[percy-l] Flannery O’Connor found her art—and her God—in letters

Jim Forest jhforest at gmail.com
Wed Aug 15 05:33:03 EDT 2018

O’Connor found her art—and her God—in letters

Angela Alaimo O'Donnell
<https://www.americamagazine.org/voices/angela-alaimo-odonnell>August 08,
Facebook <https://www.americamagazine.org/#facebook>
Twitter <https://www.americamagazine.org/#twitter>
Email <https://www.americamagazine.org/#email>

“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 I block 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.”

Flannery O’Connor wrote these words in January of 1946 when she was an MFA
student at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. They capture the spiritual agon that
she was engaged in as she struggled to discover the connection between her
vocation as a writer and her vocation as a Catholic. Found among her papers
by scholar William Sessions, a friend of hers, O’Connor’s *A Prayer
Journal* was
published to great acclaim in 2013 as it gave readers a glimpse into the
baptism by fire she endured before emerging as America’s finest Catholic
writer of the 20th century. Five years later, *Prayer Journal* continues to
appeal to readers who value her work as it teaches us not only about the
author, but also about ourselves as people in pursuit of twin vocations,
the professional and the spiritual, and the challenges of reconciling the

I recently revisited the *Prayer Journal* and found it to be as poignant
and profound as when I first read it. What strikes me on this reading is
the way writing the journal helped O’Connor to grow not only in her faith
but also in her art, enabling a fledgling writer to experiment with and
discover her literary vocation and voice. Most of the entries in the *Prayer
Journal*, beginning in Jan. 1946 and concluding in Sept. 1947, take the
form of letters. This is a genre O'Connor would master after she
was diagnosed with lupus and exiled to her mother’s farm, Andalusia, in
rural Georgia for the last 13 years of her life. During this period letters
would become her primary means of communication with the outside
world. These mature letters, wherein the full range of O’Connor’s literary
gifts are on display, were eventually published as *The Habit of Being, *one
of the finest collections of correspondence ever produced by a writer.

Letter writing is a genre O'Connor would master after she was diagnosed
with lupus and exiled to her mother’s farm.
Tweet this

O’Connor enjoyed letter-writing from an early age and took some pride in
her skill. In an earlier journal O’Connor kept in college, humorously
(mis)titled *Higher Mathematics* and recently found among her papers*, *she
writes: “My epistolary powers enthrall me. It is a pity I can’t receive my
own letters. If they produce as much whole-hearted approval at their
destination as they do at their source, they should indeed be able to keep
my memory alive—and healthy” (Jan. 22, 1944). These early letters are, in
some ways, apprentice pieces, preparation for the mature letters she would
write and also served as practice for her fiction.

The epistolary element of the *Prayer Journal*, in particular, provided her
with the opportunity to write letters of a different nature from any she
had written before. For these are letters to God and, as such, opened up an
avenue for communication about matters of the soul, making them more frank
and intimate than any she might have penned to ordinary people. The letters
functioned in a variety of ways, but for present purposes I would like to
focus on three.

First, they gave her the chance to explore her most private thoughts and
feelings without exposing herself or her work to judgment or
censure—something she endured on a regular basis at the Iowa
workshop. Unlike her fiction, which she hoped would be read by many people,
her letters to God would, like prayer, remain sealed and secret. This gave
O’Connor the freedom to address her greatest spiritual challenges and her
besetting sins. Among these are the twin torments of fear and desire. As
the opening excerpt suggests, one of her primary fears is that of the self
and its relentless demands. She also fears the tyranny of her intellect,
the loss of her faith and literary and spiritual mediocrity. But more than
fear, these letters are the record of desire. O’Connor writes at one point
that supplication is the only kind of prayer she is good at. She desires
many things, but what she wants most of all is to be a good writer:

Dear God, I am so discouraged about my work. . . . Please help me dear God
to be a good writer and to get something else accepted. That is so far from
what I deserve, of course, that I am naturally struck with the nerve of it.

