Her prayer journal reveals what her fiction, and even her letters, concealed
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.
That is where we find her in the notebook of prayers that she assembled in 1946 and 1947, age twenty, twenty-one, and twenty-two. She is full of faith, but the complexities of the religious point of view are running up against her literary ambitions, on the one hand, and her sense of her own limitations on the other. The Prayer Journalis an early work by a writer whom it has been unusually hard to see as a “young writer.” More than her other early work, it fits her face to her search.
Why is it that O’Connor — who, alas, never got old — seems to us never to have been young? The reasons are many, beginning with the formal and androgyne name she adopted at Iowa. Although she insisted that any writer who has survived childhood has enough material to last him the rest of his days, in her fiction her own early life is occluded. Her practice of setting her work in the oldest parts of the Old South — boardinghouse, dairy farm, haybarn, shotgun shack — makes her seem a contemporary of Faulkner, not Mailer. The lupus that struck her at age twenty-five ravaged her looks until she resembled the figure she dubbed the Last Librarian, a spinsterly know-it-all in cat’s-eye glasses. Her death at age thirty-nine in 1964 turned the stories she wrote at age thirty-seven and thirty-eight into “late work,” and reverent exegetes such as Sally Fitzgerald exaggerated the effect, presenting her unexpected death as the fulfillment of an “active destiny.”
Mostly she seems ageless because of the breathtaking confidence of her remarks on matters of faith and art. To Corn, for example, she wrote:
Pronouncements like that one (found all through her essays and letters) suggest that when it came to religious belief she hadn’t searched at all, but had been a firm believer always. The Prayer Journal shows otherwise. It 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.
In graduate school O’Connor’s search was mainly literary. She went to Iowa City in 1946 on a journalism scholarship, but she wriggled out of the program and into the Writers Workshop. She spent the usual two years getting her degree, stayed for a third year, and then left for a residency at Yaddo in upstate New York. In a piece (little known, and rarely quoted) that she sent from Iowa to the Georgia College alumni magazine in 1948, she described the MFA experience. “What first stuns the young writer emerging from college is that there is no clear-cut road for him to travel on. He must chop a path in the wilderness of his own soul; a disheartening process, lifelong and lonesome.” Probably parroting her instructors Robert Penn Warren and Andrew Lytle, she declared that in this process the graduate school “should give the writer time and credit for writing and for wide reading” and “provide him with a literary atmosphere which he would not be able to find elsewhere.”
The writing O’Connor did at Iowa — a handful of stories and the opening pages of Wise Blood — is awkward and obscure. But the “wide reading” she did during this time changed her life:
It hardly seems possible that all that writing lies behind the Prayer Journal. This small book is so free of guile that it is tempting to see in it the “unaided” quality that Evelyn Waugh saw in Wise Blood. (“If this is really the unaided work of a young lady,” he said in a blurb, “it is indeed a remarkable product.”) But it is anything but unaided. It is overaided. The books she was reading are behind it, a squadron of influences that put her in a state of pious high anxiety not unlike that of the young Sylvia Plath — the profound and the banal jostling against each other, the young author’s extreme self-possession clashing with her scrupulosity.
The journal consists of twenty-four entries, about five thousand words in all. By reproducing the actual journal page for page after the typeset text of the hardcover, FSG made it possible for all of us to see it for the modest, handmade production it is: some prose passages written in parochial-school longhand in a composition book with a marble cover bearing the author’s name and the dates “Jan 46—Sept 48.”
Modest, but not accidental or unambitious. In her review of the Prayer Journal for the New York Times Book Review, Marilynne Robinson pointed out that the journal is possibly a fair copy — the entries not written fresh, with cross-outs and erasures, but drafted on other paper and then copied here by a young writer who already has posterity in mind. If a fair copy, it is an incomplete one. Some pages have been torn out at the beginning and throughout—by O’Connor, or by somebody else. No matter who did it, the excised pages and a run of blank pages at the end give the Prayer Journal the feel of a batch of fragments, like the bundled jottings that became Pascal’s Pensees, or Plath’s brutally expurgated journals.
