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

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 Elie is 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.

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