Flannery O'Connor's struggle with faith illuminated in "A Prayer Journal"

In a letter to Louise Abbott in 1959, Flannery O’Connor sympathizes with what her correspondent must have been describing as a struggle of faith: “All I would like you to know is that I sympathize and Isuffer this way myself.” We may never have known the details or the extent to which this confession of doubt was true without the interior witness of O’Connor’s recently published A Prayer Journal, written in 1946 and 1947 while she was a student at the University of Iowa. Prayer offers a rare glimpse into the nature of O’Connor’s spiritual longing. She maintained the difficulty of this struggle of faith her whole life: “When we get our spiritual house in order, we’ll be dead. This goes on. You arrive at enough certainty to be able to make your way, but it is making it in darkness” (Habit of Being, pg. 354).

What does it mean to get one’s spiritual house in order? If completion comes only with death, then this, I believe, is the spiritual path, the real practice of faith. O’Connor articulates this trajectory of spiritual practice, implicit in her assumption that this is a lifelong pursuit. Although she had not yet been diagnosed with lupus when she was writing her journal, she had witnessed her father’s death from that disease, and she put death at the very center of a story’s mysterious power: “In every story there is some minor revelation which, no matter how funny the story may be, gives us a hint of the unknown, of death” (Conversations, pg. 17). All of O’Connor’s characters, including O’Connor herself, are working toward their death, a path necessarily shrouded in darkness.

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O’Connor’s journal reveals a maturing faith and a desire for a sustained practice that will both align with her artistic pursuits and resist the challenges to belief that she was encountering in school. Her most poignant call for help with her own spiritual practice comes in the form of a dramatic plea written in Prayer on Nov. 6, 1946: “Can’t anyone teach me how topray?” It is a remarkable request because O’Connor’s published letters and essays demonstrate such a conviction of faith. But here we are speaking of practice, not belief. O’Connor is struggling for a meaningful practice, which is fueled by the dissonance between what her mind is willing to accept and what her heart feels: “Intellectually, I assent: let us adore God. But can we do that without feeling?” Her preoccupation with feeling should not be undervalued in these writings. O’Connor repeatedly notes the disruption between what she has been raised to believe and her subtle realizations about what she no longer feels.

Faith Versus Art

Prayer reveals the initial stirrings of a restless heart, marked as the scholar Bill Sessions notes, by the influences of O’Connor’s new intellectual surroundings, and bringing with them “questions and skepticism.” I would put an even finer point on those searching questions and argue that she was attempting to work out the route and practice for her spiritual path. More specifically, the journal describes in detail O’Connor’s efforts to discover her vocation, and this vocation is the subject of tension throughout the journal: for writing and prayer, or artistry and spiritual practice. She wants both to write well and love God. And when her urgent requests to be a good writer reach ascendancy, she quickly reverts back to her need for spiritual attention, as though she had been remiss in the subject of her prayers.

The first cryptic words we have in Prayer come from an excised section, so we catch them mid-phrase. What words do we find? “...effort at artistry...rather than thinking of You and feeling inspired with the love I wish I had.” The opening confession belies a felt disjunction between her artistic pursuits at the University of Iowa and a marked loss of feeling for the faith that has carried her there. In her next full address to God, reminiscent of St. Augustine’s Confessions, O’Connor writes, “Dear God I cannot love Thee the way I want to.” She sums up the heart of spiritual practice, a need that she wants to fill but that requires assistance. She asks “to get down under things” to find God. This is the contemplative language of inward practice. She feels compelled to get herself out of the way in order to know God better and asks God to help her “push myself aside.” We are back to those opening words—and the apparent displacement of God in her heart’s desire by a stronger and more urgent desire to make her way as a writer. Yet O’Connor wants to learn how to focus and train the heart. She asks God to make her mind “vigilant” about charity. And this is not a request for some kind of magical fix, she is willing to do the work but the lack in her attention inhibits a sustained practice of faith.

From the start she expresses a desire for desire. And the culprit impeding her way is what she calls her “fugitive attention”—attention being the one thing needed for meditative and contemplative practice. Her recognition, however, is coupled with the language of disenchantment, or at least of disconnection, from the traditional prayers that have formed her spiritual pursuits thus far: “I have been saying them and not feeling them.” This confession of her “fleeing” or fugitive attentionmarks the earnest acknowledgment of an unpracticed mind in need of a new and more meaningful practice. She describes herself as someone who is turning away from a younger frame of mind as she admonishes herself to grow spiritually.

