Book Review: In the Custody of Words: Poems

Billy Middleton

In the Custody of Words: Poems
by Philip C. Kolin
Franciscan University Press, 2013.

Philip C. Kolin’s new chapbook In the Custody of Words begins with a Latin epigraph of the opening lines from the Last Gospel: “In the beginning was the word, and the word was with God, and the word was God.” The importance of words and language as a fundamental element of creation informs this collection. God, as creator, is the divine wielder of words. [Read more…]

Book Review: Ignatius Critical Editions

Ignatius Critical Editions
Edited by Joseph Pearce

Hamlet (William Shakespeare)
312 pp., $12.95, 2008
ISBN: 978-1-586-17261-9

Pride and Prejudice (Jane Austen)
596 pp., $12.95, 2008
ISBN: 978-1-586-17263-3

The Picture of Dorian Gray (Oscar Wilde)
365 pp., $12.95, 2008
ISBN: 978-1-586-17262-6

Reviewed by Eleanor Bourg Donlon

Is Hamlet so rampant with bawdy jokes that it is simply a very long, very dirty “shaggy dog story”? [Read more…]

The Painted Veil

It took me a long time to warm up to this book, about 90 pages, in fact. As it’s not even 250 pages long, that’s a sizable warm-up period. I suspect that the original editors didn’t do such a good job, but, since it is at this point a book with a history, their original mistakes were left (lots of run-on sentences, a word missing from a sentence here and there, you get the idea). Also, it struck me as a trashy romance novel with no admirable characters. I was dismayed, as I generally trust recommendations from Heath Misley, a compatriot from my Wasting Time in the Western Tradition days in Manchester. So, I gritted my teeth, and pushed on. And I’m glad I did.

I know a movie was made based on this book. I think I even saw it a long time ago, but I don’t remember much of it. Do yourself a favor, though, and read the book, even if you have already seen the movie. I don’t want to say too much about it because I don’t want to give anything away (there were a lot of things that surprised me as I was reading, and I want you to be surprised, too). But, why should you read it? It admirably handles the problems of human weakness, pettiness, silliness and selfishness. All of the characters are real, and uncomfortably so. It’s never pleasant to realize that a writer so clearly understands human failings. It’s like when you go to mass and come away with the sure knowledge that the sermon was written with your unholy soul as a target. But, it’s also comforting to know you’re not the only one who’s ever been an idiot, to whatever degree that might have been. Maybe we’re not all so tortured as the whiskey priest in The Power and the Glory, but a failing is a failing. So, with that vague summary in mind, read it and prepare yourself to become attached to some less-than-worthy fictional characters.

The novel is set in the British Empire during the 1920’s. It’s primarily about the development of one Kitty Fane. Out of boredom and some curiosity, she acquaints herself with the Mother Superior of a Catholic convent (she herself is not Catholic.) As she leaves the convent for the last time, the Mother bids her goodbye. I’ve truncated the scene:

Kitty had a wild impulse to shake her, crying: “Don’t you know that I’m a human being, unhappy and alone? Can’t you turn a minute away from God and give me a little compassion?” To Kitty’s surprise the Mother Superior took her in her arms and kissed her. She held her for a moment. “Remember that it is nothing to do your duty, that is demanded of you and is no more meritorious than to wash your hands when they are dirty; the only thing that counts is the love of duty; when love and duty are one, then grace is in you and you will enjoy a happiness which passes all understanding.” (Vintage, 204-06)

Kitty is deeply flawed in many ways, but her biggest problem is that she is incredibly selfish. I suppose one might say that the book is really about her learning what it means to love. She goes through the paces of a few things, even marriage, because they are what she is expected to do. But, never having received real love from her parents, and being encouraged in a solipsistic existentialism, she’s a brat. The mother superior has told her exactly what she needs to hear, and, really, exactly what all of us need to hear.

