The Sound Before the Song

By  |  March 24, 2014
Illustration by Eleanor Davis Illustration by Eleanor Davis

I received Flannery O’Connor’s Prayer Journal while in residence at the Sewanee Summer Writers’ Conference. I carried the galley around with me for a week. Dorm to lectures to lunch to workshops to readings, the book always in my backpack. I’d take it out multiple times a day, turn it over in my hands, read the press materials—then put it back. Flannery O’Connor’s prayers. Flannery O’Connor’s prayers. In her handwriting. To peer over her shoulder and read what she’d written to God, and God alone?

It felt voyeuristic, uncouth. Sacrilegious, even. O’Connor’s fiction, letters, and especially her essays were of tremendous importance to me as both artist and believer. Would reading her intimate communication with God alter my perception of the feisty, guns-blazing Flannery I’d long admired and, in many ways, needed?

Surely this was holy ground. I felt I should at least remove some figurative sandals.

On the last day of the conference, a man in my workshop who’d read my stories handed me a leaf. It was obviously from an oak, but the shape was unusual: cruciform, with a scalloped outline—a wobbly green snow angel, veined and translucent.

It’s from the post oak near the chapel, he said. They’re planted all over campus. Well, all over the South in general, usually in cemeteries. Given the religion in your work, I thought you’d appreciate it.

I thanked him and placed the leaf inside the Prayer Journal. A month later, when I decided I really did need to start reading, the galley fell open to the leaf: page 74, a three-sentence entry dated January 2, 1947:

No one can be an atheist who does not know all things. Only God is an atheist. The devil is the greatest believer & he has his reasons.

O’Connor’s neat script, a facsimile of the original Sterling notebook pages; the post oak leaf, now dulled to olive and folded along one side. I pictured thousands of cross-shaped leaves shivering above graveyards around the South; Mr. Shiftlet in “The Life You Save May Be Your Own” standing in front of the Lucynell Craters and raising his arms, one long and one short, his body forming a crooked cross against the sunset. It was all here, tucked between pages 74 and 75: God, devil, believer, atheist, crucifix, graveyard. The gothic and grotesque. The South.

Flannery would love this, I thought. And finally I started reading.

 

The fact that I received the prayer journal at Sewanee is eerily fitting. It opens in January 1946, the month O’Connor returned to Iowa after the holidays to learn the Sewanee Review had rejected two of her stories. O’Connor held Sewanee in the highest regard. In a 1954 letter to Ben Griffith, she called it one of the only “conscious” universities in the South, along with Washington & Lee and Vanderbilt. It’s speculation—the journal’s first pages have been lost so we can’t be sure of the dates—but perhaps the Sewanee Review rejection engendered the journal’s opening fragment: “. . . effort at artistry in this rather than thinking of You and feeling inspired with the love I wish I had.” You don’t need the rest of the sentence to understand the conflict—attention to craft versus inspiration from God—or the underlying question it implies: What is the source of inspiration? Love for God, or love for art? Are they different things? If so, are they mutually exclusive?

The prayer continues: “I want very much to succeed in the world with what I want to do . . . I have not asked You, I feel, in the right way. Let me henceforth ask You with resignation.” Again, it’s easy to imagine O’Connor, the young Catholic, sitting in her dorm room, rejection letter in hand, confessing her “impure” motives in asking God to bless her work with success. If only I could ask rightly, maybe I’d get a story published. Note: she doesn’t say, I will no longer ask. She keeps asking. It seems her prayer is: “Make me a literary success; nevertheless not my will, but Thine, be done.” A Gethsemane moment, writ small.

The journal’s last entry is dated September 26, 1947, around the time the Sewanee Review bought “The Train,” which eventually became the first chapter in her novel Wise Blood. It wasn’t her only acceptance—by this time she’d placed stories in other magazines, including her first, “The Geranium,” in Accent—but it was an important one, coming from editor Andrew Lytle, who’d been impressed with O’Connor when he was a guest lecturer at Iowa, calling her “the only student there with exceptional talent.” A few months after the final entry Lytle would begin to oversee O’Connor’s work on the novel.