The text begins, after several torn-out pages, with a shard of a sentence:
It ends bizarrely, near the top of a page followed by several blanks:
Some of the twenty-four entries are prayers addressed directly to God. There’s this one: “Dear God, I cannot love Thee the way I want to.” And this one: “Help me to ask You, oh Lord, for what is good for me to have, for what I can have and do Your service by having.” And this one: “Dear Lord please make me want You. It would be the greatest bliss.” Several of them are petitions addressed to the devotional figure of Mary known as Our Lady of Perpetual Help. Others are a species in between: short pieces in which she reflects on “my spiritual life” and the life of the spirit generally. Of such pieces she declares: “I have decided this is not much as a direct medium of prayer. Prayer is not even as premeditated as this . . . ” Sitting down to write, she finds her approach wanting: “The majesty of my thoughts this evening! Do all these things read alike as they seem to?”
Most of them are prayers of supplication: she is asking for help. In a story that she wrote a few years later, “The Temple of the Holy Ghost,” she depicted a “wise child,” a girl both Southern and Catholic. The story ends with the child, who has been nasty to her mother, making a prayer of supplication while kneeling in adoration of the Eucharist with some nuns. “Hep me not to be so mean, she began mechanically. Hep me not to give her so much sass. Hep me not to talk like I do.” That unnamed girl is the nearest thing to the young Mary Flannery O’Connor in the writer’s fiction, and the Prayer Journal is the missing link between the “wise child” and the savvy artist. “I would like to be intelligently holy,” O’Connor confides in the Journal. Here is a young woman, still struggling to find her voice, asking God for “hep” in the only way she knows.
In time-honored Catholic fashion, she poses her prayers via a work of art — in this case, a novel that — it seems clear to me — served as a model for the Prayer Journal. This is The Diary of a Country Priest, by Georges Bernanos. Published in 1936 in French and soon afterward in English translation, by the time O’Connor got to Iowa, the Diary of a Country Priest was seen as a fictional kin to the books of the philosopher-apologists Etienne Gilson and Jacques Maritain. “I must have read it ten or twelve years ago, once and not since,” O’Connor remarked in 1958, adding that she was rereading it and “so far it seems to be only a slight framework of a novel to hang Bernanos’ religious reflections on.”
That’s right, and that’s what makes the book a likely influence on the Prayer Journal. The priest who narrates the Diary is dying of tuberculosis, and the Diary is a testament he makes at the end of his career, not the beginning. And yet the example of the novel — the evidence that a book of religious reflections could be a work of art — served as an answer to the questions O’Connor was asking.
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?”
She doesn’t find answers to those questions in the period the Prayer Journal covers. But she takes two sustained runs at the questions, and these suggest how she would resolve them later on. The first is the sequence of ten undated entries at the beginning of the journal. Here she is confused and anxious, alternately worldly and pious, paddlewheeling through her spiritual wants. She wants to be a writer:
She wants to be a Christian writer:
And she wants to want this for the right reasons. A single-sentence entry suggests the depth and purity of her desire:
She wants to know God. And yet she feels herself as in the way — and not just her self, but herself as a believer who struggles with the biblical demand that she who would find herself must lose herself, and for God’s sake. The second entry shows, strictly and unsentimentally, that she knows what she is getting into:
There, the prayer itself shows that O’Connor already has a “clear, reasonable knowledge” of what a life of faith will entail. And yet the other entries she made in those first few months are thick with “scrupulous nervousness.” As religious self-examination, they are clunky; as religious writing, they have a candor that offsets the treacly piety of some of the other entries. The act of adoration of God, she says, leaves her baffled and dismayed. Hell is more real to her than heaven: “I can fancy the tortures of the damned but I cannot imagine all the disembodied souls hanging in a crystal for all eternity praising God.” She is full of “discouragement” about her work, at once hungry for success and convinced she doesn’t deserve it. She wants to draw near to God through prayer but feels the presumption — the “sin” — of it. In the spiritual life, she confides, she isn’t good at anything but supplication — asking for things. She is a “presumptuous fool.” She thinks herself “stupid” and cowardly, fears that she has manufactured her own faith to satisfy a need, and shudders to think that she might have to suffer her way to authenticity in the way she saw Kafka’s protagonists doing. “I have been reading Mr. Kafka and I feel his problem of getting grace,” she writes in one entry. “Please give me the necessary grace, oh Lord, and please don’t let it be as hard to get as Kafka made it.”
In November 1946 the journal abruptly changes. From this point the entries are dated. They are written in ink rather than pencil. They are freshly self-aware: “I have started on a new phase of my spiritual life — I trust,” O’Connor declares, and as she goes on her diction changes, moving away from the personal statement and toward the general truth: “Tied up with it, is the throwing off of certain adolescent habits & habits of mind. It does not take much to make us realize what fools we are but the little it takes is long in coming. I see my ridiculous self by degrees.” In place of scrupulosity, there is critical detachment.