If we gracelessly go through the paces of life, grumbling as we take out the trash, swearing at other drivers during the morning commute, blandly reciting our prayers, impatient at having to change yet another diaper, angry at disruptions of our dutiful routine, we’ll be utterly miserable, and so will everyone with whom we come in contact. It is far better to be 5 seconds later to work than to cut off someone trying to merge onto the highway. No one will be thankful that you took out the trash if you guilt-trip them about how much work you do around the house. A grumpy recitation of a 20-decade rosary has less merit in it than a 2-second shout-out to God of sincere gratitude for a piece of chocolate. And if you resent every diaper you have to change, or even every other diaper, don’t think your child will grow up unaware of that resentment. Kitty isn’t perfect at the end of the book; she does progress, but boy, she sure slips up pretty horrifically. Sadly, so will you and I (as we’re both already aware, I’m sure). I know it sounds trite and corny, but at least try to love people, really love them and be kind to them, as you go along making mistakes and inadequately performing your duties for them. Love covers a multitude of sins, and leads you to that happiness which surpasses all understanding. So go have some chocolate, or, better yet, buy chocolate for someone else, and thank God you can.

Book Review: Redeemed

Katy Carl

Redeemed: A Spiritual Misfit Stumbles Toward God, Marginal Sanity, and the Peace that Passes All Understanding
by Heather King
Viking Press, 2008
238 pages, $24.95

After my recent conversation with Heather King, I am again left thinking about what self-gift means for the writer: “You willingly allow yourself to be consumed.” Of course, when King said this, she meant that writing consumes the writer, not that reading does. But “consuming” also connotes nourishment, refreshment. [Read more…]

Hemingway Fan Fiction

Over the last few years, there’s been a surge of interest in Lost Generation writers and artists. I, of course, am a little annoyed by this, as my previously held and possibly unhealthy fascination with that lot now seems to be merely a part of the cultural shift in attention back to the days of flappers, gin fizzes, and desperation. But, I’ll have you know, I owned the book Gatsby Cocktails long before the Baz Luhrmann movie came out, and I was positively stuck on Hemingway’s stark prose—and dark machismo—eons before Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris. (“Your blood coagulates beautifully.”) But really, I can’t actually be as snobbishly annoyed as I might wish, because this widespread interest means I get company in nerding out, and I get to read and watch the fan fiction and movies that have sprung up around those stories and their authors.

A few months back I was in an airport bookstore. They are, as you well know, horrible places. As I scanned the shelves of trade paperbacks, tried not to be sick all over the harlequin romances and the popular selections for today’s teenagers, I prepared myself to leave with the aloof sense of intellectual and moral superiority that customarily and scantly comforts me in lieu of a good book in such scenarios. But, my preparations were all for naught. Somehow, my eyes got around a slightly corny cover (yes, I do judge by them), complete with “artistic” scroll work, and saw “A beautiful portrait of being in Paris in the glittering 1920s.” ‘Nuff said.

The Paris Wife, by Paula McLain, is a novel about Hadley Richardson, Hemingway’s first wife. It begins with their meeting and subsequent courtship, and follows their story through their years in Paris until their separation. From Hadley’s perspective, we see Hemingway’s emergence as a young novelist, insecure and raging and eager as he rubs shoulders with Gertrude Stein, James Joyce, Ezra Pound, and, of course, the Fitzgeralds. In one of my favorite passages of the book, Hadley is awake, pregnant and hungry in the early morning:

I wanted muskmelons and a really nice piece of cheese, coffee and good jam and waffles. I was so hungry thinking about this I couldn’t sleep.

“Waffles,” I said to Ernest’s curled back near dawn. “Wouldn’t that be lovely?”

When he didn’t rouse, I said it again, louder, and put my hand on his back, giving him a friendly little shove.

“Oh, for crying out loud,” he said, rolling out of bed. “It’s gone now.”

“What’s gone?”

He sat on the edge of the thick mattress, scratching one knee. “The right words for the sketch.”

“Oh, sorry then,” I said.

I watched him dress and move toward the kitchen. Within minutes I could hear the coffee boiling and smell it and it made me hungrier. I heard him get his coffee and then heard the chair squeak back as he sat at the table. Silence.

“Tiny?” I said, still in bed. “What do you think about the waffles?”

He groaned and pushed his chair back. “There it all goes again.” (161)

Somehow, Paula McLain manages to write about famous writers without sounding like she’s writing about writers. She’s a good writer on her own merit, and doesn’t skate by merely with writing about people whose lives are already popular. Also, even though Hemingway was an indisputably flawed, oftentimes selfish and arguably morally depraved man, and even though the story is told from the point of a view of the wife whom he cheats on and ultimately leaves, McLain somehow manages to keep him a sympathetic character. Though his faults are blatant, they are nonetheless understandable on some level. And while she paints the characters admirably throughout, makes them real and believable and even lovable, she has also done the research to make her story historically accurate.