The prayers, then, are book-ended by the Sewanee Review—rejection, acceptance. The written supplication ceases when her opening prayer for success is “answered.” Ironically—perhaps inevitably—the journal doesn’t end on a note of thanksgiving, but one of disappointment:

My thoughts are so far away from God. He might as well not have made me. And the feeling I egg up writing here lasts approximately a half hour and seems a sham . . . Today I have proved myself a glutton—for Scotch oatmeal cookies and erotic thought. There is nothing left to say of me.

 In an early entry, O’Connor had laid out her plan to follow the ACTS method of prayer (a model still familiar to many contemporary Christians): “Prayers should be composed I understand of adoration, contrition, thanksgiving, and supplication and I would like to see what I can do with each without writing an exegesis.” The journal’s final beat, then, is contrition—but note that O’Connor is no longer speaking to God in direct address. This is a marked change from the earlier prayers, which begin with “My dear God,” or simply “Dear God,” and proceed in the form of letters, lover to beloved: “I can feel a warmth of love heating me when I think & write this to You,” she writes in the first entry.

But after the tenth prayer, there’s a shift. O’Connor starts dating the entries, which hybridize in form; her thoughts about God meshing with, and in some cases supplanting, her prayers to Him. “I have decided this is not much as a direct medium of prayer,” she begins on November 4, 1946. “Prayer is not even as premeditated as this—it is of the moment & this is too slow for the moment. I have started on a new phase of my spiritual life—I trust. Tied up with it, is the throwing off of certain adolescent habits & habits of mind.”

One “habit of mind” she attempts to throw off, initially, is her desire for total release from the Self in order properly to adore God. In early entries she pleads for escape into mysticism:

Dear God . . .You are the slim crescent of a moon that I see and my self is the earth’s shadow that keeps me from seeing all the moon . . . what I am afraid of, dear God, is that my self shadow will grow so large that it blocks the whole moon, and that I will judge myself by the shadow that is nothing. I do not know you God because I am in the way. Please help me to push myself aside.

 
Please let some light shine out of all the things around me so that I can. What it amounts to I suppose is be selfish. Is there no getting around that dear God? No escape from ourselves? Into something bigger?
 
My dear God, I do not want this to be a metaphysical exercise but something in praise of God. It is probably more liable to being therapeutical than metaphysical, with the element of self underlying its thoughts . . . It is the adoration of You, dear God, that most dismays me.

By the first dated entry on November 4, she seems weary of the struggle—the embryonic, comatose stasis in which self-abnegation leaves her: 

One thing I have seen this week—it has been a peculiar week—is my constant seeing of myself as what I want to be. Not the fulfillment of what I want to be, but the right genre, the correct embryo in the correct beast. The consequence of such a delightful state of coma will naturally be the eternal embryo—and eternal in no false sense. I must grow. I have a right I believe to show such interest in myself as long as my interest is in my immortal soul and what keeps it pure.

At this point O’Connor was back at Iowa, living in Currier House and enrolled in courses in imaginative writing, aesthetics, and Austin Warren’s literary criticism seminar. She would begin serious work on her novel in December; in the spring she would submit the first four chapters to the Rinehart-Iowa Fiction Award competition, which she would win in May, days before receiving her MFA. We don’t know what made this particular week “peculiar,” but the shift in tone and approach indicates a subtle nuance in her thinking—the move from “Help me escape myself” toward the more reflective “I have a right to think of myself, as long as it concerns immortality.” The great Protestant writer C. S. Lewis expressed an uncannily similar thought in a 1935 letter to his friend and legal adviser Owen Barfield: “Since I have begun to pray, I find my extreme view of personality changing. My own empirical self is becoming more important and this is exactly the opposite of self-love. You don’t teach a seed how to die into treehood by throwing it into the fire; and it has to become a good seed before it’s worth burying.”

O’Connor was fast becoming the writer she felt called to become, and perhaps this is the point at which she knew it. We begin to glimpse Flannery the essayist, the gutsy, stubborn O’Connor we know from her letters—the artist who, in early 1949, wrote to John Selby at Rinehart (with whom she’d disagreed regarding his criticism of her novel), “I can tell you that I would not like at all to work with you as do other writers on your list . . . In short, I am amenable to criticism but only within the sphere of what I am trying to do; I will not be persuaded to do otherwise.”

