Friday, December 17, 2010

THE REALLY LITTLE WAY: ME AND ST. THÉRÈSE OF LISIEUX


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 Massachusetts. (As part of the deal, I get to spend a week at their retreat house in Orleans, 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).

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
[exileimaging.wordpress.com]
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

19 comments:

  1. Gosh, Heather, this post is something incredible. I was almost in tears by the end. God can be SO frustrating, but I'm sure He must be thinking: "Hey buddy, it's obvious, if you would just open your eyes!" I guess the point is, we have our "aha!" moments, and what they reveal more than anything else is that the mystery is far deeper than we realize. The joy of eternity will be endless "aha!" moments, that will fill our hearts with joy, even as we know that there can be no end to the "ahas!" hence, no end to the joy of discovery!

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  2. "Maybe our true gift is just to figure out who we are and be that" -- Heather, you have such a gift for writing the truth with elegant simplicity.

    This reminds me of St. Irenaeus: Gloria Dei homo vivens. The glory of God is the human person, fully alive. Thank you.

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  3. I *was* in tears by the end of the post.

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  4. I will be one of the first to purchase this book, Heather, that is certain.

    These posts mean so much to me. My ego wants wants wants and it can be so hard to separate my creative work from that lust. And I do even get glimpses of what my work does for people (since I am teaching them), and even that can feel like "not enough."

    The grasping gets exhausting and yet I am fearful about NOT grasping, if that makes any sense.

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  5. Heather: Along with the others who commented I am teary and feeling your pain--our pain--the C in catholic--the universality of all of us grasping to KNOW and that never happening.

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  6. Wow.....You gotta be on the right path...it is leading to an inspired truth, that will pay it's powerful dividends...of peace, hope and joy and everything else you need.
    xxjk

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  7. Excellent post.
    I used to be pretty devout but I haven't been practicing for some time now. I just picked up my copy of her autobiography last week and started reading it with new eyes. It's really neat that you should post this now.
    Your post is really honest. I really appreciate it.

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  8. I'm anxiously waiting to 'purchase' the book, yes I plan to purchase it versus checking it out from the library as I want to be one of those who desires to support your work which is amazing by the way. I plan to send your blog to the leader of our small group who is also a writer as I really want more people to discover your writings and the incredible talent the Lord has blessed you with!

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  9. I worked myself into a state of feverish excitement over this, practically trembling as I hit the "Publish Post" button, and about five minutes later was awash in a feeling of extreme vulnerability...We live in a culture where we will tell just about anything about ourselves, but no-one much likes to cop to loneliness, doubt, seeming failure. So when I do, I wonder Am I whining? Have I strayed so far from the path I've lost it?...But there is a ton of joy in there, too, and my sense from your comments is that as I find my way toward my own heart, I also somehow find my way to at least a piece of everybody else's...it means more than I can say that you all read this...thank you...Christmas blessings...

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  10. I don't consider myself a writer in the same sense that you are. You are an artist for sure! I jotted down the following three quotations from your essay. These resonated with me. They are food for my own reflections, and perhaps I will write something about each one.

    "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." I would like to do that, too.

    "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." Trusting God in this way is, I am convinced, the key. And easing suffering is a mystery in which I hope I partake in both directions. 

    "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." St. Teresa of Avila, also a Carmelite, said self knowledge is very important. And she asked God to deliver us from sad saints. So, please tell jokes! 

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  11. I read something funny about G.K. Chesterton in a biography last year that in the biographies he himself wrote he sometimes wasn't much concerned about getting across the life of the person at all. So his biographies were kind of confusing for that reason. And he also wasn't always very concerned about fact-checking. Reviewers would note all the mistakes in his books and yet they still wanted to read what he wrote. He was cool.

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  12. Heather thanks for sharing this blog with us.
    Jesus said something like: "My power is made perfect in weakness." That littleness and helplessness is what it is all about. We can't claim anything on our own but everything with Him. You bring that out so eloquently in your writing; in a way that speaks so much to the heart of contemporary men and women.

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  13. Hi Heather, you write between the lines of the sacred and the secular. And some may not affirm that about you but I certainly do. Because you are right, catholicism is universality. And much more so, it is integrative. We should not have delineating lines about our "personal life" and our "faith life". To me, you encourage my soul because I continuously struggle with this and I struggle with the circumstances and the people around me who probably misunderstand my ways and my words because I am trying to live an authentic life. a catholic life.

    You're an inspiration. Just to let you know, I have bought your book Redeemed last year. And I can't wait to buy this one. :)

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  14. You rock, my friend.

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  15. Thank you for this. I read it at just the right time.

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  16. Ha Ha ... "too Catholic to be mainstream and too mainstream to be Catholic" ... kind of like (to paraphrase the words of Jesus in St. John's Gospel) "in the world, but not of the world." Seriously, Heather, if you were mainstream, the mainstream would love you as its own, and what could suck more?

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  17. If you haven't visited the Basilica you have to come! I'm one of the few youth really devoted to the church and I'm sure the carmelites as well as the active community would love to hear from you! I'll look for you'r work in our humble book store!

    God bless =)

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  18. Hi Albert, thanks so much--you mean the basilica in Lisieux? That would be incredible--I'd love to meet you and the Carmelites. Small problem of money...I have been to the basilica of the Little Flower in San Antonio, Texas, if that counts!...Advent blessings to you and the sisters, Heather

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  19. Hey Heather, I sure did dig this post! I know you wrote it a pretty long time ago, but I just thought I'd make a quick comment anyway. Yeah, anyways, I think it was quite beautifully written. It's funny, 'cause I'm at the point where St. Therese's autobiography is about the most on target book I've ever steeped myself in. I say it's funny because I've reached the conclusion that hers is about the most revolutionary and rebellious attitude possible. Weird, isn't it? I'm betting that your adopting her point of view had to be a highly rebellious act, challenging your friends and yourself and everybody else! That's how I feel about myself embracing Therese at any rate, definitely not what I or anyone I know would have foreseen in the past! And it's extra funny because I'm a long time fan of The Queers; there first EP was my favorite record in the late eighties back when I was in high school. Findin' out that a rebellious streak seems to run in your whole family somehow really cheered me up..... Take care!!

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I WELCOME your comments!!!