Be warned, however, that since most of these characters are artist-y sorts of “liberated” people, there’s a fair bit of promiscuity, some of it less licit than desirable. (See what I did there?!) That being said, none of it seemed gratuitous or written lasciviously or salaciously. So far I’ve lent my copy out to three people. All of them, readers and writers themselves, have loved it. I imagine you will, too.

Gerard Manley Hopkins: A Life

Reviewed by Meredith Wise

Gerard Manley Hopkins: A Life
By Paul Mariani
Viking, 2008
496 pages, $34.95

“To seem the stranger lies my lot, my life”: in this line, Hopkins could have been speaking of the treatment he has received from his biographers. Two full-length lives have already been published, and both, while impeccably researched, fail to credit the reality of Hopkins’ spiritual life. [Read more…]

Following the Bellman:

Glenn Arbery

The Oracles Fell Silent
by Lee Oser
Wiseblood Books, Feb. 2014
262 pages, paperback, $13.00

In Lee Oser’s boisterously funny and quietly moving new comic novel, The Oracles Fell Silent, the center of attention (though not necessarily the main character) is a blustering, insecure British rock icon from the 1960s named Ted Pop. World-famous since his youth, Pop—his real name is Theo Pappas, Jr—has been knighted by the queen, which puts him in the near-mythological company of such figures as Paul McCartney and Mick Jagger. Like them, Sir Ted has the means to acquire almost anything he wants. As the novel opens, for example, he covets a beach house in the Hamptons with a deck on the Atlantic and an observation tower “whose glass walls appeared to be cut out of bright blue air.” A blank check for the realtor gets him the house (despite allegedly stiff competition). But the main thing Sir Ted craves—vindication for his contribution to The Planets, the ’60s band he formed with the legendary Gabriel “Johnny” Donovan—can’t be so easily managed.


The Oracles Fell Silent is available from Wiseblood Books.

In framing Sir Ted’s anxieties, Oser imagines a version of the endless controversies among fans about the genius of bands. Who was more important to The Beatles, Lennon or McCartney? Did the Allman Brothers ever match their early brilliance after Duane Allman died in a motorcycle crash? Sir Ted’s immediate problem is that a recent biography by a man named Ginger Drake, The Life and Fall of Johnny Donovan, not only belittles Pop’s musical importance to The Planets but even suggests that he was responsible for Donovan’s fatal fall from a London rooftop in 1969. To even the score, Pop hires his daughter’s lover, the naive, intermittently religious young narrator of the novel, Richard Bellman, who will ghost-write Sir Ted’s memoirs.

Thrown unprepared onto this glitzy Olympus, Bellman plays a role in the novel a little like Nick Carraway’s in The Great GatsbyCompetent but unsure of himself in this world of wealth and fame, he’s the observer of the “great” who is steadily drawn into the maelstrom of Pop’s career. Because he’s Sir Ted’s assistant and supposed confidant, he’s the one who might have access to the lucrative secret of what actually happened on that rooftop. He attracts the attention of people willing to pay him a great deal for it.

But in more important ways, too, he turns out to be the real center of the action. After the comic uproar of the novel dies away, it becomes clear in retrospect that young Richard has been a major force. He is a witness but also a crucial participant in the drama of Ted Pop’s coming to terms with the truth about Johnny Donovan, who was not so much a rival as a saintly character with a genuine genius and perhaps even a celibate in the sex-mad world around him. Richard is not an innocent. But despite being subject to most temptations, Richard is a believer—Sir Ted says early on “You won’t be when I’m finished with  you”—and it turns out that there are things he can’t do, lines he can’t cross.

“Does one’s integrity ever lie in what he is not able to do?” asks Flannery O’ Connor in a comment that very much applies to this novel. “I think that usually it does, for free will does not mean one will, but many wills conflicting in one man. Freedom cannot be conceived simply. It is a mystery and one which a novel, even a comic novel, can only be asked to deepen.”

O’Connor’s Georgia of God-haunted atheists and backwoods nihilists is a far cry from Oser’s Hamptons, where the only burning religious question is whether Daisy the Pig, a bronze statue that had “occupied a place of honor in front of Hill’s Butcher Shop and had done so, though seasons of plenty and seasons of famine, for one hundred and twenty-nine years,” should be removed. It seems that it’s offensive to Muslims, at least according to the self-promoting, bestselling, and hypocritical imam Omar D.

