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Wise Blood: Heather King on Prayer and the Interior Life

Wise Blood Heather King on Prayer and the Interior Life MoJoey


Heather King - published on 03/25/14

Don’t try to tame religion: the stakes really are life-or-death.

Since this is a column on the interior life, I’m thinking in the next couple of weeks to tell a bit of my story – because I, for one, like to know something of a person’s exterior life before I hear their take on what’s inside.

I was raised on the coast of New Hampshire and lived for many years in Boston, most of them as a hope-to-die alcoholic. I’m going to have a lot more to say about addiction in general and the phenomenon of recovery in particular. But for now, I’ll say that in 1987, after somehow managing to graduate from law school, I was lucky enough to find a fellowship of fellow alcoholics and addicts to shore me up and guide me. I’ve been sober ever since.

I came to my vocation of writing, and to the Church, through a crisis of meaning. During the early 1990s, I was newly-sober, newly-married, and new to L.A. I was working as a Beverly Hills lawyer. I’d achieved the American Dream, even though my own dream, from the age of six, had been to write.

Very quickly, I began to realize: “This cannot be all there is; I cannot have gotten sober to argue motions for the rest of my life.” I began to ask the deepest questions of our existence: Why am I here? What is my purpose on earth? What is the meaning of suffering? 

I saw that realizing I need to be compassionate and care for the environment and so forth is all very well. The fact is, two seconds after I leave my apartment, I’m at war with every other driver, pedestrian, person, and myself. Left to my own devices, I’m simply incapable of real compassion, real love. I will always look out for myself. I will always grasp, cling, want to manipulate, hoard, possess. I saw I had to die to myself somehow. I’d been raised Protestant but at the time had no use for “organized religion.” If you take those thoughts as far as you can, though, you will inevitably meet Christ. If you hunger and thirst for righteousness, you will eventually run into Christ. I saw if you want to love deeply enough, you will suffer. I saw there is a universe of difference between a cross without a body on it, and a Cross with a Body on it.

So over the course of a few years, I read the Gospels and anything else I could get my hands on, quit my job, and started to write. I came into the Church at almost the same time. After ten years of obscurity and poverty, I published my first book. Parched is about addiction as spiritual thirst. Redeemed is, roughly, about my conversion, and finding my vocation, the agony of quitting my job as a lawyer and at the age of 41, embarking on the precarious life of a writer. Shirt of Flame: A Year with St. Thérèse of Lisieux is an interweaving of the spirituality of Thérèse with my own stumbling path. 2009 was a difficult year for me. Actually, the whole decade was difficult.

As my friend Fr. Richey says, "If you’re really lucky, you’ll give up all hope of being happy in the way you thought you were going to be happy." In a way, I could describe what happened during that year with Thérèse as the death of a certain kind of hope. On the other side of crucifixion, of course, is resurrection – though resurrection, like crucifixion, never looks like we thought it would.

In one way, St. Thérèse and I were the odd couple. I was a middle-aged, divorced convert with a checkered past. Thérèse was a lifelong virgin and cloistered French Carmelite nun who died of tuberculosis in 1897 at the age of 24 crying, "I love Him!" Outwardly, we’d led very different lives, but I was attracted to her Mary Magdalene bleeding heart, which she managed to channel into a white-hot desire to save souls in an outwardly, totally unremarkable way. No one thought there was anything remotely noteworthy about her during her life. That alone is a theme dear to the heart of a writer – or at least,
this writer.

People sometimes ask, “How can you be a Catholic in Los Angeles?” To me, the question betrays a deep misunderstanding of religion in general and Catholicism in particular. Would anyone ask St. Maximilian Kolbe “How could you have been a Catholic in Auschwitz?” The worse the place is, the greater our thirst, the more we’re called to forge our solitary little path, with the Church as our Mother. I, for one, always need to widen my imagination, my vision. L.A. is a stunningly beautiful city. It’s also, or can be, stunningly ugly.  That only makes me embrace it the more. I was confirmed and took my First Communion at the Church of the Blessed Sacrament in Hollywood. I love being a civic booster for L.A. I became a writer in L.A; I came to Christ in L.A.

We try to tame religion, but it is the life-and-death-stakes risk we are called as humans to take. As Carmelite contemplative Ruth Burrows observes, "We must renounce the desire to have a God we can handle. We can be like people at a seaside resort who prefer the man-made swimming pool with its easy temperature, safety, and amenities. After all, it is sea-water! And a little beyond is the open sea, untrammelled, untameable, over which we have not control whatever. But it is to this sea that we must commit ourselves and let ourselves be carried away. It is terrifying, this immense sea that is God."

At the same time, I’m just trying to find a parking spot at Trader Joe’s and affordable health care, like everyone else. I love that as soon as we think we’re becoming "spiritual," life brings us up short. I love that life is both a mystery and a comedy. 

Heather Kingis a Catholic convert, sober alcoholic, and writer whose most recent book is STRIPPED: Cancer, Culture and The Cloud of Unknowing. She speaks nationwide and blogs at Heather King: Mystery, Smarts, Laughs. For more, see her About page.

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