A Prayer Journal
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2013
112 pp., 22.00
Praying and Writing with Flannery O'Connor
The literary establishment hasn't given much attention to written prayers unless they originated at a safe distance of several centuries. Yet, it doesn't surprise that those written by Flannery O"Connor should attract attention and result in the publication of a book of prayers (although not quite a prayer book). Such is A Prayer Journal edited by her biographer W. A. Sessons and published in November by Farrar, Straus, and Giroux. Prior to publication, The New Yorker offered a generous selection in a September issue.
I have always been puzzled why the literary establishment (if I may risk a stereotype) should tolerate and even respect writing as religious as hers at the same time it ignores most religious writing and writing by religious persons. A few Christian believers have become sufficiently successful commercially that the numbers can't be missed. Others have crafted works of such high literary quality any fair reading would recognize their worth. Yet, they, especially evangelicals, are almost uniformly dismissed. More than being a disappointment, this profoundly frustrates me.
Of course, publishers didn't present her to the literary world with her prayers. These weren't even known until Bill Sessions found them among other papers in 2002. She had written them in a cheap spiral notebook in 1946, six years prior to the publication of her first novel, Wise Blood. At the time she was a student in the Iowa Writer's Workshop at the University of Iowa. However much she read from her Roman Catholic prayer book, hers are decidedly non-liturgical and intensely personal. She, like us, prayed she would manage to get something published. Some don't even sound like prayers, yet they evidence a spirit of prayer. Like many of the biblical psalms, she addresses God and then slips into talking to herself.
These prayers would never have been published now if she hadn't produced a wealth of other very fine literature. But, then, those other works also express her strong desire for God, although not as explicitly as these do.
Rather than nurturing parochial resentment of her success even as a religious writer, I think we all need to write better—and read Flannery O'Connor so her prose excites ours. In reading The New Yorker's excerpts, this is what happened to me. I do not mean write as well as she, but just to write excitedly and better because of what I read in her.
I had been a reader not long before I heard the test of a good book is that which you can't put down. More serious and mature reading has allowed me to recognize the worth of another kind of book, one I must put it down. I must put it down so as to look out my study window into space and think about the section that crowds my mind so I can't process it all at once. Then I must write so I can recognize what I think. After all, I don't know what I think until I read what I wrote.
Here is some of Flannery O'Connor's praying that drove me to thinking and writing. What follows each bit is what I entered into my journal as I thought about what I had just read.
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.
This is heart-felt and beautiful in the way that evangelical pietism is. We start with the recognition and confession we are nothing ("such a worm as I") when we finally grasp the holiness of God. Then, in an earnest attempt to praise the Everything that God is, we seem to think we must do this by stressing and even enforcing the nothingness of ourselves. In comparison with God, we are, of course, nothing. Even looking at ourselves in-and-of-ourselves, we are nothing. But God created us to be something, not nothing. The purpose of the Incarnation and Crucifixion and whole point of the gospel are to confront us with our nothingness by showing us the Everything of God incarnate in his Son and offer the Son to us so that the Everything of God dwelling within us to make us again something. We are never Everything, but with Everything within us, he makes us something. So while we should confess our nothingness in light his God's Everything, the purpose of this confession is to become something in him, or him in us.
Dear God, About hope, I am somewhat at a loss. It is so easy to say I hope for—the tongue slides over it. I think perhaps hope can only be realized by contrasting it with despair. And I am too lazy to despair. Please don't visit me with it, dear Lord I would be so miserable. Hope, however, must be something distinct from faith. I unconsciously put it in the faith department. It must be something positive that I have never felt. It must be a positive force, else why the distinction between it and faith?
Perhaps faith is the process while hope is the prospect. Or, faith is the promise while hope is its realization.
But all my requests seem to melt down to one for grace—that supernatural grace that does what ever it does.
Grace can be experienced but never explained. We can observe the accomplishment of God's grace but we cannot recognize its cause. Grace is God's accomplishing his will when we can recognize no cause/effect relationship. There might not even be a cause other than God himself. Being as he is the Uncaused Cause, why can he not create effect without any cause other than his will? God spoke and the world became. God speaks and things happen.
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 only person who can assert with validity that there is no God is one who knows everything there is to know—and such a being is God. For all such a person knows, God is hidden or apparent in all the millions of things he does not know. He can acknowledge he has not, in fact, found God, but he cannot charge God is not there to be found.
We who have found God do not know everything there is to know (hardly!), but we do know God and that God is everything there is to know. In him are hid all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge. We will never know everything there is to know about God because the finite can never comprehend the infinite. But the God who is Everything will give us the things we need for each day. So, we can come to know everything we need to know.
The intellectual & artistic delights God gives us are visions & like visions we pay for them, & the thirst for the vision doesn't necessarily carry with it a thirst for the attendant suffering. Looking back I have suffered, not my share, but enough to call it that but there's a terrific balance due.
The vision meant here is not a serendipitous "bright idea" but a soul-wrenching experience that takes its toll on the one who receives it. And it is a thing given and not sought. Almost anyone would enjoy being given a vision, but few are willing to pay the cost of receiving one. While suffering a vision is not essentially a negative thing, it is decidedly heavy and serious. A vision changes the one who experiences it. Seeing a vision is merely the means, but the product is experience.
