[percy-l] Flannery O?Connor?s ?Prayer Journal? (Jim Forest)

John E. Riley jeriley at uark.edu
Sun Nov 17 15:36:37 EST 2013

Thank you for sharing this. The author of this review, Marilynne Robinson, is herself an accomplished author. I was struck by the following statement from her review: 

it is striking that atheism, in an apparently Southern, vernacular incarnation with nothing intellectual about it, is at the center of “Wise Blood...

To bring things full circle, I can see that statement, or at least parts of it, applying to Lancelot as well.

John Riley
Mullins Library
University of Arkansas
Fayetteville, Arkansas, USA

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Today's Topics:

   1. Flannery O?Connor?s ?Prayer Journal? (Jim Forest)


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Date: Sat, 16 Nov 2013 12:21:43 +0100
From: Jim Forest <jhforest at gmail.com>
Subject: [percy-l] Flannery O?Connor?s ?Prayer Journal?
To: "Percy-L: Literary and Philosophical Discussion"
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On the theory that Walker Percy readers are also, in may cases, Flannery
O"Connor readers, I share the following.

Jim Forest


The BelieverFlannery O?Connor?s ?Prayer Journal? By MARILYNNE ROBINSON NY
Times / Published: November 15, 2013

This slender, charming book must be approached with a special tact. To read
it feels a little like an intrusion on inwardness itself. The volume
contains, alongside a lightly corrected transcription, a facsimile of the
Sterling notebook in which Flannery O?Connor, just 20 years old, began a
journal addressed to God. Written in her neat hand, it is reproduced
complete with the empty final pages (her concluding words are ?there is
nothing left to say of me?) and not omitting a bit of musical notation
floating on the inside of the back cover. The prayers, attempts at prayer
and meditations on faith and art contained in it were written in 1946 and
1947, while O?Connor was a student in Iowa. The brilliance that would make
her fictions literary classics is fully apparent in them.
  Enlarge This Image
   Martha Sprieser (Georgia College Library, Milledgeville)


By Flannery O?Connor

96 pp. Farrar, Straus & Giroux. $18.

The complexity of O?Connor?s thinking, together with the largely flawless
pages in her hand, suggest that these entries may be fair copies of earlier
drafts. Clearly O?Connor?s virtuosity makes her self-?conscious. Young as
she was, new to writing, she could only have been pleased, even awed, at
having produced these beautiful sentences. Perhaps nothing written is
finally meant to go unread, even if the reader is only a creature of the
writer?s mind, an attentive and exacting self that compels refinements of
honesty. After a little joke about the pedestrian uses we would make of a
knowledge of heaven if we had been given one, she says, remembering her
intended Hearer, ?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.?
Her mind is examined, faith questioned, weakness confessed, powers tried as
they might not have been under the eye of any human observer. Youth and
loneliness and the unspent energies of a singular mind are testing the
possible and must be allowed free play.

It is the religious sensibility reflected in this journal that makes it as
eloquent on the subject of creativity as it is on the subject of prayer.
O?Connor?s awareness of her gifts gives her a special kind of interest in
them. Having concluded one early entry by asking the Lord to help her ?with
this life that seems so treacherous, so disappointing,? she begins the next
entry: ?Dear God, tonight it is not disappointing because you have given me
a story. Don?t let me ever think, dear God, that I was anything but the
instrument for Your story ? just like the typewriter was mine.?

