• Facebook
  • Twitter
  • Flickr
  • YouTube
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. 

2 comments

Leave a comment
  1. Z | Apr 07, 2016
  2. Proctor S. Burress | Aug 31, 2015

    Ms O'Connor was a classic authoritarian personality.

    This is not unusual. What is unusual is that she successfully fended off inquiries that might lead to an examination of this. It is also unusual that almost every dimension, element, perspective of  her violent stories and their authorial source has been examined...AND rationalized... but not her personality.

    Cleverly, she erected a wall around her own personality...and gave very few access... by early denying that psychology had much to do with anything. Her life was tragic. But her devotees...now a cottage industry...have been relentless in glossing her work and image.

    For the most part they neither examine her nor her religious claims...in any depth. These were what was important about Flannery O'Connor. Her persona was that of a Catholic theologian and severe apologist...with violent twists. Thus, evangelicals rush past these troublesome considerations.

    The superficial path is most often taken as in these considerations. Especially interesting is her pronouncement of orthodoxy regarding her creations as though the Church... with rigorous examination... allowed her to place an imprimatur on her own work.

    She was snarky as a little girl of nine and she grew into a snarky defensive adult who rarely deigned to "suffer fools gladly". But so what? So what if she did not receieve others openly and joyfully? So what if she created NO characters at all with loving, open and optimistic outlooks? Neither Ms O'Connor nor her characters reflected love of any kind, leastwise  the love of God. This should not surprise!

    The question is why is Ms O'Connor given a 'cultural' pass on so much that is relevant while piling analysis and commentary on top of analysis and commentary of her stories that express her self-justifying therapy and her violent view of God's will while rationalizing her dark 13th century Thomistic views into  some sort of  'gospel' homilies? This should not surprise!

    To explain her life and work in any terms of exceptional righteousness or superior cultural perspectives of her environment, borders on being the theater of the absurd.

    Lupus is the key. This too, should not surprise....'the wolf within' that might begin tearing things apart at any moment. One cannot begin to imagine living with an illness wherein episodic attacks of one's own tissues can arise at any moment to attack one's own tissues.

    One wants to shout: it is the 'wolf'', stupid! Now sit down and shut up. Stop glorifying and deifying her suffering and making it fit one's own slightly askance or twisted comfort zones!

    One might conclude that Ms O'Connor's intellectual/emotional frame of reference was her Roman Catholicism. Her biological frame of reference was her illness, lupus erthyematosus. Both...and their interplay... created much tension and stress in her life not to mention the extreme pain. She vented these stresses in her writing. Her life was so restricted and limited, she dared share with only a few.        

    One also has to suspect that her dogmatic religious assertions were under-girded with some  doubts. She in fact did some 'cherry-picking' of religious concepts while throwing some observers off balance with those proclamations of Roman Catholic orthodoxy. Still questions remain.

    The purpose of this segment is to raise those questions. Why is she not seen as a desperately lonely and awkward young woman delivering "God's hammer" to an unhearing and unyielding world of fundamentalist ignoramuses and uncaring secularists? Is this not evident? If not, read more...not here, elsewhere!

    She was viewed as strictly devout, brilliant as a writer, moderately troubled by an obscure illness, a bit quirky. But was she really seen? Really known? Is it time? Only one asserted she was on the "side of Devil,"  John Hawkes.

    Did she throw an ink well at ole  "Beelzebulb" as did Martin Luther? We shall never know. Sad that she is misunderstood...seen essentially as a button-down Catholic whose work must be plumbed and plumbed again for profound spiritual insights... from material that more likely were her exercises to purge her own soul from the daemons lurking so close.

    Only Lupus need be considered!  Her life was one of violence. It was redeemed by violence...the attempts to work through it... NOT those oohing and aahing over it.

    Proctor S. Burress, M.A., B.A. University of Kentucky, Psych Lic, California, Indiana, US ASA Cryptoanalyst, Japan. Home: Louisville, KY

           

    Leave a comment

    • 1044 Alta Vista Road |
    • Louisville, KY 40205 |
    • 800.264.1839 |
    • Fax: 502.895.1096 |
    • Site Map
    © Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary