Redeemed: A Spiritual Misfit Stumbles Toward God, Marginal Sanity, and the Peace that Passes All Understanding
by Heather King
Viking Press, 2008
238 pages, $24.95
After my recent conversation with Heather King, I am again left thinking about what self-gift means for the writer: “You willingly allow yourself to be consumed.” Of course, when King said this, she meant that writing consumes the writer, not that reading does. But “consuming” also connotes nourishment, refreshment. There is perhaps, then, something eucharistic about the act of writing. Every good essay, poem, story, or book sustains us. At risk of taking the analogy too far, we can draw from this thought a rich figurative language. A Hemingway novel is a lenten meal, spare, stark, ascetic. A mature Shakespeare play like The Tempest is a banquet.
On this spectrum–this menu, if you will–each of the nineteen essays in Heather King’s Redeemed can be likened to lunches with a warm, witty friend. Reviewers have compared King’s voice to that of Anne Lamott, Kathleen Norris, and Elizabeth Gilbert, but while she shares certain characteristics with these writers–humor, compassion, an eye for the spiritual in the physical and for meaning in the quotidian–yet King has a strong, clear voice all her own. Most of all, she’s distinctive for being joyfully, affirmatively orthodox. Her resounding “yes” to the Catholic faith and worldview will appeal to all who seek not only to believe the truth, but to delight in it.
As King retraces the path of her conversion from agnosticism, alcoholism, and jobs she hated to Catholicism, sobriety, and work she loves–namely writing–it’s hard to think of a facet of life she doesn’t hold up to the light of faith. Work, prayer, friendship, marriage, loneliness, beauty, addiction, transformation, attachment, mortality, joy, and more: it all comes in for doses of wry humor and of reverent wonder. One theme, then another, catches the light as chips of stained glass would.
One of many startling beauties in store for art-loving readers is the story of Barbara, a ballet dancer who doesn’t perform, just studies. Barbara embraces voluntary poverty and says “a Hail Mary for every plié, uniting the struggle of her dancing with Christ’s suffering on the Cross.” There is a lesson for all artists here, but King makes the artful move of not drawing it explicitly. She just turns the light on what she sees and lets it shine. The resulting intimacy and immediacy may move you to tears.
King does indirection well, but she draws forthright conclusions from experience even better–and is perhaps at her best when confronting mystery. Where many Catholics may be tempted to dismiss Church teachings they don’t understand, King faces her struggles with courage and discusses them with honesty. Her tone seems to say: okay, we may be having a problem with the doctrinal formula, but there must be something true underlying it. Let’s look at it together and see if we can figure out what it is. And if we can’t, let’s still not reject it out of hand. Our understanding isn’t everything. Or, to allow her to put it in her own words: “as for the Church . . . As much as I’d sometimes like to make it over a bit, I basically understand that the one who really needs to be made over is me.” While glossing over no evils, King imitates her own description of Mary in her approach to the good: “She didn’t have to, but she said yes.”
Treat yourself to this delicious memoir of conversion, growth, and grace. If you allow it, it will refresh you and remind you that life, like reading, and eventually like Heaven, is a feast.