugh also wrote the preface for this British edition, and Merton followed up by dedicating his next book to the novelist in 1949.
Of The Seven Storey Mountain, Waugh wrote this: “In the supernatural order the times require more than a tepid and dutiful piety. Prayer must become heroic.” We don’t need to be monks to know that we can always do more, and always do better.
This is not the entire reason the second book on my list is the novel Waugh is most famous for, Brideshead Revisited. Published only three years before Merton’s conversion story, it is of an entirely different milieu, the “smart set” at Oxford and London in the time between the wars, providing one agnostic’s view of a Catholic family and its effect on him.
I must be honest. Brideshead Revisited came to my attention because of television; specifically, the British television adaptation from 1981 (the year, coincidentally, in which I graduated high school and entered college). In fact, somewhere at home, I have a home recording of all the episodes of Brideshead with each PBS Great Performances episode introduced by William F. Buckley, Jr.
As good as the BBC series is, however, the book is a masterpiece and rightly retains its stature on the various must-read lists.
In great part, this is because it so well memorializes a time since lost, and does it with an accuracy and honesty seldom seen. At the same time, it captures universal family dynamics we see to this day. For thinking Catholics, it provides a clear and compelling look at one family’s struggles to keep the Faith as individuals. Every member of the Flyte family struggles in his or her own way with what it means to be Catholic, and we have such a wide variety of Catholics in one small family, a variety often seen in our own homes.
Charles Ryder, the agnostic from whose perspective the story is told, views this family from the outside, loving first Sebastian, the younger brother of the family siblings, whom he met at Oxford, and then when he visits the family estate he falls for Sebastian’s free-wheeling sister Julia. As the family falls apart and icons crumble, he is there to witness it and report it to us. By the time the book ends, he himself takes to his knees in prayer.
Waugh’s characters are real and fleshed out well not so much through what is said about them, but through their actions and words. One case in point is Julia Flyte, who always wanted to marry well, but as a Catholic in early twentieth-century England faced limited choices. She jumped from a bad marriage with an empty suit to the arms of Charles, who could never empathize with the great sense of guilt she carried with her.
The burden of this sham and shameful relationship comes out in an explosion of sadness, guilt, and regret that spells the end for Ryder’s relationship with her as she returns to belief.
In the end, he gets it. He understands and the reader can see the clear path his road, long as it still may be, will take him.
In my life since first picking this book up, I’ve seen many people who play these various roles, striking at the truth Waugh is so perfectly striving for. And I know redemption is possible for each of them, as it is for us.
Although so vastly different, these books by Merton and Waugh arose in the same period, punctuated by the devastation of war. For Merton, whose younger brother died as a fighter pilot in World War II, war was the punishment the world faced for sin; for Waugh, who mocked much of the military in his book’s prologue and epilogue, war was a death-knell for civilization. Maybe they are both right.
My third book steps back a few generations to a time before the world wars. If Paul Elie is correct that writing is a pilgrimage, nowhere is this seen more literally than in Hilaire Belloc’s Path to Rome.
As much as one cannot think of Belloc without thinking of Chesterton, it is unfortunate that Belloc so often seems to reside hidden under his good friend’s rather substantial shadow. In fact, given the number of important books both have written, especially GKC, you’re probably wondering why The Path to Rome rose to the top in my estimation.
Frankly, it’s for several reasons. First, it’s the sheer fact of what Belloc did. When he wanted to go on a personal, solitary pilgrimage in 1901, he blazed his own trail, a southeast line stretching nearly 600 miles from eastern France, through the heart of Switzerland, to Rome. He pledged to walk the entire way, “sleep rough” and cover 30 miles a day. He happily confessed to breaking these rules in the end, but he did walk the worst part. Mountains in the way? No problem—even if they are the Alps. He marched up and down them.
Second, Belloc does all this while sharing humorous anecdotes, often about wine, and providing great and deep insight, including one of the best literary encouragements for attending daily Mass.
In the end, I appreciate this book for what follows naturally from these two reasons. It is a celebration of the most humane things in life, small villages, and deep friendships, taking pleasure in small, mundane things like food, drink, and song while keeping your sight set on a goal that is oh-so-much higher.
Belloc arrives in Rome on the appointed day, and says nothing of it. He closes his book with what his imaginary reader (“Lector,” appearing throughout the book and causing the “Auctor” pain like a blister on his foot) aptly calls doggerel. Yes, there’s great humor in Belloc. We need that on our pilgrimage, a lesson as old as Chaucer.
As someone who tries to be a better Christian while loving the honest pleasures God gives us on Earth, these three books are both challenging and consoling.
In the end, each shows a path being trod to Rome. One is carved in a nearly-straight line down the map by a faithful Catholic traveling alone with an imaginary friend. The other path is carved in the heart of a young American intellectual groping imperfectly to give God all he has. The third is a path worn by so many Catholics trying to be better—individuals and families that struggle toward redemption.
The paths to Rome are as diverse as God’s creation, and I have no doubt whatsoever that Belloc finally saw in Rome the same thing Waugh and Merton would later see. The path to Rome is the path home to Christ.