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Thinking Out Loud

Flannery's Gift

by Michael Jinkins | Dec 10, 2013

"Dear God, I am so discouraged about my work.... Please help me dear God to be agood writer and to get something else accepted.... I am afraid of pain and I suppose that is what we have to have to get grace. Give me the courage to stand the pain to get the grace. Oh Lord. Help me with this life that seems so treacherous, so disappointing." [Flannery O'Connor, A Prayer Journal (Farrar, Straus, Giroux, 2013).

Mary Flannery O'Connor got what she prayed for. That was the tragedy and the blessing of her life and her art.

While working on her Master's degree at the University of Iowa, the young native of Savannah, Georgia (whose spoken tongue was all but indecipherable to her teacher, Paul Engle, when she asked him if she could be admitted to the Writer's Workshop) wrote an eloquent and moving journal of spiritual growth, now published as "A Prayer Journal." Page by page, traversing the calendar from January 1946 to September 1947, we are drawn into the inner life of a writer Thomas Merton refused to compare with the likes of Hemingway and Sartre, but with "someone like Sophocles." [Robert Giroux, "Introduction" to Flannery O'Connor, The Complete Stories (Farrar, Straus, Giroux, 1985), vii, xv. ]

"I want to be the best artist it is possible for me to be, under God," she writes, "Dear God please help me to be an artist, please let it lead to You." (39) At one moment she revels in the sense of serving as God's instrument to express an early published story, at another she laments her mediocrity, a mediocrity not only she feels in her art and craftsmanship, but in her humanity and love of God. "Mediocrity is a hard word to apply to oneself; yet I see myself so equal to it that it is impossible not to throw it at myself." (22) "I don't want to be doomed to mediocrity in my feeling for Christ," she prays, "I want to feel. I want to love. Take me dear Lord, and set me in the direction I am to go." (35)

Surely O'Connor is not the only young writer who has prayed, "Oh dear God I want to write a novel, a good novel." (18) But the field of pious aspiring novelists narrows considerably to very few who might kneel with her to pray also: "I would like to write a beautiful prayer but I have nothing to do it from." (7) "I would like to be intelligently holy." (18) "Please help me to push myself aside." (3) And:"give me a strong Will to be able to bend it to the Will of the Father." (5)

She yearns for purgation, for the cleansing refining fire of God's love, to burn away the dross and to leave her pure and true. "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 of cheeses." (38)

O'Connor discerns a connection between suffering and sublimity that runs through Christian devotion. She prays for God to forge in her the beauty of virtue and art for which she believes she was created, and she prays for God to give her the courage to submit to the pain required for such beauty to be forged. She knows that only God's grace can make her open herself to God's creative work, and that only God's grace can sustain her through the course God sets for her. "We are dependent on God for our adoration of Him, adoration, 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. Give me the grace to adore You with the excitement of the old priests when they sacrificed a lamb to You.... Give me the grace to be impatient for the time when I see You face to face and need no stimulus than that to adore You." (8-9)

What O'Connor did not know during the year in which she wrote these passages, during a year in which she also struggled with seminars and short stories and the start of her novel, Wise Blood, was that just before the Christmas of 1950, some three years after the close of this journal, on a mid-winter train journey home from Connecticut to Georgia, she would suffer her first attack of lupus, the disease at the hands of which she would suffer for the remaining thirteen years of her life, restricted to the family farm near Milledgeville, Georgia. This woman who prayed for an ascetic revolution, but also insisted that she didn't want to be a nun, nevertheless did undergo a kind of rural anchorite hermitage where "revelations of divine love" were crafted and recrafted to the incessant squawks of peacocks. W. A. Sessions, closes his introduction to O'Connor's prayer journal by observing: "Paradoxically, those years of suffering became the most fertile for her writing, and she produced some of the greatest fiction in American literature. Ironically, the prayers of her journal had been answered." (xii)

I suspect that O'Connor might have quibbled with his adverbs. Her prayers, however, were answered. 

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