Have you ever read something ineffable? Something so sublime that it was hard to talk about with anything resembling coherence? If so, then you’ll understand why it is so difficult to articulate my experience of reading Flannery O’Connor’s intimate and soul-baring A Prayer Journal. I closed the book with a combination of awed silence and heart-soaring joy. I’m afraid no critical, dry-as-dust objective review is possible for this reader. My sincerely heartfelt appreciation of this uniquely personal book by one of America’s greatest writers can, however, illuminate seven reasons why you need to read this book now.
First, some back story . . . Flannery’s friend, the scholar William A. (Bill) Sessions, was doing his own research in the O’Connor archives when he discovered the writer’s old Sterling composition book tied up in a stack of papers. The journal, to be released November 12 by Farrar Straus Giroux, Flannery’s long-time publisher during her lifetime and the first new title FSG has had the privilege to issue by the author in decades, has been carefully edited by Sessions. The slim hardcover is exquisite, quietly simple and graceful in its presentation, and includes an Introduction by Sessions, as well as a facsimile copy of the entire journal so interested readers can read the prayers Flannery composed in her own hand. The journal’s contents, as well as its very existence – coming first now in the chronology of her published works – make clear that Sessions’ find will change the face of scholarship on Flannery’s life and work. But that, significant though it is, isn’t one of the seven reasons why you should stop by your local bookstore and pick up a copy of A Prayer Journal as soon as possible.
Reason #1: You will encounter a side of Flannery you’ve never known. The journal is a cry of the heart so deeply intimate I wondered at times whether I should be reading it at all. Indeed, to do so is a thorough privilege for it is the account of a soul’s singular yearning for God and is wholly different from any other published work of Flannery’s – it is the raw, plaintive voice of a young woman thoroughly in love with her God, who seems to behave with His beloved like the elusive bridegroom in the Song of Songs. Not one of her letters collected in The Habit of Being compares to the intense honesty and painful sincerity of the writer’s voice in these prayers to God. We may think we know her well from her letters, but we will come to know her more deeply and in a different way through this journal.
Reason #2: The journal echoes the gorgeously stirring mysticism of some of our greatest spiritual writers. Reading certain sections of A Prayer Journal call to mind the resplendent descriptions of the spiritual life written by St. Therese of Lisieux, St. John of the Cross, and others. It is the rare 22-year-old who describes God as “the slim crescent of a moon . . . [which] is very beautiful,” while viewing herself as “the earth’s shadow . . . [which threatens to] grow so large that it blocks the whole moon.” Flannery confesses to being “afraid of insidious hands . . . which grope into the darkness of my soul,” begging God to be her protector, shielding her against those things which would tear her away from Him. In her fervor, she begs for an all-consuming desire for God that would essentially cause her to die of love:
“Dear Lord, please make me want You. It would be the greatest bliss. Not just to want You when I think about You but to want You all the time, to have the want driving in me, to have it like a cancer in me. It would kill me like a cancer and that would be Fulfillment.”
Is this not the numinous language of a mystic, who in the intensity of her desire already possesses that which she so longs for? In Flannery’s prayer, we are reminded that the intensity of our faith is not measured so much by feeling or emotion, but by the depth of our desire. The saints teach us that the desire itself is indeed the answer to the prayer. I confess to wondering, as I read: if the cause for canonization for G.K. Chesterton is successfully opened, can the cause for the little hermit of Anadalusia be far behind?
Reason #3: Flannery’s prayers offer a model of the rightly ordered use of one’s gifts. Wholly honest with God about what she wants in life – to be a great writer and to write a great novel – Flannery is also thoroughly convinced that her gifts come from God and should therefore be directed to His service. She asks God to “let Christian principles permeate my writing” and that she be given a “strong Will to be able to bend it to the Will of the Father.” She is very aware that it is God’s spirit moving within her that allows her any success in the practice of her craft, asking God to “take care of making [the story she is working on] a sound story because I don’t know how.” She acknowledges repeatedly her understanding that without His grace, she will never achieve what she hopes to accomplish with her art, stating simply “God must be in all my work.” Ideally, the rightly ordered use of our gifts would help us along the pathway to sanctity. Flannery knew this when she prayed: “Dear God, help me to be an artist, please let it lead to You.” The journal offers a portrait of the artist humbled and prostrate in the face of her gift – “Don’t ever let me think, dear God, that I was anything but the instrument for Your story” –truly, a model for us all.
