Bryan Giemza on Flannery O’Connor’s A Prayer Journal
If A Prayer Journal were our only window into Flannery O’Connor’s thoughts in her early twenties, what would we say was on her mind? Great expectations and private ambition. Her astonishingly mature sounding of her own capacity for self-deception and vanity. Her first badge of self-identification, like Pope Francis, as a sinner, caught in her own willfulness. Perhaps a sly allusion to Elizabeth Bishop’s “Man-Moth.” And Karl Pfleger’s translated criticism bearing on the work of Catholic novelists Léon Bloy and Charles Péguy.
That sort of thing.
Bear in mind that she would later describe her years in the Iowa Writers’ Workshop as “an easier, freer childhood.” The lupus, which already padded behind her footsteps in wolfish shadows, had not announced itself yet. More, she had stepped out from under Regina O’Connor’s shadow — The Mother’s shadow, Mary Flannery might say. Though her Journal reveals the extent of her anxieties, including her fear of mediocrity, she was acquitting herself beautifully in the writing program, developing the habits of being and discipline that would give her vocation, and not incidentally gaining the notice and respect of her peers. To a southern lady who rode the train back and forth from Iowa to Georgia, there were the inklings of what a cosmopolitan life might look like, if she chose to pursue it, and the first wideness of the horizons that might be won by her wit. Caprice abounded, even in laconic Iowa City. The place thrummed with the energy of returned veterans; victors would take their spoils, youth would rule, and irrepressible talent would bubble up. The writing life was suddenly its own form of intoxication. The final summer covered by the journal’s timespan was one marked by optimism as O’Connor returned to conclude her postgraduate fellowship, secure in her place and with the rising consciousness of her gift. If ever there were a time for a young woman to go hog-wild among the scribbling Bohemians, this was surely it.
And then we reach her last journal entry, a black self-indictment for overindulgence in oatmeal cookies and erotic thoughts. In an earlier entry, O’Connor writes brilliantly of tacking between Despair and Presumption, lifting a page from the third Baltimore Catechism, which identifies the two sins against hope. Presumption assumes that a person “can be saved by his own efforts without God’s help, or by God’s help without his own efforts,” whereas “a person sins by despair when he deliberately refuses to trust that God will give him the necessary help to save his soul.” For her part, O’Connor writes that she likes to decide “which one makes me look best, which fits most comfortably, more conveniently.”
It is 1946. She is twenty-one.
How do we make sense of this? What might we learn from the scant fifty pages of the Journal that have been handed down? And if O’Connor attended mass “practically every morning” at nearby St. Mary’s Catholic Church on East Jefferson Street where, in her words, she “was at home,” what was the journal to her? A spiritual exercise? A discipline? Or a way back to something?
These are vital questions for those who care for O’Connor’s life and work. The Journal’s availability comes as a belated gift, delivered with characteristic care by O’Connor’s friend, Bill Sessions, whose eloquently spare foreword emphasizes, one feels, the very notes she might have wished played pianoforte (the manuscript ends with two musical staffs in her hand — real grace notes — and one is reminded of the often overlooked musicality of O’Connor’s work). It should be understood that O’Connor’s Catholicism was not a quailing aversion to sin itself. Her own writing clearly condemns this particularly sad conception of how virtue is won and lost, and this is reflected in one of her early entries in which she says she cannot permit fear to keep her in the church: “I don’t want to fear to be out; I want to love to be in; I don’t want to believe in hell but in heaven.” In the same entry she writes, “Fear of God is right; but, God it is not this nervousness.”
Though hell, by her own reckoning, is easier to understand than heaven, one can see that O’Connor was saving something in herself when, instead of joining other Iowa students after a beer following a reading, she ducked out on some purpose of her own. Some will undoubtedly find on the Journal’s pages an occasion to remark the stifling desperation of dogma’s self-censure, of an almost anti-Emersonian reticence to engage with life. But those who choose to see it that way will have to ignore the fact that O’Connor is an ardent lover in search of her Christ. She will have a relationship with Him; she will not fall into canyons of abstraction or allow rote habit to substitute for feeling. And she will fail at it, precisely as she notes in her journal. Prayer, then, is her last, best hope.
