#3: Flannery O'Connor and Discernment

#3: Flannery O’Connor and Discernment


7 March, 2018

Being at divinity school has made my ambitions easy to articulate: I've always known that I was called to be a writer, I'm having trouble discerning what that looks like professionally. 

Discernment is a big word around here. Folks are in the middle of discerning a call to ministry, discernment is an uphill battle. I like the idea, like there's some plan laid out for your #1 Most Optimal Life and it's your job to find the edges of it, and once you do, everything will Make Sense, your cosmic life plan will all come together, and you'll understand your position in the universe.

I've always been slightly jealous of those folks that just seem to know things about themselves, that look, at least from the outside, that their lives have been pulled together through sheer force of will and imagination. For a calling, writing has a surprising amount of ambiguity built into it: am I meant to get a PhD? Should I be working as low-impact a day job as possible and scribbling late into the night? Do I start piecing out a writing career online and hope someone gives me a book deal? Do I just....start...writing a book? What on? Do I want to teach? How do I get there? Should I be writing more now? Pitching more? I feel like I'm at the point where its time to start bending my life to my will, the Magician and the King of Wands keep popping up in my tarot readings, I'm feeling restless and like I've yet to start doing anything. Hence, discernment. 

So I'm clearly in the middle of one of those Esther-Greenwood-in-the-plum-tree phases at the moment, and it is honestly exhausting and not-so-fun, but what's been bringing a sense of solace is Flannery O'Connor's prayer journal. Flannery literally begs to be made a mystic, to be made a great writer:

"Oh Lord, I am saying, at present, I am a cheese, make me a mystic, immediately. But then God can do that—make mystics out of cheeses."

"Please help me, dear God, to be a good writer, and to get something else accepted."

The journal is written while she was at Iowa, before she got published, before she got lupus, before so many of the things that would make her Flannery O'Connor, Writer. I love her because she asks not just from some illumination, but for visions and flames, because she asks not only for talent, but for publication, an amount of acclaim.

And the great thing is that we, some half a century later, get to know this about Flannery O'Connor, that she got more than some thing else accepted, that she turned her life into something that this woman writing in her prayer journal on the eve of it all would have been thrilled at. We get to know that she imagined characters deformed by their love for God, that got painful, violent grace and transformation. We even get to know things Flannery herself never did: the posthumous National Book Award, the postage stamps, the commemorative editions.

But still, the journal insists on Flannery O'Connor as a 20 year old, on the kind of loneliness only available in dorm rooms or boarding houses, on the absolute bewilderment. We have this: 

"Perhaps the feeling I keep asking for is something again, selfish—something to help me feel that everything with me is alright." 

know this feeling, try to create it for myself all the time, remind myself that for all things there is a season, and this is mine for struggling through interpretations of Paul and Spanish translation exercises. I also know that it never feels like I'm doing the right thing, that through sheer longing I might be able to catapult myself into an affirmation of my life so far. 

I'm not sure how to write about this totally basic disorientation while I'm in the middle of it, can barely do the simple act of pointing at it and calling it by name: I am a writer by calling, everything else is a mystery. Flannery's assurance in the same things helps, the knowledge that the details worked out, but not as she expected them to. I also find something absolutely beautiful in declaring intentions like this, in asking for things by their name, in spelling yourself out letter by letter before God. 

God, make me a writer, immediately. God, help me lean into the mystery.