Her desire for literary accomplishment and fame exists in tension with her
fear of her own pride and egotism. She knows she is smart and is very much
taken with her own intellect. In another letter to God, after making a joke
in the midst of her prayer (her sense of humor forever getting the best of
her, both in her stories and her letters), she confesses, “I do not mean to
be clever . . . although I *do* mean to be clever on 2nd thought and *like* to
be clever and *want *to be considered so.” Though she knows the danger of
intellectual pride—like the young girl in her story “The Temple of the Holy
Ghost,” whose character is essentially a self-portrait—she cannot help but
indulge in it and worries about its spiritual consequences. Thus, desire
and fear grapple with one another as O’Connor’s psychomachia rages on the
page, and even as the contest takes place, she becomes a more practiced
[image: 'Prayer Journal' by Flannery O'Connor]
Journal *by Flannery O'Connor

A second purpose served by the letters is that they filled a void at a time
in O’Connor’s life when she found herself a stranger in a strange land,
living and writing among people who did not share her faith. In her second
entry in the *Prayer Journal *she writes: “I dread, oh Lord, losing my
faith. My mind is not strong. It is a prey to all sorts of intellectual
quackery.” When O’Connor went to Iowa, she was, for the first time in her
life, surrounded almost entirely by people who did not share her beliefs.
Far from her devout mother and her large extended Catholic family, O’Connor
struggled with doubt and feared she was not strong enough in her faith to
withstand the assault made on it by her writer colleagues and the secular
university culture. Her letters to God provided her with a new avenue of
prayer—something she desperately needed because, in her words, “I have been
saying [the traditional prayers I have said all my life] but not feeling
them.” Engaging in this colloquy with God, however, she confided, “I can
feel the warmth of love heating me when I think & write this to You.” God
became a familiar, friend and confidant, rather than a distant impersonal
force approachable only through sanctioned means. O’Connor was charting
unknown territory in inventing these prayers—something Catholics of her era
were not encouraged to do—and for a while, at least, she reveled in the

A third opportunity the letters gave her was the rare chance to write from
the first-person perspective, something she did not do in her fiction, and
to discover how to create a persona.  While it is true that O’Connor
attempted to be her unvarnished self in these letters, she was also
creating a construct of herself. As Sessions notes in his introduction,
these entries are spontaneous, but they are also revised, betraying the
element of conscious craft in her writing. They are literary
experiments—something O’Connor acknowledges at various times. About halfway
through the journal, she writes: “I have decided this is not much as a
direct medium of prayer. Prayer is not even as premeditated as this—it is
of the moment & this is too slow for the moment.” In the final entry, she
admits that the experiment in communing with God has not worked: “My
thoughts are so far away from God. He might as well have not made me. And
the feeling I egg up writing here lasts approximately a half hour and seems
a sham.” The very quality of this form of prayer she enjoyed so much at
first—the feeling it engendered—she now begins to distrust. In the battle
between her intellect and her heart, her intellect gets the upper hand.

While O’Connor may have viewed the prayer experiment as a failure, it was
in reality a great success. In creating and inhabiting the varying personae
she created—Angry Flannery, Frustrated Flannery, Remorseful Flannery,
Grateful Flannery—she was engaging in what Henry James once called “The
Histrionic Imagination,” effectively training herself for her work as a
fiction writer. She was practicing empathy—a virtue that did not come
easily to O’Connor. The cultivation of the capacity to see and describe the
world from these varying perspectives would enable her to create characters
who were as different from herself as chickens from peacocks. It would
enable her to *become* the racist Ruby Turpin she depicts in “Revelation”;
the foul-mouthed, tattoo-obsessed O.E. Parker in “Parker’s Back”; a selfish
old grandmother *and* a sensitive serial killer in “A Good Man is Hard to
Find.” These acts of imagination make O’Connor’s writing essentially
dramatic—in both *A Prayer Journal *and her fiction. Thomas Merton, on
hearing of her death, compared her to Sophocles—the great dramatist—rather
than another fiction writer, as she depicted the elemental human struggle
between characters who were grand and yet ordinary, true-to-life and
somehow larger-than-life.

