Thursday, July 28, 2011


they finally settled on a cover for Shirt of Flame,  out september 1!
The other day I wrote that you don't have to believe in God or Jesus in order to pray. If we sincerely pray with all our hearts I believe the prayer will inevitably lead to him. But we don't have to believe in him for him to shower his gifts on us. To me when Christ said, “No-one comes to the Father except through me” [John 14:6], he meant that if we don't know him, we won't KNOW he is showering us with gifts. We will not SEE they are gifts. 

To me, Christianity is never about that those of us who know how to pray or know to pray through Christ or who participate in the Eucharist are "saved" and the other poor slobs are cast into the fire. If that were the case, how could any person of conscience seriously want to join in? Christianity to me is that if you don't follow Christ, eat his Body, drink His Blood, you do not have abundant life. You do not have full joy. You do not fully understand that your entire existence is an insane gift. And our entire job is to radiate such love and joy that people will get curious about, will feel compelled to explore, will be attracted by the gift...

I am squarely, you could even say devoutly, Catholic. Love Mass, believe passionately in the value of Confession, pray the Office, read the Desert Fathers, the desert mystics, the saints, the scholars, the philosophers, the contemplatives. Live in some kind of marginal poverty, chastity, obedience. Make retreats, seek spiritual direction, worship, worship, worship Christ. Lately, like a reverse of the cradle Catholics who grow up with novenas and holy cards and rosaries and then discard those practices as hopelessly childish, I've started GOING to novenas. Sure! Litanies to the saints, prayers to Michael the archangel, bring it on.

But what this has given me is not a sense that the structure of worship, the teachings of the Church, and the centuries of tradition constitute my faith; rather, those things inexorably guide me to faith. Everything I am I am because I have prayed, sought, trudged to Mass, sang the crappy post-Vatican II hymns, heard the boring homilies. Which of course means I was also there to hear the stellar homilies, drink in the beautiful churches, sing the splendid hymns ("The King of Love My Shepherd Is,” “Come Thy Fount of Every Blessing,” “O Sanctissima”).

meister eckhart
And because I was there with love, and with total, total gratitude, I have gotten to see that whether the outside is personally and aesthetically pleasing to me doesn't much matter. I have gotten to see that everyone is doing the best they can; everyone has a shattered heart in this world. What matters it that I participate in the Eucharist, the intersection of heaven of earth, of this realm and the realm from which we came and to which we will go when we die, of the spirit and the flesh. What matters is that I kneel, pray, and lift my voice in song with people I have not hand-picked. What matters is that I confess my weakness and brokenness and ask my brothers and sisters to pray for me and that I pledge to pray for them. What matters is that I open my heart and imagination to see that Christ is in the middle of all of it: all of what happens inside church, and all of what happens outside of it. 

Because everything that I am I also am because of my fellow alcoholics and addicts who for twenty-four years have saved my life, given me life, shown me what abundant life is. And if that is not Christ in action, I sincerely don't know what would be.

"God is greater than God," said 13th-c. mystic Meister Eckhart and I truly think this is one of the things Thérèse was saying and one of the things we need to ponder, hear, and disseminate far and wide.

Because when Christ said "No-one comes to the Father except through me" I'm thinking he also didn't mean that your kindness and generosity and compassion and suffering and joy are not wanted and don't "count" unless you're a confirmed and in good-standing (whataver that means) Catholic. I'm thinking he meant ALL true kindness and generosity and compassion and suffering and growth and forgiveness and self-examination and creativity and joy are accomplished through, pleasing to, done with and by and beside him. Even if we don't recognize him, in other words, he always recognizes us. This is a God who, truly, is greater than God. This is a God, as Hans Urs von Balthasar observed, "so intensely alive that he can afford to be dead."

So this is the backdrop with which I came to Bro. Joseph F. Schmidt's retreat last week. (For the record, I asked, and he gave the green light, to post the substance of his remarks and if I say something that is not in complete accordance therewith I hope he or a devotee will correct me post-haste). 

Br. Joseph F. Schmidt, FSC
If you're interested, you can read up on her at one of her many "official" sites or at wikipedia, but briefly, she lived from 1873-1897, was the youngest of four sisters originally from Alençon, France, all of whom entered a cloistered convent, led an outwardly completely unremarkable, obscure life, died at the age of twenty-four of TB, and on the way developed an inner life and a spirituality known as "The Little Way" that is at once so revolutionary and so true to and reflective of the Gospels that this essentially unschooled bourgeois French girl was canonized a mere twenty-eight years later and in 1997, made a Doctor of the Church (one of only three women to date upon whom the title has been bestowed).

