Saturday, April 28, 2012

And the GREATEST of these is LOVE…

It was 6:00am and I was a bit fidgety from my cup of coffee, distracted because I wanted to write and get my thoughts out about Heather King’s, Shirt of Flame, and on fire for the LOVE of the Lord! Being in the presence of the Blessed Sacrament at the Adoration chapel this morning was the place I needed to be…

“Jesus transforms a white particle into himself every day in order to communicate his life to you. What’s more, with a LOVE that is greater still, he wants to transform you into himself.” St. Therese of Lisieux

“Christ will not deceive us. That is why our lives must be woven around the Eucharist. The Christ who gives of himself to us under the appearance of bread and the Christ who is hidden under the distressing disguise of the poor is the same Jesus.” Blessed Teresa of Calcutta

“I put before you the one great thing to LOVE on earth: the Blessed Sacrament. There you will find romance, glory, honor, fidelity, and the true way of all your loves on earth and more than that.” J.R.R. Tolkien.

What did you think of the stories of Fred and Gene in the book? How did the stories of these ordinary men teach us about St. Therese? Fred reminds me of my Aunt Katherine. As Elizabeth posted, “God's people should be treated with patience, compassion, and love. Period.” Just as St. Therese did. I will end on that note and LOVE on!

Gene reminds me of Linda, whom I have seen and known for a few years, but just yesterday finally introduced myself and the kids. We must have the same grocery day because we always see each other shopping at HEB or Wal-Mart. She is a sweet lady with auburn hair and is always up for a conversation no matter how long my grocery list is or how cranky the kids are. She marvels at the children and their busyness. If there was seating provided in the grocery aisles, I believe she would grab a seat and enjoy watching and talking to people as they passed by. Our first conversation started when I used to carry Mary Kate in the baby sling. She wanted to see how it was made, so she could make one for her daughter.  It was not for a grandchild, but what she called her “grand-dog”. I no longer want to dodge her in HEB because I have too much to do. I want to put my grocery list down, scoot my kids and cart out of the middle of the aisle, and just visit with my friend Linda. I just think that she is poor in loneliness, maybe it’s that God finds me poor in gratefulness.

We LOVE because he first loved us. 1 John 4:19

Friday, April 27, 2012

Rock Solid

from Chapter July, page 177, Coventry Patmore on a saint: "...he will mostly likely dwell with reiteration on commonplaces with which you were perfectly well acquainted before you were twelve years old; but you must make allowance for him, and remember that the knowledge which is to you a surface with no depth is to him a solid..."

"A solid"--firmness, foundation, support, unwavering, not prone to or dependent upon fashions or whims.   Something which I honestly have felt myself lacking for months now.  "Rock solid" is a cliche we often use, and the book
Shirt of Flame has been a rock of sorts--a pebble-- in my life since it arrived on my doorstep.    Two forms of a pebble--the one-- that aggravating pebble in a shoe that makes its presence known with each step you take until you finally stop and deal with it.   And the other--a smooth, beautiful pebble, held in your palm, as you turn it over and stroke it, an aid to your contemplation, quietly and unobtrusively helping you focus your mind or, to free your mind from focus.  

This book dovetails perfectly with our first read,
Lizzie's War.   They are both real and honest--nakedly so--but Lizzie and Mike, their boys--their various wars, though based on reality, are still fiction and they give the reader the necessary comfort of exploring uncomfortable truths in a fictional setting.    In such a way, fiction can influence our lives.   Through our discussions of Lizzie's War, we explored the role of vocation and striving to truly live--to thrive, spiritually, emotionally, physically--where we find ourselves.   Part of the comfort lay in the truth of the C.S. Lewis quote which heads our blog banner, similarly shared by F. Scott Fitzgerald, who wrote: "That is part of the beauty of literature. You discover that your longings are universal longings, that you're not lonely and isolated from anyone. You belong."   We found that we weren't alone as we related to Lizzie, Betty, Fr. Germaine, Danny and saw bits of ourselves, friends, neighbors, and family members in these characters.   For me, the language and honesty of Lizzie's War was refreshing, not as a breath of fresh air, but more like a blast of heat, with its cocktails, profanity, and flawed characters, shaking and awakening me from my safe Catholic world.   The world I had tried to create, and maybe control, through homeschooling, a retreat from the range of great literature which had previously nourished me in favor of a strict diet of classics and spiritual reading, and fewer and fewer non-Catholic friends and acquaintances.   My world--my little world--shrinking and gradually closing in--suffocatingly so.  

