A PRAYER JOURNAL by Flannery O’Connor, edited by W. A. Sessions. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, ©2013. Hardcover, 112 pages., $26.95. Reviewed by Edwin Buettner.
Flannery O’Connor (1925-1964) is widely recognized as a leading figure in 20th century American literature. This prayer journal, written during her university studies, spans a period of one-and-one-half years (January 1946 to September 1947). The intimate nature of this slim volume of reflections is enhanced by the inclusion of a complete facsimile of O’Connor’s handwritten text. The journal was not available to scholars and general readers for more than 50 years and editor Sessions believes it was kept hidden because, in his view, its contents were “perhaps too astonishing for earlier readers . . .”
What is most striking about O’Connor’s reflections is her sometimes brutal honesty. O’Connor was, and remained, a deeply committed practising Catholic; yet she scrupulously questions her fidelity to the faith. Her writing in this journal reveals an acute awareness of the risks associated with unreflective adherence to dogma and practice. In other words, O’Connor understands that dark side of religion which can breed hypocrisy and self-satisfaction. She prays for authenticity in her relationship with God, “to have the want driving in me, to have it like a cancer in me.”
Much of O’Conner’s reflections in this journal centre around her experience of tension points, including: academic knowledge and faith, the experiential and the dogmatic, sin as a “necessary fault,” human and divine love, psychology and Spirit. In applying her literary gifts to these areas, she expresses remarkable sensitivity to their nuanced qualities and lays bare the fragility inherent in the walk of faith. More often then not, the writing culminates in surrender to God’s wisdom and love. Some examples: “All boils down to Grace”; “God is feeding me and what I’m praying for is an appetite”; “If there is no sin . . . there is no God.”
The reader is often reminded that O’Connor is writing as an eager university student for whom the world is opening and expanding. As is often the case for students grounded in a faith tradition, her deep processing of course material threatens the security she had found in her church. At times, she is able to graft newly acquired knowledge onto her Catholic worldview; at other points O’Connor draws on her faith to fill in gaps in her studies. Nonetheless, she acknowledges her vulnerabilities to the allure of knowledge: “Please do not let the explanations of Psychologists make it (her faith) turn cold.”
Despite its brevity, the journal demands slow reflective reading, particularly in the latter sections in which her writing takes on an opaque and at time mystical quality. It is there that O’Connor’s emerging literary powers become more evident. In other words, the author is beginning to find her unique voice.
O’Connor’s writing is a stellar example of the classic Catholic definition of prayer as “lifting the mind and heart to God.” Though it can be read for its literary and even theological merits, it remains fundamentally an intimate record of a young woman’s reaching for the mystery of God — with arms outstretched and knees bent.