Writing the *Prayer Journal* helped O’Connor to grow not only in her faith
but also in her art.
Tweet this

The poet John Keats in one of his letters writes of the two great models of
the artistic imagination in comparing what he calls “The Chameleon Poet”
(represented by Shakespeare) and “The Egotistical Sublime” (the kind of
poetry pioneered by Wordsworth). Keats aspired to the condition of the
Chameleon Poet, envying Shakespeare’s ability to become his characters so
thoroughly that he himself disappeared, but he had difficulty accomplishing
it. Keats’s best poems are those that, like Wordsworth’s, focus on himself.
But O’Connor *was* able to imaginatively occupy the condition of the other.
And, paradoxically, she achieved this, in part, through her letters to God,
which might seem to be exercises in the Egotistical Sublime but served,
ultimately, to teach her how to transcend the self—or, alternately, to
write about the self through her characters. “Is there no escape from
ourselves? Into something bigger?” she asks in one of the journal entries.
The answer provided by her fiction is *yes.*

The Church and the Fiction Writer: From March 30, 1957
Flannery O'Connor <https://www.americamagazine.org/voices/flannery-oconnor>
[image: WORKSHOP DAYS. Robie Macauley, Arthur Koestler and Flannery
O’Connor at Amana Colonies in Iowa, Oct 9, 1947.]
Flannery O'Connor's struggle with faith illuminated in "A Prayer Journal"
Susan Srigley <https://www.americamagazine.org/voices/susan-srigley>

In one of her later letters to a friend, O’Connor speaks about the first
story she wrote at Iowa, “The Geranium,” a tale about an old southerner who
goes to live in the alien environment of New York City and finds himself
miserably homesick for the world he left behind. O’Connor admits that at
the time she knew nothing about New York City, but she* did *know something
about homesickness—and since she could not write about herself, the old man
served as a kind of double for her. O’Connor wrote “The Geranium” around
the same time she was writing her letters to God, and the imaginative work
she did in composing them helped her to accomplish this.

After nearly two years, O’Connor abruptly stopped writing her journal. One
reason for this is that it had served its purpose. It is instructive that
the first words of the journal express her distrust of the self—“I do not
know you, God, because I am in the way”—and the last words are these:
“There is nothing left to say of me.” All that needed to be said of young
Flannery O’Connor had been said—and it was time to turn her full attention
to her characters, to pour her *self* into them and make them come alive.

The fact that O’Connor’s journal is a form of literary experimentation does
not make it any less genuine. This is, after all, what writers do—find
language that leads to a fuller apprehension of our inner and outer
weather, as Robert Frost puts it, the ways in which the self is related to
the physical world and spiritual cosmos we inhabit. She moves from the
practice of praise, petition and thanksgiving to interrogation and
self-castigation, employing a variety of voices and rhetorical modes to
arrive at a better understanding of God, herself and her vocation as an

Her letters to God led to self-revelation. O’Connor discovered aspects of
herself she would rather not. This discovery gave her a sense of relief and
permission to move on with her true work, the business of writing fiction.
Prayer is what Catholics do, and O’Connor prayed in every way she could
find—in church, by her bedside, in her journal and in her stories. All of
these avenues gave her access to the God she so fervently sought and,
blessedly, found.

*This article also appeared in print, under the headline "The Epistles of
Flannery O'Connor ," in the August 20, 2018
<https://www.americamagazine.org/magazine/2018/august-20-2018>* issue.

new book:
*At Play in the Lions' Den: a biography and memoir of Daniel Berrigan*


recipient of the International Thomas Merton Society’s “Louie” award:
*The Root of War is Fear: Thomas Merton's Advice to Peacemakers  *

*books in print: *www.jimandnancyforest.com/books/
*web site: *www.jimandnancyforest.com
*photos: *www.flickr.com/photos/jimforest/albums/
*Amazon author page*: www.amazon.com/author/jimforest
-------------- next part --------------
An HTML attachment was scrubbed...
URL: <http://lists.ibiblio.org/pipermail/percy-l/attachments/20180815/31918c50/attachment-0001.html>

More information about the Percy-L mailing list