If I had a nickel for every time I’ve written in my journal, “Wow…something is happening to me,” I’d be rich. In one way, I am always exactly the same—which is and isn’t a good thing—and in another, I am always undergoing (in my mind, at least) some mysterious, hidden transformation.
The latest manifestation of which has to do with the book I’ve been writing for what seems like way too long: Shirt of Flame: A Year with St. Thérèse of Lisieux, out of which this eponymous blog has (obviously) sprung. The publisher is a lovely, small Catholic press on the
Cape in . (As part of the deal, I get to spend a week at their retreat house in Massachusetts , and don’t think I’m not gonna take full advantage of THAT as soon as I can figure out a way to get back there). Orleans
Anyway, they had seen my two memoirs, and approached me a couple of years ago with the idea to write 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 let’s face it, 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 14 she traveled to Rome, knelt at the feet of Pope Leo XIII, and begged for permission to enter the freezing cold, crawling-with-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 Christ's Holocaust Victim. Who, when she coughed up a big gob of blood at the beginning of Lent one year (she would die of TB), was thrilled to know that more suffering, and heaven, lay ahead. Who died at the age of 24, with gangrened intestines and no pain medication, crying: “I love Him!” Who had first thrown off a spiritual biography in a cheap lined notebook, under orders, in her spare time during “recreation” hour, that her Superior tossed in a drawer for awhile, has gone on to sell millions of copies, and over a hundred years later is still, this morning, a very respectable #20,017 on amazon.
THÉRÈSE ON HER DEATHBED
At any rate, this book I was writing did not have to be long: 35,000 words. I was not getting a HUGE advance, which was fine with me as it would be nice just once before I die to actually receive a royalty check. So I got down to work, and immersed myself in St. Thérèse, or so I thought, 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 early this year on a 3-month residency and finished the book. And waited months for the contract to be signed. And sent off the manuscript. And waited months 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. Well of course I was mortified. What had I been thinking! Who on God’s green earth would want to read anything about me (although they had said, I’d thought, 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 now it turns out there is not enough about me and they want me to put some back in.
The POINT being that I have finally been given to see that this is not a “job”: it’s meant to be a way deeper “walk” with St. Thérèse than I’d envisioned. A surrender on a whole new level, or levels. Like most of us, I have a divided heart. Writing means everything to me, or that’s what I tell myself. I have sacrificed, if that's the right word, for it: possibly a marriage, certainly a steady income, health insurance, a social life by any “normal” standards (though I’ve never been all that big on social life).
But it’s a very tricky thing, to write of the spiritual path and also want to get paid for it. My first memoir, Parched, is about addiction as spiritual thirst. My second, Redeemed, is (roughly) about my ongoing conversion to Catholicism. But I have always been dead set against making a platform out of the fact that I’m sober, or that I’ve converted. I mean BFD. Who cares? I used to not believe in God and now I do, isn’t that interesting?: NO. I used to be a big drunk and now that I’m sober I’m going to make a career out of telling you how to get sober. Please. The point is not me, but a God so merciful, so sublime, that he takes us as we are, wipes the slate clean, and allows us to be useful in spite of our abysmal track record.
According to my agent, this has made my work difficult to sell. It doesn’t fit easily into any category. It’s not self-help (thank GOD, and shoot me first). It’s too Catholic to be mainstream and too mainstream to be Catholic. Which is my whole point, for the love of heaven: catholic with a small c! That the religious impulse is the impulse toward life, in all its wrecked glory. That Christ is not separate from life, he IS the way, and the truth, and the life…and all I want to do is tell the stories and showcase the people who show me that and help me live it out.
One of whom at the moment, it transpires, is St. Thérèse. Because while writing means “everything” to me—in fact, partly because writing means everything to me (the other part being my enormous ego)—so does getting noticed. I think it is one of the most difficult, if not THE most difficult, parts of the spiritual path: that we don’t get to say or see where or how our work bears fruit. And what I’m seeing is I somehow thought if I sacrificed, if writing meant enough to me, that I'd be able to support myself with it. What I’m seeing is that not only doesn’t it necessarily support you, it doesn’t even necessarily make you an excellent writer.
That's where Thérèse comes in. Because to be an excellent writer, in every sense of the word, you have to live out the Gospels. You have to cultivate the “habit of art,” as Flannery O’Connor (via Jacques Maritain) put it, unto your smallest hour and minute. You have to descend into St. Therese's "little way" and offer your fruits, such as they are or aren't, to Christ with childlike trust, knowing they will go toward easing the suffering of the world as he sees fit.
|THE WASH POOL AT CARMEL|
Maybe I need to separate the idea of art and money completely. Maybe I need to go back to waitressing—there’d be some good stories there! But right now I need to find my voice with this St. Thérèse book, to incorporate the right kind of “me,” to be honest enough to say what I’d really been struggling with during my year with her, which not to put too fine a point on it, was that to be a woman, and single, and aging, does not exactly put you at the top of the human heap. That it is all very well to talk about "the scandal of the Cross," but to experience it is a very different thing. That for some time I’d been in the grip of a fairly excruciating emotional “attachment” around which, in the fall of ’07, in desperation I'd gotten in my ’96 Celica convertible and in a self-styled pilgrimage, driven across country and back, going to Mass every day, then spent the next two years feverishly writing a book about this VERY DEEP AND IMPORTANT UNIVERSAL HUMAN JOURNEY that I felt VERY STRONGLY was going to be my breakthrough book and that was not selling.
|BASILICA OF THE NATIONAL SHRINE|
OF THE LITTLE FLOWER IN SAN ANTONIO, TEXAS,
WHERE I ATTENDED MASS ON MY PILGRIMAGE
AND LOST MY GOOD RAY-BANS
But yesterday I had this whole epiphany about how I’d been led to St. Thérèse for that very reason. The point wasn’t whether the other book sold, or whether any book ever sells. It was that our suffering always bears fruit; that if sobriety is not a platform it is still probably the richest and most useful thing about me; that maybe my falling in love had not been a shameful neurotic waste but some kind of huge mystery and blessing and cross that it is not ever going to be given to me on this side to understand. Maybe I had moved at least a teeny bit closer to knowing what love really is, to maturity, to abandoning myself completely. Maybe our true gift is just to figure out who we are and be that. Maybe my extremely personally painful habit of wearing my heart on my sleeve, if I can channel it the right way, is a gift. Maybe my real gift is to tell jokes.
Mother Marie de Gonzague, the Superior at Carmel, ended up writing of Therese: “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.”
May I take a page from that book as I continue with mine...
|PRAY FOR US, LITTLE FLOWER|