Make Me a Mystic: The Profound Honesty of Flannery O’Connor

Thursday, July 10, 2014 - 6:52am

Make Me a Mystic: The Profound Honesty of Flannery O’Connor

by Mariah Helgeson (@mariahism),  associate producer

There’s a common emotional vocabulary in the writings of Catholic women, a fierce devotion strangely coupled with a startling humility. This is ever-so-present in Flannery O'Connor's A Prayer Journal, recently published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

It's a wonderful book: unflinchingly honest, unfailingly wise, and immensely funny:

"What I am asking for is really very ridiculous. Oh Lord, I am saying, at present I am a cheese, make me a mystic, immediately. But then God can do that — make mystics out of cheeses."

Ms. O'Connor wrote this collection of prayers — letters really — to God as a student attending the Iowa Writers' Workshop in her twenties, around the time that her first short story was published in Accent magazine. She struggles with doubt and uncertainty, afraid that she will not produce another work worthy of publication, and asks God: "Please help me dear God to be a good writer and to get something else accepted."

This desire, quickly couched in humility — "This is so far from what I deserve, of course" — is rare in autobiography. But then, this isn’t autobiography. I wonder if Flannery O’Connor ever intended for others to read this. This is Catholic writer at her most vulnerable, with her most selfish, most personal desires and doubts exposed.

In this way, A Prayer Journal feels modern. Stripped of the pretensions of writing for an audience, the prayers feel personal, relatable. She asks: "Perhaps the feeling I keep asking for, is something again selfish — something to help me feel that everything with me is all right."

It is easy to forget that she is writing this in 1946, and not 2014. The desire to feel "good enough," to be freed from the anxiety of success and transported to the domain of grace where talent and potential are meaningless, seems to belong to this current decade, not within Ms. O’Connor’s lifetime.

A Prayer Journal is a shining example of the power of confessional literature. Dorothy Day, another female Catholic writer, wrote:

"Going to confession is hard. Writing a book is hard, because you are ‘giving yourself away.’ But if you love, you want to give yourself. You write as you are impelled to write, about man and his problems, his relation to God and his fellows. You write about yourself because in the long run all man’s problems are the same, his human needs of sustenance and love."

I don’t think Flannery O’Connor thought she was writing anything worthwhile in these journals, or at least, not worth publishing. But in their fragility, in their total, unedited lack of awareness of audience, they show a side of human nature that we don’t often get to see in our literary giants. In A Prayer Journal, Flannery O’Connor is most human — achingly, uncomfortably, startlingly.

A Prayer Journal is a glimpse into a human moment colored with doubt and fear, enamored by the light and grace that God represents, preoccupied by the mundane. Despite her best intentions, she gives us a portrait of ourselves — and permission to both feel and express life honestly, in its wholeness, without revision.

An excerpt from Flannery O'Connor's, A Prayer Journal

[...]* effort at artistry in this rather than thinking of You and feeling inspired with the love I wish I had.


Dear God, I cannot love Thee the way I want to. 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. The crescent is very beautiful and perhaps that is all one like I am should or could see; but 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.


I want very much to succeed in the world with what I want to do. I have prayed to You about this with my mind and my nerves on it and strung my nerves into a tension over it and said, "oh God please," and "I must," and "please, please." I have not asked You, I feel in the..."

*The opening pages of the journal appear to have been lost.

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Mariah Helgeson is a digital producer at On Being. She earned a degree in International Affairs with concentrations in the Middle East and Conflict Resolution from George Washington University. She grew up in Minnesota and was a program associate at the Sustained Dialogue Campus Network. When she’s not submerged in a good book she might be found laughing with her teenage sisters or playing chamber music.

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Reflections

Beautiful. I especially loved Flannery's crescent moon prayer.

Thank you so much for this intimate review. As a "cheese" hoping to be a mystic and a new writer hoping to "break in," Flannery's prayers resonate deeply with me. I will order this book immediately, and thus reach sainthood and writerly success all the sooner. Thanks, Mariah. Nicely written review, too!

I love this.... this is what makes it possible for all the rest of us seekers, and self-doubters, to find identification with one that has walked in our shoes. When I read this, I think almost....'wow! That could've been me!'