In an entry dated April 14, 1947, hard at work on the novel, she begins to outline her aesthetic program: “I must write down that I am to be an artist, 

Not in the sense of aesthetic frippery but in the sense of aesthetic craftsmanship. The word craftsmanship takes care of the work angle & the word aesthetic the truth angle. Angle. It will be a life struggle with no consummation. When something is finished, it cannot be possessed. Nothing can be possessed but the struggle.

Work/craftsmanship, truth/aesthetic: here she articulates what is, in fact, the prayer journal’s driving tension, the query buried in the opening fragment, the question pulsing beneath adoration, contrition, thanksgiving, and supplication: Can I wholly consecrate myself to God and still be a literary writer of the first order? Can one have both God and Art? “I want so to love God all the way,” she writes on November 6, 1946. “At the same time I want all the things that seem opposed to it—I want to be a fine writer. Any success will tend to swell my head—unconsciously even.” The deep dive into the self that writing requires and the natural temptation of pride literary success would surely bring; contrasted with the dying to the self love for God requires, the sacrifice and suffering—how to reconcile the two? Aren’t they inherently inimical to one another?

What is a Christian writer to do but accept—indeed, possess—the struggle?

It’s striking how often O’Connor expresses her fears of “mediocrity” in both arenas, religious and creative. On the one hand, she prays against a lukewarm faith: “I don’t want to be doomed to mediocrity in my feeling for Christ. I want to feel. I want to love.” She prays her faith may not be only the result of weakness: “Dear God, I don’t want to have invented my faith to satisfy my weakness.” She prays the secular, intellectual milieu in which she finds herself at Iowa won’t dampen her love for Christ: “I am afraid of insidious hands Oh Lord which grope into the darkness of my soul. Please be my guard against them. Please be the Cover at the top of the passage.” She prays her faith may not prove a total sham: “I dread, oh Lord, losing my faith. My mind is not strong . . . I do not want it to be fear which keeps me in the church.” She even admits her fear that she might be using her faith for ambitious ends: “Even among the literary now it is becoming popular to believe in God. There is a certain shocking something about it . . . am I trying to shock with God? Am I trying to push Him in there violently—feet foremost?”

But if she fears a mediocre faith, she abhors the thought of a mediocre craft, calling it a “scourge,” saying she’d rather be an “imbecile” or “nothing” than become anything less than a fine writer. To accept mediocrity, she writes, would be to resign herself to a life of despair: “Maybe I’m mediocre. I’d rather be less. I’d rather be nothing. An imbecile. Yet this is wrong. Mediocrity, if that is my scourge, is something I’ll have to submit to.” And: “Mediocrity is a hard word to apply to oneself; yet I see myself so equal with it that it is impossible not to throw it at myself . . . I think to accept it would be to accept Despair. There must be some way for the naturally mediocre to escape it. The way must be Grace.”

Grace. For O’Connor, the one hope in the struggle against mediocrity, in faith and art, is divine grace and human effort operating in symbiosis:

You say, dear God, to ask for grace and it will be given. I ask for it. I realize that there is more to it than that—that I have to behave like I want it.

Ask for grace, then behave as if you have it. For O’Connor, if her faith is real, it is because she has received the grace to believe and act. And if her writing is a success it will be for the same reason. Spirit in collusion with the body, the Divine manifesting in and through the human—so deeply does she seem to embrace these ideas, that she often writes as if she believes God Himself is doing the work for her:

If I ever do get to be a fine writer, it will not be because I am a fine writer but because God has given me credit for a few of the things He kindly wrote for me. Right at present this does not seem to be His policy. I can’t write a thing. But I’ll continue to try—that is the point. And at every dry point, I will be reminded Who is doing the work when it is done & Who is not doing it at that moment.

Dear God, tonight it is not disappointing because you have given me a story. Don’t let me ever think, dear God, that I was anything but the instrument of Your story—just like the typewriter was mine.

She prays not just that God will give her stories, but that He will imbue them with meaning. “Please let Christian principles permeate my writing and please let there be enough of my writing (published) for Christian principles to permeate”; “Oh dear God I want to write a novel, a good novel . . . Help me to get what is more than natural into my work—help me to love & bear with my work on that account. If I have to sweat for it, dear God, let it be as in Your service.”

