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A Portrait of the Saint as a Young Artist

AP FIle Photo 1962

Daniel McInerny - published on 02/14/14 - updated on 06/08/17

The publication of Flannery O’Connor’s youthful prayer journal reveals a young woman struggling to pursue her artistic gift for the love of God.

“As for biographies, there won’t be any biographies of me because, for only one reason, lives spent between the house and the chicken yard do not make exciting copy.” –Flannery O’Connor

Despite her prediction, we will soon have more than one biography of Flannery O’Connor: the 2009 biography by Brad Gooch, Flannery: A Life of Flannery O’Connor, in which the above quotation serves as the epigraph, and the forthcoming authorized biography by O’Connor’s friend William A. Sessions. O’Connor’s life was a modest one, which is to say it was an intense spiritual drama played against a rather ordinary backdrop and a routine made more rigid by the lupus that O’Connor battled the last thirteen years of her life. Gooch has helped to bring to light more of that drama than can be discovered in the essays of O’Connor gathered in Mystery and Manners and in the letters collected in The Habit of Being, and no doubt Sessions will reveal much more. But there is really only one writer who could write the story of Flannery O’Connor’s soul, and that is O’Connor herself.  

From January 1946 to September 1947, at the ages of 20 to 22, O’Connor was involved in doing just that. In a marble-covered notebook later discovered by Sessions, O’Connor began a journal which Sessions has recently published under the title, A Prayer Journal: Flannery O’Connor. At the time she composed this journal O’Connor was living in Iowa City, Iowa, where she had gone to pursue a course in journalism at the State University of Iowa (now the University of Iowa) before she abruptly changed tack and entered the now famous Iowa Writers’ Workshop. The prayer journal was written in O’Connor’s dorm room, which as Sessions describes it was far from private, as it “opened onto the only bathroom on the floor.” “In that awkward room,” writes Sessions, “the young writer began her journal as she sat at a desk with her pens, pencils, and typewriter beside her hot plate (all the refrigerated items stood outside the window).”

The prayer journal is not long–Sessions informs us in his introduction that the first pages are missing, and several other pages were removed by O’Connor herself. Sessions has appended, however, a facsimile of the journal, charming in that it reveals the large and loopy hand of this sensitive, ardent, and brilliant young woman.

What do we discover in these pages? We discover a young woman struggling for holiness in the midst of a cultural environment alien to the Catholic one into which she had been born and raised. “At every point in this education process, we are told that [faith] is ridiculous and their arguments sound so good it is hard not to fall into them. The arguments might not sound so good to someone with a better mind; but my mental trappings are as they are, and I am always on the brink of assenting–it is almost a subconscious assent.” 

We discover a young woman struggling to bring her passionate desire to become a great writer into alignment with the will of God for her life. “I want very much to succeed in the world with what I want to do. I have prayed to You about this with my mind and my nerves on it and strung my nerves into a tension over it and said, “oh God please,” and “I must,” and “please, please.” I have not asked You, I feel, in the right way. Let me henceforth ask you with resignation–that not being or meant to be a slacking up in prayer but a less frenzied kind—realizing that the frenzy is caused by an eagerness for what I want and not a spiritual trust.”

We discover a woman battling her selfish inclinations as she endeavors to live the Christian virtues. “I do not know You God because I am in the way. Please help me to push myself aside.”

It is so tempting to quote further, but given such a brief text I will leave the remaining delights to the reader. A Prayer Journal is not as complete a story of O’Connor’s soul as one would wish, yet it is still a breathtaking glimpse into the spirit of a gifted young woman in love with God and with the gifts he has given her–a reminder that beneath the ordinary details of all our lives there is being played a momentous and enduring spiritual drama. 

Daniel McInernyis the editor of the English edition of Aleteia. He is also the author of the comic novel, High Concepts: A Hollywood Nightmareas well as two books in the Kingdom of Patria children’s seriesStout Hearts & Whizzing Biscuits and Stoop of Mastodon MeadowYou are invited to contact him at daniel.mcinerny@aleteia.org, find him onFacebookand follow him on Twitter @danielmcinernyYou can also visit his author blogthecomicmuse.com

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