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Heather King’s ‘Holy Desperation’

heatherking.com | Loyola Press
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In her 11th book, the relentlessly honest and passionate writer talks about praying as if one's life depends upon it.

Heather King knows all about praying as if her life depended on it, because her life literally did. After spending 20 solid years in what she calls “a twilight-zone alcoholic haze,” King’s knees finally hit the ground in desperation after a moment of “clarity” during which she realized she had to give up the drink or die.

I was strung out and half-drunk, and I had a cigarette in my hand.  I was thirty-four and it was the first time in my life I had ever sincerely prayed.

 That desperate prayer over 30 years ago got King sober, and the prayers she’s prayed ever since have converted her, healed her and awakened her to God and to life—a story she tells in her 11th book, Holy Desperation: Praying As If Your Life Depends On It.

King’s jagged journey eventually led her into the Catholic Church, where she now spends her days as a “contemplative laywoman” and a writer—with the passion that’s consumed her ever since she “woke up” from a “semicomatose haze of loneliness, depression, self-pity, neurotically self-centered fear, and paralysis.”

King doesn’t hold back, whether it comes to sharing her struggles or her love of the Catholic Church:

One thing I love about the Catholic Church is that it attracts nutcases. Otherwise, how could there be a place for me? 

I love it all: Mass, the angels and saints, holy days, incense, candles, bloody statues, relics, pilgrimages.  I especially love that miracles—and the “simple,” “deluded” people who claim to have experienced them—tend to drive nonbelievers mad.

Aside from the radical honesty and profound wisdom with which Holy Desperation is filled, this book is a must read for the sheer joy of savoring King’s prose, which offers a thoroughly relevant, fresh presentation of the Gospel that is both humorous and theologically astute. King writes:

I used to think I was open-minded because I’d invite the cabdriver upstairs. No, no, that’s not open-mindedness. That’s promiscuity. That’s looseness.

The open-mindedness, honesty, and willingness required in our quest for God seem to involve an imagination that’s willing to catch fire: a capacity to be moved, to be touched, to have a sense of humor about ourselves, a taste for the wild-card surprise; and a profound awareness of our vulnerability, brokenness, and need.

Beyond King’s clarity and honesty, Holy Desperation is a deep tome on prayer, conversion and inner transformation.  So much so that I’d say it’s the most challenging, daring articulation of the Gospel I have read in a long time.  In fact, I found myself stopping to pray and reflect on practically every page as I was prompted to take a personal inventory of my own willingness to let God love me, transform me, and use me as his instrument to love and serve others. King’s book drove me not just to prayer but to change, which she proposes should be a major fruit of a relationship with Christ and a life of prayer. As King puts it:

We’ll come to agree with the Church’s teachings, including those on the family, abortion, euthanasia, capital punishment, capitalism, usury, war, and violence of all kinds.  We won’t arbitrarily pluck out one or two isolated issues that happen to be easy for us to follow and ignore the many teachings we’d rather not look at too closely because they might require the very kind of radical change we so vociferously demand of others.

With utter orthodoxy and blistering accuracy—and without being the least bit preachy—King names and critiques many of the idols we must confront and stare down in ourselves and in the culture if we are to become more Christ-like. Her point is that prayer is meant to equip us to do just that: by giving us hearts that more readily seek God, eyes that more easily see God, hands that more willingly share God and the humility to openly admit that we’ll never really “get” God. As the contemplative writer observes, “Prayer doesn’t make us more excellent. If we’re lucky, prayer makes us more human.”

Amen, Heather King.  And thanks for not only a great read, but for a beautiful, timely and sorely needed enunciation of the central truths of our faith.

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