Nov 6, 2023

Flannery O’Connor


Emory University in Atlanta purchased and made public in 2014 the personal letters, private journals and literary drafts belonging to writer Flannery O’Connor (1925-1964). It was enough to fill 30 boxes. One researcher said the disclosure would open new territory. Boy, did it! Two new horizons were laid bare to O’Connor’s readers. First, her views on race were confusing and troubling. Private letters to a friend in NYC reveal the use of racial slights and stereotypes. The controversy went public in an article published in the New Yorker with the provocative title, “How Racist Was Flannery O’Connor?” Loyola University in Baltimore removed her name from a dormitory in response to the adverse publicity. A group of sympathetic writers and readers rushed to her defense, referencing her evolution over time in writing about race. Second, her perspective of Christian faith was striking and insightful. A prayer journal O’Connor kept was also found among her papers. She wrote this prayer diary while attending a writer’s workshop in Iowa. Although she had just turned 21, her prayers displayed remarkable depth as she wrestled with issues related to God, self and her writing. There was urgency in her prayers as she contemplated a looming diagnosis of lupus, threatening to cut short her life (which it did). What are we to make of these new revelations? News flash–Flannery O’Connor is both flawed and virtuous. While we don’t excuse her failings, we also exercise restraint in condemning someone who is not around to represent herself.  Let’s just say, it’s complicated. Let her prayer from her journal lead us into God’s presence:

Dear God, I cannot love Thee the way I want to. You are the slim crescent of a moon that I see and myself 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 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. I do not know you. God, because I am in the way. Please help me to push myself aside. 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…

Rev. Dr. Peter James served 42 years as the senior of Vienna Presbyterian Church in Vienna, VA — 21 years in the 20th century and 21 years in the 21st century. He retired in 2021 and now serves as Pastor-in-Residence at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary.

Even as a pastor, prayer came slowly to Pete. Read Pete’s story.