In the various reviews of the Journal that I have seen, there is little comment on what seems to me a still more important thread in its construction. Flannery O’Connor isn’t having the obvious, bush-league crisis of faith, or the sort that is a rite of passage for undergraduate Hulgas (“Good Country People”) of the world. And yet it is there on the pages of the Journal: “I dread, Oh Lord, losing my faith. My mind is not strong.” Aware that “God loves us, God needs us,” she knows that God has said you are mine; whether she can feel it is another matter. Her anxieties — about failing as a writer or giving way to the pride of being gifted — are completely inconsequential when set next to a Christian fate that is worse than death or failure: a loss of faith, or indeed, anything less than the fullness of faith. And so she doggedly implores her god, her savior, and her lady of Perpetual Help.
Session’s characterization of her love as “universal and, like Moses’s burning bush, alive and on fire,” is just right. Her religious life was never intended to be reduced — deracinated, really — into a fetish that I’ll call alt-Cath Goth, though this has not deterred any number of contemporary critics. James Parker wheels in this direction in his review of the Journal in The Atlantic, thus joining those who celebrated, thoughtlessly, Brad Gooch’s biography for its depiction of its formidably eccentric heroine, with her spiky southern hang-ups, while offering no analysis of the faith at the center of her life. These humanist-leaning critics, haunted by the intellectual’s fear of religious bigotry, find her faith almost as threatening as her southernness, so they would rather call attention to its strange bestiary than to understand its origins.
No doubt compounding these errors, I would like to say a bit about those origins. Mary Flannery O’Connor was never far from the tonic of self-criticism, which she imbibed constantly, and this was conditioned in her partly through her Irish-Catholic ancestry. From the Irish encounter with Jansenism, from the incalculable losses of the famine, and from the siege mentality of the hedge schools and the resurgence of the devotional revolution, there emerged a version of self-denying and self-preserving Catholicism that strained so mightily that it seemed to take on some of severity and asceticism of Jansenism itself. The cliché of Catholic guilt — the sort of guilt brimming on the pages of the Journal — has to be matched with the nightmare of Irish history, in which survival itself is a form of reproach. To be Irish Catholic is indeed to think of the long train of souls stranded in purgatory; they call from the ships, the famine cottages, the almshouse, and the brothel. Their tickets weren’t punched, and there, but for the grace of God, went you. The strict social strata of Flannery’s Savannah and the importance of respectability were the visible architecture of a form of loss. Mary Flannery had also already outlived her father, and his passing probably marked the end of one type of unstinting father-love.
Thinking a little further into the origins of the journal, it is perhaps worth considering what sort of petitioner O’Connor was, or, put differently, which prayer tradition most suited her. Here, too, she is already ahead of us, rattling off those categories of prayer that she must have learned in parochial school: “Prayers should be composed I understand of adoration, contrition, thanksgiving, and supplication and I would like to see what I can do with each without writing an exegesis.” She will judge herself “competent” only in Supplication. If O’Connor realizes the staleness of these categories, redolent of nineteenth century pamphlets, and soon abandons them, so do Philip and Carol Zaleski in Prayer: A History (2005). They prefer instead to parse the fundamental roles of prayer more usefully in terms of the refugee, the devotee, the ecstatic, and the contemplative.
Viewed in these terms, A Prayer Journal places O’Connor primarily within the refugee tradition (in a word: Help!), which covers everything from the de profundis to the foxhole prayer. In fact, if one seeks a literary precursor, O’Connor’s journal is strikingly like Samuel Johnson’s head-beating record of failure through prayer — earnest, indefatigable, and finally, on a human level, defeated. Pressed by friends to publish his own anthology of prayer, Dr. Johnson finally responded, “Let me alone, let me alone; I am overpowered,” and prostrated himself on a table (“Will I ever know anything?” O’Connor writes on 11/4/1946, and on 11/6, “Can’t anyone teach me how to pray?”). There are elements of the devotee tradition in her journal as well, since it seems to have served as another angelus, her own call not just to prayer but to be mindful of prayer, if only we knew how to pray. A struggle familiar not just to the devout but to all who would be awake. To that extent, I suspect it served as a necessary ancillary to her almost daily communion, for by her own reckoning there were perhaps days when Communion didn’t quite take her where she wanted to go: “Perhaps Communion doesn’t give the nearness I mean.” A bit of the contemplative enters her reflections on art and Catholic artists; her breathtakingly effective metaphor for God as the moon, and her self as the earth’s obscuring shadow, offers perhaps the best illustration of that side of the journal. Finally, she reaches for the ineffable. “There is nothing left to say of me” are the last words, and in the penultimate entry she writes, “I would like to be a mystic and immediately,” joining her at last to the ecstatic tradition.