I do not know You God because I am in the way. Please help me to push myself aside.

Whoa. That is all.

This is such a rare glimpse into the mind of a wonderful writer. The excerpts make for very compelling reading. So personal, though, that I wonder how she would have felt about her journal being published posthumously.

Trent Gilliss's picture

Always a delicate subject, but I trust she would delight in seeing how others took humble dignity of her journey.

Would really like to thank Fannery's friend the author William A. Sessions for editing and putting this book together, it is a jewel.

As I struggle with an aspect of "telling all" in my own memoir writing, I hear the voice of God saying"yes" through Flannery's honest reaching, her searching, her humility.

Finding these words meant much to me. A woman, who has cooked a dinner, and been with a "challenged" grandchild all day, and feeling "spent". The magic of being able to soar and go deep with Flannery O'Connor means a good finish to a day. I am never disappointed when I go to the pages of Krista and Trent. Thank you.

Raw. Soul revealed. Inspired to pray the same. Thank you Flannery.

Thank you- beautifully presented. I forwarded it on to my poet/writer friends in hopes it may touch their hearts as it did mine.
In Inspiration....

THE PERSONALITY OF FLANNERY O'CONNOR
Ms O'Connor was a classic authoritarian personalty. This is not unusual. What is unusual is that she sucessfully fended off enquiries that might lead to an examination of this. It is also unusual that almost every dimension, element, perspective of her violent stories and their authorial source has been examined...AND rationalized... but not her personality.
Cleverly, she erected a wall around her own personality...and gave very few access... by early denying that psychology had much to do with anything. Her life was tragic. But her devotees...now a cottage industry...have been relentless in glossing her work and image. For the most part they neither examine her nor her religious claims...in any depth. These were what was important about Flannery O'Connor. Her personna was that of a Catholic theologian and severe apologist...with violent twists. Thus, evangelicals rush past these troublesome considerations. The superficial path is most often taken as in these considerations.
Especially interesting is her pronouncement of orthodoxy regarding her creations as though the Church... with rigorous examination... allowed her to place an imprimatur on her own work.
She was snarky as a little girl of nine and she grew into a snarky defensive adult who rarely deigned to "suffer fools gladly". But so what? So what if she did not recieve others openly and joyfully? So what if she created no characters at all with loving, open and optimistic outlooks? Neither Ms O'Connor nor her characters reflected love of any kind, leastwise the love of God. This should not surprise!
The question is why is Ms O'Connor given a 'cultural' pass on so much that is relevant while piling analysis and commentary on top of analysis and commentary of her stories that express her self-justifying therapy and her violent view of God's will while rationalizing her dark 13th century Thomistic views into some sort of 'gospel' homilies? This should not surprise!
To explain her life and work in any terms of exceptional righteousness or superior cultural perspectives of her environment borders on being the theater of the absurd.
Lupus is the key. This too, should not suprise....'the wolf within' that might begin tearing things apart at any moment. One cannot begin to imagine living with an illness wherein episodic attacks of one's own tissues can arise at any moment to attack one's own tissues. One wants to shout: it is the 'wolf'', stupid! Now sit down and shut up. Stop glorifying and reifying her suffering and making it fit one's own slightly askance or twisted comfort zones!
One might conclude that Ms O'Connor's intellectual/emotional frame of reference was her Roman Catholicism. Her biological frame of reference was her illness, lupus erthyematosus. Both...and their interplay... created much tension and stress in her life not to mention the pain. She vented these stresses in her writing. Her life was so retricted and limited, she dared share with only a few.
One also has to suspect that her dogmatic religious assertions were undergirded with some doubts. She in fact did some 'cherry-picking' of religious concepts while throwing some observers off balance with those proclamations of Romn Catholic orthodoxy.
Still questions remain. The purpose of this segment is to raise those questions. Why is she not seen as a desperately lonely and akward young woman delivering "God's hammer" to an unhearing and unyielding world of fundamentalist ignoramuses and uncaring secularists? Is this not evident? If not, read more!
She was viewed as strictly devout, brilliant as a writer, moderately troubled by an obscure illness, a bit quirky. But was she really seen? Really known? Is it time? Only one asserted she was on the "side of Devil," John Hawkes.
Did she throw an ink well at ole "Beelzebulb" as did Martin Luther? We shall never know. Sad that she is misunderstood...seen essentially as a button-down Catholic whose work must be plumbed and plumbed again for profound spiritual insights... from material that more likely were her exercises to purge her own soul from the daemons lurking so close. Only Lupus need be considered! Her life was one of violence. It was redeemed by violence...the attempts to work through it... NOT those oohing and aahing over it.

