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 cheese….[My soul] is a moth who would be king, a stupid slothful thing, a foolish thing, who wants God, who made the earth to be its Lover. Immediately.
Those words were written on September 25, 1947, in a journal O’Connor kept in a mundane student notebook, of the sort that were ubiquitous on college campuses for decades. She was studying writing at the University of Iowa.
At the time, O’Connor was 22. She had no way of knowing, but her life was more than half over. In the coming years, she would become an important American writer, known for her Southern settings and the Catholic faith that underlay her perspective on life. In 1964, at the age of 39, she would die of lupus.
Now, nearly half a century after O’Connor’s death, her notebook has been turned into A Prayer Journal. It’s a slim volume, half of which is taken up with a facsimile of the journal and half with a transcription of its 24 entries. It totals 96 pages.
This very personal document
I’m not sure how O’Connor would feel about having this very personal document made public. Does any writer, especially someone as fierce about her art as O’Connor, want the disjointed exchnages of an internal dialogue to find their way into print. I imagine that, as a writer, O’Connor could have taken the raw material of this notebook and refined it and reworked it and focused it into something she’d want to publish. She did not.
Still, I’m glad we have these rough, intense jottings, unfettered by the considerations of craft. They show us Flannery O’Connor the writer grappling with the desire for success. “Please help me dear God to be a good writer and to get something else accepted,” she writes in an early page. And, on another: “I want to be a fine writer.”
Even more, though, they show us Flannery O’Connor the soul, struggling to figure out how to think about God and how to live her life in relation to God.
“I would like to be intelligently holy.”
In many ways, A Prayer Journal echoes religious meditations through the centuries. For instance, in 1894, a 21-year-old Carmelite nun in France, later known as St. Therese of Lisieux, wrote, “Often we go down in the fertile valleys where our heart loves to find its nourishment; and the vast fields of Holy Scripture, which have so often opened to yield us richest treasures, now seem but an arid and waterless waste.”
Compare that with O’Connor’s entry for Sept. 22, 1947:
The summer was very arid spiritually & up here getting to go to Mass again every day has left me unmoved — thoughts awful in their pettiness & selfishness come into my mind even with the Host on my tongue.
About midway through her journal-keeping, O’Connor moves away from concerns about being a great writer and begins striving to be a great believer. Indeed, six of the last 13 entries have to do with her fears of being mediocre in her faith.
Maybe I’m mediocre. I’d rather be less. I’d rather be nothing. An imbecile. Yet this is wrong. Mediocrity, if that is my scourge, is something I’ll have to submit to.
Throughout her life, O’Connor read works of Catholic theology. Like generations of religious thinkers and mystics, she recognizes that, intellectually, she wants to do God’s bidding, but not at her core.
Dear Lord please make me want You….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.
The desire for God as cancer? That’s an example of the greatest of riches in A Prayer Journal. O’Connor may be young, and, like all young people, she may be confused and uncertain in the face of the complexity of life. But she is one hell of a writer.
Her artist’s eye
Her artist’s eye and her lively intelligence enable her to describe her search for God with startling vividness. On the very first page, she writes about how her self-centeredness gets in the way of her ability to connect with God: “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.”
On Nov. 6, 1946, she bemoans “this picky fish bone kind of way I do things.” As a believer, she wants to be worthy of God. Her “fear of God,” which is to say her relationship with God, should be as great as God is great.
I’ll never take a large chunk of anything. I’ll nibble nervously here & there. Fear of God is right; but, God, it is not this nervousness. It is something huge, great, magnanimous. It must be a joy. Every virtue must be vigorous…Sin is large & stale. You can never finish eating it nor ever digest it. It has to be vomited.
O’Connor’s journal ends a year later on a down note. She feels “far away from God” and “the feeling I egg up writing here lasts approximately a half hour and seems a sham.”
Yet, she did not despair. In the 17 years remaining to O’Connor, her Catholic faith was woven deeply into what she wrote and how she wrote it. Those short stories, novels, essays and book reviews were written for an audience. A Prayer Journal, as rich as it is, was not.
It is the sort of spiritual log anyone of us might keep — if we could bring to the task O’Connor’s great art, intelligence and intensity.
Patrick T. Reardon
This review originally appeared in the Printers Row section of the Chicago Tribune on December 22, 2013.