Oser is a superb satirist of pretensions. He skewers rock stars like Sir Ted or Tom Bram, who like to display his phosphorescent vampire teeth; academics like the magisterially condescending Prof. Candy Swash, “Chair of Thing Theory” at Harvard; predatory journalists like the perennially sexy and unscrupulous Veronica Lamb. He’s also wonderful at details, as in his description of Sir Ted’s cook, who buys “lottery tickets by the roll” because work “was an untimely imposition, a lingering streak of bad luck, an incidental hardship until something much better came along.” Richard’s priest in the novel is Fr. Stan Nitzsche, who won infamy in the early days of the pill with a book called Pandora’s Pillbox.

What’s bracing about Oser’s work is its absolute lack of puritanism. Like Walker Percy, he suspects that Catholics might already be acquainted with sin. He fearlessly depicts sex, he reports the bad language, and he doesn’t shy away from uncomfortable humor. For example, Sir Ted goes to mass for reasons of publicity, but then puts the host in his pocket and later brags to Richard (who has been told by Fr. Stan Nitzsche to retrieve the pocked host and consume it), “I ate it with my blueberry-cheesecake ice cream.” The joke, of course, is on Sir Ted himself, as his real name suggests: Theo from theos, God, and Pappas meaning “priest” in Greek. Despite his cavalier blasphemies, he’s unable to escape the inner question of responsibility for Johnny Donovan’s death that he’s outwardly trying to put to rest.

But even in Richard’s most ridiculous experiences, there is no brooding condemnation, either of himself or of others. Oser knows the America he depicts—this culture of decadent excess and arrogance—as fully as Richard Ford knows the Jersey shore. It’s by no means a realist novel, however, but something like a tongue-in-cheek allegory, as one begins to suspect when Sir Ted meets his match in Hurricane Gabriel and the mystery of Johnny Donovan’s death finally comes to light. Oser’s novel makes its readers ask which oracles they’ve been attending and what might happen in their silence. Young Richard Bellman—it’s worth thinking about what a “bellman” is—emerges largely unscathed, and with an essential quiet dignity. There’s no triumphalism here, no relegation of souls to heaven or hell. Oser’s gift is making it deeply attractive to come back to the sanity of worshiping what deserves it.

Glenn Arbery has taught literature at the University of St. Thomas in Houston, Thomas More College of Liberal Arts, and the University of Dallas. He has served as Director of the Teachers Academy at the Dallas Institute of Humanities and Culture; senior editor for City Newspapers in Dallas, where he was an award-winning film and theater critic; and contributing editor of D Magazine. He is the author of Why Literature Matters (2001) and the editor of two volumes, The Tragic Abyss (2004) and, most recently, The Southern Critics: An Anthology (2010). He has published and lectured on a range of authors, including Homer, Dante, Shakespeare, and Dostoevsky. He has recently finished a novel, and at present he is working on a book about Caroline Gordon and Allen Tate with his wife Virginia.

“But you’re not referring to spirituality there?”

Backtrack to 2011: poets and literature fans orbiting Montréal’s Véhicule Press brainstormed the “Montréal International Poetry Prize” which, with a $50,000 pop for the winner, made headlines as the world’s most lucrative prize for one poem. Though the cash-pot this year dropped to a measly $20,000, the announcement of a second run sent poets across the Anglosphere scurrying for their word processors. The prize being blind, Scottish judge Don Patterson had no idea who the writers were and ultimately awarded it a stone’s throw away to a woman living two hundred kilometres northeast in the small, shoreline community of Pontneuf – to Mia Anderson: poet, wife, former actress, occasional shepherd and Anglican minister.


Her entry, “The Antenna,” stunned me at first read – it’s a delicate poem with a compassion that’s unwilling to ignore the complicated, painful nuances facing [un]believers when trying to encounter God. The title refers to the central metaphor, a spiritual “antenna” we have that helps us perceive the presence of God in the world, and the poem explores the moments of relative ease/difficulty in getting our antennae to work the way we want them to. Though while the joys of the poem are many (its language, irony, sincerity, surprising precision of image) there’s another unexpected treat in the form of an interview with Anderson hosted by CBC’s Jeanette Kelly where they discuss the poem and its context.