THE PERSONALITY OF FLANNERY O'CONNOR

Ms O'Connor was a classic authoritarian personality. This is not unusual. What is unusual is that she successfully fended off inquiries that might lead to an examination of this. It is also unusual
that almost every dimension, element, perspective of her violent stories and their authorial
source has been examined...AND rationalized... but not her personality.

Cleverly, she erected a wall around her own personality...and gave very few access... by early
denying that psychology had much to do with anything. Her life was tragic. But her devotees...now
a cottage industry...have been relentless in glossing her work and image. For the most part they
neither examine her nor her religious claims...in any depth. These were what was important about
Flannery O'Connor. Her persona was that of a Catholic theologian and severe apologist...with violent
twists. Thus, evangelicals rush past these troublesome considerations. The superficial path is most
often taken as in these considerations.

Especially interesting is her pronouncement of orthodoxy regarding her creations as though the
Church... with rigorous examination... allowed her to place an imprimatur on her own work.

She was snarky as a little girl of nine and she grew into a snarky defensive adult who rarely deigned
to "suffer fools gladly". But so what? So what if she did not receieve others openly and joyfully? So
what if she created no characters at all with loving, open and optimistic outlooks? Neither Ms O'Connor
nor her characters reflected love of any kind, leastwise the love of God. This should not surprise!

The question is why is Ms O'Connor given a 'cultural' pass on so much that is relevant while piling
analysis and commentary on top of analysis and commentary of her stories that express her self-justifying
therapy and her violent view of God's will while rationalizing her dark 13th century Thomistic views into
some sort of 'gospel' homilies? This should not surprise!

To explain her life and work in any terms of exceptional righteousness or superior cultural perspectives
of her environment, borders on being the theater of the absurd.

Lupus is the key. This too, should not surprise....'the wolf within' that might begin tearing things apart
at any moment. One cannot begin to imagine living with an illness wherein episodic attacks of one's own
tissues can arise at any moment to attack one's own tissues. One wants to shout: it is the 'wolf'', stupid!
Now sit down and shut up. Stop glorifying and deifying her suffering and making it fit one's own slightly
askance or twisted comfort zones!

One might conclude that Ms O'Connor's intellectual/emotional frame of reference was her Roman Catholicism.
Her biological frame of reference was her illness, lupus erthyematosus. Both...and their interplay... created
much tension and stress in her life not to mention the extreme pain. She vented these stresses in her writing.
Her life was so restricted and limited, she dared share with only a few.

One also has to suspect that her dogmatic religious assertions were unde-rgirded with some doubts. She in
fact did some 'cherry-picking' of religious concepts while throwing some observers off balance with those
proclamations of Roman Catholic orthodoxy.

Still questions remain. The purpose of this segment is to raise those questions. Why is she not seen as a
desperately lonely and awkward young woman delivering "God's hammer" to an unhearing and unyielding
world of fundamentalist ignoramuses and uncaring secularists? Is this not evident? If not, read more...not
here, elsewhere!

She was viewed as strictly devout, brilliant as a writer, moderately troubled by an obscure illness, a bit quirky.
But was she really seen? Really known? Is it time? Only one asserted she was on the "side of Devil," John Hawkes.

Did she throw an ink well at ole "Beelzebulb" as did Martin Luther? We shall never know. Sad that she is
misunderstood...seen essentially as a button-down Catholic whose work must be plumbed and plumbed
again for profound spiritual insights... from material that more likely were her exercises to purge her own
soul from the daemons lurking so close. Only Lupus need be considered! Her life was one of violence. It was
redeemed by violence...the attempts to work through it... NOT those oohing and aahing over it.