So, after the refreshing blast of
Lizzie's War came Shirt of Flame.   I wanted to read this from the first time Lauren shared it with me.   I wanted to hear from this real woman she described in Heather King.   She lived in Los Angeles.   She was divorced.   She had worked for NPR.   She was a convert.   This was no "more Catholic than the Pope" Catholic.   This sounded like a real, in-the-trenches, in-the-world-not-of-the-world-Catholic.   I had loved St. Therese and grown to love her more when I read her Story of the Soul, given to me by my friend of twenty-four years, my southern Baptist friend, Gina.   I finished the book a few weeks before Mama died and St. Therese was my friend and comfort during those first few months. 

Heather King and St. Therese, however,  did not offer me the insulation of fiction as I delved into the truth of Love--what it means to really love, to truly realize we are loved, and of knowing out Lover.   From the beginning, in the title that was inspired by the words of T.S. Elliot, the stage is set for the rawness--the reality--of life: "breaks the air," "incandescent terror," "the torment," "the intolerable shirt of flame."

And I squirmed.   I chaffed--at King's words--and from the shirt, described by Elliot, which King and Therese embraced.   I rebelled.   After the first chapters, the book was left on my bedside table and it grated on me, like that bothersome pebble.  And I didn't want to stop and deal with it.   I wanted it to go away, so I could go away.   I wanted to be left alone to nurse my wounds.   But I had to read it.   I agreed to be part of this book club.   I needed this book club.   And I knew, at some level, that I needed this book.   So, I picked it up again, in my irritation, in my hurt, in what I realized, as I read--as King and Therese pointed out to me--was my egotistical state, where I didn't simply nurse my wounds--real and imagined--but actually preened over them.   My mind and my heart were at odds.   Intellectually, I acknowledged it was a great book--a deep, life-changing book.  I could see its capacity for profound spiritual and emotional growth.   And my heart disliked it for that.   My heart knew what wounds were waiting to be exposed--and healed--and it raged against the pain of the purifying fire, denying itself the cleansing and healing of Love.   

Continuing in the spirit of being forthright, my heart did not open to this book until after I physically sat with others and discussed it.   It seemed that everyone approached the discussion with obvious elation.   I think everyone else at some point even physically expressed her love for the book by hugging it close to her heart, usually after sharing a quote that had special impact.    I listened to my fellow readers as they described how they were touched, how they were convicted, how they were enlightened by the book, by Heather King, and by beautiful Therese.   I watched the downcast eyes that finally looked up rimmed with tears.   And the cracks began to break.   The self-protection and denial of my solitude gave way to an openness and vulnerability in the presence of those beautiful women, each with a wisdom from her own experiences with life and our most recent book assignment.   The edges were being smoothed.   A light of compassion lit my mind's image of my mother as we discussed the passage about faithful women who keep the Church and homes going with their unnoticed efforts.   My mother was that steady heartbeat of our home in the face of the poorly functioning, diseased--spiritually, emotionally, physically--head.   The wound of my judgements--Why had she not left him?   Why had she endured so much?--flared and stung, but I let it be exposed.   I let go and let it rise to the surface.   The hurt of lies and manipulation from a person whom I had trusted were allowed to throb, to pulse with pain, as we delved deeper into the idea that perhaps the untainted image we had of people before they hurt us was the way God sees them, ignoring their flaws and sins, of which we are also guilty.   In the midst of Therese's daily, hourly surrenders of her will, I let myself acknowledge my selfishness over the past few months.   The way I had jealously guarded what seemed to precious little bits of time for myself in the midst of my 24/7 vocation.   It was as if I was giving my heart permission to acknowledge the hurts as objective fact, but let go of the pain they caused.   For the first time in months, I was leaving my heart open to God and the change in my heart was as simple and unsophisticated as the cartoon image from Dr. Suess' Grinch, as his heart slowly grows to almost bursting proportions.   I kept silent during most of the discussion, only joining in toward the end.   I trudged to the discussion, but I left changed.  

