Tuesday, July 08, 2008

One Earthquake, Two Witnesses

I’m reading The Life You Save May Be Your Own by Paul Elie, which focuses on the Catholicism and writing (and the influence of each on the other) of Flannery O’Connor, Walker Percy, Dorothy Day, and Thomas Merton. Only about 50 pages in, it’s very good, but I’m writing because of something it shares with one of my favorite books, Robert D. Richardson’s biography of William James.

Both books begin in the early hours of April 18, 1906, when a historic earthquake hit northern California. William James and Dorothy Day experienced the event firsthand. James was 64 years old at the time, a visiting professor at Stanford. In Palo Alto, he greeted the fierce quake with feelings, he later wrote, of “glee,” “admiration,” “delight,” and “welcome.” As Richardson explains:
(James) no longer believed -- if he ever had -- in a fixed world built on a solid foundation. The earthquake was for him a hint of the real condition of things, the real situation. The earthquake revealed a world (like James’s own conception of consciousness) that was pure flux having nothing stable, permanent, or absolute in it.
Dorothy Day was eight. Her family had moved from New York to Oakland because her father took a job in journalism there. Elie writes that, “Of all her family, (Dorothy) alone was religious: she prayed in school, sang hymns with neighbors, went to church by herself because the others would not go.”

Not surprisingly, she felt differently that morning:
Startled awake, she lay alone in bed in the dark in the still-strange house, trying to understand what was happening and what it meant, for she was confident that it had a meaning, a significance beyond itself.
Most obviously, she differed from James because she was a child. But I’m interested in the extent to which people’s essential characters are in place during childhood. Perhaps because my mother was also independently religious at a very young age, I’m fascinated by Day’s reaction. For her, the aftermath of the quake brought menacing dreams of God. As she put it, “They were linked up with my idea of God as a tremendous Force, a frightening impersonal God, a Hand stretched out to seize me, His child, and not in love.”

Despite the record of her early attraction to spiritual life, Day later said, “Stories of pious children tend to be false.”


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