Before Flannery O'Connor hit her literary zenith with her stellar short stories, letters, criticism, book reviews and two novels, she had, in the quiet backdrop of her unassuming life, a tattered notebook in which was written intense yet personal jottings about her Catholic faith and the relationship that that faith had in the molding of who she was as a literary artist. Yet, it also showed how she saw herself personally. It illustrates (what I think) was an almost strained or exhausted awareness of her unworthiness before God. There is a high caliber of scrupulosity that is attached to her self awareness, a zealousness even. Clearly, she struggled to reach that pinnacle of what she felt God desired of her versus what she wanted for herself: "What I am asking for is really very ridiculous. Oh Lord, I am saying, at present I am cheese, make me a mystic, immediately. But then God you can do that-make mystics out of cheese. But why should He do it for an ingrate slothful & dirty creature like me. I can't stay in the church to say a Thanksgiving even[,] and as for preparing for Communion the night before-thoughts all elsewhere. The rosary is mere rote for me while I think of other and usually impious things." Page 38. Journal entry date 9/25.
What is so ironic about this particular passage is that while Flannery O'Connor, like the rest of us, are naturally unworthy of God's mindfulness, O'Connor was indeed very mystical. Her literary writings, especially her short stories, certainly do attest to that. Her lament echoes so much of Psalm 8: "O Lord, our Lord, your greatness is seen in all the world! Your praise reaches up to the heavens; it is sung by children and babies. You are safe and secure from all your enemies; you stop anyone who opposes you. When I look at the sky, which you have made, at the moon and the stars, which you set in their places-what are human beings, that you think of them; mere mortals, that you care for them? Yet you made them inferior only to yourself; you crowned them with glory and honor. You appointed them rulers over everything you made; you placed them all over creation: sheep and cattle, and the wild animals too; the birds and the fish and the creatures in the seas. O Lord, our Lord your greatness is seen in all the world."
For me, O'Connor was tremendously gifted by God, but for O'Connor, the act of having that gift comes off as sometimes being very difficult to carry and or live up to. The hunger and desire is there, but the act of putting that desire into practical fruition requires an act of the Divine indeed. That is what makes this journal so startling. O'Connor is so focused on where she stands before God. He is such an integral part of her work, that she always beseeches Him: "Dear God, I am so discouraged about my work. I have the feeling of discouragement that is. I realizes I don't know what I realize. Please help me dear God to be a good writer and to get something else accepted. That is so far from what I deserve, of course, that I am naturally struck with the nerve of it." Page 10. Undated. Or: "Dear God, tonight 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 for Your story-just like the typewriter was mine..." Page 11. Undated.
Thankfully, unlike the Victorian poet-priest Fr. Gerard Manley Hopkins who wanted to give up his poetic gift because he felt it went against his call to humility, Flannery O'Connor went in the exact opposite direction and published slowly yet consistently, seeing her writing as a genuine vocation, whereas Hopkins did not. O'Connor saw her writing as a gift and herself as an instrument. She just didn't know how to occasionally temper herself to that calling, but she cuts to the point with this journal statement of 1/2/47 on page 25: "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." This was an illuminating read and has certainly afforded me a finer depth to understanding O'Connor's works as a whole.