Reason #4: You will see the genesis of a novel. This is no small thing. Flannery’s first novel
Wise Blood was published in 1952, five years after she ceased keeping the prayer journal. However, the novel grew out of several shorter pieces published previously. In the journal evidence of her repeated pleas to God to help her to write a novel, and the brief articulation of a controlling idea with which she is preoccupied, call to mind the components of what would eventually become the saga of Hazel Motes. Thus, it appears that the idea for Wise Blood was already germinating during the time Flannery was writing the journal. Interestingly, the prayer journal predates the earliest letter in the volume of her collected letters, which is dated June 19, 1949, two years after writing in the prayer journal ceased. In that letter, Flannery is on the lookout for an agent to represent her novel Wise Blood.
Reason #5: Flannery articulates the need for a clear Catholic worldview as the thread with which to weave a novel. Towards the end of the journal, Flannery is immersed in pondering her literary philosophy and the role of the Catholic artist. Clearly she recognizes, perhaps through the grace of her prayer, that she must be accountable for her use of her gift in relation to her faith. She writes,
“To maintain any thread in the novel there must be a view of the world behind it & the most important single item under this view of the world is conception of love – divine, natural, & perverted. It is probably possible to say that when a view of love is present – a broad enough view – no more need be added to make the world view.”
She articulates clearly here the acceptable separation between the ways in which a purely secular view of love (pure physical desire) would be realized in a novel against the realization of love in the work of a writer inspired by an awareness of Divine Love. Flannery was never shy about her devotion to her Catholic faith, clearly evident in from her collected letters and numerous essays. When asked to speak publicly she emphasized the truth that her faith was the reason for everything she did and the perspective from which she viewed the world. The existence of the journal solidifies this view in a unique way, ensuring no one will ever be able to look at her work in the same way again.
Reason #6: Here you will find a kindred spirit in the experience of suffering. In her letters, Flannery’s tone is often no-nonsense and, if one does not understand or appreciate her dry wit, she might come off as harsh or abrasive, potentially causing the casual reader to forget how much she suffered over the course of her life. The prayer journal shows this suffering in all its nakedness. She suffers doubt and anxiety about her life and her vocation. She suffers from an acute awareness of her “mediocrity” and her pride’s inability to cope with it. She suffers torments of the flesh and the mind. She suffers because she cannot suffer well. For love of God and for the sake of those others – “the dead people I am living with” – she repeatedly asks for the grace necessary to handle suffering. The journal shows the truth of her inner struggles and makes her more approachable, opening the door to the possibility of true friendship with someone who knows the difficulty of living an authentic spiritual life amidst great suffering.
Reason #7: Flannery models and emphasizes the need for simple entrustment to Mary. There is a sense throughout the journal that the goal of the artist is to practice her craft with the heart of the tax collector. Flannery’s devotion to the Blessed Virgin Mary is a consistent prayer throughout the journal. The focus of her devotion to Mary as Our Lady of Perpetual Help is significant, expressing the necessary awareness that the need for perpetual help supposes a corresponding acknowledgement of perpetual weakness in oneself. The image of Our Lady of Perpetual Help is of a protective mother, carrying her child. When one considers the extreme suffering of mind, body, and soul Flannery experienced throughout her short life, one is reminded of the need to admit one’s helplessness and weakness, to trustingly allow another to carry you in her arms to your final destination. The journal is a beautiful reminder of the truth that God’s power is made perfect in our weakness and that it is He alone who works in us and through our gifts to the extent that we are able to admit of our need for help in dealing with our weaknesses. Flannery lends her voice to the chorus of many saints who have for generations emphasized that entrustment to Mary is the safest, surest path to Christ.
The existence of A Prayer Journal is surely cause for great rejoicing. It is safe to say that no one who reads A Prayer Journal will ever be able to look at Flannery’s work in the same way again and that pondering it will shed light on the many beautiful and challenging ways it appears her
prayers were answered throughout her life. It is quite fitting that the gift of this journal comes during the month of November, a time when we celebrate our belief in the communion of saints. Surely, as a faithfully departed soul, whose writing in A Prayer Journal and throughout her life testifies to her intention to live a life of holiness, we can count Flannery as one of our friends in heaven who, along with the recognized saints of our faith, stands before us as a model of what it means to live a life consecrated to Christ and His Church and who provides guidance and encouragement so that we who are left behind will have the strength to persevere. A late encounter with this stalwart friend in faith has the potential to change your life, which is the very best reason for reading it.