And now, that worrisome pebble has been smoothed by companionship, by waves of tears, by the brutally honest and simultaneously loving words of St. Therese and Heather King that reflect their journey, their struggles, their painful purification.   Since our discussion, the quotes from the book, the thoughts of the women gathered to discuss it, and the immeasurably deep truths expressed in it are like that smooth pebble that I hold in my hand.   It's there, always present, as I stop and hold my tongue when I want to gripe at the child who has spilled his drink AGAIN.   It's there as I remember the hurts of the past.   It's there as I attempt to reconcile the familial dysfunction of my childhood with the strength of my mother who loomed large as a refuge of normalcy and hope.   It's there, as I feel less alone and more loved than I have felt in a while.   Unconsciously, I turn over the wisdom, rub it against my palm.   But it doesn't stop there.   I've returned to Shirt of Flame each day since that discussion.   I'm consciously re-reading, not as a book, but as part of a devotion.    The pebble that irritated me now challenges me with the fire, with hope, with loneliness, with Love, even as I know the journey is long and it won't be easy.   Valleys and peaks of the spiritual life.   I've been in the valley and now I can look up toward the next peak, if I can learn from Therese's Little Way and from Heather King's own journey along her own Little Way.

I sit here typing this, watching my daughter through the window as she enjoys a frozen fruit bar with a purity of which only a child is capable.   After she bugged me for hours after I bought the box and I finally snapped, "At 3:00, you can have one!   Quit bothering me about food!"   (Quit talking to me, my child, while I'm trying to write!)   So, good on you, Heather King and St. Therese.   I'm surrendering and going very much against my will by leaving this piece without any well-thought out ending.   I'm going to go spend time with my children and just enjoy being with them.   It's a start--a little one--

Shirt of Flame- Fred

All right, book people.  I just finished last night.  Go ahead, slap my hand.  I knew I couldn't make the meeting so I gave myself some room to be lazy.  I wish I would stop doing that.

I do not have anything very poetic to say- that's Terri's job- but I wanted to post a response to one of Lauren's questions.

Regarding Fred, I thought that Heather King did an excellent job of making him real to us.  Everybody has a Fred in their life. I love how she wove him into the story and used his life to show us how all of God's people should be treated- with patience, compassion, and love.  Period. That is exactly what St. Therese did.

We make a big deal out of St. Therese's 'little way,' but after reading this book, it does not look quite as little to me.  Always responding with love is actually big.

Thursday, April 26, 2012

'Shirt of Flame' Discussion

Writing Prompts for Shirt of Flame.

What did you think of the stories of Fred and Gene (the homeless man) in the book? How did the stories of these simple, ordinary men help the author teach us about St. Therese?

 This question reminds me of one of my favorite sayings, "character is how you treat those who can do nothing for you." When we read about Gene, I think of what St. Therese described as the "unnoticed drops of blood" of Christ on the cross and how we are all called to try in our own "little ways" to unite ourselves to the suffering in the Body of Christ. How can we love the "lepers" inside of ourselves until we love the "lepers" of society as Christ would? I think of the Corporal Works of Mercy when Heather King describes Fred, and how visiting the sick can be a chore sometimes made worse when the patient has a difficult personality, or it somehow clashes with ours. Heather King reminds us that we can not grow by only surrounding ourselves by people who make us feel good about ourselves all the time! (awww snap!) What are those obstacles keeping us from fully embracing Jesus? I felt so empowered by the way that Heather King reminds us, through the example of St. Therese, that our vulnerability really becomes our strength. We can't go anywhere on our own until we admit that vulnerability, like St. John says "Lord, I must decrease so that you may increase," (John 3:30). Christ gives us everything we need for our journey - we must strive to be open to how God wants us to see ourselves and the world.

Here are a few more questions:

Which aspect of Therese's life did Heather King reveal to you in a new or different way?

What did you think of the stories of Fred and Gene (the homeless man) in the book? How did the stories of these simple, ordinary men help the author teach us about St. Therese?

On page 53-54, King writes about women "who wear the scapulars, who carry the flame; who wait, and who, in a very real way, have kept the Church going...." What do you think of this passage? Are there women in your life that image reminds you of? Share!

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Redeemed from fire by Fire...

Shirt of Flame by Heather King
What can one book do, really? It's a compilation of pages, edited, printed, produced, shipped and read. And then set aside, placed back on the shelf, donated, recycled.

Or not...