From the get-go it’s clear Anderson’s a poet writing in today’s artistic milieu: the brash collision of “high” and “low” topics (the mixing of jig-a-loo and the music of the spheres, for example), the reliance on free-verse form and the never-entirely-avoidable undercurrents of ambiguity/doubt (especially when addressing things closest to her heart) all point to her inhabiting-and-being-informed-by the postmodern world. Her voice can’t avoid seeming like a tailored aural image. She stumbles into awkward moments of self-promotion or melodrama, occasionally tripping as she strikes the artiste’s pose. She’s an ironic, self-promoting, twenty-first century poet. To the nines. But when it comes to faith she totally, totally gets it.

Beneath her hip/confessional trappings is an authentic woman of God, a woman who’s thought and continues to think deeply about the implications of mere Christianity in the modern public sphere (particularly relevant in light of recent proposals in Québec suggesting a limit to wearing certain religious symbols in civil workplaces). In the interview she and Kelly jump topics from philosophy to sheep midwifery to poetry to WD-40 to said music of the spheres to Anderson’s self-identified role as a priest in the Anglican community; through it all they end up orbiting a number of profoundly important issues facing anyone invested in the relationship between spirituality, art and their effects on public life – and it’s almost painfully hilarious to hear the ever-tactful Kelly navigate Anderson’s unavoidably theological tangents. Hilarious and completely, consolingly, human.

One of those many tangents, Kelly and Anderson’s discussion of what Don Patterson called “receivership” includes some pretty crucial claims about art and spirituality – particularly with how the creation of art can be seen as a kind of spiritual receivership, one utilizing the same aforementioned antenna. This’s a pretty big deal, because if it’s true then it means making art, no matter the intentions of the artist, their political beliefs, social leanings or attitude towards God, is in some way an act of grace that can’t avoid being suffused with the creative, life-affirming spirit of God.

Now get this – this’s on the CBC. Read: the Canadian BBC-wannabe; publicly-funded/politically-correct to the point of mediocrity. Here, a declaration of belief in anything outside the narrowly-defined (though certainly important) set of acceptable convictions doesn’t prompt outroar so much as an awkward silence where the embarrassed twiddling of thumbs is all-but palpable.


Anderson, as a postmodern poet, knows this and walks a thread-thin tightrope. She isn’t afraid of drawing links between her work as an artist and her history of unapologetic ministry in an established religion, but she frames everything in a language as universal as possible. Not a cake-walk by a long shot – but somehow she pulls it off, fascinatingly. Evangelization becomes an invitation, sermons become drama, prayer becomes an expression of our deep desire to come to terms with “what is so.” And, after a small aside about her history on the stage, she gets to the good stuff:

Anderson: What I would be doing in the pulpit would feel to me more like what I did in a poem than what I did in the theatre… I am preaching from the same source as [when] I’m writing poetry. Really, I’m not so much performing in the pulpit, say, as I am tapping into […] where the receivership touches and trying to share it. Does that make any sense?

Anderson, through mine-ridden cultural territory, is trying to share (in a secular context) both that authentic ministry/preaching/sermonship should always be in touch with the One on the other side of the spiritual antenna and that the creation of art comes from that spiritual source – the same source as liturgy, ritual, dogma, mysticism and (excuse my Québécois) organized religion. In a single stroke, whether she realizes or not (and I’m sure she does), she’s saying, to all the self-professed post-Christian members of the literary/cultural elite, that by doing what they do – by doing what they feel in their bones they’re meant to do – they’re drawing close to something resembling prayer.


The trick here, same as in the poem, is dressing the language in a way that doesn’t come off as “too religious” for the regular Joe to swallow – and the way Anderson navigates that task alone makes the interview worth a listen. Though Kelly, in response to the quote above, can’t avoid an astute: “Yes, but you’re not referring to spirituality there?” Because of course Anderson is. But while she follows a well-worn train by avoiding using words like “spirituality” (the given reason: it’s hackneyed), for her it isn’t a license for flakiness so much as a search for language that does real justice to “what is so.” And maybe her tendency not to use traditionally religious terms is the fruit of a knowledge that her mission is to be outward-focused – rather than being a person who pats believers on the head, she strives to have at least one eye (and both hands) reaching out to the world.

