Tuesday, February 4, 2014

A Prayer Journal by Flannery O'Connor

My dear God, how stupid we people are until You give us something.  Even in praying it is You who have to pray in us.  I would like to write a beautiful prayer but I have nothing to do it from.  There is a whole sensible world around me that I should be able to turn to Your praise; but I cannot do it.  Yet at some insipid moment when I may possibly be thinking of floor wax or pigeon eggs, the opening of a beautiful prayer may come up from my subconscious and lead me to write something exalted.  I am not a philosopher or I could understand these things.

From 1946 to 1947, Flannery O'Connor--long before her writing became synonymous with the "Southern Gothic"--kept a prayer journal in a composition notebook, which a month or so ago was published in the form of a book.  It's a wonderful record of stark honesty, although peering into someone's personal life of prayer seems voyeuristic.  In his introduction, O'Connor's friend W. A. Sessions' says that the Prayer Journal should be taken as a document of a "craftswoman of the first order," and not necessarily spontaneous moments of intimate reflection.  But that belies a persistent anxiety in the Journal about the conflict between craft and honesty.  The very first page seems to have been torn out, leaving this fertile fragment as an opening line: "[...] effort at artistry in this rather than thinking of You and feeling inspired with the love I wish I had."  Yet, look at the beautiful--and quite writerly--metaphor that follows:

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.

O'Connor vacillates between the deep desire to be a professional writer and self-chastisement over the practice of writing: "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."  I don't think this is an ironic gesture; in fact, much of the Prayer Journal reads as intentionally plain, stripped intentionally of artifice.  The truer, and more wonderful, irony is that the flares of guilty craft are often the lines that inspire the most thoughtfulness and reflection in me--like the lines about the moon above, or the banal specificity of "floor wax and pigeon eggs" as a route to prayer.  And yet, O'Connor seems to understand this possibility and dismisses it:

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.

That, like much of A Prayer Journal, is deeply sad.  It almost makes me feel guilty for being inspired by any part of it.  I hope that O'Connor found something vital for herself in the career that she so earnestly desires throughout it, that it wasn't all a "dead want" in a "dead place" for her.

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