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A Gem Found In Old Papers: Flannery O'Connor's 'Prayer Journal'


Every so often, as scholars sort through old papers, they find a rare and wonderful gem, something that, when published, lets us witness an author finding her voice. Tess Taylor says Flannery O'Connor's "A Prayer Journal" is just such a find.

TESS TAYLOR, BYLINE: How do you pray to become a better writer? If you're Flannery O'Connor, you pray in intermittent flashes but with insight, humility and a fair amount of wit. A rich sidelong portrait of the artist as a young woman emerges in the few pages of O'Connor's "Prayer Journal."

O'Connor was merely 21 when she began these direct, impassioned letters to God. She spent her life as a practicing Catholic but in 1946, left her native Georgia to attend the University of Iowa, filled with burning ambitions to become a great writer. There, O'Connor encountered a tendency towards intellectual atheism that prodded her to express her own deeply held personal faith. Newly ensconced in Iowa's writing program, she uses her journal to shuttle between her enormous ambitions and her sense that these ambitions need to align with her understanding of God.

Here's a prayer many young artists will recognize. Please help me, Dear God, to be a good writer and to get something else accepted. And as she breaks with the given script of liturgical prayer, O'Connor offers God a bit of her bone-dry humor. Help me to feel that I will give up every earthly thing for this, she says. I do not mean becoming a nun. But while this book sizzles with desire, it's O'Connor's struggle - torment, even - about how to ask for success that's so memorable.

Rather than simply giving God her to-do list, O'Connor always also implores God to be the source of her insight, help her listen more deeply, see more clearly, know what to pray for. In a wonderful piece of theological musing, she writes: My frenzy is caused by an eagerness for what I want and not a spiritual trust. I do not wish to presume. I want to love. There's a vividness to this faith as the young artist's fervent desire to make art combines with a deep instinct that the gift of creation, even her own, is a gift that must flow through her and be directed elsewhere.

At times, O'Connor steps aside entirely, asking God to dictate. At other times, she simply asks, please give me the necessary grace, oh, Lord, and please don't be as hard to get as Kafka made it. This record of prayer is short, barely the length of the stories O'Connor would later become famous for crafting. We can't know if O'Connor ever experienced the revelations she so fervently hoped for. But in these intimate, funny, openhearted addresses to her creator, I hear premonitions of the unforgettable characters O'Connor will later create - rueful, deeply flawed selves who, like O'Connor, hope for much and then fall short of the mark. Her voice crafts a world imbued with compassion, which, if not divine, is always fully, richly human, in which we glimpse ourselves fallen, broken and struggling to be made whole.

BLOCK: Flannery O'Connor's "A Prayer Journal" was reviewed for us by Tess Taylor. Her most recent poetry collection is "The Forage House." Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Tess Taylor