What accounts for the change? Her “wide reading,” beginning with Diary of a Country Priest. “I have been reading Bernanos. It is so very wonderful,” she announces in that first dated entry — November 4, 1946. “Will I ever know anything?” It is the question she has asked all along; but now, instead of asking God for answers, she is turning to literature. “To find out about faith, you have to go to the people who have it,” she would tell Alfred Corn, “and you have to go to the most intelligent ones if you are going to stand up intellectually to agnostics and the general run of pagans that you are going to find in the majority of people around you.” So she goes to Bernanos, to Leon Bloy, to Kafka. She engages with the skepticism of Freud and Lawrence; she takes up Rousseau’s dictum that “the Protestant has to think; the Catholic, to submit.” And she comes up with an epigrammatic insight of the kind that would later populate her letters and essays: “The intellectual visions & delights God gives us are visions & like visions we pay for them; & the thirst for the vision doesn’t necessarily carry with it the thirst for the attendant suffering.”
Coolly self-aware now, she fashions a rough-and-ready ars poetica:
Over a year her aspirations have shifted subtly but dramatically. Now her goal is to be a writer of a certain kind: not one whose work is permeated by Christian principles one who (as she put it later) “will look for the will of God first in the laws and limitations of his art and will hope that if he obeys these, other blessings will be added to his work.”
Again it is her encounter with a Catholic book that accounts for the change. This time it was Art and Scholasticism, Maritain’s re-presentation of the medieval Thomist understanding of the nature of art. Art and Scholasticism offered an account of the nature of art — and of artistic inspiration — at once more sophisticated and more Catholic than any O’Connor had encountered. Drawing on Aquinas, Maritain — a French convert who was teaching at the Institute of Advanced Study in Princeton — makes the case that virtue, for the artist, consists in “the good of the thing made” more than in upright behavior or efforts at personal holiness. Art is “reason in making,” and good art is distinguished by “wholeness, harmony, and radiance.” The most direct way for the artist to live a good life is by making good art. To this task the artist must bring, not so much Christian principles, but the whole of his or her personality, including religious faith. A particular artist’s work begins with his or her distinct talents and preoccupations. Yet much of the self must be left behind in the act of making. Virtue, for the artist, involves subordinating the good of the self to the good of the thing made; and to do this, the artist must cultivate “the habit of art” — by developing skills and work habits and purifying the source of inspiration. There is service in this, even holiness; at the same time, there is freedom for the artist to put some of those scruples about everyday life aside.
O’Connor read Maritain’s account of art in Iowa and embraced it enthusiastically. In the Prayer Journal, on April 14, 1947, she wrote: “I want to be the best artist I can possibly be, under God.” And that yearning was more than a desire for personal fulfillment. It carried obligations, because as she put it, “God has given me everything, all the tools, even instructions for their use, even a good brain to use them with, a creative brain to make them immediate for others.” It was a calling.
She wrote plenty else in the final pages of the journal — about the rosary, and sex, and the wish to be a mystic when “at present I am a cheeze . . . But then God can do that — make mystics out of cheezes.” She would never be a mystic; but she was on her way to being an artist. In the next few months she would invent Hazel Wickers, later known as Hazel Motes, the founder of the Church of Christ without Christ; in the next few years she would invent a handyman-slash-conman, a Bible salesman expert in the dark arts of seduction, and an escaped convict who shoots a gabby grandmother at the roadside. People would ask the author what inspired these characters and the violent acts they committed. Sixty years later, with assumptions about pious authoresses cleared aside, the answer is obvious: they came from her imagination, where such characters were no more out of place than they were in Faulkner’s imagination, or Alfred Hitchcock’s, or James Ellroy’s. The real question was how she became emboldened to make those characters’ stories into art. That question is answered with the story of O’Connor’s search — a search that the Prayer Journal, in its modest way, makes fully vivid for the first time in the posthumous life of its author.
Paul Elieis the author of The Life You Save May be Your Own (2003) and Reinventing Bach (2012). For many years a senior editor with Farrark, Straus, and Giroux, he is now a senior fellow in Georgetown University’s Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs.This article was originally published on Farrar, Straus and Giroux’s Work in Progress website and is reprinted here with kind permission.