By LORRAINE V. MURRAY, Book review | Published August 15, 2013
“I want to be the best artist it is possible for me to be, under God,” writes the young Flannery O’Connor in a lovely treasure of a book called simply “A Prayer Journal.”
She penned the entries beginning in January of 1946 when she was a 20-year-old fledgling writer attending the Iowa Writers’ Workshop—and ended the journal abruptly less than two years later. Still, this small book—only 112 pages—contains a wealth of insights about her spiritual life.
Born in Savannah in 1925, O’Connor lived most of her life at Andalusia Farm near Milledgeville. There she completed two novels, two collections of stories and numerous essays—and was honored with the National Book Award posthumously.
The intensely personal prayer journal is best described as a collection of love letters to God. Not love in the sickeningly sweet, overly flowery sense that O’Connor would have deplored, but as a longing to get closer to someone and to know that person better.
“Dear Lord, please make me want you,” she implores. Still, she was no fan of emotional outbursts and dreaded drumming up an “artificial superficial feeling” that might be brought about, as she put it, “by the choir.”
She opens on a plaintive note: “Dear God, I cannot love Thee the way I want to.” The obstacles to loving God, as she sees them, are her aspirations to be a writer and her hope for success. As she succinctly notes, “I am in the way.”
Still, a later entry reveals her humble acknowledgment that her inspiration comes from God: “Don’t let me ever think, dear God, that I was anything but the instrument for your story …”
Here we learn about her discouragement about her writing, her sense of loneliness and her persistent fear of mediocrity. We also get a glimpse of her sardonic humor when she asks God to strengthen her faith to the point of complete surrender, and then clarifies quickly, “I do not mean becoming a nun.”
The entries are laced with distinctly Catholic references, especially her devotion to Our Lady of Perpetual Help and her belief that Catholicism offers an encounter with God “as nearly as we can get to Him on earth.”
The journal also reveals the young O’Connor’s struggles to withstand the machinations of professors who endeavored to convince believers that God was their own creation. “At every point in the educational process, we are told that (faith) is ridiculous,” she laments.
The entries are written in a conversational style but sometimes veer into more reflective, theologically charged waters. “Hell, a literal hell is our only hope,” she declares in an effort to underscore the point that if we reduce hell and the devil to symbols, as many Christians have done, God and heaven aren’t far behind.
Grace is a recurring topic, which is not surprising given that it played a central role in her fiction. After all, this was the woman who would later declare that her stories at heart were about “the action of grace in territory held largely by the devil.”
Here she prays, “Give me the grace, dear God, to adore you,” and also acknowledges that grace often comes after suffering.
As for her own suffering, the young O’Connor suggests “there’s a terrific balance due.” The sad irony, of course, is that she would get more than her share a few years later when she began showing symptoms of lupus, which eventually took her life at age 39. In an eerily prescient moment, she asks God to “give me the courage to stand the pain to get the grace.”
“I don’t want to be doomed to mediocrity in my feeling for Christ,” she writes in one of the last entries. “I want to feel. I want to love.”
Given the honesty and the passionate yearning expressed here—and the stirring, deeply Catholic stories that would later proceed from this author’s pen—it seems these longings were fulfilled.
Many readers might hope for more volumes of the prayer journal to be unearthed in the future, but given that O’Connor described herself in a letter as a “maniac killer of public documents”—someone who routinely tossed out memorabilia—that is unlikely to happen. However, we can be grateful this one volume survived.
Above all, this stirring collection of prayers and reflections provides another crucial piece in the enduringly mysterious and endlessly intriguing puzzle that was Flannery O’Connor’s life.