Praying the Divine Office with Flannery O’Connor

For over twenty-five years, my husband and I have prayed morning and evening prayer together. They are the hinges of our day, a metaphor I borrow from the introduction to the prayer book we use: The Liturgy of the Hours, also known in Catholic worship as the Divine Office.

Our pattern is to pray morning prayer right after breakfast (I don’t pray well on an empty stomach), then evening prayer right after dinner. Of course we sometimes have to break the pattern and skip the prayers: if one of us is traveling, or if we have to rush out to a doctor’s appointment after breakfast or an evening event after dinner. But the pattern is followed as much as practicable, and I can’t imagine our lives without it.

Starting and ending the day with praise of God helps put into perspective our current fussing. And there’s nothing so good for a marriage as saying the Lord’s Prayer together twice a day, with its focus on forgiveness.

The Divine Office is an ancient tradition in the Catholic church. I like following a time-honored pattern, and one that is also being followed by people around the world each day. Praying the liturgy of the hours makes me feel part of the body of Christ in a real way.

So I was delighted to discover a new book that connects me through the divine office not only with unnamed believers through time and space but also with a writer whose work I’ve long treasured: Flannery O’Connor.

Paraclete Press has just published The Province of Joy: Praying with Flannery O’Connor, by poet and professor Angela Alaimo O’Donnell. What O’Donnell has done in this book is marvelously creative: she has put together a version of morning and evening prayer that draws specifically on prayers that Flannery prayed, as well as comments about prayer in her letters and passages from her fiction that bear on the prayers of the day. (I’m calling her Flannery in this post to avoid the awkwardness of O’Connor and O’Donnell. And I do feel a first-name intimacy with her.)

Adapting the divine office like this is perfectly acceptable. I’ve adapted it myself over the years, sometimes substituting psalm translations I prefer or scripture readings that are more meaningful to me. O’Donnell has added to each day’s morning prayer a prayer that was Flannery’s favorite, one new to me. It’s the Prayer to St. Raphael.

I find this prayer astoundingly moving, with its opening lines expressing a longing I didn’t know I had, yet certainly do:

O Raphael, lead us toward those we are waiting for,
those who are waiting for us:
Raphael, Angel of happy meeting,
lead us by the hand toward those we are looking for.
May all our movements be guided by your Light
and transfigured with your joy.

I’d never thought that each day we are waiting for the right encounters, for those happy meetings that will somehow bring us closer to God and to one another (whoever that other might turn out to be). Yet surely we are.

When Flannery copied out this prayer for a friend, she added a paraphrase from which O’Donnell takes her book’s title: “The prayer asks St. Raphael to guide us to the province of joy so that we may not be ignorant of the concerns of our true country.”

O’Donnell then reminds us that Flannery wrote this as she neared her death from the debilitating chronic illness of lupus she lived with for many years, writing that:

[She] knew that the ‘true country,’ the proper destination, orientation, and disposition of a believing Christian, is joy.… Prayer, for O’Connor, was a means of moving from the limited place in which she found herself toward the limitless space of joy, a location that can be occupied in the here and now, as well as looked forward to in eternity.

Succumbing too easily to discouragement, as I do, I’m grateful for this reminder that joy is our true home.

And grateful, too, that O’Donnell presents Flannery to us in terms that are especially resonant for the Image community. Flannery O’Connor, she says, “is of particular interest to a growing number of readers who are interested in writers who consciously explore the intersection between art and faith.” This is precisely the intersection where we in the Image community reside.

Then O’Donnell elaborates:

I see in O’Connor an example of a person who has integrated her faith and her art so thoroughly that they have become one practice. In an era wherein such integration is not only rare but is considered by many people in both the secular and sacred realms to be anathema, O’Connor demonstrates that this can be done and done beautifully.

O’Donnell’s book does this beautifully as well. The divine office is already art: it draws on the poetic art of the psalms, and its very structure is an art form that moves us more deeply into the life of Christian faith. Enhancing this structure by incorporating Flannery’s own art, O’Donnell creates a work of art that is a practice of faith.

Peggy Rosenthal is director of Poetry Retreats and writes widely on poetry as a spiritual resource. Her books include Praying through Poetry: Hope for Violent Times (Franciscan Media), and The Poets’ Jesus (Oxford). See Amazon for full list. She also teaches an online course, “Poetry as a Spiritual Practice,” through Image’s Glen Online program.

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  • Love Flannery O’Connor… there aren’t many people who speak truth more beautifully or more deeply than she did.

    • Dustin, I love your phrase for O’Connor: that she “speaks truth beautifully.” Amen.

  • What a beautifully intimate activity you share with your husband!
    O’Donnell is a contributor to TweetSpeakPoetry. It’s always a great pleasure to read her words.