She left behind poems, plays, letters and an autobiography, written under orders from her superiors at the convent, called The Story of a Soul. What I love about her is that she seemed to be and in fact was humble, meek (in the true sense of the word), and mild, and she also was fierce, hard-core, and determined unto death. Because Thérèse's vocation, she discovered, was love. And authentic love is hard-core. Non-violent love is as hard-core as you can get--Christ on the Cross being the clearest possible demonstration...

One way to describe Thérèse's spirituality is INCARNATIONAL MYSTICISM, an attitude characterized by:

1. Seeing Through the Eyes of God:

Christ comes to re-vivify our spirit. Christianity is not a matter of taking on extra pain. It's a matter of taking on the pain of being who we are, and patiently bearing with ourselves and the SLOW work of God.

To be loving means that we never make ourselves or others into an adversary. To try to fix things, ourselves and others up is adversarial.  One weakness is failing to respond to God's mercy and love. God “loves us into” boundaries. Boundaries are to be made lovingly, for our good and the good of others. 

We are welcoming of the world and of our experiences. We deal with our experiences through God's point-of-view. 

2. Doing Everything with the Intention of Pleasing God:

"The great saints worked for the glory of God, but I'm only a little soul; I work simply for His pleasure," said Thérèse.

This requires an awareness of our motivations. Before we take an action, we ask ourselves: What does this look like from the standpoint of eternity? To be present to our motivations without fear requires great spiritual discipline. We don't want to get hooked into retaliation. We want to do good to those who hate us (which is often ourselves).

But the point is that we do everything with the intention of pleasing God. Not with the intention of pleasing ourselves (though if our intentions are pure, that comes along the way). Not with the intention of pleasing others if the pleasing is so that they'll approve of us or give us what we want. And definitely not with the intention of appeasing God or placating God or hoodwinking God or earning God's love. Because God already loves us. And now we simply get to please him.

3. Receiving Everything from God:

Self-love is letting God love us. Our spiritual journey is accepting our life as God's providence. It's not to become "moral" and "gain" virtue. Virtue is the capacity for non-violence. Virtue is to realize we are loved. 
Thérèse spoke often of surrender and gratitude. Surrender doesn't mean passively accepting violence. Surrender means staying with our painful memories and feelings, bringing them into God's presence.

One major way we experience God is through our feelings (an area that to date we have not much talked about in the Church). Thoughts drive us, but feelings precede thoughts chronologically, so this is a significant issue. In a former post, I set forth some of Br. Joe's insights on the subject.

Our feelings of shame and guilt are real. They come from way back, from our childhoods.  The feelings are so intense because they have a physiological basis to them. We're not crazy to have them, but as adults we don't need them. And in spite of the fact that we don't need them, they don't go away. We'll still have them on our deathbeds. But we do have a responsibility to treat the feelings so that what remains is more a tendency to have them, and/or to be triggered and then react to them with violence toward ourselves or others.

The thing to remember here is that nobody gets what they need as a kid. Even under the best of circumstances (and most of us come from far from the best), we are left unsatisfied; fretful for the transcendent. So whose fault is it that none of us get what we need? Nobody's. And especially not yours. So don't blame yourself.

Thérèse as Joan of Arc
in the convent at Carmel
Lisieux, France, c. 1895
Thérèse's great gift was to integrate the psychological and the spiritual. Her life experiences and her teachings are integral to each other. She addressed these childhood feelings directly and in that sense (among many others) she is radical. In a former post—Co-dependent No More—I wrote of her “Christmas conversion,” in which an offhand  remark from her father catapulted her in an instant into the next level of spiritual maturity.  

So we all need this contemplative spirit, this "incarnational mysticism" by which we begin to see through the eyes of God. As children, we see through the eyes of hurt, fear, and confusion. But as we work on these childhood feelings—through prayer, inventory, sharing with a trusted friend or spiritual director—we begin to develop a more mature point-of-view. We begin to heal our "original sin," in the sense of original sin as not trusting in God's goodness for us.  We begin to see that God blesses all our experiences, even the most painful.

