I was skeptical about this book, A Prayer Journal, which Flannery O’Connor wrote from January of 1946 to September of 1947 while she was in the writing program at what is now the University of Iowa.
It’s a slight thing, weighing in at just about 40 pages worth of entries, and it’s padded out with a facsimile of the notebook itself, every page carefully reproduced, literally from cover to cover. There was a precious, fetish-y feel to the project fueling my skepticism, exacerbated by the scant amount of material (and the implicit suggestion that this journal, being a journal, would offer some deeper, more personal access into the heart and mind of O’Connor.)
While I don’t feel any “closer” to Flannery O’Connor after reading it, I am happy to report that A Prayer Journal (APJ from here on out) is a captivating, occasionally funny, anguish-inducing peek into the tortured mind of a tortured soul – albeit a rather green, twenty-one-year old soul – as she struggles to make peace with the idea that she can be a writer and have an artist’s ego and still be devoted to her god. Because god in this case, as I see it, is also her idealized writing self.
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The artist and the supplicant in O’Connor are at war from the beginning – which, in this case, is a false beginning since O’Connor has removed the original opening pages. Instead, the text “starts” in mid-sentence, with an effect like a spotlight splashing down on a character who’s been waiting on a darkened stage. The first complete sentence reads –
Dear God, I cannot love Thee the way I want to.
But, as O’Connor immediately explains, it’s not god’s fault.
You are the slim crescent of a moon that I see and my self is the earth’s shadow that keeps me from seeing all the moon. The crescent is very beautiful and perhaps that is all one like I am should or could see; but what I am afraid of, dear God, is that my self shadow will grow so large that it blocks the whole moon, and I will judge myself by the shadow that is nothing.
In other words, she’s worried that she’ll put her ego and her ambition to be a great writer over and above her love of god. But the love of god that she seems to be seeking throughout this journal is so absolute as to put it beyond her reach. For instance, as she writes a few entries later –
It is the adoration of you, dear God, that most dismays me. I cannot comprehend the exaltation that must be due You. Intellectually, I assent: let us adore God. But can we do that without feeling? To feel, we must know. And for this, when it is practically impossible for us to get it ourselves, not completely, of course, but what we can, we are dependent on God. We are dependent on God for our adoration of him, that is, in the fullest sense of the term. Give me the grace dear God, to adore You for even this I cannot do for myself.
The tortuous thought lines, the absolute drama of longing, the pained effort to explain – all these are the classic symptoms of a young, unabashedly sincere artist struggling to be born. And what was clear to me as I read APJ was that O’Connor’s spiritual crisis was instigated by the fact that she was actually becoming the thing she wanted to be. Her faith in god had become linked to her hope to be a writer, and as her hope manifested itself in her writing, her Catholic training kicked into gear and she began to experience a kind of guilt over getting what she wanted, as if wanting anything more than the gift of life and the chance to worship god were a sin.
Another thing that worries O’Connor throughout APJ is the incursion of psychology into the cultural mainstream and, worse, into her chosen beliefs.
My mind is not strong. It is a prey to all sorts of intellectual quackery. I do not want it to be fear which keeps me in the church. I don’t want to be a coward, staying with You because I fear hell. I should reason that if I fear hell, I can be assured of the author of it. But learned people can analyze for me why I fear hell and their implication is that there is no hell. But I believe in hell.
Sin is a great thing as long as it’s recognized. It leads a good many people to God who wouldn’t get there otherwise. But cease to recognize it, or take it away from devil as devil & give it to devil as psychologist, and you also take away God. If there is no sin in this world there is no God in heaven. No heaven.
I’m going to make a huge generalization here. By revealing deeper unconscious motivations that can make a person less directly culpable for their behavior, psychology sometimes offers explanations that mitigate responsibility or, more to the point, guilt. (The reason X did what he did was not out of some inborn “evil” impulse but because he grew up in an abusive home environment.) Take guilt from the story and you remove the possibility of sin. The whole world goes to hell (or would if there were still a hell to go to) or it sinks into an abyss of moral relativism. On these terms, “psychology” seemed to represent a very real evil to O’Connor. And I think she feared that without the structures of religion, without God, she would have been lost in a fight against it.
Not to suggest that her faith was weak. My feeling is that she was, and certainly so at her tender age, highly distractible and only beginning to delve into the depths of her imagination as a writer, and as she stepped deeper into that realm she felt the need to have a guide with her. And her chosen guide was her faith in god.
The fatal connection of pleasure and sin, the endless approach toward grace and the never getting there, the purifying longing – all these aspects of her faith provided O’Connor with a sense of purpose and a goal: to continually try to make herself worthy of god. And this, to my mind at least, is not unlike the effort one makes as an artist to continually grow and improve in one’s craft.
There’s no art without some kind of faith, be it in god or your imagination. And in the struggle between the two at this point in O’Connor’s life, art won – but not without the help of faith. While she was writing this journal, she was beginning to work on what would eventually become her first novel, Wise Blood, the book that would establish her and launch her career.
