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

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: 

Please help me to know the will of my Father — not a scrupulous nervousness nor yet a lax presumption but a clear, reasonable knowledge: and after this give me a strong Will to bend it to the will of my Father. 

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:

I must write down that I am to be an artist. Not in the sense of aesthetic frippery but in the sense of aesthetic craftsmanship . . . The word craftsmanship takes care of the work angle & the word aesthetic the truth angle.
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