A PRAYER JOURNAL by Flannery O’Connor (Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, 2013)
My favorite joke about praying is by the surreal American comic Emo Philips (although it’s also been attributed to Al Pacino) and goes: “I asked God for a bike but I realized it doesn’t work that way, so I stole a bike and prayed for forgiveness”.
I think the Southern Gothic novelist Flannery O’Connor would have appreciated this witticism. She was a staunch Catholic but she also had an eagle eye for life’s absurdities.
As an atheist I am biased, but surely even believers can recognise that praying ought to consist of more that than reeling off a wish list to some kind of celestial Santa.
O’Connor’s own faith in prayer is proven by a recently discovered student’s note pad found among her papers in Georgia and whisked off to the publishers with unseemly haste.
This private journal wasn’t intended for public consumption and unsurprisingly has practically no literary merit. Covering a period from January 1946 to September 1947, it does, however, offer a voyeuristic insight into O’Connor’s state of mind at the age of 20-21 and shows how profoundly she detested mediocrity and craved recognition.
She wanted to be appreciated for her intellect yet, paradoxically, loathed anything that touched on the deadly sin of vanity. She hated what she calls “aesthetic frippery” but yearned to be celebrated as a great novelist. Her fervent appeals for heavenly assistance – “Please God help me to be an artist” – are both touching and naive.
The chief (only?) merit of publishing this journal is that gives further evidence that O’Connor was fully aware of her strangeness and eccentricity. Hers are not conventional prayers but read like a correspondence with an other-worldly being who she half suspects is not all He’s made out be.
It’s all part of the unique world view that made her novels and short stories both fascinating and disturbing.
“My attention is always fugitive”, she confesses at one point, and I think she is only being half apologetic.