Flannery O’Connor’s A Prayer Journal

I don’t go into bookstores as much as I used to.  Blame Amazon.com.  Blame the Kindle.  I don’t know.  I still love a good bookstore, but it’s now an occasional divergence and less of the habit it used to be.  One of the many downsides of less trips to the bookstore is that I sometimes miss truly interesting titles because I did not see an ad online or elsewhere.

I realized that today when I swung into a Barnes & Noble and saw that Flannery O’Connor’s 1946-1947 Prayer Journal has been published.  She was 21 when she began the journal and 22 when she stopped.  She wrote it while a student in Iowa City, studying writing.

I fell in love with the writings of Flannery O’Connor in college and have not ceased returning to them, always with great profit.  She was, in short, a phenomenal writer of short stories.  This little Georgia woman had an enthralling mind, a wonderful gift for crafting memorable and often jarring stories, and a devout Catholic faith.  Now, in this prayer journal, we are privileged to see a further glimpse into her spiritual life. It is brief and can be read in one sitting.  It really should be read.

In many ways, it reads the way you would expect the prayer journal of a young Christian to read.  We find a sense of struggle in these pages:  the struggle of a young woman trying to grow into her faith and trying to hold onto her faith in the face of consistent attacks upon it from within the academy.  She cries out to God numerous times for help.  She wants her faith to be real.  She does not want her faith to be based on fear.  She believes in Hell, and is frightened of it, but she wants to trust in God because she loves Him.

Parts of the journal are surprisingly insightful.  She is keenly aware of the typical psychological characterizations of religious faith and fervor.  Though she feels the force of these arguments, she refuses to believe that what she feels is a mere mental phenomenon.  She also has an amazing grasp of what a lack of faith in God does to human beings and of how we turn to sensuality as a substitute.  These parts of the journal really are impressive.

Many of the prayers are very practical.  She asks God to help her write and write well.  She is aware of her own ego and ambition, but she wants God to help her write for His glory.  She is aware of what she calls her own laziness and asks God to help her overcome this fault.  The final prayer bemoans her fixation on “Scotch oatmeal cookies” and “erotic thought.”

In all, this is a fascinating and encouraging little work.  It shows us the mind of a brilliant young woman who loved God yet was aware of her own struggles in doing so.  I would highly encourage you purchase and read this wonderful little work.  You will not regret it.

Calvin Miller’s The Path of Celtic Prayer: An Ancient Way to Everyday Joy

One of the most inspiring and enjoyable devotional reading experiences I’ve had in a long time is Calvin Miller’s new book, The Path of Celtic Prayer: An Ancient Way to Everyday Joy (a video introduction can be seen here). Celtic spirituality is so faddish and chic that I likely would not have purchased this book had it been written by anybody other than Calvin Miller or a few other authors. Miller is aware of this phenomenon, thus his first sentence: “I am not a groupie. I am not a celebrant of any new form of ‘hula-hoop’ theology” (p.7). And, sure enough, Miller shows that this is true.

The Path of Celtic Prayer is a well-researched and thorough introduction to six kinds of Celtic Prayer: Trinity Prayer, Scripture Prayer, Long, Wandering prayer, Nature Prayer, Lorica Prayer, and Confessional Prayer. In each of the six chapters (each dealing with one of these forms of prayer) Miller gives Celtic examples of these prayers and then shows how that particular form could greatly enrich modern Protestant practices.

One of the strongest chapters, in my opinion, was the first chapter on Trinity prayer. For one thing, I was unaware of the intense Trinitarianism of Celtic prayer. This was encouraging, especially in a day with the Trinity is seen by many to be a theological oddity, some bizarre scholastic holdover that smells a bit of Roman Catholic medievalism. Nothing could be further from the truth, of course. We need the doctrine and reality of the Trinity today as we’ve never needed it before. Miller’s examples are compelling:

Consider this prayer taken from the Black Book of Carmarthen.

I praise the threefold

Trinity as God.

Who is one in three,

A single power in unity

His attributes a single mystery,

One God to praise

Great King I praise you,

Great your glory.

Your praise is true;

I am the one who praises you. (p.40)

This is theological prayer at its greatest. It opens up for us new vistas of prayer, new ways of thinking through and articulating our heart of worship to the living Triune God. And Miller uses this and other examples as a platform on which to chastise our Evangelical shallowness when it comes to thinking in a Trinitarian way:

We generally thank God the Father for the big stuff: sunrise, rainfall and the Rocky Mountains. We are also prone to ask him to protect us from the devastating “acts of God” that mess with our views of his lovingkindness and providential protection. Hurricanes, earthquakes and the like seem to be more the Father’s province, and so we generally talk to him to amend the weather, stop the Asian flu or feed the hordes of starving people.

To Jesus we delegate the personal work of our own affairs. Healing, improving our income, stopping our toothache or giving us our daily bread: these are things that Jesus takes care of. This, we unconsciously assume, is compassionate in our thinking, for it saves God the Father from piddling with our petty needs. We see Jesus as far less austere and far more approachable than the Father. We would never sing What a Friend We Have in God. Jesus is our friend. He takes care of our intimate needs and bears our heavy burdens “upstairs” where the Father can take care of them.

Finally, the Holy Spirit generally gets slighted in our prayers. He’s so invisible that we have no fixed mental image of him, unlike the Father and Son. God, to many, is Grandfather Zeus, powerful and to be feared. He thunders around the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel and keeps a comfortable distance from trembling and weak humans. Jesus is on the wall of the Chapel and a lot closer to the floor, where we live. Even though he is generally friendly with children and widows, he still wears a toga and looks Romanesque.

But what does the Spirit look like? He’s invisible – amorphous and cellophane. He may indwell us, but it rarely occurs to us to pray to him. At best he is just a supporting actor in the divine drama. The Holy Spirit is nice, and sometimes he makes us feel good in church. Be we rarely have conversations with him. Jesus takes care of our personal stuff. God takes care of the Grand Canyon. And the Holy Spirit gets honorable mention at Communion and baptisms (33-34).

This is the kind of thing you’ll find time and again in Miller’s book. In addition to this chapter, I was most challenged by the final chapter on confessional prayer. For example:

We must confess our wretchedness. We are hiding out in Eden with the fruit – half-eaten – still in our hand, and we have been discovered. We look down in shame and suddenly realize that we are exposed, with no place to run and no place to hide. We are, to say the least, wretched. There is no justification for our state. What do we do? It’s too late for paltry excuses. We cannot pass the buck. But as hard as it is, we must confess our willful disobedience to the holy and righteous God.

We must be willing to stand with God and look at ourselves, agree with him that we are naked, and seek the wholeness that prefaces our first step toward union with Christ. In short, when we confess we say, “Lord, this is me, and here’s what I’ve done.” We confess as Patrick did: “Here I am…a sinner.” Sedulus Scotus cried as Patrick cried – in a day far separate from our own.

I read and write and teach, philosophy peruse.

I eat and freely drink, with rhymes invoke the muse,

I call on heaven’s throne both night an day,

Snoring I sleep, and stay awake I pray.

And sin and fault inform each act I plan.

Ah! Christ…pity this miserable man (146-147).

You will not regret buying and reading The Path of Celtic Prayer. If you are like me, you will want to write down some of these prayers to incorporate into your own prayer life (i.e., there are a few morning and evening prayers that are really quite good). What I like about Miller is that he seems to me to stand between sentimental devotionalism on the one hand and dry theology on the other. This is theology as it ought to be written: biblical, thorough, winsome, challenging, and inspirational.