“Coming Awake in Love”: A Discussion on the Struggle for Holiness and the Writing of Shirt of Flame: My Year with St. Therese of Lisieux

Heather King

How did the book come about? Why St. Thérèse?

A few years ago, I was approached by an editor at Paraclete Press—an editor with whom I had a long-standing relationship—with the idea of writing a book about “walking” with a saint for a year. Not a biography, or a hagiography, but a sort of lived reflection on the saint’s work, thought, prayer, path. So I thought for a bit and chose Thérèse of Lisieux because there is something kind of irresistible about a beautiful young French girl who wanted to be the Bride of Christ so badly that at the age of fourteen she traveled to Rome, knelt at the feet of Pope Leo XIII, and begged for permission to enter the freezing cold, crawlingwith-neurotic-nuns, cloistered convent at Carmel. Who spent the rest of her short life in obscurity but on spiritual fire, going so far at one point as to offer herself as a “Holocaust Victim” to love.

Who, when she coughed up a big gob of blood at the beginning of Lent one year (she would die of tuberculosis), was thrilled to know that more suffering, and heaven, lay ahead. Who died at the age of twenty-four, with gangrened intestines and no pain medication, crying: “I love Him!” Who had first thrown off her spiritual biography in a cheap lined notebook, under orders, in her spare time during “recreation” hour, that her superior tossed in a drawer for a while before reading, yet whose work has gone on to sell millions of copies and over a hundred years later is still, this morning, a very respectable number 20,017 on amazon.com.

I’d read The Story of a Soul before, though not as it turned out, very deeply. Reading it again, slowly, reflectively, and reading other commentaries on her spirituality, I began to see that St. Thérèse was just as alive today as she had been in the late 1800s, and every bit as relevant. She didn’t speak directly to “romance and finance”—those two areas of perennial human struggle—but everything she did say bore on them. From her cloistered convent, every action, thought, and word spoke of the journey toward becoming a fully realized human being, which is to say toward coming awake in love.

Of all the books I read about her, however, I began to realize that I hadn’t come across one that was other than basically reportorial; that, however penetratingly, intelligently, and beautifully written, went beyond chronicling the events of her life and reflecting on various of the themes of her spirituality. I realized that being interested in a saint and trying to live out her spirituality in thought, word, body, and deed were two very
different things.

Why walk with a saint at all? What does it matter if a person is a saint?

One of my abiding obsessions is the unsung saint: the person who, unlike Thérèse, is never noticed. But here’s why saints interested me: saints are extreme. Saints have such a bizarre capacity for love that they’re part crazy. In The Varieties of Religious Experience, William James observes: “[I]t would profit us little” to study a conventional, ordinary, “second-hand religious life. We must make search rather for . . . individuals for whom
religion exists not as a dull habit, but as an acute fever rather.”

Acute fever—that caught my eye! James clinched it by adding: “[S]uch ‘geniuses’ in the religious line have often shown symptoms of nervous irritability . . . Invariably they have been creatures of exalted emotional sensibility. Often they have led a discordant inner life, and had melancholy during a part of their career. They have known no measure, been liable to obsessions and fixed ideas . . . and presented all sorts of peculiarities which are ordinarily classed as pathological.”

Not to put too fine a point on it, but I am nothing if not melancholy, “liable to obsessions and fixed ideas,” and “of exalted emotional sensibility”—which is why I was also well aware that to “walk with a saint” for a year could in some ways be dangerous. I’m not holy but, as the oldest of six kids from a family affected by alcoholism, I tend to think I “should” be. Somewhere along the line I learned, or decided, that I wasn’t allowed to make a mistake, that virtue lies in “doing without,” that I had to “earn” love: by producing, by going without, by wanting nothing.

Beyond that, when I started my year with Thérèse, I felt my life to be in inchoate, unarticulated transition. I’d been in L.A. for almost twenty years, in the same apartment for almost eigtheen, a period during which I’d undergone tremendous pain, tremendous joy, tremendous growth. I was sober. I’d become a Catholic and a writer. But in the last decade, I’d also experienced crushing loss. My father had died, I’d had a bout with cancer, my marriage had fallen apart. I’d been struck on the heels of my divorce by a crippling romantic obsession from which I was finally, shakily emerging. I was still fragile, still reeling, still wondering if some neurotic flaw was keeping me stuck, like the paralytic in the parable, on my mat.

