Private Prayers: Flannery O'Connor's Faith Journal

Private Prayers: Flannery O'Connor's Faith Journal

Photo: AP Photo/Atlanta Journal Constitution

Years before her novels and short stories earned her recognition as one of midcentury America’s greatest writers, Flannery O’Connor poured her faith—and doubts—into one slim notebook.

In 1946, Flannery O’Connor began filling the pages of a simple composition book with impassioned prayers. She was 20. “I do not mean to deny the traditional prayers I have said all my life,” she writes in the first, undated entry, “but I have been saying them and not feeling them.”

Until September 1947, when A Prayer Journal comes to a close, O’Connor prayed nothing less than pure feeling. The journal—found among O’Connor’s papers by her authorized biographer,
W. A. Sessions—reveals spiritual yearning, tough-minded intelligence, self-doubt, and humor. Pure O’Connor in their honed craft as well as their disgust at “the boils & blisters & warts of sick romanticism,” the entries blaze with an honesty and intimacy so intense that, at times, the reader has to look away. At others, we can’t, compelled by her contemplation. “No one can be an atheist,” she writes on January 2, 1947, “who does not know all things. Only God is an atheist.”

Two great passions suffuse these pages: to love God, and to write. As a graduate student at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, O’Connor admits that “I like to be clever & want to be considered so” and elsewhere prays, “Don’t let me ever think, dear God, that I was anything but the instrument for Your story—just like the typewriter was mine.” On September 25, 1947: “Make me a mystic, immediately.” A day later, “I have proved myself a glutton for Scotch oatmeal cookies and erotic thought.”

Three years after this journal’s final entry, O’Connor was struck with her first attack of lupus. In 1964, she died at age 39, leaving behind two novels, 31 stories—and now this journal, as bristlingly alive with terrible grace as her acclaimed fiction. Here, we see not only the richness and rigor of the woman and the writer but a model of what prayer, at its purest, can be.

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