    • How delightful that O’Donnell is on TweetSpeakPoetry. She is a fine poet.
      And yes, praying with my husband has been a blessing. One of the great gifts of my life.

  • As a Protestant, I definitely feel I am missing out on the Catholic practice of the Divine Office. This sounds fascinating. As a big Flannery fan, I will have to check this out. I bought her complete works a few years back but, knowing the limited size of her canon, have refrained from devouring every short story because I still want to discover “new” Flannery over the course of years. He work struck me as so strange and obtuse when I first encountered it, but she is an absolute favorite of mine now. Have you seen John Huston’s film adaptation of “Wise Blood,” Peggy? I really loved it. It’s every bit as oddball as the book, though the signature style of Flannery’s writing is more difficult to detect (outside of dialog) in the film. Worth watching though. Thanks for this, Peggy! And don’t be discouraged. You’re a wonderful writer and, as far as I can tell, a great person as well! 🙂

    • Lots to reply to here, Chad. First, Protestants are “allowed” to pray the Divine Office! It’s basically psalms and Scripture readings, with a place for intercessory prayers. Go for it!
      And yes, I know what you mean about getting into Flannery O’Connor. I had trouble at first, too. But once I started her short stories (which I like better than her novels), I couldn’t stop.
      Finally, nope, haven’t seen that movie but I will get hold of it.

      • Ha! 🙂 I didn’t mean Protestants weren’t “allowed” to pray the Divine Office. Like Lent, it’s just something I did not grow up with in the church. I started participating in my current church’s Lenten celebration last year, and found it meaningful. To pray the Divine Office, it would be a practice I would need to “pick up.” 🙂

        Do you have a favorite Flannery story?

        Have you heard this recently unearthed audio of Flannery reading “A Good Man is Hard to Find” aloud? 🙂

        • I was just teasing you when I said “allowed.”
          Hmm… favorite Flannery story. I think it would be “The Enduring Chill”–because I share the main character’s sin of self-righteousness. But I also love “The Comforts of Home,” “Everything That Rises Must Converge” and “Revelation.” Of course they’re all scary: I mean, there’s always a main character possessed by a certain sin (Flannery wrote in one of her letters that she modeled her characters on different aspects of herself, with her “garden variety” of sins), and the story ends with that character getting walloped by the Holy Spirit in some way.
          Thanks for the link to her reading that powerful story; I’m going right to it now.

          • Peggy,

            As the kids these days would say, you “straight up killed it” on the shares and comments today. 🙂 Good job!

            *High five!*

            – CTJ

  • Brad

    So glad and encouraged to read this, Peggy, as I recently started a similar practice with the “Daily Devotions for Individuals and Families” from the Book of Common Prayer: a set of four devotions (more abbreviated than Morning and Evening Prayer) at the start of day, noon, late day/early evening, and the close of day. The rhythm and consistency has felt quite restorative, and your practice of 25 years gives me encouragement to stick with it!

    • Beautiful, Brad! And don’t worry if you find you need to skip a devotion from time to time… it’s the overall intention and experience that matters. It truly does make the whole day “sacred” when you pause at regular times to pray.

  • Peggy m

    Thank you for this lovely combination of the Divine Office and Flannery O’Connor. I just started praying the Office myself, as I am considering becoming a Benedictine oblate. it is good to participate in such an ancient practice, and to know that others are praying along with me—a huge congregation spread over time and space. BTW, I know that some non-Catholics are Benedictine oblates and they also pray the Divine Office. I was surprised and glad to learn that they wanted to take part.

    • Peggy, I love the way you put it: praying with “a huge congregation spread over time and space.” I feel the same way, gratefully.

  • I just wrote about my morning prayer practice: It is such an important part of the day.

    I have not read nearly enough Flannery, but recently added a number of her books to my Amazon wishlist. A few months ago, I discovered John Huston’s film adaptation of Wise Blood, which I read (and barely understood) about a decade a go. I’ll think I’ll reread it, then see the movie.

    Thank you for writing about The Province of Joy, Peggy. It’s another book for the wishlist. Have you ever read Madeleine L’Engle’s Walking on Water: Reflections on Faith and Art? If not, I highly recommend it.

    • Cheryl, thanks for your comments. I just read your post; I agree that Magnificat is a fine prayer resource. I too love following the liturgical seasons.
      And yes, I’ve read the L’Engle book you mention. It is rich and wise and deeply helpful.

  • Hi Peggy,
    Great post, both as to the Divine Office as well as to the Flannery aspect. If you love the liturgical hours, you might like to visit my blog, which is sort of a lay fan blog for the Divine Office.