Author mines the deepest truth of our faith

By 
  • November 29, 2011

The world has few writers with the fervour to publicly trash the  covers of their own books. The world has even fewer writers like Heather King.

For that reason alone, King’s newly released Shirt of Flame: A Year With Saint Thérèse of Lisieux is the one book I’ve read this year that I would suggest as a guidebook for the pilgrimage of ordinary life.

If I were looking to provide a courageous, comprehensive book of apologetics, of course, I would recommend colleague and friend Michael Coren’s Why Catholics Are Right. Anyone who at any time has felt the need to understand, answer for and defend the Church needs to read Coren’s book and have it ready on the bookshelf.

Shirt of Flame, by contrast, does not go bravely to the side of the Church, as Coren’s does. It goes, rather, to the “heart nailed to a Cross” that is the deepest truth of Catholic faith.

It goes there despite King’s own freely confessed misgivings about her ability to even write the book, and her discomfort with what her publisher ultimately chose as a representative cover image.

“I… had a huge conflict over the cover, which I find intensely incongruent with my own sensibility, and especially with the sensibility and spirituality of St. Thérèse,” she recently told the U.S. quarterly magazine Dappled Things.

“It’s a chicklit, pastel cover, designed to be bland and non-threatening, the only redeeming feature of which is that it is slightly — but only slightly — less offensive than the one originally proposed, which was a la-la-la New Age girl in a swirly dress floating through an acid-green, flower-strewn pasture. That kind of Disney Christ cover says nothing that can be argued with and also nothing that’s remotely truthful, compelling, interesting, challenging, original or real. Spirituality to me is blood, sinew, tendon, a heart nailed to a cross.”

The passage is worth quoting at length because it expresses exactly the kind of drive and directness to faith that fills the Shirt of Flame. It also helps to explain why King quickly dispenses with the publisher’s trite “my year spent doing blah blah” trope, and just tells the story of her entanglement with St. Thérèse.

From the outset, King makes clear she has no intention of merely spending an experimental, carefully monitored year following the “Little Way” of the 19th-century French nun who died of tuberculosis at age 24. On the contrary, she means to plunge headlong, and life long, down the path to sainthood blazed by young Thérèse Martin.

A distinction is that King’s commitment comes not in a chilly cloister surrounded by other religious as the 19th century gave way to the 20th, but in the heat and grit of Los Angeles’ Koreatown neighbourhood during the first decade of the new millennium.

The writer herself could hardly seem more distinct from her inspiration. The bourgeois daughter of deeply Catholic parents, Thérèse begged from childhood to be allowed to live the consecrated life. She literally threw herself at the feet of Pope Leo XIII imploring him to waive age-restrictions on entry to the convent at Lisieux.

King, uh, not so much. As she acknowledges with characteristic honesty, she is a sober alcoholic who has suffered abortion, been divorced, gave up her calling as a lawyer to struggle as a writer, is often unsure how she will make it through the day and fully embraced Catholicism in middle age when the emptiness of almost everything else became overwhelmingly obvious.

The power of Shirt of Flame is its capacity to convey the bracing truth that these are ultimately distinctions without a difference when the object of attainment is sainthood.

Observing King laying her daily struggles against those of St. Thérèse, we see her seeking not mere comfort but hard correction and elusive wisdom by the comparison. We are reminded that becoming a saint is not a sudden eruption into glory. It is not the fruit, much less the pursuit, of ethical perfection. It is the grinding, quotidian doing of every little thing in a manner that moves us, however fitfully and failingly, toward the fullness of love that is Christ.

Or as King puts it in a particularly simple and beautiful sentence, if we so much as bend over and pick up a pin off the floor with love, we have taken another step toward joining the communion of saints.

Pick up this book by ordering it at www.shirtofflame.blogspot.com. You will find a gift from a gifted writer inside — regardless of its cover.

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