Friday, November 15, 2013

The Prayer Journals of Flannery O'Connor

I've been listening to a great episode of NPR's On Point, an episode where several scholars talk with the host about the just published prayer journal of Flannery O'Connor.

Let me be the first to admit that I am not an unbiased listener.  If I had to make a list of the most important U.S. writers, male or female, Flannery O'Connor would be in the top 5.  She would be #1 on my list of the best short story writers.  The theology in her short stories takes my breath away.  Oh, what am I saying?  Every aspect of O'Connor's short stories takes my breath away.

And now, a prayer journal.  It's from her much younger years.  I'd love to have her journals of her later years, but she stopped keeping a journal when she started publishing.

Her prayers will not be unfamiliar to many of us:  she prays/pleads for greatness as a writer.  But one of the guests seems to say that she also writes about the process of prayer.  For example, when she is thinking about pigeon eggs and floor wax, a prayer will come to her.  Ah, prayer in the midst of the dailyness.

There are also prayers when she feels far away from God, where she "proves herself a glutton for Scotch oatmeal cookies and erotic thought" (the quote is from the prayer journal).  Who cannot relate? 

There's much discussion of how to be a good Christian and how to be a good artist.  In the prayer journals, apparently, O'Connor was conflicted.  Her friend and editor of the journals notes that she resolves this issue when someone tells her that she can be the best Catholic she can be by being the best artist she can be. 

A caller to the show wondered why artists worry so much about their artistic calling offending God.  You don't see this kind of wrestling in the journals of chemists or engineers, he pointed out.

I suppose that most of us don't run the risk of offending God by the work we do.  Perhaps we see the same kind of wrestling in the journals of the men who made the first atom bomb.  It's been decades since I read the journals and letters of those scientists, but I do seem to remember the presence of some spiritual distress.

I see the same kind of distress in the lives of some of my writer friends.  I have a Hindu friend who has just received a contract; she will write short stories that bring the lives of gods to fleshly life.  She feels struck by fear.  It's less a fear about offending the gods than offending readers.

Some of my other writer friends don't understand, but I do.  I've felt the same kind of fear with my poems that imagine Jesus living amongst us in our modern lives.  What would my grandmother say about my poem where I invite Jesus over to dinner, after seeing him at the bowling alley?

My grandmother loved the poem, and it's been one of the most popular ones I've written.  I've had strangers write to thank me for showing them a picture of Jesus that makes him seem accessible.  That makes me happy.

I love this idea, that we best glorify God by being the most authentic version of ourselves.  I'm looking forward to reading Flannery O'Connor's prayer journal.  And for those of you who haven't read my poem, here it is again for your reading pleasure, my poem "Heaven on Earth." It first appeared in Coal City Review, and I included it in my first chapbook, Whistling Past the Graveyard.

Heaven on Earth

I saw Jesus at the bowling alley,
slinging nothing but gutter balls.
He said, “You’ve gotta love a hobby
that allows ugly shoes.”
He lit a cigarette and bought me a beer.
So I invited him to dinner.

I knew the Lord couldn’t see my house
in its current condition, so I gave it an out
of season spring cleaning. What to serve
for dinner? Fish—the logical
choice, but after 2000 years, he must grow weary
of everyone’s favorite seafood dishes.
I thought of my Granny’s ham with Coca Cola
glaze, but you can’t serve that to a Jewish
boy. Likewise pizza—all my favorite
toppings involve pork.

In the end, I made us an all-dessert buffet.
We played Scrabble and Uno and Yahtzee
and listened to Bill Monroe.
Jesus has a healthy appetite for sweets,
I’m happy to report. He told strange
stories which I’ve puzzled over for days now.

We’ve got an appointment for golf on Wednesday.
Ordinarily I don’t play, and certainly not in this humidity.
But the Lord says he knows a grand miniature
golf course with fiberglass mermaids and working windmills
and the best homemade ice cream you ever tasted.
Sounds like Heaven to me.

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