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Nonfiction ‘Prayer Journal’ shows O’Connor’s spiritual longings

  • Published Sunday, Dec. 8, 2013, at 12 a.m.

“A Prayer Journal” by Flannery O’Connor (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 96 pages, $18)

Flannery O’Connor, who suffered from lupus and died in 1964 at age 39, is considered one of the great American writers of the 20th century. Her short stories are often anthologized, and her works, including two novels, three short story collections and two pieces of nonfiction, form one of the Library of America volumes.

From January 1946, when she was not quite 21, to September 1947, when she was 22, she kept a journal that was essentially a series of prayers. She wrote these prayers while a student at the University of Iowa, where she began writing fiction, including her first novel, “Wise Blood.”

W.A. Sessions, who knew O’Connor, writes in his introduction to this slim volume that the journal “accurately reflected O’Connor’s literary achievements thus far and even foretold her suffering and death.” Later, he writes, she created characters “who knew … the cost of having a destiny painful to wait out but, in her fiction, only alive through their waiting.”

The journal shows a young woman longing to be faithful to God yet also clearly drawn to be a writer. “I am to be an artist,” she writes in one entry. “Not in the sense of aesthetic frippery but in the sense of aesthetic craftsmanship; otherwise I will feel my loneliness continually.”

While she was clear about her literary ambition (”Please help me dear God to be a good writer and to get something else accepted”), she also wanted her work to be seen as God’s work: “Don’t let me ever think, dear God, that I was anything but the instrument for Your story.”

Her spiritual longing comes through often: “Make me a mystic, immediately.” And this aids her insight into what she saw as a fallen world: “Give me the grace, dear God, to see the bareness and the misery of the places where You are not adored but desecrated.”

We also see evidence of the biting humor she would employ in her stories: “If we could accurately map heaven some of our up-&-coming scientists would begin drawing blueprints for its improvement, and the bourgeois would sell guides 10¢ the copy to all over 65.”

In reflecting on faith, hope and charity, she writes, “Please give me the necessary grace, oh Lord, and please don’t let it be as hard to get as Kafka made it.”

Her Catholicism pervades her writing, and many will find some of her theological reflections dated or simply strange: “Perversion is the end result of denying or revolting against supernatural love, descending from the unconscious superconscious to the id.”

This is a short book, easily read in one sitting. The journal runs only 40 pages, followed by a facsimile of the entire journal in O’Connor’s own hand. Yet it offers a glimpse into the mind and heart of a young writer who went on to produce some of the greatest fiction in American literature.

Gordon Houser is a writer and editor in Newton.

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