We do not get RECOGNIZED for living in incarnational mysticism (I, personally, think this is very unfair). No-one will even notice. We will, however, become the saints we were meant to be.  Not the saints we wanted to be. The saints God wants us to be. 


greetings from my nephew allen!
he is visiting with his uncle joe and aunt mimi in atlanta


  1. That final paragraph -- that's the rub, isn't it? :)

  2. Yes, Jason! I think when you get any sense of this at all, you naturally want to share it! You want to spread the word! And then you find that for the most part, people aren't much interested.

    And then you realize that the reason you're so disappointed is that you also wanted to be you have to re-arrange your whole idea of how and where you're going to bear fruit. You have to re-arrange your whole cultural baggage that tells us "success" lies in numbers. That's when you realize if even one person responds--in fact, even if NO-ONE responds, we are still bearing fruit, by persevering, by staying the course, by quietly going about the business of building our faith in the midst of a "perverse and crooked generation"...

    So he makes us saints, in our little respective ways, in spite of ourselves...

  3. I love Eckhart. It was his sermon "About Disinterest" (the Blakney translation) that set me off on my long road back to the Church.

    I love that photo of Therese, too, and wish it were more widely used. You get a better sense of how young she was.

  4. So true -- like Bl. Charles de Foucauld, for example.

  5. To be loving means that we never make ourselves or others into an adversary.

    This is so timely. I was just rolling my eyes earlier at the thought of having yet another encounter with a neighbor with disabilities, one who wants to retread the same conversational ground OVER AND OVER. Such a tiny hardship to bear, and yet I was preparing to set her up as an adversary against... what? My right not to be bored? Thanks for the nudge to act always with love.

  6. Oh that's a good one, Mrs. Darwin! My "right" not be bored...war can be waging, children can be being abused, billions of people can be going hungry but God forbid my right not to be bored should be violated!...

    Hi Bill! I know, isn't that picture of Therese priceless? She really was beautiful. Though as we were remarking at the retreat, the photos of her later years, when she was dying, are equally brilliant in that they show her suffering. They show her as a real, hollowed-out human being...

  7. Heather, while I agree that it is not our job to divide the sheep from the goats (only Jesus gets to do that), we are bound as Catholics to accept the constant teaching of the Church that faith in Jesus Christ is necessary for salvation. The Church has never and will never teach anything different. When Jesus said "No one comes to the Father EXCEPT THROUGH ME", he meant what he said. He is the Door, there is no other door. As long as we stand firm on that constant and unchangeable teaching of the Catholic Church, then I agree with everything that you've said here.

    By the way, love the book cover. Do you like it?


  8. Perhaps the most beautiful portrait of St. Therese:

  9. Hey there, Heather --

    When you write that one need not yet believe in Christ in order to pray, you are certainly on solid ground. (And it is commonplace throughout history that prayers of a non-Christian have led the soul to Christ, and prayers of a non-Catholic have led the soul to the Church -- but God does have his own time-table for such things! We can't stand by impatiently and shout at an ostensibly recalcitrant soul, "Come on, chop chop, hurry up and convert, already!")

    David's point is well taken, but I'd append to it the reminder oft-given by Fr Benedict Groeschel that faith and grace are gifts -- gifts from God, of course, which kindly evangels can facilitate, perhaps -- but the dialogue between a soul and God is a very personal thing, into which obtrusions of a proselytic intent can backfire. Fr Groeschel admits candidly, "I don't know why some souls have the gift of faith and others don't. I'm not God!" I paraphrase from memory, and I hope I do not distort!

    About the book cover: I should have liked to have seen something a bit more fiery! But we can't object to the serene smile of the Little Flower.

  10. Dylan, I completely agree. My only point is that we should stay true to the constant doctrine of the Church, especially these days when the cultural temptation is to water the doctrine down. As to how we apply the doctrine in practice, I agree that gentleness and patience are essential.


  11. Great post as always, really looking forward to the rest of the series.

    Heather, was Br. Schmidt's retreat mainly modeled on the contents of "Everything is Grace", or was it mainly new stuff, or a little bit of both? I think I'm gonna go ahead and get the book either way.

    Also, it's fine if you dont remember, but the picture you had on the right column the "Shirt of Flame" book description before the cover came out, do you know where you found that? It was like a cross with fires or something in the background. It looked cool as a thumbnail and wanted to know if there was a larger version somewhere.

    Thanks so much for the post!

  12. I think you are very spiritually advanced and rewarding to read. I'm looking forward to your next book. I put you right up there with Flannery O'Connor and Caryll Houselander. I think it would profit me enormously to read "The Story of a Soul" again. St Therese, pray for us!

