Flannery O’Connor’s Prayer Journal

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Recently published, O’Connor’s prayer journal seems like a bit of an intrusion.  She’s only twenty to twenty-two years old at the time.  In my experience, my prayer journals are full of sincere yearnings and unguarded complaints, with the occasional thought that someone in public someday will read it but mostly the private effort to narrate in visible words the groanings of my spirit to God.  They feel like an intrusion because they seem so very authentic, and they seem to me so authentic because they sound and flow and twist and unfurl so much like my own prayers.

The rhythms of her prayers are completely familiar, a remarkable relief of recognition, like someone else’s soul speaks the same language.  The turns and the movement, from supreme confidence to self-deprecating humiliation, from exultant praise to supplicant pleas.  She even says at one point that “Supplication” is the only one of the four she’s good at, and like so many thoughts in the book, I know exactly what she’s thinking of, having not only learned the pattern of Adoration, Contrition or Confession, Thanksgiving, and Supplication, but also felt the guilt of having come to God with nothing other than the last of those.

Some cries are eloquent, some guttural.  They are stunningly honest.  She has ambitions to be a writer, a great writer, a professional writer, and she is not afraid to ask God for that.  But reading prayers are listening to one end of the conversation, with only our imaginations and inference to construct the other end, but you can see the ways her ambition and desire is being fine tuned by God, pointed in the process of the asking.  They are not separate from, but coterminous with the general ways in which she seeks God’s face.

But I also learn from her the sense of writing as redemptive and painful labor.  “If I have to sweat for it, dear God, let it be as in Your service.  I would like to be intelligently holy.  I am a presumptuous fool, but maybe the vague thing in me that keeps me in is hope.”  Writing has often felt like lonely and directionless labor, and Flannery inspires me to bear it, bear it with a prayer that it will be an instrument of grace.  “The intellectual and artistic delights God gives us are visions & like visions we pay for them; & the thirst for the vision doesn’t necessarily carry with a thirst for the attendant suffering.”

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