The Prayers of Flannery O’Connor

 The deeply Catholic writer and the “insidious hands Oh Lord which grope into the darkness of my soul.”

Illustration by Greg Ruth

When I was diagnosed with a rare muscle disease a dozen years ago, it hit me that I didn’t believe in God. Maybe “hit me” is too strong a way to put it. I just gradually realized that I wasn’t praying to God to help me stay well, to understand or accept the news, not “offering it up” or asking, Why me? There was nothing there, merely a nonexistent connection, although I’d been raised by faithful parents and educated for 16 years in Catholic schools. But then my father died, several years later, and I wanted to know that he still somehow continued. He simply could not have been extinguished—that was unthinkable. For a while I went to Masses said in his name, and just recently I brought home his old set of rosary beads, on which the crucifix is missing—his final set was buried with him. Could he be praying still? I wonder. I envy his devotion.

In much the same way, I’m jealous of Flannery O’Connor, though she’s been dead nearly 50 years. I envy her not only because she was brilliant, the maker of astoundingly original and subversive works of art, but because she believed in God. She believed in the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost. She believed in the Redemption, and Life Everlasting. She believed, with an unerring rigor, in the supernatural, and that God’s grace could open up upon us at our most dire moments and, if we accepted its gift, make us—fleetingly at least—better beings.

O’Connor believed in Catholic doctrine with a confidence and surety that sustained her through battles with lupus, her own debilitating and finally fatal disease, as well as her daily routines: from early morning Mass to the writing desk and through her interchanges with extended family and the clans of peafowl strutting through the yard of her family estate. She was anchored in a way that the nonbeliever can never be. In many of her essays about being a Catholic writer, she wrote that her faith, rather than imposing limits, left her free to observe the ways of the world around her. Did this help her achieve such heights of originality and confidence? In her powerful stories and novels—nearly every one a tour de force—her judgment, though coupled always with wit, is formidable, rolling over us like the tractor that bears down on the Displaced Person’s backbone while Mrs. McIntyre locks eyes with the help.

With the publication of A Prayer Journal, we get a startlingly different view of the religious O’Connor. Instead of the cocksure writer we’ve long known—whose confidence is almost a physical force in her mature fiction and essays on religion and art—here we glimpse an unfinished personality, struggling to maintain belief in her talent and to resist the “intellectual quackery” of the academy that threatens to undo her faith. From early 1946 to the fall of 1947—from the ages of 20 to 22—O’Connor wrote in a hardbound, marbled Sterling notebook, which was found by writer, scholar, and O’Connor friend William A. Sessions during a visit to her archives in 2002. (Sessions is O’Connor’s authorized biographer, but as with a long-planned biography by the late Sally Fitzgerald, another close friend and editor of O’Connor’s posthumous collections of essays and letters, his book has yet to appear.) In these years, O’Connor was in Iowa City, where she had gone to prepare for a career as a political cartoonist but soon found her way into the Writers Workshop, though her mentor, Paul Engle, could not at first understand a word of her thick Georgia drawl.

She used the journal (reproduced at the back of the book in facsimile form) to chart her own struggles with understanding. In its pages the fledgling writer addresses herself to God in an intertwined quest to do these things well: pray, write, love—with love reserved for the Lord. (As for eating, she worries she’s a glutton and berates herself for eating too many Scotch oatmeal cookies.) She wrestles often with her distinctly un-Catholic self-regard. “I cannot love Thee the way I want to,” she writes. “You are the slim crescent of a moon that I see, and my self is the earth’s shadow that keeps me from seeing all the moon … what I am afraid of, dear God, is that my self shadow will grow so large that it blocks the whole moon.”

Her ambition is plain but something she tries to accommodate to God’s will. “Please help me dear God to be a good writer and to get something else accepted,” she implores, but then adding, aware of the sin of pride, “That is so far from what I deserve, of course, that I am naturally struck with the nerve of it.” She questions her motives, her honesty, and worries over her presumption: “I have not asked You, I feel, in the right way. Let me henceforth ask you with resignation … Oh God please make my mind clear. Please make it clean.”

