In the more than 600 pages of The Habit of Being, Flannery O’Connor’s collected correspondence, there is not one love letter. This is no great tragedy for the reader. What O’Connor left us in these letters—a fierce and lucid faith that refused to sacrifice comedy to piety—is much more necessary than a record of who on this Earth she loved and why.
If you’re fond of O’Connor, however, you might wonder at the conspicuous lack of romantic desire both in her collected letters and fiction. You might happen to know that her friends Betty Hester and Maryat Lee declared their love for her, or that some think she was briefly infatuated with Robert Lowell. There’s also that Danish textbook salesman who might have broken her heart and set her to writing “Good Country People” because of it. With all of these occurrences combined, you still might wonder if they amounted to much of a tragedy for O’Connor. If she knew you were using the word tragedy in connection with her love life, she might accuse you of “stinking romanticism” and say to hell with you.
When Hester (known as “A.” in the collected letters) pointed out the lack of romantic desire evoked in her work, assuming that O’Connor did not address it out of a fear of muddying her hands with the impure, O’Connor acknowledged that, yes, what was missing from her stories was, paraphrasing Anton Chekhov, the “he-and-she” that “is the machine that makes fiction work.” But not, she replied, because she feared that writing of it would be a sin—on the contrary. “I associate it a good deal beyond the simply virtuous emotions; I identify it plainly with the sacred.”
You might also wonder at the conspicuous lack of professed spiritual desire. We know what O’Connor wanted for her fiction, but it is less clear what she wanted for her soul, because she does not confess to it other than obliquely. In the letters, when she advises Hester on prayer, she does admit to some extravagant petitioning. “It’s only trying to see straight and it’s the least you can set yourself to do, the least you can ask for,” she writes. “You ask God to let you see straight and write straight. I read somewhere that the more you asked God, the more impossible what you asked, the greater glory you were giving Him. This is something I don’t fail to practice, although not with the right motives.” But she does not tell Hester what impossible things she demands.
In the same way, she may intellectually assent to the necessity ofsuffering, but she is careful to never leave a trace of her own pain on the page. One never hears or sees her on her knees in agony before God—like the tormented young curate in Georges Bernanos’s Diary of a Country Priest, a favorite novel of hers. In prayer, she preferred to rely on the breviary so as to keep her mind from drifting off. “If I attempt to keep my mind on the mysteries of the rosary,” she wrote to a friend, “I am soon thinking about something else, entirely non-religious in nature. So I read my prayers out of the book, prime in the morning and compline at night.” But she would not swallow your prayer if she thought it was, as she told Hester, full of emotion she couldn’t live up to. Says O’Connor to Hester: “I hate to say most of these prayers written by saints-in-an-emotional state. You feel you are wearing somebody else’s finery and I can never describe my heart as ‘burning’ to the Lord (who knows better) without snickering.”
How would O’Connor describe her heart to the Lord? It’s hard to imagine her ever wanting to take on that work as a spiritual or aesthetic challenge. But in a prayer journal O’Connor kept while she was a student at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, she did just that. “I would like to write a beautiful prayer,” she records in this journal, “but I have nothing to do it from.” William Sessions, a literary scholar and longtime friend of O’Connor’s, discovered this journal when he pulled a composition book out of a stack of papers while researching a biography of her. Begun in January 1946, when she was twenty, and set aside in September 1947, when she was twenty-two, the surviving forty-seven and a half pages, now published, show O’Connor in an astoundingly plaintive, supplicant, demanding, and passionate attitude before the Lord.
“Dear God,” the first prayer begins,
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.
There is a hope for the self to get out of the way so it can apprehend the beauty of the Lord, followed quickly by the self’s hope for its Earthly ambition to be realized. The latter is typically O’Connor. But the desperation and despair is not. “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.’ ”
There is also a worry that she cannot feel what she should. “I do not mean to deny the traditional prayers I have said all my life; but I have been saying them and not feeling them,” she writes. “My attention is always very fugitive. This way I have it every instant. I can feel a warmth of love heating me when I think & write this to You. Please do not let the explanations of the psychologists about this make it turn suddenly cold.”
If this were the only prayer Sessions found, it would be lamp and gift enough, because we hear for the first time O’Connor divesting herself of her pride in order to beg like one wounded for a pain to stop—crying out like the Psalmist, like St. Augustine. Yet she is also committing to paper a moment of intimate communion with God. The journal is full of this ache and this willingness to give and receive love, and so reveals to us that she was finally and fully human. She declares that she has wants and hopes. And she is anxious for them to be fulfilled. By the time we get to the letters, which begin in 1948, after she left Iowa, all of that fear and trembling has been packed away, and her voice has settled into an ironic drawl, which, given her talent for cartooning, might have been another such comic distortion—and a formidable, almost papal authority. So it is a shock to find her, at the end of one prayer, at the end of her rope, sending up an exasperated “Can’t anyone teach me how to pray?” in a plea for lessons.
In the letters she spoke with exasperation, bemusement, and revulsion at the imprudent bursting forth of emotion. “We don’t believe that grace is something you have to feel,” she scolds a professor friend. “The Catholic always distrusts his emotional reaction to the sacraments.” She wanted to avoid emotion, because it could not be trusted; its sentimental vapors would asphyxiate you, preventing you from being awake to the world as it was. For O’Connor, emotion was a wily, writhing snake that could tempt you away from reason, and reason, for her, was God’s staff bringing her back into the fold. Yet she hated psychology and its rationalizations, which could tempt those who had a wish to believe to see it as a compensation.
