Flannery O’Connor and Her God

Reading between the lines.
Nov. 6 2013 11:17 AM

The Prayers of Flannery O’Connor

 The deeply Catholic writer and the “insidious hands Oh Lord which grope into the darkness of my soul.”

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The twinning of the banal and the sublime O’Connor invoked in the journal became a hallmark of her fiction. The entries in the journal, like her stories, are by turns lyrical, serious, ironic, abrupt. She worries that, surrounded by academics and nonbelievers, she, like Hulga, will be convinced that her faith and God himself are mere manmade inventions; she fears “insidious hands Oh Lord which grope into the darkness of my soul.” Hazel Motes, protagonist of her first novel, Wise Blood, and founder of the Holy Church of Christ Without Christ—who first emerged during O’Connor’s time at Iowa—would invest supreme amounts of energy trying to deny God and secure his soul for the gropers.

I’m almost 10 years older now than Flannery O’Connor was when she died. When I first read her, I was almost 10 years younger than the age she lived to. My own soul has been decidedly groped. Hulga, with her unsatisfied mind and glaring physical vulnerability, has started to feel very familiar. I’m sure my mother prays for me to the saint Padre Pio, for help with my disease and for me to marry my partner and stop living in sin. Despite my being from a New Jersey bedroom town, O’Connor feels like a relation. She would be a contemporary of my mother’s actually, if she had lived to old age, but since she died at age 39, she will always feel to me like a sister, or a scandalous aunt. Scandalous in her strength and ambition, in her refusal to bend, in her inimitable way of seeing, in her cutting remarks.

To think, if she had lived, and written, all those years! If she had stopped writing at around age 80, say, like Philip Roth or Alice Munro, giving us 40 more years of her exacting, lacerating prose—that would have been proof positive of the healing powers of Lourdes, where she went with her mother in 1958, she said, to pray for her novel-in-progress, The Violent Bear It Away. I wish she had been a bit more selfish with her prayers.

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A Prayer Journal by Flannery O’Connor, edited by W.A. Sessions. Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

Marian Ryan is a writer and editor based in Berlin.