The New Testament does not so much warn that the faithful follower of Christ will, as a matter of fact, "suffer" as it advises he must as a matter of necessity. Render "suffer" as experience (as an active verb). Suffering is not unavoidable because inevitable but desired because intended. It occurs not to him but in him, and it changes him. If it is truly experienced, he will never again be the same. It may be overly facile as a slogan, but runners learn "no pain, no gain."
To maintain any thread in the novel there must be a view of the world behind it & the most important single item under this view of world is the conception of love—divine, natural & perverted. It is probably possible to say that when a view of love is present—a broad enough view—no more need be added to make the world view.
The love God gives to a brother and sister in Christ for each other participates in the love God is. He who is loveness itself bestows the love he is upon two in order to love each other. There is a continuity between divine and human love.
Divine desire … is outside of man and capable of lifting him up to itself. Man's desire for God is bedded in his unconscious & seeks to satisfy itself in physical possession of another human. This necessarily is a passing, fading attachment in its sensuous aspects since it is a poor substitute for what the unconscious is after. The more conscious the desire for God becomes, the more successful union with another becomes because the intelligence realizes the relation in its relation to a grater desire & if this intelligence is in both parties, the motive power in the desire for God becomes double & gains in becoming God-like. The modern man isolated from faith, from raising his desire for God into a conscious desire, is sunk into the position of seeing physical love as an end in itself.
Having been created in the image of God, it is not surprising that a person senses in himself an existential urge or propensity toward God, whether or not he is conscious of its being God who is longed for. The desire for God is within man, but it originated from without. It was implanted by the Creator. When the urge to relate or connect remains on the physical level, it is transitory and easily passes from one body to another body. It is not a person who is sought but a body, almost any body will do. When it is the body that is craved, there is no interest in the soul. The person becomes devalued to a thing. He or she is no longer a subject to be experienced but an object to be used.
But when the urge is recognized as a desire for God, it finds God in the personhood of another. We corporeal and finite beings find it difficult to relate to a spiritual and infinite being. We seem designed to find God in other corporeal and finite beings, in each other. The preacher's exhortation to forget man and seek God temps—until we try to find God in outer space, in the abstract. The Christ of God, through the work of the indwelling Spirit, has again become incarnate in flesh and blood near us. God can be found most surely within the person of a brother or sister who has himself or herself desired, found, and is still desiring more of God.
The tragedy of sex common in our society is that most people relate only to bodies and not yet to persons. Having failed to relate to the person within the body, we cannot find God if he is within the person. Moreover, once we have found God in another, the union of bodies is not necessary and it can be reserved for the singular relationship God creates with the ultimate person for us.
On the other hand, if we live by (physical) sight rather than (spiritual) faith, desire for God is killed and nothing remains to desire but physical bodies we can sense empirically. Once we have "loved" in this perverted sense, this is all there is to love. Having had sex, he has had it.
The sex act is a religious act & when it occurs without God it is a mock act or at best an empty act. Proust is right that only a love which does not satisfy can continue. Two people can remain "in love"—a phrase made practically useless by sinking into romanticism—only if their common desire for each other unites in a greater desire for God—i.e., they do not become satisfied but more desirous together of the supernatural love in union with God.
From the foolish way we have talked about sex, borrowing as we have the perverted view of sex found all around us, we suggest sex is inherently dirty and necessarily sinful. Marriage does not as much sanctify it as license it. It is something like tolerable dirt or permissible sin. However, the Creator designed sex between humans to be the physical expression of spiritual union, a spiritual experience and, indeed, an act of worship of the God who gifted us with his very own love, a love that unites souls as surely as their bodies are united.
Sexual activity that is not spiritual action is a hollow mockery not only of spiritual but sexual relationships. Sex loses its enduring and ultimate meaning, value, and even worth. It is role playing but not experience, form without substance
Sex apart from genuine and authentic love is done when it is done. (Physical or even emotional passion, mind you, neither constitutes nor substitutes for love.) Have a smoke and do it again. What was your name, again, Babe? If you want more sex, it is only more sex you want and not more person.
Actual love is satisfactory without satisfying. It's like breathing: it is one breath after another, and this is the way we live. When two love God more, they love each other more. When two love God together, they love each other yet more. Two loving God together enables them to love God more, both intensively and extensively and both quantitatively and qualitatively.
Dear Lord, please make me want You. It would be a great 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 … .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 … . The "life" it receives in writing is dead to me, the more so in that it looks alive—a horrible deception … . Oh Lord please make this dead desire living, living in life, living as it will probably have to live in suffering.
Literary critics and scholars differ, almost amusingly, as to the necessary relation of writing to life. Some are convinced the most effective writing is informed by a lived life, while others argue at least some of the most competent writers sustain a writing life that is distinct from ordinary life. Some argue that the messiness of life compromises art or that the way to create fictional characters is to cannibalize their own families and friends.
There is, nonetheless, such a thing as desiring God and coming to know life by experience with the Creator and Redeemer of life. His Son became the Man all men should have been but none ever was so that any man could become Man in him who was both God and Man. The writer who writes most informatively and convincingly about life, in the normal state of affairs, is the one who sustains not only a conceptual but experiential understanding of life.
Again, to live is to suffer (i.e., experience). Experience exacts a cost proportionate to its accomplishment.
Flannery O'Connor thought and prayed and, so, she wrote. Me, too.
Wallace Alcorn, against a background as pastor, army chaplain, and college and seminary professor, is researching and writing in the area of Christian experience.
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