So I saw that if, as Kierkegaard said, the saint is the person who “wills the one thing,” I, for one, could use some instruction in focus. If I wanted to will the one thing, too, I saw that I could bring Thérèse with me to Mass. If I wanted to deepen my relationship with Christ, I could walk with Thérèse to Assi Grocery, the Benitez Produce Truck, 24-Hour Fitness, and the Pio-Pico branch library. I could bring her with me while driving the freeways, while walking the streets of Koreatown, while interacting with family, friends, strangers, enemies. She could show me how to get to the love, because love was her vocation.

Thérèse attracted for one further reason: she was a memoirist (or had unintentionally become one) who wrote of the spiritual path. She could help shed light on my own vocation, and the vocation of all those of us who are trying to do the vitally important, deeply lonely work of bringing beauty and richness, complexity, depth and truth to the arts; to the telling of our stories.

The world tells us to strive for fame: Thérèse strove to be forgotten. The world rewards passing things: Thérèse strove for eternity. I wanted to learn to write in a way that glorified God, not myself. I wanted to leave writing that endured. I was willing to spend a year to read about, reflect upon, pray, eat, sleep, and live with a saint. I would look to St. Thérèse of Lisieux for help.

Tell us a bit about the actual writing of the book.

After saying yes to the project, I got down to work, and immersed myself in St. Thérèse, and read some of the zillions of other books that have been written about her (thinking that mine, of course, would be different), and lived another year of my tortured but glorious, small, obscure life, and wrote, and revised, and wrote and revised, and went off to Taos, New Mexico on a three-month writer’s residency and finished the book. And waited months for the contract to be signed. And sent off the manuscript. And waited five more months, which even in the “fluid” world of publishing, is an alarmingly long time, to get notes.

And when the notes came back, it turned out there was too much of me in there and not enough of St. Thérèse. Naturally I was mortified. What had I been thinking! Who would want to read anything about me (although they had said that they wanted a memoir) when the subject was St. Thérèse? So I cut all the parts about me, which was about half the book, and rewrote the first three chapters, and sent them off, and then it turned out there was not enough about me and they wanted me to put some back in.

Then three days before Christmas last year, I received an e-mail from the publisher informing me that my editor—the one who’d commissioned the book—was “no longer with them.” Like Thérèse, Shirt of Flame had been orphaned.

I also 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. 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.

That was when I saw the point of my walk with Thérèse was not, or was only tangentially, the book. I had chosen Thérèse, or she had chosen me, because, like Thérèse, I desperately needed to learn: “Wasn’t Jesus my only friend?” Like Thérèse (although Thérèse learned it at eight instead of fifty-eight), I had to learn all over again that life is “only suffering and continual separation.” Like Thérèse, I had to learn that we don’t get to say or see where or how our work bears fruit. We have to offer the fruits of our work to Christ with childlike trust, knowing they will go toward easing the suffering of the world as he sees fit.

What did a cloistered ninteenth-century lifelong virgin/nun and an ex-barfly convert living in twenty-first century Los Angeles have in common?

Everything! I’m a child of the ‘60s and ‘70s. I grew up with Patty Hearst, Eldridge Cleaver, Malcolm X, Janis Joplin, Martin Luther King Jr., peace, love, women’s liberation, the Chicago Eight. And then personally, while I’m not exactly a rebel, I like to go my own way. I’ve always been interested in how things work. Unfortunately I was also a terrible drunk for many years, so I had, or wanted to have, or was attracted to the idea of “radical” convictions, but I had no center, no underpinning. I could see vaguely what was wrong with the world, but it took me decades to understand that the way to try to alleviate the suffering of the world, to change the world, was to change myself.

Someone once asked the novelist Walker Percy why he was Catholic. He replied, “What else is there?” That’s the way I’ve come to feel as well. You can subscribe to Jungian thought with its archetypes, symbols, and dreams: all utterly valid and part of the light; you can detach from your thoughts through meditation: part of the light; you can experience the healing power of nature: part of the light; you can see and rightfully rail against the ways that we sometimes appropriate “religion” and ideas and belief systems to our own ends, and worse, try to impose [those ends] on others: part of the light; you can unearth the ways your childhood has shaped and wounded you: part of the light. But you will never get to the truth, and become your most authentic self, without seeing your own incredible propensity for darkness and sin; without acknowledging the ways that you have hurt, or are capable of hurting, others. “The operation of the church is entirely set up for the sinner,” wrote Flannery O’Connor, “which creates much misunderstanding among the smug.”

