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A balance of art and faith

Young Flannery O'Connor's craft evident in writings to God.

By Flannery O'Connor

Farrar, Straus and Giroux. 112 pp. $18

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Reviewed by Kevin Begos

Flannery O'Connor's

A Prayer Journal

is a moving glimpse of a young writer seeking to balance her art with her faith.

In 1946, O'Connor began writing the prayers in a common black-and-white schoolbook, when she was 21 and studying in Iowa. At the time, she was just beginning to perfect her craft, but the journal shows the same sense of humor, tragedy, and suffering that distinguished her later American masterpieces, such as the novels Wise Blood and The Violent Bear it Away and the story "A Good Man is Hard to Find."

In real life, O'Connor could mix a polite, reserved Southern demeanor with almost brutal frankness, and the entries that begin with "Dear God" are no different.

"Hell seems a great deal more feasible to my weak mind than heaven," she writes in one. "I can fancy the tortures of the damned, but I cannot imagine the disembodied souls hanging in a crystal for all eternity praising God. It is natural that I should not imagine this. If we could accurately map heaven, some of our up-&-coming scientists would begin drawing blueprints for its improvement, and the bourgeois would sell guides 10c the copy to all over 65."

But O'Connor is hard on herself, too - as a person and as an artist. Reflecting on her lack of charity to another writer, she laments her own failings. "I have nothing to be proud of yet myself. I am stupid, quite as stupid as the people I ridicule."

Readers from all walks of life may appreciate the mixture of faith, self-doubt, determination, and resignation that runs through A Prayer Journal, but book-lovers will be pleased to note she presumes God is quite well-read.

Various passages mention Coleridge, Kafka, Proust, Freud, and Lawrence, and at times, O'Connor seems to be seeking a patron saint of literature.

"Please let the story, dear God, in its revisions, be made too clear for any false & low interpretation," she writes in one prayer, and in another, gives voice to a feeling that every writer in the world can relate to. "Dear God, I am so discouraged about my work."

Like Andy Warhol, O'Connor was a devout Catholic, and she tried to attend Mass every day. "God has given me credit for a few of the things He kindly wrote for me," she says, and concludes another entry with, "Dear God please help me to be an artist, please let it lead to You."

For O'Connor, like some characters in her books, faith played out as a fierce battle between the realities of an unjust world and the absolute belief that there was more to life.

In one prayer, she muses that "perhaps the idea would be that good can show through even something that is cheap," and in another, she calmly notes that everything has a spiritual price. "The intellectual & artistic delights God gives us are visions & like visions we pay for them."

O'Connor stopped writing the journal in 1947, and she died of lupus in 1964. A Prayer Journal is a slim book but a powerful one, since even at this young age, O'Connor was writing sentences that startle with their clarity.

"Can't anyone teach me how to pray?" reads one entry, and in that regard O'Connor needn't have worried.

She prayed as well as she wrote.