7 Reasons To Read A Prayer Journal, by Flannery O’Connor

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.

APrayerJournalCoverFirst, 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

Flannery O'Connor holding a copy of her novel Wise Blood.

Flannery O’Connor holding a copy of her novel Wise Blood.

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.

Image of Our Lady of Perpetual Help

Image of Our Lady of Perpetual Help

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

Flannery O'Connor, 1947 -- during the time she composed A Prayer Journal.

Flannery O’Connor, 1947 — during the time she composed A Prayer Journal.

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.

 

Comments

  1. says

    I have always loved Flannery O’Connor, her written work with such robust literary characters. Now I catch a glimpse of her profound Catholic faith and relationship with God. Your post was very interesting.

    • says

      I’m so glad you enjoyed it, Mary,and thank you for taking the time to leave a comment. I do believe you’d appreciate the journal very much. If you ever do read it, I’d love to hear what you think!

  2. Tom Hanson says

    Thank you for letting me know. I am fairly out of the loop since I am living in Thailand. I will watch for it and hope it will be e-booked soon after physical publication. Or makes it to England rapidly, because Amazon.co.uk will ship even to Chiang Mai, bless them.
    I first found her in the 1970s when she was dissed thoroughly by a professor, then dismissed as a regional writer, and and an undergraduate student at the Sherwood Anderson School of the Grotesque. I have found many of the best books I’ve ever read through pan reviews by silly people with silly but modish ideas. WISE BLOOD was a revelation.
    If you will pardon a crudity, Hemingway once said that a built-in bullshit detector was what a writer needs most. Emily Dickensen had it in spades. So did Flannery O’Connor. Who else could have casually summed up American materialist culture in a single brief line of dialogue: “Man with a good car don’t need no salvation.”?
    She could make people laugh and feel uncomfortable at the same time.

    • says

      Thank you so very much for this amazing referral! Your writing about this little book is wonderful. I will stop by the book store the day her prayer journal arrives. God Bless….

    • says

      Good news, Tom! Looks like both Barnes & Noble and Amazon will be providing ebook options for A Prayer Journal! I do hope you’ll avail yourself of one option or the other, and then report back here what you think of it. If a hardcover is ever an option, you might want to consider it just for the sake of the possibility of your own marginalia — there’s so much there to ponder and enough white space to write your own thoughts.

      Your (sad and unfortunate) reminiscences of how thoroughly some people misunderstand Flannery made me smile: I have the privilege to be teaching her story collection A Good Man Is Hard To Find this year to my high school students and during my prep I read her letter in response to one sent to her by an entire college group of students and professors who were puzzling (ridiculously) over whether or not the grandma’s son in the title story was having some sort of weird dream vision. Her “b.s. detector” was in full flare and her clearly horrified but polite response is an absolute classic that should be required reading for any literature class studying the story. Her closing comment was a perfunctory “I am in shock.” It made me laugh out loud. Barbed wit at its best.

      Thanks so much for reading my post and for taking the time to leave such a generous comment. All the best to you and I hope you enjoy the journal when it finally comes to you. Cheers!

      • Tom Hanson says

        Thanks for your reply to mine and the info about both B&N and Amazon. The BS is certainly amazing about her. However, I brought in the Emily Dickensen factor because Hemingway meant his BS comment in at least two senses: First, the general stuff that’s around . Read some of Ms Dickensens letters as well as Flannery’s, and you’ll see that in her, too. But in context, Hemingway meant it primarily about the writer needing to know himself and how to eliminate BS from his own prose. Both about the BS in himself, and to recognizethe sloppy in his own prose and GET RID OF IT. I know of no American writers who match that dictum better than Dickensen and Flannery O’Connor for sheer iron will to chisel away dross, choose exactly the right word and the right place to put each one in the story, paragraph, sentence and phrase. In ED’s case I should add stanza and line.

        • says

          Thanks for shining even more light on that Rx by Hemingway, Tom, and agreed on all counts for both writers! I do love Dickinson, and her letters are on my TBR list. Is there any particular edition you would recommend?

          If you can manage to get a copy of A Prayer Journal, please stop back by and let me know what you think. I’d love to hear. . .

          Cheers!

          • Tom Hanson says

            There was a selection of Dickinson’s letters published in the 1930′s edited by Mabel somebody or other, and if I remember correctly from Johnson, was subject to severe influence by descendants of her family. The only other edition I know of was edited by the Thomas Johnson who edited the standard scholarly edition of her complete poems and the collected letters published and copyrighted in the very late 1950s-or in the sixties. that’s the one I’ve read. If you are in the USA and have access to a good public library they should have in some dusty corner. I personally bless Mr Thomas for introducing me to her valued friend and personal literary critic Thomas Wentworth Higgenson whose translation of Epictetus was published and I think is a treasure of elegant, precise American 19th century prose. If you look at Wikipedia ref ED you will find his Civil War picture, clearly in a Union uniform captioning him as a Confederate, which I doubt very much was so.