  13. Heather, first, LOVE the cover!!!

    Second, so much good food for thought here. I am in much agreement with what you've said. You are an intense writer with many profound thoughts. No wonder the Little Flower appeals so much. What a nice and beautiful balance.

    I really look forward to reading your book!

  14. Some thoughts on the cover... The only flame I see is the flaming red hair of the observer in the foreground. A very modern book cover -- youth is served (since the woman gazing at the wall looks young) and coffee as well, a drink that merely by its presence connotes the sort of warm feelings you get when you drop by a coffee-cum-book shop. The young lady also seems to have two shirts on for some reason. Maybe it's cool in the room.

    It seems a highly marketable cover, and I suppose that's what counts since you want to get the message out. One might've wished for something a bit more edgy, though. It's attractive but looks a bit chic-flicky to my eyes. I'm still going to buy the book though.

  15. Thank you, thank you, thank you, Heather!
    I believe the Holy Spirit is working through you, and others gifted like you, to help bring the Good News, the message of God's love, to the modern world!
    May God continue to bless your work.

  16. Robert, I got that image off google images a couple of years ago looking for pictures of fires in it may be copyrighted but I have the jpeg and if you want to email me at will send it on. The retreat didn't particularly or total model the book--Br. Joe brought in some new and even wider insights (he has another book about St. T. coming out I believe next January)--but either way, the book has so much in it it's really worth taking a look at IMHO.

    Re the cover, sadly, really criminally, the people who design the cover DO NOT READ THE BOOK, and I'm pretty sure the marketing department doesn't either. Check out the homepage of my website, That's my idea, or one of them, of a book cover: a grainy black-and-white photo of the Paradise Motel on a seedy stretch of Sunset Blvd. with yeah, some flames licking the edges and an empty whiskey bottle and a cross or two or three in there somewhere...

    As it is...Pastels. Not even two shirts, but one and a half! I explained that I myself wear black, gray, and drab olive green (and jeans, not blue sack pants) but to no avail...

    And really, in the end I have to say God bless them and I'm glad and grateful they're publishing the book. The cover at least has a decent photo, however small, of St. T. on it and the Lord knows I do drink scads of coffee.

    I'll run a couple of excerpts in the coming weeks so folks can get a sense of what it's like, though if you read my blog, you have a pretty good idea.

    Roxane, you are sweet, as always. I am deeply appreciative of your ongoing support!

    And David, doctrine, yes, but no-one is converted by doctrine. Beneath the doctrine is love. And if we don’t understand the mystical underpinnings of doctrine then doctrine becomes a set of empty, rigid, meaningless, fear-based rules. If the doctrine is not making us more loving, more joyful, more interested, more accepting of others and ourselves, more compassionate, less fearful, more lost in wonder, more able to laugh, then we’ve drained it of its meaning and we are not going to attract or convert anyone, least of all ourselves.

    In his biog. of St. Francis, Chesterton says something like "You can get people to do all kinds of things for an ideal, for a philosophy but people will roll in the snow (as St. Francis apparently did) out of love." To which I'd add people will voluntarily remain celibate out of love. People will remain faithful to their marriages out of love. That’s the only way “morality” that is healthy and life-dealing, the morality that springs from love. And the fact is that out of love we will hold ourselves to HIGHER standards, not lower. Out of love we will make MORE sacrifices, not less. Love God and do what you will, said St. Augustine and the doctrine, to me anyway, is in place so that just in case you’re wondering, this is what it looks like to love God. You’re not going to be lying, stealing, cheating, you’re going to be sexually responsible, you’re going to be working for peace, you’re going to be going to Mass at least once a week. Out of love, however, you’ll go every day. So the danger is not loosening the grip on doctrine, the danger is in forgetting that the purpose of the doctrine is to give us abundant life, abundant joy…

  17. Just 4:45 am, as I'm drinking my There is a song by John Prine that slipped into my mind while reflecting on this, "You Got Gold."
    And then some, Heather.
    "You've got gold inside of you."

  18. Dear Heather,

    I'm anxiously anticipating part II. Thank you so much.



  19. Thanks, folks--I'm gonna have four parts and will post Part II Monday (traveling day, driving back to L.A.).

    Chris, my friends in Nashville (one of whom was recently murdered, a whole other story) run the Neuhoff Center, where John Prine has or had his studio...

