Dec/Jan 2014

Engine of Grace

René Steinke


Flannery O’Connor’s readers either revere her fiction because it’s immersed in the mystery of Christianity or admire the work in spite of this. A Prayer Journal will naturally be embraced by the first group. But the book should also appeal to those who find this writer’s concern with “the action of grace” a puzzling aesthetic curiosity—because the prayer journal is also the journal of a writer scouting her own cosmology and beginning to discern its grand and peculiar design in her art.

The manuscript was discovered in the form of a Sterling marble composition notebook among O’Connor’s papers, and is now being published for the first time, complete with its facsimile, which reveals the author’s ovoid handwriting and “innocent” spellings. There’s an intimacy and rawness here that’s rare even in O’Connor’s outwardly autobiographical pieces, such as “The King of the Birds” and “On Her Own Work.” Written in 1946 and 1947, when O’Connor was in her early twenties, the journal has moments of youthful angst (“My mind is a most insecure thing, not to be depended on”). But more often, what’s striking is the author’s precocious authority: “The intellectual & artistic delights God gives us are visions & like visions we pay for them; & the thirst for the vision doesn’t necessarily carry with it a thirst for the attendant suffering.” O’Connor published her first story (“The Geranium”) at the age of twenty-one, and at the same time began work on her revelatory novel Wise Blood; the fascination in reading these entries is to see her already knowing what she wants to accomplish and not flinching: “God must be in all my work.”

As O’Connor struggles to create “a beautiful prayer,” her spiritual and artistic aspirations begin to intertwine. “I don’t want any of this artificial superficial feeling stimulated by the choir,” she writes. In her prayers, she practices the acute perceptiveness that marks her narrative voice: These devotional writings are imprinted with the same humor, brilliance, and attention to life that one finds in her fiction. Even at twenty-one, O’Connor is perfecting the ironic distance that will allow her to satirize all of humanity—and also the supplication that will make her so aware of human limitation, including her own.

Some entries read like notes for a story she has yet to write: “If we could accurately map heaven some of our up-and-coming scientists would begin drawing blueprints for its improvement and the bourgeois would sell guides 10˘ the copy to all over 65.” In her fiction, O’Connor’s signature characters are freaks, misfits, criminals, and prophets, whose motivations are either obviously selfish or opaque. She isn’t interested in the psychological reasons for their actions, but rather orchestrates a drama in which grace might break through. So it’s no surprise that in this journal she frequently writes about psychology as a threat that might dilute the mystery she wants to draw near. “There is something down there that is feeling—it is under the subconscious assent. . . . It may be that which is holding me in. Dear God, please let it be that instead of the cowardice the psychologists would gloat so over & explain so glibly.” O’Connor’s biting satire is a quality that her secular fans so often prize. But in this passage and others, the self-awareness and the doubt reveal the true origins of O’Connor’s exquisitely hard-eyed vision of humanity—it’s a view that begins with how she measures herself in relation to God.

The journal suggests a powerful paradox behind her satire, which is driven by a certain Christian-born humility (no one is exempt) and at the same time a bold moral center (she is prophetic). Both of these motivations are stirring in the prayers: “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.” She struggles for a spirituality that renounces “the earthly,” but the earthly is often what moves her closer to the divine. She describes moments when she is thinking of “floor wax or pigeon eggs” and a line of “exalted” writing comes to her. And she identifies with another artist often beloved for his confounding yet rich sense of the grotesque: “I have been reading Mr. Kafka and I feel his problem of getting grace.”

None of O’Connor’s efforts in faith or writing are easy. Wise Blood is rife with uncanny reversals and complications, such as the shriveled mummy “Jesus” kept at the local museum, and the earnest Hazel Motes, evangelizing for the Holy Church of Christ Without Christ and looking for sex wherever he can get it. It’s certainly not a book that could easily be glossed in Sunday school, but it is nevertheless a book written with a scrappy and bold sense of the ultimate unknowableness of God.

Later in her career, O’Connor often noted how she was misread, sometimes by Christians looking for easily parsed theology, and sometimes by nonbelievers who didn’t take her seriously. But she was always forthright about her impulse to write: “Belief, in my own case anyway, is the engine that makes perception operate.” In A Prayer Journal, there are snapshots of that complicated, ingenious engine. O’Connor’s belief never seems to sit still. That restlessness—in these prayers and elsewhere—is what animates her wonderfully bottomless stories, especially “A Temple of the Holy Ghost,” “Revelation,” and “Good Country People.” Because the circuitous map of her religious thinking isn’t obvious in her stories, secular readers may feel free to ignore it. Nonetheless, as A Prayer Journal suggests, O’Connor might never have come to write any of this fiction had she not been so fiercely direct about her desire to confront, in words, “that supernatural grace that does whatever it does.”

Although she couldn’t have known that she would, in fact, contract lupus and die at the early age of thirty-nine, O’Connor’s impatience to succeed seems eerily prescient, too. “Oh Lord, I am saying, at present I am a cheese, make me a mystic, immediately.”

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Related Story:

Syllabus: "Flannery O'Connor, Faith, and Fiction," by René Steinke

René Steinke is the author of Holy Skirts (William Morrow), a 2005 finalist for the National Book Award. Her next novel will be published by Riverhead in fall 2014.

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