Only God is an Atheist, Part 2

It was not out of sheer flattery that Thomas Merton compared Flannery O’Connor to Sophocles, for the things at which she stared were the very pulp and pith of humanity. Her ability to express metaphysical profundities through her native vernacular is nearly as impressive as the profundities themselves. For it is one thing to express sadness with the objective correlative of a weeping violet; it is another to express the Noumenon by way of a folksy, backwoods serial killer.

In yesterday’s post, I commented on the young O’Connor’s journal to God, published in the September 16, 2013 edition of The New Yorker, insofar as it concerned her prayers about writing. Today, I’ll comment on some other aspects of the journal.

On Prayer:

Permeating both O’Connor’s correspondence and this journal is a candor about her spiritual limitations. Her thoughts about the four aspects of prayer reveal an undeveloped soul that she seeks to mature, but finds herself incapable of achieving:

Prayers should be composed I understand of adoration, contrition, thanksgiving, and supplication…. It is the adoration of You, dear God, that most dismays me. I cannot comprehend the exaltation that must be due You.

She worries that her assent to adore is only intellectual, a dispassionate fiat. God must even provide the grace to adore him, she acknowledges, mystified. Still, if that is the way it must be, she asks:

Give me the grace to adore You with the excitement of the old priests when they sacrificed a lamb to You. Give me the grace to adore You with the awe that fills Your priests when they sacrifice the Lamb on our altars.

However close she came to that attitude, none can doubt the transfixion of the protagonists in Parker’s Back, The Artificial Nigger, and Wise Blood, all of whom exalt their God with scorched eyes.

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Only God is an Atheist, Part 1

When she was twenty-one years old, far from home and as yet uncelebrated, Flannery O’Connor began keeping a journal to God. For the many who were moved by reading her correspondence with friends and admirers—a correspondence collected in The Habit of Being—the first publication of O’Connor’s journal in the September 16, 2013 edition of The New Yorker is a chance to revisit the workings of her mind.

Much will seem familiar. Always a seeker of knowledge, she nevertheless exhibits her characteristic wry wit regarding the limits of such pursuits: No one can be an atheist who does not know all things, she says. Only God is an atheist. The devil is the greatest believer & he has his reasons.

But much will also seem new. In the journal, the young writer speaks to God in direct address. And unlike the letters, which were always meant for at least some type of public audience—if only that of the addressee—the journal was likely never meant to be seen. As such, the candor found there unveils a raw, youthful side to the otherwise tough, wise-cracking, and often cocky, O’Connor—a side that to my knowledge was seldom shown in her correspondence.

In the balance of this two-part post, I will comment on some of the passages that are particularly striking, arranged by topic. Today, I will focus on her prayers about writing.

With only one story accepted at the time of her journal (1946), O’Connor displays both zeal and anxiety about her vocation:

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 right way. Let me henceforth ask You with resignation—that not being or meant to be a slacking up in prayer but a less frenzied kind, realizing that the frenzy is caused by an eagerness for what I want and not a spiritual trust. I do not wish to presume. I want to love.

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