In the late 1970s or early 1980s, when I was beginning my journeys as both a new Christian and an aspiring writer, a friend loaned me Flannery O’Connor’s The Complete Stories.
Until then, I’d never heard of O’Connor.
Since then, I’ve never been able to forget her. Her short stories blew my head off.
A Roman Catholic who died in 1964, she’d done something I didn’t know could be done by a fiction writer.
She’d captured the beauties and absurdities of the Southern evangelical faith I was trying to live, while simultaneously (and hilariously) skewering cynical pseudo-intellectuals, too. No character, however devout or disbelieving, escaped her spit unroasted.
But she wrote about Christianity as an insider, as a gifted believer who plumbed cosmic truths.
“Now I know what I want to do,” I told my friend. “I want to write like that.”
Me and about 10,000 other would-be writers, as it turned out. It didn’t happen for me. I didn’t possess O’Connor’s preternatural talents. But then, who does?
Still, I remain a devotee. More than 50 years after she succumbed to lupus at age 39, O’Connor ranks among the great American writers of the 20th century. Certainly she’s among the greatest Christian writers ever.
Thus I was delighted recently when Liz, my wife, gave me O’Connor’s A Prayer Journal, published in 2013. The journal, handwritten in a Sterling notebook, was discovered lately among the author’s papers.
O’Connor kept the journal from 1946 to 1947 as a student at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. She was 20 when she started composing these prayers, 22 when she quit.
As young as she was, her wit, intellect and candor already are evident.
I think you who pray, and you who hope to write, might enjoy these excerpts:
“I do not mean to deny the traditional prayers I have said all my life; but I have been saying them and not feeling them. My attention is always very fugitive. This way I have it every instant. I can feel a warmth of love heating me when I think & write this to You. Please do not let the explanations of the psychologists about this make it turn suddenly cold.”
“My dear God, how stupid we people are until You give us something. Even in praying it is You who have to pray in us. I would like to write a beautiful prayer but I have nothing to do it from. There is a whole sensible world around me that I should be able to turn to Your praise; but I cannot do it. Yet at some insipid moment when I may possibly be thinking of floor wax or pigeon eggs, the opening of a beautiful prayer may come up from my subconscious and lead me to write something exalted. I am not a philosopher or I could understand these things.”
“I am afraid of pain and I suppose that is what we have to have to get grace. Give me the courage to stand the pain to get the grace, Oh Lord. Help me with this life that seems so treacherous, so disappointing.”
“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.”
“Dear God, In a way I got a good punishment for my lack of charity to Mr. Rothburg last year. He came back at me today like a tornado which while it didn’t hurt me too much yet ruined my show. All this is about charity. Dear Lord please make my mind vigilant about that. I say many many too many uncharitable things about people everyday. I say them because they make me look clever. Please help me to realize practically how cheap this is. I have nothing to be proud of yet myself. I am stupid, quite as stupid as the people I ridicule. Please help me to stop this selfishness because I love you, dear God. I don’t want to be all excuses though. I am not much. Please help me to do Your Word oh Lord.”
“It does not take much to make us realize what fools we are, but the little it takes is long in coming. I see my ridiculous self by degrees.”
“If I ever do get to be a fine writer, it will not be because I am a fine writer but because God has given me credit for a few of the things He kindly wrote for me. Right at present this does not seem to be His policy. I can’t write a thing. But I’ll continue to try — that is the point.”
“What I am asking for is really very ridiculous. Oh Lord, I am saying, at present I am a cheese, make me a mystic, immediately. But then God can do that — make mystics out of cheeses. But why should He do it for an ingrate slothful & dirty creature like me.”
“Today I have proved myself a glutton — for Scotch oatmeal cookies and erotic thought. There is nothing left to say of me.”
And frankly, dear readers, there’s probably nothing left to say for any of us. We’re all gluttons for something, or for many things. We, too, are cheeses praying to become mystics. That’s what grace is all about.
Paul Prather is pastor of Bethesda Church near Mount Sterling. You may email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.