The anxious piety of Flannery O’Connor

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Flannery O’Connor in Iowa City, 1947

On a plane flight from Portland to Denver, I read Flannery O’Connor’s Prayer Journal, which was discovered by her friend William Sessions while working on an authorized biography of her and published in 2013. “Learning to avoid cliché and speak authentically is a predicament of both prayer and literature,” writes Casey N. Cep, “and solving the problem in her prayer life allowed O’Connor to solve the same problem in her fiction.”

The New Yorker provides a background on the book: “From In January, 1946, while studying at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, Flannery O’Connor began keeping a journal in a ruled Sterling notebook. O’Connor, who had left her home in Milledgeville, Georgia, for Iowa, turned twenty-one in March and had her first short story, ‘The Geranium,’ accepted for publication that month. She was a devout Catholic, and over a year and a half she filled the notebook with a series of entries addressed to God.”

Here are my favorite excerpts:

Dear God, I cannot love Thee the way I want to. 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 that I will judge myself by the shadow that is nothing.

I do not know you God because I am in the way. Please help me to push myself aside.

I want very much to succeed in the world with what I want to do. I have prayed to You about this with my mind and my nerves on it and strung my nerves into a tension over it and said, “oh God, please,” and “I must,” and “please, please.” I have not asked You, I feel, in the right way. Let me henceforth ask You with resignation—that not being or meant to be a slacking up in prayer but a less frenzied kind, realizing that the frenzy is caused by an eagerness for what I want and not a spiritual trust. I do not wish to presume. I want to love.

Oh God please make my mind clear.

Please make it clean.

I ask You for a greater love for my holy Mother and I ask her for a greater love for You.

Please help me to get down under things and find where You are.

I do not mean to deny the traditional prayers I have said all my life; but I have been saying them and not feeling them. My attention is always very fugitive. This way I have it every instant. I can feel a warmth of love heating me when I think & write this to You. Please do not let the explanations of the psychologists about this make it turn suddenly cold. My intellect is so limited, Lord, that I can only trust in You to preserve me as I should be.

***

Please let Christian principles permeate my writing and please let there be enough of my writing (published) for Christian principles to permeate. I dread, oh Lord, losing my faith. 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. Hell seems a great deal more feasible to my weak mind than heaven. No doubt because hell is a more earthly-seeming thing. I can fancy the tortures of the damned but I cannot imagine the disembodied souls hanging in a crystal for all eternity praising God. It is natural that I should not imagine this. If we could accurately map heaven some of our up-&-coming scientists would begin drawing blueprints for its improvement, and the bourgeois would sell guides 10¢ the copy to all over sixty-five. But I do not mean to be clever although I do mean to be clever on 2nd thought and like to be clever & want to be considered so. But the point more specifically here is, I don’t want to fear to be out, I want to love to be in; I don’t want to believe in hell but in heaven. Stating this does me no good. It is a matter of the gift of grace. Help me to feel that I will give up every earthly thing for this. I do not mean becoming a nun.

***

My dear God, I do not want this to be a metaphysical exercise but something in praise of God. It is probably more liable to being therapeutical than metaphysical, with the element of self underlying its thoughts. Prayers should be composed I understand of adoration, contrition, thanksgiving, and supplication and I would like to see what I can do with each without writing an exegesis. 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, 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 adore You with the awe that fills Your priests when they sacrifice the Lamb on our altars. Give me the grace to be impatient for the time when I shall see You face to face and need no stimulus than that to adore You. Give me the grace, dear God, to see the bareness and the misery of the places where You are not adored but desecrated.

***

Mediocrity is a hard word to apply to oneself; yet I see myself so equal with it that it is impossible not to throw it at myself—realizing even as I do that I will be old & beaten before I accept it. I think to accept it would be to accept Despair. There must be some way for the naturally mediocre to escape it. The way must be Grace. There must be a way to escape it even when you know you are even below it. Perhaps knowing you are below it is a way to begin. I say I am equal with it; but I am below it. I will always be staggering between Despair & Presumption, facing first one & then the other, deciding which makes me look the best, which fits most comfortably, most conveniently. 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. Virtue must be the only vigorous thing in our lives. Sin is large & stale. You can never finish eating it nor ever digest it. It has to be vomited. But perhaps that is too literary a statement—this mustn’t get insincere.

How can I live—how shall I live. Obviously the only way to live right is to give up everything. But I have no vocation & maybe that is wrong anyway. But how eliminate this picky fish bone kind of way I do things—I want so to love God all the way. At the same time I want all the things that seem opposed to it—I want to be a fine writer. Any success will tend to swell my head—unconsciously even. If I ever do get to be a fine writer, it will not be because I am a fine writer but because God has given me credit for a few of the things He kindly wrote for me. Right at present this does not seem to be His policy. I can’t write a thing. But I’ll continue to try—that is the point. And at every dry point I will be reminded Who is doing the work when it is done & Who is not doing it at that moment. Right now I wonder if God will ever do any more writing for me. He has promised His grace; I am not so sure about the other. Perhaps I have not been thankful enough for what has gone before.

The desires of the flesh—excluding the stomach—have been taken away from me. For how long I don’t know but I hope forever. It is a great peace to be rid of them.

Can’t anyone teach me how to pray?

***

No one can be an atheist who does not know all things. Only God is an atheist. The devil is the greatest believer & he has his reasons.

***

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. . . . Too weak to pray for suffering, too weak even to get out a prayer for anything much except trifles. I don’t want to be doomed to mediocrity in my feeling for Christ. I want to feel. I want to love. Take me, dear Lord, and set me in the direction I am to go. My Lady of Perpetual Help, pray for me.

***

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. It is easy for this writing to show a want. There is a want but it is abstract and cold, a dead want that goes well into writing because writing is dead. Writing is dead. Art is dead, dead by nature, not killed by unkindness. I bring my dead want into the place the dead place it shows up most easily, into writing. This has its purpose if by God’s grace it will wake another soul; but it does me no good. The “life” it receives in writing is dead to me, the more so in that it looks alive—a horrible deception. But not to me who knows this. Oh Lord please make this dead desire living, living in life, living as it will probably have to live in suffering. I feel too mediocre now to suffer. If suffering came to me I would not even recognize it. Lord keep me. Mother help me.

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One thought on “The anxious piety of Flannery O’Connor

  1. I really like this line: “Please help me to get down under things and find where You are.” And the last section you quoted is a prayer I have prayed, and now feel it has been expressed well here.

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