A Young Flannery O’Connor’s Life-Changing Search for God

AP FIle Photo 1962

Her prayer journal reveals what her fiction, and even her letters, concealed

The text begins, after several torn-out pages, with a shard of a sentence:

effort at artistry in this rather than thinking of You and feeling inspired with the love I wish I had.

It ends bizarrely, near the top of a page followed by several blanks: 

Today I have proved myself a glutton—for Scotch oatmeal cookies and erotic thought. There is nothing left to say of me.



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:

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 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. 

She wants to be a Christian writer:

Please let Christian principles permeate my writing and please let there be enough of my writing (published) for Christian principles to permeate.”

And she wants to want this for the right reasons. A single-sentence entry suggests the depth and purity of her desire: 

Please help me to get down under things and find where You are.
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