And one of the most beautiful things about “The Antenna” is its effortless accessibility – it speaks into a deep, lived reality of people who identify as believers as well as those who don’t. Kelly observes, along with prize judge Don Patterson, that the poem isn’t about faith/doubt, conviction/flakiness or un/belief so much as this “receivership.” Our ability (or lack thereof) to perceive God is obviously a huge part of the Christian walk and it’s easy to forget that our secular or spiritually uncommitted brothers/sisters sometimes struggle with receptivity all the same. And, while she certainly weaves touchier ideas like evangelization, liturgical responsibility and the viability of objective truth into the conversation, what keeps the interview (and the poem) from shutting itself inside a theological ivory tower is the adamant concern for people, for questions like:

“Is He there?”

“Then why can’t I hear Him?”

“Am I even doing this right?”

The poem gives a voice and image (or, as Anderson says, “recognition”) to those who want to hear what God has to say but feel, no matter how hard they try, like they can’t get their antennae unstuck from that “old winged / fin socket.” They can’t tell if God’s ignoring them or if they’re just, well, incapable of tuning in. As the heartbreaking final lines say:

[…] they have heard of how it works
sometimes, how when the nights are clear

and the stars just so and the moon has all but set,
the distant music of the spheres is transformative

and they believe in the transformation.
It is the antenna they have difficulty believing in.

Here, ultimately, Anderson speaks powerfully into the experience of spiritual helplessness, of doubting not so much God’s goodness or His presence but our own ability to receive/make sense of any of it. The poet taps into a universal experience and places it within an explicitly spiritual context before planting said context into a poem utterly divested of Christianese. And so we’re all around the table: believer and unbeliever, cynic and romantic, Anglican and Catholic, secular humanist and religious minister, whatever and whoever, trying to contemplate what it means to be helpless in the face of such Goodness.



Josh Nadeau currently lives in Russia and, when not teaching or writing, may be found winter cycling, hitchhiking or engaged in general shenanigans. He hopes, when he’s older, to maintain his sense of awe.

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.


A Baptist Discovers Tradition

Chene Heady



Booked: Literature in the Soul of Me by Karen Swallow Prior is available from

Booked: Literature in the Soul of Me

by Karen Swallow Prior

New York: T.S. Poetry Press, 2012

220 pages, paperback, $15.00


By day Dr. Karen Swallow Prior is an English professor specializing in eighteenth-century British literature. But in some circles she is better known for her side job as a regular blogger for Evangelical Protestantism’s fl agship periodical, Christianity Today. Prior’s recent volume Booked: Literature in the Soul of Me synthesizes her two sides, combining a professor’s astute literary analysis with a blogger’s frank personal confession. As its title implies, Prior’s text traces the impact literature has had on her self-formation, analyzing the works that have “booked” her life and the life these texts have shaped. Each chapter takes its name and frame from a literary work that either influences or provides an interpretive key for a turning point in her life. To take one example that should appeal to readers of the present periodical, “God of the Awkward, the Freckled, and the Strange” makes sense of adolescence by way of the poetry of Gerard Manley Hopkins. But why, the reader may already be wondering, should literary Catholics care to read the memoirs of a Protestant blogger?

With this volume, Prior has made a valuable contribution to the ongoing debate about the relevance of the Western literary tradition in a postmodern age. The primary value of Prior’s approach to this topic is that it is almost entirely existential. Arguments in favor of the classics—and the liberal arts educational model that emphasizes these core texts—tend to be either highly theoretical treatises (think John Henry Newman) or cultural critiques (think Alan Bloom or E.D. Hirsch). While such arguments remain valuable—who could presume to displace Blessed John Henry Newman?—they sometimes lack resonance with a postmodern audience. For better and worse, postmodern readers have been taught to distrust wide-ranging theoretical treatises as metanarratives and to regard cultural critiques as thinly veiled acts of political aggression. Prior usefully supplements Newman, using the genre of memoir to explain the spiritual value of literature to our subjective, affective era.

