Catholic Diocese of Spokane, Washington

From the

Official News Magazine of the Diocese of Spokane

Deacon Eric Meisfjord, Editor
P.O. Box 48, Spokane WA 99210
(509) 358-7340; FAX: (509) 358-7302

Media Watch: Summer’s new books, fiction and biography, explore personal, global impact of Church

by Father Tom Caswell, for the Inland Register

(From the July 3, 2003 edition of the Inland Register)

This last May was the 45th anniversary of my graduation from the old St. Patrick High School in Walla Walla. The continuation of the school is today DeSales High School. A reunion is scheduled for the weekend of the Fourth of July.

One of the great gifts from those four years in high school was from the Providence Sisters who were most of our teachers. The gift I appreciate each day is the gift to read, especially to read good literature that can change our lives.

Recently I finished reading a book that has deeply touched me. It is the story of four great American Catholics who happened also to be great writers. The title of the book is The Life You Save May Be Your Own: An American Pilgrimage by Paul Elie.

Paul Elie’s new book is a biography of four fascinating Catholics who have made pilgrimages that clearly intersect with our own religious journeys.

• Dorothy Day is the New Yorker who goes through much pain to come to her choice of Catholicism. She becomes a dynamic reformer on the side of the poor, the forgotten, the sweatshop worker. Her Catholic Worker movement stretches across the United States even to this day. At the time, the cardinal-archbishop of New York condemned her efforts to help grave diggers organize into a union at Catholic cemeteries. Years later the same cardinal condemned her peace efforts during the Vietnam War. In the late 1990s, after her death, another New York cardinal began the process of seeking her formal canonization as a saint.
• Thomas Merton told us the story in Seven Storey Mountain of his journey to the Catholic faith. We now learn that he was not allowed to tell of some of the less-than-perfect side of that pilgrimage. From a Trappist monastery in Kentucky, Merton sought the mystery of union with God. He, like us, had times of doubt. Now we are even able to know more clearly that being a monk was not a romantic ideal but a tough road to follow. The sections of his story that give the detail of his correspondence with Dorothy Day and the Berrigan brothers are thought-provoking and renewing. The story of his journey of several months throughout Asia on his way to Bangkok, where he tragically dies, is better than a novel. His speech on why he is a monk is vital and real for any follower of Christ today. There is lots of “Lord, I do believe, help my unbelief” in his message to us.
• Flannery O’Connor lived most of her life close to her home in central Georgia. She did go off to Iowa, New York and Connecticut for a time to pursue her vocation as a writer. As a Catholic in the Baptist South she often wrote of unique and dynamic characters who struggled with the reality of brokenness in their lives. She was raised Catholic. She firmly believed. She could be pretty judgmental of others but clearly spoke of sin and redemption in her characters from novel and short story. To read her short story “Revelation” and walk with the unlikable and judgmental Ruby Turpin is to look inward and see ourselves. But the great gift of Ruby is to see her vision of the saints going into heaven. There we see the good people like ourselves being the last ones in line. There we see with Ruby “by their shocked and altered faces that even their virtues were being burned away.”
• Walker Percy, the physician who became a Catholic and, later, a novelist, exhibits the modern seeker in his life and in his novels. He may have strong ideas on liturgy after Vatican II, but his characters are definitely looking for answers in a world where many have not been able to find them. Percy had to fight the fact that uncle and father had committed suicide. He fought bouts of depression as he raised his family in New Orleans and rural Louisiana. But even late in life Pope John Paul II in the 1990s invited Percy to Rome to be a part of a conference on the laity.

The town of Covington has seen fit not to name their high school after Walker Percy. He is buried with the Benedictine monks at nearby St. Joseph Abbey. His is one simple cross among many. This would suit the seeker Walker Percy just fine.

