For much of her life, Flannery O’Connor was a woman in pain. It wasn’t just the lupus, a disfiguring disease of the nervous system that disrupted her life at age twenty-five. It was also the existential pain of being a believer within a community of artists among whom belief was disparaged. The prevailing attitude in the circle she had come to inhabit was that being a Christian, especially an observant Roman Catholic, meant having to ignore or skim over certain “truths” about life in the world, not to mention the darker aspects of human conduct. The Roman Catholic believer, it was felt, had been brainwashed by a doctrine that forbade full participation in the strife and passion that was the artist’s imperative to explore, that the Catholic who writes fiction is out to use fiction to prove the truth of their faith. O’Connor’s retort was to insist that her religion, in fact, made it impossible for her to be anything less than an artist, that her religion didn’t give permission for her to ignore any aspect of life but gave instead full freedom to express what was impossible not to see.
Although O’Connor was a cradle Catholic, she was far too inquisitive and iconoclastic to accept the teachings of her faith at face value. Her struggles with belief began early on, ultimately finding voice in her stories and novels, where themes of redemption and grace and forgiveness are treated in symbolic and fictional terms. From O’Connor’s A Prayer Journal, we now know that as a young woman engaged in perfecting her craft at the Iowa Writer’s Workshop, she kept a journal that recorded her ongoing spiritual combat. Cast in the form of prayers, the journal is a series of petitions by O’Connor to a God she saw as demanding but loving, a God who could give her the strength necessary to follow Him if she sought knowledge with sufficient diligence. These prayers, what the French would call pensees, were recently discovered among her papers in Georgia and are collected here in a volume as slender as a book of poems.
No one who has read O’Connor’s work doubts that the woman behind the shy smile in her photographs had a deep and probing intellect. Like Dietrich Bonhoffer and Simone Weil and Georges Bernanos, literary spiritualists whose tradition she shared, O’Connor saw the way into the spiritual interior as a process to be undertaken with humility but that would be fearless about what might be discovered there, always assuming the posture of the unworthy penitent. The journal, which begins appropriately in mid-sentence—as the stream of thought does, interrupting as it enters—is an intense self-interrogation through prayer that begs God for clarification. Believing that the self interferes with perfect spiritual knowledge, she vows to strip away everything that stands between her and God, giving her voice to the universal human prayer. But O’Connor makes clear that her ambition isn’t the cloister, it’s to be an artist. “Oh dear God I want to write a novel, a good novel,” she implores. “I would like to be intelligently holy.” She’s not always satisfied with the answers she gets to her prayers and is confused by the disappointment she still feels. To fail in her ambition would be to cause her to feel “loneliness continually… a life struggle with no consummation.” Because she knew that the extreme impulse to spiritual growth in a seeker must begin with the assumption of imperfection and unworthiness, she constantly felt the contradiction of being blessed while still suffering. Peace would be a long time in coming. In the meantime, these prayers would be survival mechanisms to get her through her dark nights. The humor that defined her later literary productions is in these prayers, too. “I have been reading Mr. Kafka and I feel his problem of getting grace … Please don’t let (grace) be as hard to get as Kafka made it.”
What has all this religious self-scrutiny to do with the kind of fiction O’Connor would eventually write? In what is perhaps her most accomplished novel, The Violent Bear It Away, she has the main character, Francis Marion Tarwater, wake one morning to find a relative sitting dead at the breakfast table. Tarwater’s response is to eat his own breakfast and then go out to dig a Christian grave for his uncle, “with enough dirt on top to keep the dogs from digging it up.” He’s too drunk to complete the job, though, and finally stops a passing neighbor, who had come to refill his jug from the communal still, to do it for him. Such a scene is instantly recognizable as “something out of Flannery O’Connor.” But here is also the evidence of her theological bent: the sudden encounter with mortality, the admission of symbols as relevant to human life and death, the inadequacy of human efforts alone to accomplish grace—these are all hovering over a masterful scene of Gothic Southern tragedy. O’Connor guides Tarwater through these strange grotesqueries with irony and care, producing a haunting work of art the author had anticipated long ago as she filled a student’s notebooks with supplications to God, an act she saw as the ultimate form of apprenticeship.