Prior is commendably honest as a memoirist, and depicts her young self as a creature of our fragmented, postmodern world. As she grows up in the 1980s, her identity is full of fissures.  Raised a devout Baptist, she eagerly plots the loss of her virginity, without any admitted loss of faith. In what may be an even deeper contradiction, she defines herself as both a budding young intellectual and a metalhead, a paradox that will befuddle anyone who remembers the bands Quiet Riot and Twisted Sister. Considering herself a feminist and freethinker, she watches women dance in cages at concerts and herself hits on the musicians in bar bands.

Newman said that the goal of the liberal education was to see oneself and the world whole, to integrate each piece of knowledge into a coherent system that reasonably approximates the infinitely complicated universe of which we are part. Prior’s experience as a prolific reader is the discovery of the possibility of integration: of faith and reason, of the diverse parts of the self, of the individual and the world. Through the pursuit of words, she finds the Word that connects them all and gives them meaning.

The work’s most powerful chapters are those that address this process most directly, those that tell the tale of her late teens and early twenties.

For the present purpose, the chapter on Charles Dickens can stand in for the others. Prior sees Dickens’ memorable comic creation, Mr. Wemmick (from Great Expectations), as the poster boy for our age. Wemmick is the “quintessential modern man” precisely because he is the ultimate fragmented man. In his job as a clerk at a law office in London, he is perfectly coldhearted and pragmatic, to an extreme that could even seem unethical. But in his small house in the suburbs—which is literally his castle, surrounded by a miniature moat with a miniature drawbridge— he is a good-hearted sentimentalist, caring for an elderly parent and courting an innocent bride. The public and private selves are antitheses that, as Wemmick himself is placidly aware, can never meet. The shock of recognition Prior encounters discovering Mr. Wemmick is a powerful argument for the value of literary reading. Without such moments, how do we ever come to see that our own internal division is not an inevitability, but a problem? How do we even begin to search for wholeness? For Prior, reading becomes the pathway to a unified (and redeemed) self and world, an escape from an existence such as Wemmick’s; for her, this is what reading is all about. As the more recent stories in this book—and my own conversations with Prior and her students— attest, Prior views her professorate as a chance to help others similarly read their way to self-integration.

If I have a quibble with Booked, it’s that Prior may not realize how Catholic her intellectual bent truly is. At times, she casts her reading experience as a vindication of an extreme version of the Protestant principle of private judgment. Citing Milton’s Areopagitica, she alleges that her experience shows the value of “promiscuous reading.” In the opening chapter and elsewhere, Prior asserts that she is arguing for the value of consuming texts of any level of quality, written from any perspective, and defending any thesis. The individual mind, if unshackled, will find truth, no matter from whence it starts, and no matter what method or course it pursues. This idea is both safely Progressive and solidly Protestant (in that faith’s most individualistic vein); beside the rare Fundamentalist, it is unlikely to find many critics.

However, the text itself seems to tell a different—and, from my perspective, wiser and more interesting—story. Although Prior may defend horror fiction in the occasional stray sentence, each book that has truly influenced her, each book that merits a chapter, is a classic work in the Western literary tradition. Prior’s own reading is anything but promiscuous, and when she analyzes Madame Bovary, a literary character whose identity is truly formed by reading trashy novels, her response is a justifi ed aversion. Madame Bovary provokes Prior to make an important admission (lacking in the work elsewhere, and in need of further explanation) that reading the wrong books in the wrong way can actually malform the self. Reading does not inherently bring about integration, one wishes she would explicitly acknowledge; allowing oneself to be shaped by a tradition greater than oneself may.

Prior has recently written—in the December 2012 New Oxford Review—of her love for Catholic writers, and her despair of finding writers of similar merit in her own denomination. In Booked, we find her again grappling with Catholic concepts, putatively intending to argue for Protestant individualism, but really and more substantially making the case for tradition. Her work shows why, even in secular matters like literature, we need a canon, a collective yardstick.

Booked provides jaded and weary postmodern readers with an accessible entrance point into the Western literary tradition.

This tradition is suffused with Catholicism, often depending on Catholic motifs and conceptual vocabulary even when it wishes to contest or deny the Faith. Hence, Catholic lovers of the arts can be grateful for Prior’s work, perhaps the more so as they acknowledge the premises on which she depends but does not yet confess.

Chene Heady is an associate professor of English at Longwood University in Farmville, Virginia. He has published articles in such periodicals as America, the New Oxford Review, Southwest Review, and Renascence. He has also previously published in Dappled Things (Saints Peter and Paul issue, 2010).