Four great Americans who had a way with words are good pilots for the journeys of our lives. Paul Elie could not have done a better job of combining their life stories, the places where they lived, and their faith journeys in one book. The interconnections of their lives continually show how their lives impact on ours. We too are people of our time for better and for worse. Four great writers are laid bare in The Life You Save May Be Your Own with all their beauty and all their warts. Their lives give meaning to ours. Elie’s book is wonderfully literary, interestingly biographical, and as good a spiritual book as you are going to find. His book stunningly forces you to look inward. The Life You Save May Be Your Own is a book that may well change your life.

The Life You Save May Be Your Own: An American Pilgrimage by Paul Elie is published in hardcover at $27 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, New York.


The best-selling thriller The Da Vinci Code by Dan Brown is truly a wonderful summer read. Brown is a great story teller who is as good or better than the early John Grisham. Chapter after chapter of The Da Vinci Code leaves you hanging and wanting more. Even those who are somewhat math deprived and wondering if code breaking will hold their interest are in for a roller coaster ride of Hitchcockian suspense.

A Harvard professor is in Paris giving a special talk on his field of religious symbology when he is called by the chief detective of The Judicial Police, a rough equivalent of the FBI. The professor, Robert Langdon, is asked to come to the Louvre to give advice on symbols left around the murdered body of the curator of that world famous museum.

Thus begins a tale that pulls you in to the world of the paintings of Leonardo Da Vinci, the ancient secret society of the Priory of Sion, and the Vatican prelature known as Opus Dei. Along the way a French cryptologist in her mid-20s by the name of Sophie Neveu joins Langdon in trying to uncover the meaning behind a series of cryptic riddles. The journey leads into the Priory of Sion group of which Da Vinci was a member. This is all done slowly as we gain more information from paintings, symbols and poems.

Opus Dei is presented as a secret society with some members seeking to do anything to protect what the society holds dear. So we travel to the Vatican with an Opus Dei bishop who is on a secret mission that becomes clearer as the story progresses.

Key areas of the incredible story of the Da Vinci code involve the Knights Templar and the search for the Holy Grail. Much is made of the need for the feminine in a Church that is so heavily male hierarchical. Mary Magdalene plays an important role in this gripping tale.

From the Church of St. Sulpice and the Louvre in Paris to Westminster Abbey in London and the Rosslyn Chapel, seven miles south of Edinburgh in Scotland, the places in The Da Vinci Code are arresting in themselves. Along the way we meet fascinating characters who keep the plot moving like a European express train speeding through the night.

Dan Brown at the beginning of his story says “All descriptions of artwork, architecture, documents and secret rituals in this novel are accurate.” He doesn’t say all of his historical interpretation is accurate. Listening to Franciscan Father Richard Rohr some years ago, my memory of his critique of the church was it was too feminine and had lost much of the masculine side. My guess is that Dan Brown was able to find a strain in history that justified his point of view. But as any good storyteller does, he jazzes it up. The story Brown gives us is terrific. But there is lots of room for discussion of his point of view. The Da Vinci Code would make for a great book for book club discussion.

My experience with two Opus Dei members through the years has been positive. They pushed away some of my prejudices about that secret group within the Church. There is no doubt that Brown raises lots of questions about Opus Dei in his book.

We live in a very human and yet transcendent Church: It is my guess most adult readers can take direct criticism of the Church pretty well. We are certainly living through a particularly difficult time in the history of the Catholic Church each day. But if you don’t like to see the dark side of the Church raised or discussed particularly at this time, then The Da Vinci Code is not for you.

If you want to delve into a summer book that is so engrossing it can take away the troubles of the real world then the Code should be on your list.

And remember mysteries are supposed to be excellent for us when we are in times of anxiety. Mysteries can be therapeutic because their general rule is that by the end everything must be clear and definite. There are to be no loose ends. There is closure.

The Da Vinci Code is published in hardcover at $24.95 by Doubleday.

(Father Caswell is pastor of St. Rose of Lima Parish, Cheney, and Ecumenical Relations Officer for the Diocese of Spokane. His reviews also appear in the Cheney Free Press.)

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