Flannery O’Connor’s Conversations With God

Book review of A Prayer Journal

By Flannery O’Connor
Edited by W.A. Sessions
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2013
112 pages, $18 (Hardcover)
To pre-order: amazon.com

“Dear God, please let me be an artist; please let it lead to you.”

These poignant words were written by Flannery O’Connor in an ordinary little notebook in 1946, when she was a 21-year-old unpublished writer.

She died in 1964, and the notebook remained hidden in the archives until 2002.

We can be grateful it was finally unearthed, for this slim volume — 112 pages — harbors a wealth of insights into O’Connor’s prayer life. 

The journal is written in an honest, heartfelt manner, as if she were talking with a friend. “Dear God, I am so discouraged about my work,” she admits, and then she asks for help in becoming a good writer.

This prayer was definitely answered, because, in her short lifetime — she died at 39 after a long battle with lupus — O’Connor completed two novels and two collections of stories. She was honored with the National Book Award posthumously.

Still, her stories shocked many readers who didn’t understand their grotesque characters and unsettling scenes of violence. To O’Connor, it was all part of her vocation as an author with a distinctly Catholic vision, who was writing about the fallen world — and the workings of grace in “territory largely held by the devil.”

For her, the devil was an actual being, not a symbol, as many pundits claimed. Even in her 20s, she acknowledged the danger of reducing religious realities to the vagaries of the human mind. She underscored that sin was a reality, not a psychological problem.

Reflecting on her own failings in the journal, she harshly chastises herself for a sarcastic comment made to a fellow student. Despite her remorse, however, it was this same sardonic wit that would later help shape some of the most unforgettable characters in her short stories.

Among many other jewels, there is the one-armed drifter who lusts after an old woman’s car and marries her daughter to get it. And there is the inimitable nihilist Hulga, a scathing indictment of the atheism that began infecting colleges in the 50s.

The young O’Connor alludes to this pervading cultural illness when she bemoans professors who claimed believers created God in their own image. “At every point in the educational process,” she notes, “we are told that [faith] is ridiculous.”

Like most fledgling writers, O’Connor was keen to see her work published, and there’s nothing unusual there. But when a story actually begins taking shape in her imagination, she immediately expresses gratitude to the source: “Don’t let me ever think, dear God, that I was anything but the instrument for your story.”

In the years leading up to her death, O’Connor resolutely accepted her physical trials as a share in Christ’s cross and a portal for grace. And in a strangely prescient moment in the journal, the young O’Connor beseeches God for the courage “to stand the pain to get the grace.”

This prayer, too, was ultimately answered for O’Connor, who later would be given sufficient strength to endure the enormous suffering that befell her. She remained true to her Catholic beliefs until the end; and in her letters, she helped others find their way to Christ.

This humble little prayer journal, written with such faith and fervor, is likely to do the same. 

Lorraine Murray is the author of The Abbess of Andalusia: 
Flannery O’Connor’s Spiritual Journey (St. Benedict Press).