The summer after freshman year was when I started to write with any regularity. Mind you, a writer of any amount of discipline would laugh at what I here refer to as “regular”—outside of journaling I write once a week at most, even less frequently at college—but I stand by my word choice. I think that the increase in output can be chalked up to a serious increase of feelings. For people who try their hands at anything creative, feelings, like yogurt, can produce movement and… regularity.
Around this same time the way I pray changed. I began to pray that God would use me—a fairly open-ended prayer that always feels like a cop out until I remember the opening line of the Prayer of St. Francis: “Lord, make me an instrument of Thy peace.” Petitioning God with specific requests is something that I still do, but less frequently. Part of this is has been realizing that, in many times and places, I am unable to see clearly enough to find an outcome worth praying for. So, Thy will be done—in the world, in this city, in my life, and in my writing.
Flannery O’Connor’s prayer journal was recently published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux. It contains her prayers from January 1946 to September 1947, when she was twenty and twenty-one years old, attending writing workshops in Iowa City. Only a few pages in, the prayers are earnest, clunky, and occasionally luminescent. The passage quoted on the back is also from the prayer most frequently quoted in any of the recent writing I’ve seen pertaining to the slim volume.
Dear God, I cannot love Thee the way I want to. You are the slim crescent of a moon that I see and my self 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 am 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. (3)
The second half of the book is a full facsimile of her journal. Her handwriting is slow and intentional, with only a handful of crossed out words to be found in the lined pages of the marbled composition book.
In two of her prayers, on adjacent pages, O’Connor talks about her writing progress or lack thereof. The first begins, “Dear God, I am so discouraged about my work. I have the feeling of discouragement that is. I realize I don’t know what I realize. Please help me dear God to be a good writer and to get something else accepted” (54). In the next prayer she writes, “Dear God, tonight it is not disappointing because you have given me a story” (55). Without dating either of them, the close succession of these prayers gives the appearance of an immediate change of circumstances. One of the benefits of keeping a journal, for prayer or otherwise, is the perspective they allow, short and longterm.
The next sentence of the second of the two prayers: “Don’t let me ever think, dear God, that I was anything but the instrument for Your story—just like the typewriter was mine” (55-56).
This line—like so many other things—called to mind a song by Leonard Cohen, “Going Home.” It is a song that I listen to on every plane ride back to Caledonia, Michigan. Like several songs on Old Ideas, “Going Home” is in part about submission to the divine. It goes as follows:
I love to speak with Leonard
He’s a sportsman and shepherd
He’s a lazy bastard
Living in a suit
But he does say what I tell him
Even though it isn’t welcome
He just doesn’t have the freedom
He will speak these words of wisdom
Like a sage, a man of vision
Though he knows he’s really nothing
But the brief elaboration of a tube
Going home without my sorrow
Going home sometime tomorrow
Going home to where it’s better than before
Going home without my burden
Going home behind the curtain
Going home without the costume that I wore
He wants to write a love song
An anthem of forgiving
A manual for living
A cry above the suffering
A sacrifice recovering
But that isn’t what I need him
I want him to be certain
That he doesn’t have a burden
That he doesn’t need a vision
That he only has permission
To do my instant bidding
Which is to say what I have told him
[chorus; chorus; verse 1 a]
Coming from anyone else’s mouth, the first verse might sound a little arrogant. While it is no where near Kanye status, Cohen does imply that he is a mouthpiece of God. After decades of writing songs, psalms, poems, and novels, he has come to understand his role as an artist to be a speaker of divine truth. The Leonard of the song is lazy and reluctant, but in the end, obedient to the directions God gives—directions Cohen describes in the negative: “that isn’t what I need him / to complete.” Opening yourself to be an instrument of the divine story is to be freed from the pressure of your own burdens and contrivances of vision. I think this is the hope of any writer of faith. Lord, make me an instrument of thy peace.