In the journal, while she asks God to defend her from the “intellectual quackery” that would suggest she has “invented my faith to satisfy my weakness,” she doesn’t want to defend herself from emotion. She sounds as if she knows that while pride may be one of her greatest sins, an essential coldness may be another. “Intellectually I assent: let us adore God,” she says. “But can we do that without feeling? To feel, we must know.” She continues: “Give me the grace, dear God, to adore You for even this I cannot do for myself. Give me the grace to adore You with the excitement of the old priests when they sacrificed a lamb to You.” Months later, in September 1947, she returns to this request. “I don’t want to be doomed to mediocrity in my feeling for Christ. I want to feel. I want to love.” The next day, she writes:
It is easy for this writing to show a want. There is a want but it is abstract and cold, a dead want that goes well into writing because writing is dead. Writing is dead. Art is dead, dead by nature, not killed by unkindness. I bring my dead want into the place the dead place it shows up most easily, into writing. This has its purpose if by God’s grace it will wake another soul; but it does me no good.
On September 25, the next-to-last entry, what is perhaps the most astonishing confession in the journal appears. “Oh Lord, I am saying, at present I am a cheese, make me a mystic, immediately.” A wanton apostrophe that is inimitably O’Connor even as it upends our notions of her: She insists on the concrete, insists on an unforgettable, ridiculous image, insists on a joke, as she simultaneously insists on being visited by bliss. She allows her soul to unfurl like a banner rippling with hubris and humility before its creator. “You are all it does want, and it 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.”
This may be the only love letter extant in her hand, unless Sessions or someone else disinters another. As if overcome by failure or shame, the next day she backs away from what she’s written. “And the feeling I egg up writing here lasts approximately a half hour and seems a sham,” she writes, as her penmanship, which for nearly the entire journal sails on round and sure and slightly slanted to the right as if cutting placidly through seas, here hurries and cramps up, looking a little agitated, to fill the last few inches of the page. “I don’t want any of this artificial superficial feeling stimulated by the choir. Today I have proved myself a glutton—for Scotch oatmeal cookies and erotic thought. There is nothing left to say of me.”
And then the journal stops. Perhaps because she felt that what she had written was nothing more than a performance. Did she feel that she was disingenuous when she described herself as a moth? Maybe she did, and maybe she was, just a little. (Not as much as when she describes herself as a cheese, because an immutable clotted brick is a more suitable metaphor for the stubborn, lazy soul she says she is.) But a moth—flickering, insubstantial—does not know what it is about. And a moth who would be king—while a tantalizing glimpse of what else she might have written if only, it’s the kind of tenderness Gerard Manley Hopkins bestowed on God’s creation, and she may have thought it was a little too poetic for her. Too much like someone else’s finery.
But these prayers never read like performance, and they are utterly her own. No one else could have written them. “I doubtless hate pious language worse than you because I believe the realities it hides,” she once said in a letter. Those who believe as she did will say a prayer of thanksgiving for the discovery of this book, in which we see a young woman girded with immodest confidence and impatience asking if she can hold on to her backbone and intelligence while she seeks “to get down under things and find where You are.” That is an image—a woman seeking nothing less than the absolute, standing toe-to-toe with God when she is not on her knees in front of him—that is still scarce outside of medieval text and art. How many people might still believe if they had been shown a God who was a collaborator, as she seems to conceive of him, rather than a censor of the lives we hope to create?
And her bold dictation of terms still stuns, for the kind of Christianity that has defined American religious and political life for the last three decades teaches a death to self that gives birth to a joyless fear.
It is that joyless fear, that loss of “appetite,” as she calls it, that O’Connor wanted to be on guard against. “Please help me to know the will of my Father—not a scrupulous nervousness nor yet a lax presumption but a clear, reasonable knowledge,” she writes. In other words: Even as I ask to seek you, only you, please protect me from becoming a hysteric. And follows that up with: “But I do not mean to be clever although I do mean to be clever on 2nd thought and like to be clever & want to be considered so. But the point more specifically here is, I don’t want to fear to be out, I want to love to be in; I don’t want to believe in hell but in heaven… . Help me to feel that I will give up every earthly thing for this. I do not mean becoming a nun.”
In 1960, writing to Andrew Lytle, who had published her in the Sewanee Review, O’Connor said that she thought she’d eventually have to stop rendering the deliverance of God’s grace as an apocalypse. “I have got to the point now where I keep thinking more and more about the presentation of love and charity, or better call it grace, as love suggests tenderness, whereas grace can be violent or would have to be to compete with the kind of evil I can make concrete,” she writes to him. “At the same time, I keep seeing Elias in that cave, waiting to hear the voice of the Lord in the thunder and lightning and wind, and only hearing it finally in the gentle breeze, and I feel I’ll have to be able to do that sooner or later, or anyway keep trying… .”
In light of that statement, the journal can seem like a sketchbook of early abandoned attempts to converse with and then capture on paper the sound of that gentle breeze. In Iowa she might have been seeking the love that is tenderness while waiting in a cave of her own—typing away on the dark freezing plains, her artistry as yet unknown, at odds with what Søren Kierkegaard called the present age. And it might have been that the diagnosis of lupus at twenty-six, which sent her back home to her mother in Milledgeville, Georgia, looked to her like an affliction sent from God to cure her of pride, and robbed that girl of whatever capacity she had to expect or articulate tenderness. Back to that line in the journal: “Art is dead, dead by nature, not killed by unkindness.” If the writer of the journal is not just performing desire, what unkindnesses eventually killed the yearning that runs through it? Or did she tear the yearning out of herself the way she tore out pages of the journal that displeased her? Either way the tragedy here is not, perhaps, what love O’Connor might have lost to fate but instead what faith she lost in her own ability to render God’s grace as anything other than violent. How much more of that beautiful moon could she have made us see? The loss may also be ours.