There really is no method of prayer that O’Conner does not contemplate. On that level, A Prayer Journal can be read as a case study in the psychological stages of maturation — and remarkably rapid development — of a religious thinker. Beyond prayer, there are the seeds of other things in the Journal, including O’Connor’s chronic distrust of intellectualism, and our natural tendency to become grotesqueries of truer selves. In lines such as these, one sees the first intimations of Wise Blood: “And all these doctrines which deny submission deny God. Hell, a literal hell, is our only hope. Take it away & we will become wholly a wasteland not a half a one.”
But it is ultimately an account of the interior struggle articulated by James Joyce, about whom O’Connor harbored conflicting feelings: Will she be a priest of eternal imagination or just a priest? Could the two things ever be brought into harmony? (“… I want so to love God all the way. At the same time I want all the things that seem opposed to it — I want to be a fine writer.”)
Those of us who investigate the lives of writers often come to realize the hidden extent of chilling ambition. In some of them, this is an undoing. The secret of many writers is that while the trade pretends to be a form of otherworldly, lonely asceticism, most of them are the most worldly sort of people. Their lust for recognition, or to best their peers in some public forum, is so bottomless as to make the typical politician positively shrink from their vanity. O’Connor already grasped this. She was cringingly aware of a hazard endemic to MFA culture that we might call, as a backformation of professional hazards like tennis elbow, writer’s snark. With perhaps a measure of negative capability, she finally resigns herself: “Dear God please help me to be an artist, please let it lead to You.”
There are also prayers that will strike some as cryptic: “Give me the grace, dear God, to see the bareness and the misery of the places where You are not adored but desecrated.” But sometimes from a small window a much greater one opens, and remarkably, O’Connor left the key to unlocking some of the inner chambers of her one-of-a-kind journal. Her reference to reading Karl Pfleger “on Bloy and Péguy and some others” suggests that she read Wrestlers with Christ (1936) in E.I. Watkin’s translation. Pfleger was one of Maritain’s intimates, and he was personally connected to many of the writers and thinkers that animated the Catholic intellectual revival of the first part of the twentieth century, not to mention Flannery O’Connor’s imagination. Writing to John McCown, S.J., some ten years later, O’Connor would place Léon Bloy in company with Bernanos, Mauriac, and Greene, among the “high-powered” Catholic fiction writers, saying that she had read almost everything they had written. Bloy figures in O’Connor’s library, commemorated in Béguin’s biography, which she annotated extensively, and in her copy of Pilgrim of the Absolute. Both volumes date to 1947, meaning that she obtained them around the time of the journal; Bloy comes into the journal by May of 1947, and Pfleger’s commentary on him follows in a September entry.
These facts become significant in several ways. First, they show her encounter with these writers at the start of her writing career and that she navigated towards them partly through her own instincts and wide reading. O’Connor was, to a degree, an autodidact, and she found her way into this conspicuously male-dominated theological discourse. Second, if one reads Wrestlers with Christ, it is possible to take a journey into O’Connor’s intellectual life — walking with her in the moment of the prayer journal — and it suddenly becomes very clear how much the journal and her subsequent work was influenced by the book. One imagines her reading the chapter on Bloy, her blue eyes flaring on Pfleger’s recollection of a Bloy-admirer: “I naturally smiled at his enthusiasm as ardent as a young girl’s. But my curiosity had been aroused all the same.” Bloy “knocked … loudly at the door of [Pfleger’s] soul”; Flannery writes in her journal, “Bloy has come my way,” deeming him the “iceberg” to “break up my Titanic.” Pfleger says, “When Bloy has once taken hold of a man he never lets him go.” And so Flannery writes, “The awful thing is that we can go back to ourselves after reading him.”
Pfleger deems Bloy “the Pilgrim of the Absolute,” and in the same chapter he engages a lengthy entry on what he calls “the entire literature of despair,” which canvasses Spengler, Kierkegaard, and Dostoyevsky as well. As a pilgrim on the same road, O’Connor would write one of the most important chapters of that literature. In A Prayer Journal we have a window into her mind and soul, when time held her green and golden, preparing herself for the journey. Bloy once wrote, “The only real sadness, the only real failure, the only great tragedy in life, is not to become a saint.” In circles where O’Connor’s candidacy for sainthood is suggested as a real possibility, A Prayer Journal is likely to be the prime exhibit.
Of course, sainthood would be utterly ruinous to her literary reputation.
Also Recommended from MRB:
- How Flannery O’Connor and Cormac McCarthy Helped to Invent the South
- Interview with Scott Elliott
- Capturing the Paradox of Distaste and Desire
- Place, Community, Kindness — and the Occasional Rage