3. Shirt of Flame. A Year With Saint Therese of Lisieux
Heather King, Bewster, Massachusetts, Paraclete Press, 2011.
Imagine you’re commissioning a book in which an author should relate their experiences of seeing their life and spirituality in terms of the biography and beliefs of a French late-nineteenth century nun. Would you think of a middle-aged Californian woman, ex-alcoholic, former-lawyer and divorcee? I wouldn’t have done: and this is the first miracle of this valuable book. Many think that the fraught, unusual life of such a person as Thérèse of Lisièux (1873-1897; sanctified in 1925) – filled with psychosomatic sickness, intensely neurotic, cloistered and non-this-worldly – would have little relevance for people today, particularly someone with the profile outlined above; how wrong we all would be. I came across an interesting excerpt of Shirt of Flame on the Word on Fire site, and bought the book on the strength of it; I didn’t regret it. The title comes from T. S. Eliot’s Four Quartets.
The twelve sections (one for each month, but the monthly arrangement of the chapters is very “loose fit”) each concern a stage in Therese’s life (based on her posthumously-published autobiography Story Of A Soul) and her physical/emotional and spiritual experiences. Following that, Heather King moves on to talk about her own experiences and spiritual life. The chapters are: Early Loss (On Facing Ancient Grievances), The Confluence of Will and Grace (On Illness and Healing [Therese died of tuberculosis; King has had cancer]), Therese’s Second Conversion (On Learning to Serve), The Papal Visit [Thérèse’s visit to Leo XIII; King is a convert to Roman Catholicism]), Poverty, Chastity, Obedience (On Radical Social Conscience), The Convent (On Shedding Our Illusions), The Little Way (On the Martyrdom of Everyday Life), Aridity (On Praying Without Ceasing), The Long, Slow Decline of Therese’s Father (On Being Stripped Down), The Story of a Soul (On Offering Up Our Work), My Vocation is Love (On Letting Our Flame Burn Hot), and The Divine Elevator (On Facing Death With Joy). Each chapter ends with short prayers
Heather King (whose own experiences and insights were more fascinating to me than Therese’s, which are widely known) time and again testifies to the heavy cost of loving and following Christ – certainly, when seen against this-worldly values and aspirations – and she tells us more than a little of the drunks and vagrants who have enriched her world. Few writers, surely, have tried empathetically to understand the emotions of the paedophile priests (“I could imagine humans so hungry for love, so enchanted by innocence or beauty or the very mystery of human flesh, that they crossed a line that should never, ever be crossed” (p. 98). Let King speak for herself:
“The scandal of Christ is that to have a relationship with him means to share in his suffering” (p. xvi).
“I didn’t mind not having a lot of money. I didn’t mind … having no particular support, validation, encouragement, or companionship. … What I did mind was the sense that my life was to bear no fruit at all.” (p. xx).
“I’d never considered that not having received compliments might have been a gift”. (p. 7).
“I may not have entered a convent, but I had found much healing in a fellowship of brother and sister alcoholics who were trying to stay sober.” (p. 19).
“I’m talking about the essential friendlessness of the human condition.” (p. 36).
“[In our culture] We will suffer from a fatal reduction of desire.” (p. 39) …
… “We can’t afford the reduction of desire. To refuse to ask is to think we know the plan. To reduce our desire is to reduce God.” (p. 45).
[Prayer:] “Maybe the question isn’t so much ‘when will I see Your face?’ Maybe the question is ‘When will I sit still long enough to see Your face everywhere?’”. (p. 55).
“[Thérèse ] never had to get up every morning, as millions of ‘ordinary’ people have to do, and go to a job she hated. She never had to sleep with a man she’d come to loathe and fear, as many women do in order to protect their children.” (p. 70).
“The Church had taken me in when no one else would have me.” (p. 85).
“Mass was to participate in the kingdom of God regardless of any particular emotion I felt, thought I had, or action I performed.” (p. 88).
“[Prayer:] When everything I do turns to ashes, help me to remember to turn to you”. (p. 103).
“We might be conflicted about the work we do: wondering whether we’re serving God, wondering whether we’re serving ourselves.” (p. 107).
“To dare to believe that we are truly loved, not for anything we have accomplished, earned, produced, learned, achieved, or sacrificed for, but simply for existing is a reality that can hardly be borne.2 (p. 127).
“We are called to hold the unbearable tension between two kinds of fire: the fire of our self-will and the fire of God’s purifying love.” (p. 135).