She longed for a spiritual but visceral closeness with God, “a warmth of love heating me.” In the journal she demurs at the idea of its being “a metaphysical exercise,” and later, in her essays, she would emphasize the importance of the concrete, that “fiction begins where human knowledge begins – with the senses.” The Catholic faith, with its emphasis on the resurrection of the body, and on the actual presence of the body and blood of Christ in the sacrament of Communion, embraces abstraction far less than other denominations.

O’Connor was the foremost interpreter of herself as a Catholic writer, concerned, she famously wrote in a later essay, with “the action of grace in territory held largely by the devil.” In the journal, she asks frequently for grace—in fact, she struggles with the notion of asking for it, with having to reconcile her ambition with the religious virtues of patience and passivity. “My dear God,” she writes, “how stupid we people are until You give us something … I would like to write a beautiful prayer but I have nothing to do it from … I cannot do it. Yet at some insipid moment when I may possibly be thinking of floor wax or pigeon eggs, the opening of a beautiful prayer may come up from my subconscious and lead me to write something exalted.”

The journal entries are more plaintive and self-deprecating than exalted, and the Prayer Journal is at least as much about her path as an artist as it is about her faith. She worries her mind is not strong, she describes it as being “in a little box, dear God, down inside other boxes inside other boxes and on and on. There is very little air in my box.” She worries that she may be, artistically, merely mediocre. “If I ever do get to be a fine writer,” she says, “it will not be because I am a fine writer but because God has given me credit for a few of the things he kindly wrote for me.” But “right at present this does not seem to be His policy. I can’t write a thing.”

Flannery O'Connor in Iowa City, 1947. Photo taken by Martha Sprieser, her roommate.
Flannery O’Connor in Iowa City, 1947. Photo taken by Martha Sprieser, her roommate.

Courtesy Flannery O’Connor collection, Special Collections, Georgia College Library

The journal ends abruptly in the fall of 1947, but the faithful reader might infer that her struggles with doubt and longing for grace were channeled instead into the morally precarious lives of her indelible characters, with her stories and novels taking the place of her written prayers. (By 1952, ill with lupus, she had begun writing the stories for which she’s most famous, back in Georgia for good, where she lived with her mother in Milledgeville.) In “A Good Man Is Hard to Find,” the grandmother’s heart opens unexpectedly to the killer known as the Misfit, as Julian’s opens when his mother lies lifeless on a city sidewalk at the end of “Everything That Rises Must Converge.” The smug Hulga of “Good Country People,” who proclaims her nonbelief as the mark of a strong mind, is left trembling in the hayloft, eyes finally opened to her poverty of spirit after the Bible salesman she hoped to seduce makes off with her wooden leg.

The twinning of the banal and the sublime O’Connor invoked in the journal became a hallmark of her fiction. The entries in the journal, like her stories, are by turns lyrical, serious, ironic, abrupt. She worries that, surrounded by academics and nonbelievers, she, like Hulga, will be convinced that her faith and God himself are mere manmade inventions; she fears “insidious hands Oh Lord which grope into the darkness of my soul.” Hazel Motes, protagonist of her first novel, Wise Blood, and founder of the Holy Church of Christ Without Christ—who first emerged during O’Connor’s time at Iowa—would invest supreme amounts of energy trying to deny God and secure his soul for the gropers.

I’m almost 10 years older now than Flannery O’Connor was when she died. When I first read her, I was almost 10 years younger than the age she lived to. My own soul has been decidedly groped. Hulga, with her unsatisfied mind and glaring physical vulnerability, has started to feel very familiar. I’m sure my mother prays for me to the saint Padre Pio, for help with my disease and for me to marry my partner and stop living in sin. Despite my being from a New Jersey bedroom town, O’Connor feels like a relation. She would be a contemporary of my mother’s actually, if she had lived to old age, but since she died at age 39, she will always feel to me like a sister, or a scandalous aunt. Scandalous in her strength and ambition, in her refusal to bend, in her inimitable way of seeing, in her cutting remarks.

To think, if she had lived, and written, all those years! If she had stopped writing at around age 80, say, like Philip Roth or Alice Munro, giving us 40 more years of her exacting, lacerating prose—that would have been proof positive of the healing powers of Lourdes, where she went with her mother in 1958, she said, to pray for her novel-in-progress, The Violent Bear It Away. I wish she had been a bit more selfish with her prayers.

A Prayer Journal by Flannery O’Connor, edited by W.A. Sessions. Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

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