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Journey to Wisdom: Reading Literature With Our Lives


Sapientia et Doctrina Lecture Series

Journeys to Wisdom: Reading Literature with Our Lives

Reading alone cannot make a person wise. Wisdom, according to writer and editor Paul Elie (FCO ’87), is knowledge that may be gained through books or the testimony of others, but must be tested firsthand, through personal experience and a determination to incorporate that knowledge into one’s life.

During a Dec. 3 lecture titled “Pilgrimage: A Journey to Wisdom,” Elie discussed his recent book, The Life You Save May Be Your Own, which focuses on a quartet of American Catholic writers—Thomas Merton, Dorothy Day, Flannery O’Connor and Walker Percy. Each of these writers, whose lives and works spanned most of the 20th century, shared a belief that reading and writing are acts of pilgrimage, ways to seek truth and come to a better understanding of tradition and personal faith.

“If pilgrimage is a journey to wisdom, wisdom literature might be described as the books for the journey,” Elie told an audience in O’Keefe Commons on the Rose Hill campus. “Wisdom literature is writing we read with our whole selves and our whole lives, testing it with our experience and testing our experience against it at the same time.”

Elie first encountered the works of these four writers nearly 20 years ago, he said, when he was a freshman and a budding English major at Fordham. Ten years later, in 1993, he began working at Farrar, Straus and Giroux (FS&G), the book publisher, where he is now a senior editor. During that time, he rediscovered his love for these authors and their books (many of which are published by FS&G), and he developed the idea of writing about their lives in terms of pilgrimage.

All four writers embarked on their respective journeys to wisdom in different but profound ways, Elie said. Flannery O’Connor “approached the question of the nature of wisdom…in her first serious piece of writing,” the novel Wise Blood, published in 1952. Thomas Merton, the Trappist monk whose 1948 autobiography The Seven Storey Mountain became a surprise bestseller, sought in wisdom literature an experience of “basic human values on a level which words can point to, but cannot fully attain,” Elie said.

Dorothy Day, the co-founder of the Catholic Worker, devoted her life to social reform and activism. Her work was inspired by the wisdom she found in the books she read and reread throughout her life.

“We think of her as a gritty New York survivor, holding her movement together in hard times through street smarts and force of character,” Elie said. “But Day’s life and the life of the movement she founded were an effort to live out the wisdom she had encountered in books—in the Gospels, in the great 19th-century novels and in the lives of the saints.”

Elie described Walker Percy’s conversion to Catholicism as a movement from knowledge to wisdom. Although Percy is best known as the author of the novel The Moviegoer, which won the National Book Award in 1962, he first embarked on the search for wisdom through philosophy, particularly through the works of Søren Kierkegaard. The most emblematic image of this search in Percy’s writings, Elie said, can be found in an essay titled “The Man on the Train.”

“The man on the train is alienated from society, but in reading a novel of alienation, he transcends his alienation,” Elie said, paraphrasing Percy’s essay. “In the novel’s hero, he finds a companion and so is no longer alienated. All at once this man on the train is reading the novel with his life and his life with the novel. The train is taking him to his office in the city, say, or to his home in New Jersey, but he is on the way to wisdom.”

The lives and works of these four writers, Elie said, remind us that pilgrimage is a lifelong, personal search, one filled with figurative language and images “that point to wisdom in a way that no syllogism can.”

Elie also said that their pilgrimages have special resonance for students, professors and administrators at Catholic universities. Recalling his own experience as an undergraduate, he expressed the hope that Fordham’s current students will learn to understand the Catholic tradition on which the University is founded and graduate “having in some way made that tradition their own.”

In conclusion, he offered some words of advice for Joseph M. McShane, S.J., the president of Fordham University.

“It is in guiding [the students’] pilgrimages, Father McShane, that your new job consists. Yet, as you guide Fordham in the coming years,” Elie said, “I urge you not to let the job’s demands obscure the fact that you too are on pilgrimage. In some sense, the integrity of Fordham’s pilgrimage is intimately bound with the integrity of your own. And your own search for wisdom, somehow, God willing, will benefit us all.”

Fordham University’s motto, Sapientia et Doctrina (Wisdom and Learning), emphasizes rigorous scholarship and embraces a community of men and women committed to exploring the life of the mind. In this spirit, a lecture series celebrating the inauguration of Father McShane, the 32nd president of Fordham University, was established this fall. Elie’s lecture was the sixth in the series.

— Ryan Stellabotte

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Copyright © 2003, Fordham University.

Paul Elie (FCO ’87), the author of The Life You Save May Be Your Own: An American Pilgrimage, described his return to Fordham’s Rose Hill campus on Dec. 3 as a “purposeful wandering back, a peregrinatio.”

Joseph M. McShane, S.J., the president of Fordham University, honored Paul Elie (above) with the Sapientia et Doctrina medallion, which is bestowed on individuals of national and international renown who have made substantial contributions to the advancement of their disciplines and to an understanding of the ideals of Jesuit education.

The Sapientia et Doctrina medallion

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