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Wise Blood: Heather King on Prayer and the Interior Life

Javier D
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Sometimes we have to say “no” to good things so we can receive great things.

One of the biggest misconceptions we have about God is that He wants us to do the grim, hard thing. No. God wants us to do the thing that will make us happy, joyous, and free.

That’s one reason I wanted to tell my story before launching full-bore into a column on the interior life. Because giving up the security of my job as a lawyer to embark on the precarious life of a creative writer was the point at which, for me, the shift began. That’s when I stopped doing the grim, hard thing and began doing the thing that would make me happy, joyous, and free.  

I think we all have a sense of mission; we sense that we were put here to complete some task that no-one else could. When I got sober in 1987, I began to ask what that might be. I began to look for a companion. (Interestingly, in light of the Eucharist, the word companion comes from the Latin cum pane: "with bread)."

I always wanted to be a writer. Writing had been the secret call of my heart since I’d first learned to read. I couldn’t get to it till I was over 40, partly because of my drinking, partly out of terror. I viewed writers as akin to gods. In fact, the crisis of meaning that brought me to the Church was also a crisis of vocation. I quit my job as a Beverly Hills lawyer, started to write, and became a Catholic almost at the same time.

“What is God’s will?” we ask. We search for a sign. In my experience, we are often given a sign. When we have the courage and the perseverance and the willingness to suffer; when we pursue what we know deep in our hearts is our vocation, our passion—we will feel a response. That response is one way of describing what happens in prayer.

The response doesn’t necessarily translate into money, notice, and acclaim. It might, but it doesn’t necessarily. Look at van Gogh, who was penniless his whole life. Look at Christ, on Good Friday.

The response usually vastly re-forms our notion of “happiness.” My ideal day used to consist of getting up, pouring a slug of rotgut vodka, and lighting a cigarette. I’m a New Englander and even then was an early riser. Now, however, my ideal day consists of getting up around 6, sitting with my coffee for an hour or so meditating, praying, pondering, as I call it. I pray Morning Prayer from the Divine Office and read that day’s liturgy. Then I just sit, in silence, with my incense and my Lux Perpetua candle, which is made in Mexico from a wax that smells faintly of motor oil and wrapped in oiled brown paper printed with an old-school, very distressed-looking Virgin Mary, supplicating heaven. This sets just the right mood.  

Sometimes I’m joyful and excited and other times I’m distracted, anxious, harried, obsessed, or exhausted. Still,  there’s a certain state I can sometimes access, or to which I’m given access, where—connections reveal themselves, is maybe the best way I can put it.

After that, three or four uninterrupted hours in which to write is, to me, heaven. Not that it happens every day, especially the uninterrupted part. But through a combination of drivenness, guilt, and the fact that I would always rather be writing than anything else on earth, I usually get to my desk, even if it’s only for an hour, every day. Just as my period of prayer in the morning prepares me for a whole day of prayer, the rest of the day can be “writing,” too, even if I’m not technically writing.

I have a blog to which I devote many hours each week. I write of everyday mysticism, the utter weirdness of the leaf on the sidewalk, the face glimpsed fleetingly through a window, the cadmium red doorframe, my own ongoing triggers, annoyances, blocks, daily traumas, epiphanies, and joys. The link between transcendence and art. I get to showcase everything from Joseph Cornell’s boxes to the poetry of Gerard Manley Hopkins to the prose poems of Portland, Oregon writer Leanne Grabel who wrote a beautiful book called Badgirls about the creative writing class she taught at a juvenile facility.

Everything that happens to me, everything I see, hear, ponder, experience, touch—cooking for friends, trudging to Mass, a road trip to the desert—I can bring to bear on my writing. So in one way my life is very private and in another, I share my life. I try not to propagandize; that is, to idealize or airbrush. I try to refrain from presenting myself either as more than I am or as less than I am.

I just published a book about my bout with cancer back in 2000: my decision to forego chemo and radiation, my deepening conversion and subsequent divorce. My agent has another manuscript called LOADED: The Mystic’s Guide to Recovery from Compulsive Underearning. I come from Yankee, almost pathological “thrift,” so I struggle with the tendency to self-deprive, to live by a scarcity mentality, with the perpetual dilemma of cash flow and the creative life.

As a rule, I don’t watch TV; I read. I am dead set against the idea that in order to evangelize, we’re called to watch what the rest of the world watches, read the same news stories the rest of the world reads, and engage in the same inane arguments the rest of the world engages in. All that does is evangelize me to bad culture. I became a Catholic in order to have more freedom, not less. I am very, very choosy about what I watch, read, look at, and listen to, not because I’m afraid I might be corrupted, but because I don’t want to be bored.

That means I say no to a lot of good things, including good TV. But learning to make boundaries has meant, as Robert Frost described the rules of poetry, “moving easy in harness.” The culture says we can have it all. The saint, as Kierkegaard observed, “wills the one thing.”

Someone once asked if I could have dinner party with anyone in history, who would I invite. One guest list would be St. Francis of Assisi, Kafka, Emily Dickinson, Caryll Houselander, Flannery O’Connor, Janis Joplin, Werner Herzog, Robert Bresson, and Beethoven.

So that’s my story and a bit of my daily life. Next week I want to talk about the very first time I sincerely prayed. Because if I can pray, trust me, anyone can.

Heather King is 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 new About page.

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