Book Review: Flannery O’Connor’s Prayer Journal

In a recent interview in the New York Times, Marilynne Robinson criticized Flannery O’Connor, saying, “Her prose is beautiful, her imagination appalls me.” The two women have become in my mind a kind of polarity of Christian fiction writing. On one side, Robinson represents the majority stream of Christian fiction writers who champion an expansive doctrine of creation which swallows up salvation and the narrative of the gospel inside its own preoccupations with beauty. On the other side, O’Connor represents the minority position: those Christian fiction writers who stress the radical otherness of God, the disruptive nature of revelation, and the stark, difficult, subversive, cruciform nature of the gospel. I don’t have a side in this fight; I kind of want to have it all.

I do, however, think that O’Connor’s fiction should never be read without also reading her prose. Her prose is the key that unlocks her disturbing and violent fictive worlds. This is even more true of her recently published prayer journal, written when she was a young student in her early twenties. It offers us a precious glimpse into the fervent piety boiling underneath her angry, jagged, sarcastic fiction.

It was especially illuminating to see her reacting so violently to the psychology she was encountering. Clearly, she experienced these psychological ideas as a direct threat to her faith and her soul. It was exciting to see her grappling with them so deeply. If fighting can be a kind of intimacy, then O’Connor is a great example: it is almost as if, having discovered that Freudianism has lodged itself in her mind and in her heart, she knows she cannot rip it out without killing herself, but she doesn’t want to die for that. She wants to die for God. What emerges is a powerful example of the soul grappling with the problems presented to it by modernity.

Even still, I would go so far as to say that O’Connor’s fiction is unavoidably corrupted by a deep hatred for herself and for human beings in general. She was never able to accept the gospel’s declaration that God is for us and that in Christ, through the power of the Holy Spirit, we are able to love others and even ourselves with a holy, rightly ordered love. This self-hatred is on display in this prayer journal, and it is never resolved. In spite of this, it is a great book of prayers and very much worth reading. Her piety is inspiring, her youthful voice is endearing, and her struggles are deeply moving.

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