Central to this search is balancing the grace of God and the effort required to still the mind and quiet the heart. It is a process ofopening but also of action. While offering thanks for her spiritual good fortune, she admits that she is not “translating this opportunity into fact.” What is the fact of spirituality but real practice? O’Connor wants to move beyond words, beyond saying to willing. In her letter to Alfred Corn in May 1962 she says, “If you want your faith, you have to work for it. It is a gift, but for very few is it a gift given without any demand for equal time to its cultivation” (Collected Works, pg. 1,165). Here O’Connor indicates her own efforts to find her way to a more authentic expression of faith. Prayer presents the intense grappling in her own heart and mind, and it helps us to appreciate that the advice she gives to Alfred Corn, among others, is born of her own deeply felt struggles.

The most significant tension in Prayer is between O’Connor’s desire to be a successful writer and to be spiritually committed. This tension indicates a parallel desire, which she makes considerable efforts to align—as though she fears one might preclude the other. Again she echoes St. Augustine’s cry, when she says, “Help me to feel that I will give up every earthly thing for this. I do not mean becoming a nun.” Clearly there are limits to her desire for a religious vocation, and perhaps a naïve sense of what that means, but what we find is an underlying need to feel God’s presence. Indeed, near the end of Prayer she asks to be a mystic! What it comes down to, I believe, is this: Flannery O’Connor wanted a kind of divine blessing on the direction of her life and her work. She was seeking a vocation, but did not know how to draw the line, if any, between her writing and her spiritual practice: “I want so to love God all the way. At the same time I want to be a fine writer.”

O’Connor admits that her desire to be a fine writer must be egoistic and therefore contrary to her faith. She assumes that any motivation for success and recognition is bad, convinced, if only negatively, by the psychologists, who “say that bad impulse is natural.” She wonders aloud how the psychological gurus of her educational process at the University of Iowa might be undermining her already tenuous grasp on faith.

In the face of this, O’Connor continually returns to a need for order, a discipline or practice that is not simply habitual: “I would like to order things so I feel all of a piece spiritually.” And yet, we perceive her dissatisfaction with her current practice, admitting “the rosary is mere rote for me.” She grapples with focused attention, wanting to hold God in her mind at all times but unable to do so.

Her need for disciplined spiritual practice however, is coupled with a desire to feel. This is the most agonizing aspect of Prayer for me. The only spiritual practices she has known are not yielding any effects in her. Near the end she writes that “getting to go to Mass again everyday” leaves her “unmoved,” and she perceives herself as “too weak even to get out a prayer for anything,” adding, “I want to feel.” The urgent need to feel something is at the forefront of her petitions.

Faith Through Music

Her final entries in the journal tend toward the excessive: make me a mystic. Immediately.” Her fugitive attention is impatient once again: “I can’t stay in the church to say a Thanksgiving even, and as far as preparation for Communion the night before—thoughts all elsewhere.” O’Connor’s last paragraph discloses a powerful lament: “My thoughts are so far away from God. He might as well not have made me.” O’Connor can only conclude that as a creature of God, made in God’s image, she should be equipped to know and feel that God. And yet she does not. O’Connor is adamant about what she does not want in the face of that absence: “I don’t want any of this artificial, superficial feeling stimulated by the choir.” And, as if by some effort to enshrine her resistance to artificial feeling, she expresses her final thoughts in music.

On the very last pages of O’Connor’s journal we discover a rudimentary grand staff consisting of a treble staff and a bass staff joined by a bracket. The bass clef is upside down, the treble clef has unnecessary dots and the bracket is misplaced, not fully connecting the two staves. I played the notes on the piano and they sound decidedly unmusical. Why are these notes here and what is O’Connor possibly communicating with them?

I asked a colleague in music education, Dr. Adam Adler, and he made a few interesting observations. What struck him most was the childlike form of the notation. It appeared to be done by someone who had learned piano for a short time but was struggling to remember the basics. The inverted bass clef, which to him seemed accidental given the other mistakes, nonetheless revealed a clever palindrome, a sequence of notes, in this case B, D, F, which read the same forward and backward. If we were to turn the staff upside down, following the cue of O’Connor’s upside-down bass clef, the notes would be the same.

One can perhaps read more into this than was intended by O’Connor’s simple notation, but Dr. Adler got the sense of someone caught in the frustrating position of trying to notate music and yet finding herself unequal to the task. I cannot help but see these notes anew in light of this brief musical analysis: Prayer reveals the soul of a young woman struggling with her search for artistic and religious symmetry.

The discordant tones of O’Connor’s notation, the dislocation of the two staves by the misplaced bracket, the inversion of the bass clef and the double movement of the palindrome provide a metaphor for the dissonance and absence of feeling so plaintively noted by O’Connor throughout her prayers. While the journal’s unmusical ending may indicate her inability to express adequately the complexities of her inner longing, O’Connor’s artistry continued on another page, entrusting her endlessly searching characters to her world of fiction.

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