O’Connor’s unswerving certainty that faith and fiction—and meaning in fiction—are acts of divine grace, coupled with her determination to submit to the work required, begs a deeper theological query: Is salvation by work or by grace? Earned or given? A combination of the two? Here we reach the Catholic/Protestant divide, the linchpin of the Reformation, Martin Luther’s thorn-in-the-flesh. On the one side, if, as Luther claimed, salvation is sola gratia, sola fide—Christ’s righteousness imputed to believers by faith in Him, with no good works earning points and no sins subtracting them—then shouldn’t we “go on sinning so that grace may increase?” And if salvation is not a gift, if the state of grace depends in any way upon actions, good or bad: Who among us can stand?

One of the most remarkable gifts of the prayer journal’s publication is the opportunity to witness firsthand how clearly and commandingly the young O’Connor grasped the complexity of the dichotomy. Though she maintained firm belief in Catholic dogma, she seems to have had a preternaturally intuitive understanding of grace as it relates to faith: “Giving one Catholicity, God deprives one of the pleasure of looking for it but here again He has shown His mercy for such a one as myself—and for that matter for all contemporary Catholics—who, if it had not been given, would not have looked.” I was born into my Catholic faith, she seems to say, and will therefore never have the pleasure of fervently searching for religion. But by Your mercy I understand that even those who seek God do so because He sought them first; and if He is found, it’s because He was already looking.

It’s a lament of sorts; O’Connor longs for the intensity of desire that those who discover God later in life seem naturally to have. “But I am one of the weak,” she writes. “I am so weak that God has given me everything, all the tools, instructions for their use, even a good brain to use them with, a creative brain to make them immediate for others. God is feeding me and what I’m praying for is an appetite. Our Lady of Perpetual Help, pray for me.”

All the tools to do the work, still the plea for grace. How fitting that even in prayer, the budding writer—Catholic novelist in the Protestant South—should find herself in dialogue between theologies.

 

The journal entries, though hybridized, never swerve entirely from direct-address prayer. Single-sentence, Nehemiah-esque “arrow prayers” (what O’Connor perhaps meant by “of the moment” prayers) pepper the more contemplative entries. And when she does find herself waxing “literary”—not surprisingly, she is always slipping into concrete image and the language of body—she catches herself: “If we could accurately map heaven some of our up-&-coming scientists would begin drawing blueprints for its improvement, and the bourgeois would sell guides 10 cents the copy to all over 65. But I do not mean to be clever on 2nd thought and like to be clever and want to be considered so.” Or, in a later entry: “Sin is large & stale. You can never finish eating it nor ever digest it. It has to be vomited. But perhaps that is too literary a statement—this mustn’t get insincere.”

A particular “sin” she wrestles with seems to be of a sexual nature. Several prayers, including the last, allude to an erotic temptation. The entry dated May 4, 1947, is for the most part a reasoned exposition of sensual desire related to the divine: “Man’s desire for God is bedded in his unconscious,” she writes, “and seeks to satisfy itself in physical possession of another human.” Sensual fulfillment, she says, is a “poor substitute for what the unconscious is after”; and if the intelligence can’t place sexual yearning “in its relation to a greater desire” and let it lead on through the senses to God, the desire itself will burn out, will sink “lower and lower in the unconscious, to the very pit of it, which is Hell.” Proust was right, she says: the only love that can last is one that remains unsatisfied. She continues a few beats more in this vein, until a sudden outcry: “My God, take these boils & blisters & warts of sick romanticism . . .”

The rest of the entry is excised, and the following page opens: “Tore the last thing out. It was worthy of me all right; but not worthy of what I ought to be.” One senses she might have been trying to talk herself out of something.

In the final entries she returns to pleading for escape into mysticism, and asks God for total union with Him in passionate, and even erotic, terms: “Dear Lord, please make me want You. It would be the greatest bliss. Not just to want You when I think about You but to want You all the time, to think about You all the time, to have the want driving in me, to have it like a cancer in me.” In the penultimate entry, dated September 24, 1947, she writes, “I am a cheese, make me a mystic, immediately . . . [my soul] wants more and more to want You. Its demands are absurd. It’s a moth who would be king, a stupid slothful thing, a foolish thing, who wants God, who made the earth, to be its Lover. Immediately.”

