Flannery O'Connor balances art and faith in 'Prayer Journal'

Flannery O'Connor in Iowa City, 1947, in a

Flannery O'Connor in Iowa City, 1947, in a photo taken by her roommate, Martha Sprieser. "A Prayer Journal," O'Connor's devotional writing from the period, has been published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux (November 2013). (Credit: Flannery O'Connor Collection, Ge)

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A PRAYER JOURNAL, by Flannery O'Connor. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 96 pp., $18.

Flannery O'Connor's "A Prayer Journal" is a moving glimpse of a young writer seeking to balance her art with her faith.

In 1946, when she was 21 and studying at the Iowa Writers' Workshop, O'Connor began writing the prayers in a schoolbook. She was just beginning to perfect her craft, but the journal shows the same sense of humor, tragedy and suffering that would distinguish masterpieces such as "Wise Blood," "A Good Man Is Hard to Find" and "The Violent Bear It Away."

In real life, O'Connor could mix a polite, reserved Southern demeanor with brutal frankness, and the entries that begin with the words "Dear God" are no different.

"Hell seems a great deal more feasible to my weak mind than heaven," she writes in one. "I can fancy the tortures of the damned but I cannot imagine the disembodied souls hanging in a crystal for all eternity praising God. It is natural that I should not imagine this. If we could accurately map heaven some of our up-&-coming scientists would begin drawing blueprints for its improvement, and the bourgeois would sell guides 10c the copy to all over 65."

O'Connor is hard on herself, too. Reflecting on her lack of charity to another writer, she writes: "I have nothing to be proud of yet myself. I am stupid, quite as stupid as the people I ridicule."

Readers may appreciate the mixture of faith, self-doubt, determination and resignation that runs through "A Prayer Journal," and book-lovers will be pleased to note that she presumes God is quite well-read. Various passages mention Coleridge, Kafka, Proust and Freud, and at times O'Connor seems to be seeking a patron saint of literature.

"Please let the story, dear God, in its revisions, be made too clear for any false & low interpretation," she writes in one prayer, and in another, gives voice to a feeling that every writer in the world can relate to. "Dear God, I am so discouraged about my work."

O'Connor was a devout Catholic, and she tried to attend Mass every day. "God has given me credit for a few of the things He kindly wrote for me," she says in one entry.

O'Connor stopped writing the journal in 1947, and she died of lupus in 1964. "A Prayer Journal" is a slim book but a powerful one, since even at this young age O'Connor was writing sentences that startle with their clarity.

"Can't anyone teach me how to pray?" reads one entry. O'Connor needn't have worried. She prayed as well as she wrote.

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