Every writer wonders where fictional ideas come from. The best of them
often appear very abruptly after a period of imaginative drought. And,
mysteriously, they really are good ideas, much superior to the contrivances
of conscious invention. Such experiences are by no means exclusive to
writers with religious worldviews. But believing them to be literal gifts
grants them an objective existence they seem actually to deserve. This
entails problems, of course. Fiction rarely shows a divine imprimatur, as
its mortal creators are well aware. I would be curious to know what story
or part of a story by O?Connor should be attributed to the Lord. It can
seem self-aggrandizing or simply bizarre to ascribe any thought or work to
a seemingly external source, named or unnamed. Nevertheless, ?Hesiod,
Pindar and any number of poets and prophets before and after them have
declared indebtedness of this kind. If they, and O?Connor, were na?ve,
sophistication has made language poorer. There is no way now to describe an
experience many a writer can attest to, having been surprised by it, and
having enjoyed it as a particular pleasure and reward of the art. Religion
is by its nature more accommodating to the unaccountable than rationalism
ever can be.

While O?Connor was a student at the Iowa Writers? Workshop she was also a
daily communicant at St. Mary?s Catholic Church at the edge of campus. Her
journal reflects a conflict, in her mind at least, between a skeptical
intellectual environment and the faith she sometimes anxiously sustains.
She says: ?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.? She knows all the arguments against
religion. They seem to have changed little over the last 70 years, so there
is no need to rehearse them here. Considering the threat she feels them to
be, it is striking that atheism, in an apparently Southern, vernacular
incarnation with nothing intellectual about it, is at the center of ?Wise
Blood,? the novel she had already begun to write and submit to be read in
workshop. This is a tale in which pathos tips into pathology and violence,
answered by a penance of self-mutilation and suffering. Yet the prose is
absolutely brilliant, sentence by sentence, simile by simile, and so
relentlessly inventive it feels comic.
The young writer prays, ?Please let Christian principles permeate my
writing and please let there be enough of my writing (published) for
Christian principles to permeate.? At prayer she is scrupulous in her
candor, and a little wry therefore. She seems already to be making
important decisions about the means by which she will carry forward her
intention to write as a Christian, influenced by her reaction to the
assertive skepticism and the fashionable theism she senses around her. She
says, ?Give me the grace, dear God, to see the bareness and the misery of
the places where You are not adored but desecrated.? This might serve as a
gloss on the fiction she was writing at the time, which conjures such a
world. She asks: ?Am I trying to shock with God? Am I trying to push Him in
there violently, feet foremost? Maybe that?s all right. Maybe if I?m doing
it it?s all right?? Certainly by the standards of the most tentative or
perfunctory reverence her language can seem transgressive. Her religious
sincerity is beyond question, but the forms of its expression raise many
questions. This is no criticism. It is the honorable work of any writer who
touches on great matters to provoke. And it is a discipline of writing well
to allow the fiction to discover itself, however it may startle its
writer?s intentions as it does so. She says of the story for which she has
thanked God: ?I am not trying to disparage anybody?s religion although when
it was coming out, I didn?t know exactly what I was trying to do or what it
was going to mean. . . . Please don?t let me have to scrap the story
because it turns out to mean more wrong than right ? or any wrong.?

The particular pleasure of life in Iowa City rests not so much in the fact
that the girl beside you on the bus or behind you in line might well be
pondering a great and turbulent tradition of thought and belief, and
finding new language to explore it. This could be true anywhere. It is that
here the privilege of hearing or seeing her thoughts as fiction or poetry,
even seeing them emerge and develop, is widely shared. This little journal
puts its reader a step closer to one touching and remarkable young mind.

* * *

*Marilynne Robinson is the author of three novels, including the Pulitzer
Prize-winning ?Gilead,? and four books of nonfiction. Her essay collection
?When I Was a Child I Read Books? was published last year.*

*Jim & Nancy Forest*
Kanisstraat 5 / 1811 GJ Alkmaar / The Netherlands

Jim's books: www.jimandnancyforest.com/books/
Jim & Nancy web site: www.jimandnancyforest.com
Photo collections: www.flickr.com/photos/jimforest/collections/
On Pilgrimage blog: http://jimandnancyonpilgrimage.blogspot.com/
A Tale of Two Kidneys blog: http://ataleof2kidneys.blogspot.com/
In Communion site: www.incommunion.org

* * *
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