Some books ( a rare few ) tend to embed themselves, or better yet, find a way of defining something in you that you knew was there but just couldn't put into words. They explain a feeling, a desire, a passion or a fear you can't define on your own, and you aren't sure if anyone else really would understand; they might think you're crazy.  You might just be the only one who has ever felt that way. Until you see those words on the page. And then, as Lewis says, you are not alone.

Those books, the ones that confirm us, help us to know ourselves.

Heather King's Shirt of Flame is that for me.

Heather King writes, "The way to become whole, in other words, is to become most fully ourselves - a lifelong task that paradoxically requires us to rub up against, be filed down by, cracked open by and perhaps most unexpectedly of all, loved by the very people whom we wish to serve."

The book isn't a story about St. Therese of Lisieux. The book isn't a story about Heather King. It's about the story of each of us, mine and yours.  Heather King knits together a fine thread connecting the fragile beauty of St. Therese's cloistered life with our modern day frenzied world. She introduces us her own cloister of Los Angeles and hints at ways for us to find our own. Ms. King lines up our tracing paper sketch with the original work of art, and, standing next to her, we see ourselves in this little saint.

We find that we can be all called to the 'little way of love'. It's not quite as out of reach, ephemeral, 1890's-cloister-confined as we once thought.  She has unromanticized the story of Therese, helping us to see in her our weaknesses, our immense struggles, our unanswered loves, our loneliness, and our buried desire to seek the good fire that will consume all our desires with Love.

Maybe Therese understands us after all. Maybe she has had the answer all along. Maybe that is why she is a Doctor of the Church.

Heather King writes, "The story can't be "I'm a victim" and it also can't be "I'm a hero", though in some sense you're telling of the hero's journey. What makes for an authentic personal story is that the hero is not you; the heroes are the people who put up with or helped you along the way. The star of the story is not you, the star is something greater than you. The astonishment of the story is never that the world finally recognized your genius and showered you with the love and attention you so richly deserve. The story is that a God exists who is so kind, so loving, so merciful, that he sees fit to forgive all your transgressions, wrong turns, and mistakes; a God who ministers, with infinite tenderness, to all the hurt that's been done to you and all the hurt you've done to others, and welcomes you back to the banquet table."

Thursday, April 5, 2012

Holy Thursday Reflection on the Mass, with Heather King

On this Holy Thursday, I thought I'd share this passage from Heather King's 'Shirt of Flame', pages 88-90:

"Mass was like being on the greatest stage set that had ever and ever could be produced. Mass was to participate in an ancient, ever-unfolding cosmic drama. Mass was to understand that I was participating in the kingdom of God regardless of any particular emotion I felt, thought I had, or action I performed.
most days I walked the five long blocks, through traffic and honking horns, past the grand old apartment buildings, the Dong-A Book Plaza, the parking lot attendant at Heyri Coffee with whom, after many years, I was at last on nodding terms, the abandoned lot from which I sometimes plucked a frond of wild fennel through the chain link fence, and across Wilshire Boulevard to St. Basil's, built in the late 1960s, with its soaring concrete walls, high, narrow stained-glass windows and echoing sanctuary.

Here, I cast my lot with whatever other rag-tag dregs of humanity walked through the doors: the homeless Hispanic man sleeping on the pew beside me, the Korean matron, the Vietnamese nun, in her sneakers and veil. Like Therese, I had no one with whom to share my deepest inner life. As an alcoholic, I knew all too well my bereftness, my nothingness. To have been born in some sense mentally ill was also to have been rendered so poor in spirit as to burn with love for Christ and his imperfect, shabby, sometimes embarrassing Church.

Many days I was so distracted or anxious that I could barely hear a single word. Other times a phrase I'd heard a thousand times would strike me with the force of revelation. .... That the sacrifice upon which the world had been saved was re-enacted each day in the shadow of Tofu Cabin and Gentle Dental simultaneously mystified, moved, depressed, and cheered me.

I took in the Gospel; I listened to the homilies. I wept, I sighed, I gratefully concurred, I mentally argued. But all the while I was obeying. At a level way deeper than I could hear with my ears, I was listening carefully.
Out on Wilshire again -- Gold Town, Nara Bank -- I'd think: 'No one knows I go to Mass; no one would care if I didn't.' Walking home, I'd think: 'Was that a dream?'

But more and more, I saw that Christ was the realist thing there was. "
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