The Church is set up for sinners, and the parable of the Prodigal Son, to me, is the central emblem of the way in which we are loved. We are loved in our dereliction and degradation; we are forgiven almost before we’ve asked for it; the place at the banquet table is laid and has been laid all along.

So you see Thérèse as a radical?

Oh, absolutely. “Radical”—same root word as “radish”—means to get at the root of. The radical is not necessarily out on the streetcorner with a bullhorn. The spiritually enlightened person doesn’t necessarily wear white robes and live in a cave. Thérèse, this adorable young girl with golden curls, an impish smile, and a deep desire to please wrote:

“Like You, my Beloved Bridegroom, I would like to be scourged and crucified. . . . I would like to die by being skinned alive like St. Bartholomew. . . . Like St. John, I would like to be plunged into boiling oil. . . . With St. Agnes and St. Cecilia, I would like to present my neck to the sword, and like Joan of Arc, my dear sister, I would like to be burned at the stake, murmuring your name, Jesus.”

Now that’s radical. She wasn’t kidding, either. And we know she wasn’t kidding because she proceeds to tell us how she conducted her inner and outer life. The way she took it upon herself to guide the sickly, curmudgeonly nun from chapel to the refectory each night, listening to the nun’s complaints, bearing her constant scolding with aplomb, lovingly cutting up the nun’s bread. You might think that is “nothing”: try it. Think of the person in your life you most despise, would most like to put in his or her place, and try going and paying that person a compliment, or thanking them for all they give you, or inviting them to your house for dinner and waiting on them. Day in, day out, for the rest of your life. While you’re freezing. While nobody around you gets it, sees you, thanks you. That is a kind of martyrdom, and it requires a channeling of energy, memory, understanding, will, and desire into a point of white-hot flame.

“I understand clearly that through love alone can we become pleasing to God, and my sole ambition [italics mine] is to acquire it,” she wrote. I think most of us do want to please God. But I think most of us—though I should only speak for myself—also have very many other ambitions.

What’s your take on this quote of Thérèse’s?: “I felt that it was better to talk to God rather than to talk about God, because so much pride gets mixed into spiritual conversations.”

More and more I see that “spiritual” conversation does not consist in theoretical talk about God. The spiritual—actually, the religious conversation—consists in things like: “I can’t stand my mother-in-law and she’s coming for a week! How can I exercise restraint of tongue while she’s here without losing my mind?” or “I always feel like ‘going the extra mile’ is the spiritual thing to do, but I’m beginning to see the real reason I act that way is that I can’t bear to sit in the anxiety of not constantly trying to make things right,” or “My son’s out on the streets again with his meth habit: should I offer him money or not?”

Religion is not some extra thing we tack onto our lives. It is the meat of our lives. It’s what we do with our wounds, our compulsions, our fear, our loneliness, our hunger for meaning and love, our bewilderment at how to respond to ourselves and the people around us.

At the same time, the banquet table of Christ is very different from, say, the “table” of the barroom. Everyone’s welcome in the barroom as well. But at the banquet table you sit in truth. Implicit in the truth is that you’re trusted to want to respond to the invitation, to come higher, to get in some kind of shape so you can welcome the next person to the banquet table; so you can call the next person higher. Christ hung out with prostitutes and tax collectors, but he didn’t go down to their level; he invited them up to his. He didn’t sit around telling dirty jokes, gossiping, and listening to them talk trash about themselves and each other. He said, You’re thirsting for something else, aren’t you? He said, Come to the living water.

One of your epigraphs is from Caryll Houselander, the twentiethcentury British mystic and writer, who observed: “It is impossible to write a book about psychological suffering in any form, without referring again and again to Teresa Martin. . . . At eight years old Teresa fell ill with what was unquestionably a neurotic illness and was baffling to the doctors of her day. . . . There were certainly natural causes for the curious illness, but there was also the supernatural one—that no one could better offer the burden of psychological suffering than this really good child: no one could
sanctify the feeling of guilt better than she. She was preparing for our generation.” How do you think Thérèse “prepared” for our generation?

She was, or started out, a neurotic, and she also had a sense of humor. I think we all badly need a sense of humor. Because I think we are all called to be saints, and to contemplate the gap between where we are and where we would like to be—again, I can only speak for myself—is extremely unnerving.