Image from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wise_Blood
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As journals go, APJ is pretty near hermetic. O’Connor rarely makes a reference to anything going on in her life outside of her pleas to god or the occasional author she’s read, presumably for school. There’s Proust and Lawrence and Freud, of course. And she mentions Georges Bernanos, Léon Bloy, and Charles Péguy, devout Catholic writers all, whom I think she may have read extra-curricularly. (More on that in a minute. By the way, does the word devout ever find additional employment outside of its connection to the word Catholic?) All of these writers seem to rattle her in some way, whether they represent a kind of heretical attitude, as does the first group, or they humble her with the intensity of their religious convictions. She also mentions Kafka a few times. This particular quote is a gem:
I have been reading Mr. Kafka and I feel his problem of getting grace. But I see it doesn’t have to be that way for the Catholic who can go to Communion every day.
Cue Mr. Kafka’s spit-take.
It’s astounding that such a unique, talented kid can sound so much like somebody’s well-intentioned but provincial grandmom but that’s O’Connor all over. She seems to exist outside of her time.
But getting back to the journal, its remains a strangely enjoyable read, despite the narrowness of its focus. There’s even a bit of an arc to it in that O’Connor gradually becomes fatigued with the effort to maintain her journal. Or maybe she becomes fatigued with addressing her god and not getting the grace from him that she so longs for (although she knows such a thing isn’t simply dispensed like Pez.) Anyone who has kept a journal for even a few months can attest to the tendency to go back to the beginning to see where one started and, hopefully, see how far along one has come. And anyone who has done that can attest to the appalling sensation that comes with the experience when you see that, well, actually, not that much has changed. At all. In this, O’Connor is no different.
On November 11, 1946, she writes:
How hard it is to keep any one intention [,] any one attitude toward a piece of work [,] any one tone [,] any one anything. I find a certain peace in my soul these days that is very fine – lead us not into temptation. The story level, bah. Work, work, work. Dear God let me work, keep me working. I want so to be able to work. If my sin is laziness I want to be able to conquer it.
I looked back over some of these entries.
And the rest of the entry is cut away as shown in the facsimile. Two entries after that she’s cutting away again.
Then on January 25th, she begins an entry with:
The majesty of my thoughts! Do all these things read alike as they seem to? They all send a faint nausea through me – albeit they were sincere at the time & I recant none of my articles of faith. This evening I picture theoretically myself at 70 saying it’s done, it’s finished, it’s what it is, & being no nearer than I am.
The journal or something outside the periphery of it is weighing on her and souring her outlook.
There’s then a near three-month gap before the next entry in April. But the entry after that comes three weeks later in May and sounds like it was ghostwritten.
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 worldview.
She goes on from there to wrestle with psychoanalysis, particularly Freud, Proust, and Lawrence’s conceptions of love as opposed to Divine Love which, in her estimation, they have no use for. As she struggles to explain her own ideas to herself, she seems to also be taking a stand about sex.
Here she is on Proust:
The modern man isolated from faith, from raising his desire for God into a conscious desire, is sunk into the position of seeing physical love as an end in itself. Thus his romanticizing it, wallowing in it & then cynicizing it… Proust’s conception of desire could only be that way since he makes it the highest point of existence – which it is – but with nothing supernatural to end in… The Sex act is a religious act & when it occurs without God it is a mock act or at best an empty act.
But she finishes with this:
Two people can remain ‘in love’ – a phrase made practically useless by stinking romanticism – only if their common desire for each other unites in a greater desire for God – i.e., they do not become satisfied but more desirous together of the supernatural love in union with God. My God, take these boils & blisters & warts of sick romanticism…
And then she’s back to cutting pages out again.
What inspired that rant? Did someone make a pass at her? Was she in love with someone? We’ll never know, and the next entry comes after another three weeks or so and starts like this:
Tore that last thing out. It was worthy of me all right; but not worthy of what I ought to be.
And then she’s writing of Léon Bloy, and Charles Péguy, and how it was god who sent her wandering through the stacks at the library where she first encountered their bracing religious fervor, and how despite herself and their divine inspiration she remains unable to transcend Original Sin.
But to me she sounds tired. Tired of fighting and seeking, tired of waiting for grace. She doesn’t write again for another four months. And then she goes on a tear, five days straight. Here are a few excerpts:
9/22 – Too weak to pray for suffering [,] too weak to even get out a prayer for anything much except trifles. I don’t want to be doomed to mediocrity in my feelings for Christ. I want to feel. I want to love.
9/23 – 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 think about 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 the Fulfillment.
9/24 – But I am one of the weak. I am so weak that God has given me everything, all the tools, instructions for their use, even a good brain to use them with, a creative brain to make them immediate for others. God is feeding me and what I’m praying for is an appetite.
9/25 – What I am asking for is really very ridiculous. Oh Lord, I am saying, at present I am a cheese, make me a mystic, immediately. But then God can do that – make mystics out of cheeses. But why should he do it for an ingrate slothful & dirty creature like me.
9/26 – My thoughts are so far away from God…Today I proved myself a glutton – for Scotch oatmeal cookies and erotic thought. There is nothing left to say of me.
And that Balthusian image is where the journal comes to a dead halt.
The image of a young woman despairing so absolutely as only someone young can, and despairing over finally indulging herself in being a young woman, a human being, and not just a faltering instrument of devotion, and eating cookies and having erotic thoughts instead of twisting herself into knots trying to be worthy of her distant, moon-like god – that image lingers, and it stings. I want to yell back through time to her: Eat more cookies! Have more erotic thoughts! Get out of your chair and your head and let yourself live. And try not to worry so much about your writing. You’ll get there. And people all over the world are going to love your work, you’ll see.
Flannery O’Connor died of lupus at the age of 39.