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– St. Catherine of Siena

Sunday, February 8, 2015

Literature in the News: Flannery O’Connor’s Prayer Journal

The online magazine, Aleteia, has a review of Flannery O’Coonor’s Prayer Journal, an early work.  The article, “A Young Flannery O'Connor's Life-Changing Search for God,” by Paul Elie, uses the journal review as a means to show how O’Connor’s relationship with her faith shaped her fiction.  But it does even more than that; it surveys her life as a function of her faith, and so if you’re interested in O’Connor as a writer, the article is well worth reading.  The Prayer Journal is a personal diary from O’Connor’s youth, ending in her 22nd year.

I’m just going to provide a sampling.  The article starts with a college student, Alfred Corn, writing to O’Connor much later, two years from her death, on how she is able to keep her faith.

Sometime when you are going to Emory, stop by here and pay me a visit,” Flannery O’Connor told Alfred Corn in a letter in 1962. “I would like to fit your face to your search.”

She was a novelist, age thirty-seven, who lived with her mother and a flock of peafowl on a farm south of Atlanta. He was an Emory University freshman who heard her speak on campus and then wrote her a letter about his struggle to maintain his Christian faith. She wrote back, and he wrote back, and she wrote twice more. In college, she told him, “you are bombarded with new ideas, or rather pieces of ideas.” You feel “an activation of the intellectual life which is . . . running ahead of your lived experience.” She went on: “After a year of this, you are beginning to think you cannot believe. You are just beginning to realize how difficult it is to have faith and the measure of a commitment to it.

 She recognized his search because she had gone through such a search in her own student days. As Mary F. O’Connor, the saddle-shoed editor of the yearbook at the state women’s college in Milledgeville, she had found herself in the predicament akin to his: that of a bright student, raised religious, who suddenly had as many questions as answers. Then, at the Iowa Writers Workshop, she introduced herself as Flannery O’Connor, inventing herself as a writer; and the questions of faith weighed on her as she tried to figure how to reconcile her Catholic piety with the strictures of literary modernism and the nasty characters, violent episodes, spicy idiom, and low jokes she was drawn to write about.

The Prayer Journal captures O’Connor at the start of spiritual journey, young and uncertain, but certainly well catechized. 

The Prayer Journal…is an uneven, immature, incomplete work, and these qualities contribute to its significance. It establishes that O’Connor’s religious search was desperately sincere, not just an epistolary conceit or a motif for fiction. It shows that from the beginning of her career her search involved what became the two main religious themes of her published writing: the nature of a calling, or vocation, and the question of how religious belief bears on the writing of fiction. And it illustrates how tightly the two themes came to be bound up together, for her and for her readers — so that in her work the credibility of the Catholic point of view depends not so much on argument and propositions as on her ability (as she put it) to “make belief believable,” especially in the character that is Flannery O’Connor herself.

The Prayer Journal is actually quite small: “24 entries and about 5000 words,” so unless you’re an O’Connor scholar I don’t know if it’s worth the purchase.  But Elie does go through it in enough detail for the regular O'Connor reader to get its gist.  Elie goes through the different types of prayers that show the questions O’Connor was asking in her fiction.

And what were those questions? What did Flannery O’Connor need God’s “hep” with? She needed help in figuring out how belief figured into her life as a writer. There in Iowa, she was trying to “develop her talent to the utmost,” as her eventual editor Robert Giroux put it; at the same time, she was keenly aware that the strong sense of self associated with the act of artistic creation might stand in the way of her efforts to know and serve the God in whom she placed such confidence. “I would like to order things so that I could feel all of a piece spiritually,” she declares. “I don’t suppose I order things. But all my requests seem to melt down to one for grace — that supernatural grace that does whatever it does.” Hardly has she concluded this than she decides that asking for grace amounts to selfishness. Distressed, she questions: “Is there no getting around that dear God? No escape from ourselves? Into something bigger?”

Elie points out that O’Connor does not find answers in her Journal, but would spend the rest of her short life answering them.  It’s an article worth reading.

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