Kafka, for whom I feel tremendous affection and admiration, observed, “My life is a hesitation before birth.” He came so far. He saw and described—as perhaps no one else ever has or will—the human condition in all its tragicomic horror. And yet he was paralyzed, he knew he was paralyzed, and he could not quite reach the point of saying no to the paralysis. “From a certain point onward there is no longer any turning back,” he wrote. “That is the point that must be reached.” And yet he never reached it. Thérèse reached it.

Thérèse saw and hesitated before the paralysis of her neuroses: her abandonment issues, her morbid sensitivity, her tendency to overbond and overemote. She knew the hesitation was toward death, she opened her heart to grace, and then she plunged in. She consented to endure her anxiety, to walk through her anxiety, to be nailed to the cross, alone—as every follower of Christ is called to—and thus was born.

To say an unconditional yes to life—all the as yet-to-berevealed suffering, all the as-yet-to-be-revealed joy, to a self we cannot yet imagine—is an act of supreme, sublime courage and of course, in the end, love. That yes to the mystery of existence is love.

So the untutored, Bride-of-Christ schoolgirl surpasses the existentially aware, exquisitely attuned, par excellence intellectual and becomes, as is so beautifully fitting, a Doctor of the Church (one of only three women to have achieved this extraordinary honor).

To penetrate the Gospels is to penetrate reality. Christianity is above all weird: “counter, original, spare, strange” as Gerard Manley Hopkins had it in a poem you all know well. Thérèse to me was more Zen than Suzuki, more existentially profound than Sartre, more conversant with the darkness than Nietzsche (she suffered from fearsome aridity for much of her adult life), infinitely more of a woman and a human being than any mere “feminist.”

As Simone Weil observed, “One cannot imagine St. Francis of Assisi talking about rights.” The follower of Christ does not speak of rights. The follower of Christ speaks of abandonment. And to abandon oneself is to consent to simultaneously disappear and to be reborn as a creature utterly unique under the sun.

Mother Marie de Gonzague, the Superior at Carmel, wrote of Thérèse: “Tall and strong, with the air of a child, with a tone of voice and an expression that hide in her the wisdom, perfection and perspicacity of a fifty-year-old . . . a little ‘untouchable saint,’ to whom you would give the Good God without confession, but whose cap is full of mischief to play on whomever she wants. A mystic, a comic, she is everything. She can make you weep with devotion and just as easily faint with laughing during recreation.”

The mystic-comic is a figure I find deeply compelling. For all of my “walk” with Thérèse, I feel like I’ve barely scratched the surface. May the whole world meet her as well.


  1. Jo Flemings says

    Ok, I have NOTHING and everything in common with Heather King, and I will buy this book today, even though Terese is so, so, SO enigmatic to me. Reading this article makes me think that the three of us would find alot to talk about over a cup of tea, or twenty!

  2. J.C. Marrero says

    Heather King really “gets” Therese. So often, Therese is presented as a sort of Sister Barbie–pretty, sweet and good for answering prayers. But Therese the theologian, the realist, has been sadly ignored. Therese knew suffering and recognized that it only has value if attached to love. Pithily, she said that “Jesus is all bloody.” We cannot follow Him except through love and the acceptance of that suffering that is the product of love. When one reads what Therese wrote, it should always be borne in mind that the writer died at 24. Her style can sometimes soar, as when she describes her trials of faith, or reflect her young age and provincial background. But at the end, all this gives way to awe at, what has been described as, “a trick of the Holy Spirit”. That such wisdom and discernment comes to us through an innocent child.

  3. says

    I’m really grateful to have come across this article! I received a copy of Shirt of Flame for my birthday and just finished reading it. I’d written a review of it for my blog that I haven’t yet posted, but I was interested in learning more about the author and the story behind the book. This helped me understand much better the form Heather King chose, or was guided to by her publishers, etc. I have a greater appreciation for Heather King and the book after having read this. A God-incident indeed!

  4. says

    My mother was named after St. Therese in 1927 and was the first one baptized at St. Therese Church in Southgate, Kentucky, two years after the Little Flower’s canonization. Mom gave me her treasure trove of books by and about St. Therese a few years ago. I am a fan, not blinded by the limelight of her halo, but attracted to the cross by her heroism. I found this article through Shirt of Flame BlogSpot and found that through a reference in Magnificat. Glad I did.

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