  20. How do you usually know what I need to read?:) :)

    I like the cover of your book.

    This week I had a very strong
    toxic encounter and lashed back.
    Yes, I made the amends. Haven't heard from them but that's the way it is. Long term sobriety doesn't always mean-spiritually fit.

    Changed a meeting and I was so happy.

  21. Matchless topic|

  22. Regarding doctrine and orthodoxy, Guardini has something interesting to say:

    "As soon as a religious consciousness that preaches 'pure doctrine' comes into being, and with it an authority ready to spring to its defense, the danger of orthodoxy becomes acute. For what is orthodoxy but that attitude which considers obedience to the Law already salvation, and which would preserve the purity of the Law at all costs - even at the price of violence to the conscience? The moment rules of salvation, cult and communal pattern are fixed, one is tempted to believe that their strict observance is already holiness in the sight of God. The moment there is a hierarchy of offices,and powers, of tradition and law, there is also the danger of confusing authority and obedience with the kingdom of God. The moment human norms are applied to holiness, inflexible barriers drawn between right and wrong, the danger of laying hand on divine freedom, of entangling in rules and regulations that which falls from God's grace alone becomes considerable. No matter how noble a thought may be, once it enters the human heart it stimulates contradiction, untruth and evil. The same fate awaits that which comes from God. Order in faith and prayer, in office and discipline, tradition and practice is of genuine value; but it opens up negative possibilities. Wherever a decisive either-or is demanded in the realm of sacred truth; where the objective forms of cult, order and authority are all that count, there you may be sure, is also danger of 'the Pharisee' and his 'Law.' Danger of accepting outer values for intrinsic; danger of contradicting attitude and word; danger of judging God's freedom by legal standards - in short, danger of all the sins of which Christ accuses the Pharisees. The history of the Mosaic Law is a terrible warning. What had come, a holy thing, from God, was turned into an instrument of disaster. The moment definite revelation, the positive ordering of existence by God is believed, this possibility presents itself. It is good for the belilever to know this, that, as a member of the second covenant, he may be spared the fate of the first" [Guardini's The Lord, 171].

  23. On the non-violence of Jesus, I wonder sometimes about the cleansing of the Temple and the very strong words about the Pharisees ("white-washed tombs"). He wasn't forcing Himself on anybody so one can't see any violence in that sense but the very tough words must walk up to the line of what's acceptable?

  24. Hi there, anonymous, to me those were simply illustrative of the fact that non-violence does not mean being a doormat, doesn't mean standing by when "the temple" is being desecrated, doesn't in any way preclude telling the truth when telling the truth is indicated and is for the spiritual emotional and/or physical well-being of the other. When your 3-year-old kid is about to stick his finger in the electrical socket you don't softly say Now, now, Cedric, not a good idea, You yell STOP! and you yank him away.

    Christ never minced words. He never spoke when speaking wasn't indicated and he also never minced words. One notable thing about both the instances you bring up is that he knew very well he stood to get killed both for pointing out the Pharisees' hypocrisy and especially for driving the money-changers out of the temple. He put his money where his mouth was in other words. The times he was forceful he didn't do it for show, or to "start a war," or to put himself in a position to be an ongoing adversary, it was for a very particular purpose and out of a very particular heart and with a very particular cognizance of the probable consequences. He wasn't forceful as a prelude to MORE force, escalating force, on his part; he was forceful out of a love for the truth that he knew was going to get him crucified.

    And then he was crucified. He told Peter to put down his sword and he allowed himself to be led off to be crucified so that the insane cycle of violence, so that human sacrifice, could at last end.

    And ever since, we've been saying Well, that was Christ, but he doesn't expect US to act that way. But he did. That, to me, is the heart of my faith. I'm not saying I do or could ever fully live up to it, but that is the heart of my faith. Non-violent love...the very subject of my next post, on which I work as we speak!...

    Thanks for checking in...

  25. We begin to heal our "original sin," in the sense of original sin as not trusting in God's goodness for us.

    Heather -- This sentence just grabbed hold of me. I love Merton and started delving into his wrtings on non-violence this summer. Your recent posts about how much of the violence in the world is self-inflicted have been major epiphanies for me.

    Looking forward to the new book. A little surprised by the cover. I was expecting some kind of picture of Koreatown, something like you would post here on the blog. Your photos are so raw, honest, and beautiful. No matter. I'm in line to buy my copy. ~ Marijo


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