And then the final entry, the slip back into the carnal, Scotch oatmeal cookies and erotic thought.

If the journal begins with spirit and ends in flesh—if the prayers migrate en masse between the metaphysical and the carnal, the body always exerting its force and gravitational pull until O’Connor can only fling up her hands (nothing left to say of me)—it is in her fiction that we see the pull back upwards. The stories begin where the journal left off, squarely in the carnal: Hazel Motes in his glaring blue suit with the price tag stapled to the sleeve; Mrs. Connin with her long scattered teeth, whistling and blowing like a musical skeleton; Mrs. Freeman’s forward and reverse expressions, Hulga’s artificial leg; Mr. Shiftlet raising his crooked arms.

And the endings in revelation: the grandmother’s recognition of the Misfit as “one of her own children”; Tarwater knowing he’ll be a prophet after all, one who will “warn the children of God of the terrible speed of mercy”; Hulga’s vulnerability and humiliation when the Bible salesman takes her leg; Julian’s entry into the “world of guilt and sorrow” after his mother has a stroke; Mrs. May with the look of one with sight restored but “who finds the light unbearable,” bull impaled in her lap. Racist Mrs. Turpin’s vision of white trash and niggers and battalions of freaks and lunatics climbing the swinging bridge to heaven, shouting hallelujah; the all-demanding eyes of Christ on Parker’s back.

The journal’s movement is spirit to flesh; the fiction, flesh to revelation. A circle is closed. The prayers, now that we have them, are the point of juncture.

 

Am I glad the prayers have been released to the world? Glad to have overcome my initial reticence, at Sewanee, to read them? Yes—with a qualification.

Mornings, before the children are awake, I sit at my kitchen table to write. The table is pushed up against a south-facing window. If I sit on one side of the table, I face east, where the sun rises over the valley between Lookout Mountain and Missionary Ridge. On clear days, especially in winter when the trees are bare, the sunrise is glorious: full-throated, a pink-orange mass choir high note. But I can’t look at it directly for more than a few seconds.

If I sit on the other side of the table, I face west. My view is of the driveway, the trees between our yard and the neighbors’, the side of our house perpendicular to the kitchen wall. In this wall is a small bathroom window, octagonal, like a porthole on a ship. When the sun rises behind me, the window forms a frame. I watch the sunrise in reflection, the red-orange light gradually illuminating the grass, driveway, siding on the house; the crape myrtle, Georgia pines.

For as long as we’ve lived here, I’ve chosen to face west. I’d rather see the sun in translation; I’d rather see the effects of the light, not the light itself.

And so with the Prayer Journal. I’m grateful to have looked full upon the intimacy of O’Connor’s relationship with her Beloved, the sun by which she saw. But I prefer, now, to turn back to the essays and fiction that have informed and inspired my faith and art. Let the prayers illuminate the work—hers, mine.

The journal is a light by which to see. But perhaps we shouldn’t look at it too often, or for too long.

 

There’s a final note to the journal. Half notes, in fact, sketched onto a single measure of lined staff. A few days ago I sat down at the piano and spread the paperback galley open like sheet music. I had to do a bit of transposing in the bass clef (I raised the chord a third; O’Connor drew the staff upside-down, and the notes appear to be one line off), but played all together, the notes—C, E in treble, D, F, A in bass—form a D minor 7 chord. It’s a jazzy, unresolved sound, on the edge of progression, demanding resolution. I experimented with various chord progressions, ways to resolve—D minor 7 to D minor 9 to G7 to C Major 7. It’s nothing more than a doodle, perhaps drawn unconsciously. But it’s there—after all the erasures and excisions, O’Connor left it there—on the cusp of something fuller, endless musical possibilities implicit in the notes. A fitting metaphor for the prayers, the moment before and behind the novels and stories and essays and letters we’ve known for over sixty years. The sound before the song. 

Jamie Quatro is the author of the story collection I Want to Show You More. Her writing has also appeared in The O. Henry Prize Stories 2013,  the New York Times Book Review, Tin House, Ploughshares, McSweeney's,  and elsewhere. She lives with her family in Lookout Mountain, Georgia. 

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