Tuesday, November 1, 2011

A REVIEW OF SHIRT OF FLAME


Word on Fire ran a review yesterday of  my new book, Shirt of Flame.

Here it is.

All Saints Day: Heather King’s year with the Little Flower
by Rozann Carter


On this All Saints Day, Rozann Carter reviews Heather King’s new book, "Shirt of Flame: A Year with St. Thérèse of Lisieux," a practical and poignant commentary on the deeply authentic reflection of Christ that is present within the spirituality of this great saint and Doctor of the Church.

There is a certain hypocrisy built into our human nature with regard to the “saccharin.”

What is saccharin? It is an artificial sweetener with an ever-increasing likeness in taste to “real” sugar; it is meant to provide the experience of sweetness without the work of a proper appreciation and the implied discipline of moderation. Saccharin makes sweetness free, consequence-less, and available on a whim, but it’s suspiciously incomplete.

Saccharin simply isn’t natural; it imitates an ideal experience and then slowly replaces it, promising and delivering the addictive “shortcut.” Even as we sprinkle multiple packets of sweet-n-low into our coffee, we rail against the artificial, the disingenuous, the hypocritical, the idol. We seek authenticity and raw-ness and claim to be repulsed by unnatural additives that mask what-is-meant-to-be. Yet, we secretly hold on to our addictive guarantee because it forces no pesky, un-called-for challenge. The immediacy of our desires, especially in our current age, lends itself to a sweet-n-low culture-- in our music, our art, our architecture, our religion, our often vapid and cursory self-expressions, our writing… Saccharin-ness in lifestyle keeps us lukewarm, our desires seemingly fulfilled, the negative side-effects seemingly avoided.

Then, once in a great while, we taste it again, the originality and sweetness of a story that has been told over and over again but ever-new, one that reflects of the timelessness of truth and rejects this laughable imitation that can only convey such a pitifully small portion.

Herein lies the immense beauty of Heather King’s recently-published book, Shirt of Flame: A Year with St. Therese of Lisieux: King’s writing, a vocation-fulfilling manifestation of her inner spirituality, is the anti-saccharin. (Her blog by the same name, Shirt of Flame, provides almost daily proof).

Shirt of Flame: A Year with St. Thérèse of Lisieux is the story of a saint who knew what she was about told by an author utterly committed to the never-ending discovery and disciplined expression of what she, herself, is about. It exemplifies a stripping away of the temptation to imitate and/or gloss over experiences with additives of pious, theological vocabulary-- in order to tell an important story once again... for the first time (“…there is only one story [and an infinite number of ways to tell it]: the story of death and resurrection. That was Christ’s story, that was Thérèse’s story, and that was very much the story of the alcoholic who gets sober.”[1] ). This book is, in fact, “the story of a soul” who has often been mistakenly deemed “saccharin” because of her dripping, seemingly-too-good-to-be-true expressions of romantic and melodramatic love for Jesus. Yet, her resolve to love daily, earnestly, sweetly, and entirely has transformed our idea of vocation from destination or reachable goal to the immediate and burning realm of the moment. Thérèse revealed the authentic, joyful, suffering, true love to which all of our feeble saccharin expressions point.

In addition, it is the story of another soul-- one who takes St. Thérèse’s lessons regarding agape (“[refraining] from projecting our unworked-through issues upon the folks around us… loving people for the simple fact that they exist”)[2], obedience (“not to cede responsibility for our spiritual development, but to free ourselves for maximum devotion to that precise pursuit”)[3], being religious (“Does blood not beat in your veins? Have you never ached with sorrow at the suffering of the world? Have you never cried at the flight of a bird? Have you never fallen in love?”)[4], prayer (“The goal of prayer isn’t to do anything right, to acquire a technique, Thérèse seemed to be saying. The goal is surrender…”)[5] and other virtues straight to heart.

As implied in the title, Heather walks with St. Thérèse for a full year, through themed months of deep and practical reflection upon aspects of Thérèse ’s “little way.” King’s year-long excursion is meant to lead her through the crucible of the daily (the very same crucible to which Thérèse was voluntarily subject in the Carmelite convent in the late 1800’s), beyond the glitter and abstraction of a retreat mentality and toppling over the naïve and foolish “ladder” to sanctity. Heather demonstrates how Thérèse’s grasp of spirituality, like all of the saints of our great tradition, was devoid of any type of saccharin expression; rather, it was “intensely down to earth.” St. Thérèse was fully immersed in the mud and mire of humble asceticism, rooting out the propensity for sin by willfully committing to the repetition of small, unnoticed, and yet courageous acts of love. King displays how St. Thérèse’s little way did not constitute a “reduction of desire” or some type of justified spiritual laziness. Quite the opposite. It was proof that the only “shortcut” to Christ is the cross. And therein lies the beauty.

King’s account of her year-long friendship with St. Thérèse is truly an example of Flannery O’Connor-esque stark, often shocking, beauty and realism. It is filled with unapologetically real life, with manifestations of the both/and of Catholic dynamism and spirituality by way of practical comparisons of Thérèse’s experience and Heather's own. Thérèse, not “prettified”, not “anecdotal,” not saccharin, but manifesting the glory of Christ whom she loved so completely-- Thérèse called Heather and, by way of her writing, calls each of us to “hold the unbearable tension between two kinds of fire: the fire of our self-will and the fire of God’s purifying love.”[6] This tension, manifested perfectly in the Incarnation, animates the lives of the saints whom we honor this All Saints Day. Through the intercession of St. Thérèse, may we have the grace to allow it to animate our own.

Purchase Shirt of Flame: A Year with St. Thérèse of Lisieux here. For Christmas. For your family. For your friends. For yourself. I’m serious. Put down the diet coke and click on the link.

Rozann Carter is an Adminstrative Assistant and blog contibutor at Word on Fire Catholic Ministries.

Thank you, Rozann! FYI, Rozann is picking me up at O'Hare (I think) in a couple of weeks when I fly to Chicago to meet all these good WOF folks in the flesh...

9 comments:

  1. Marvelous review for a wonder filled book. I am devoted to St. Therese as a patron for she responded to me in a time of serious crisis and has not left me since. I thank God you wrote this book, Heather, for it has reawakened my understanding of her glorious Little Way.

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  2. A GREAT review of a GREAT book. :)

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  3. Now if only there was a bookstore around here to buy it in! <;-)>

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  4. I'm even more excited to read it now! Hurry up, Amazon UK.
    Congratulations Heather on this review.
    I've just been reading 'Catholic tales for boys and girls' by Caryll Houselander and ended up crying while reading one to my son. They are beautiful - even for adults.
    God bless

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  5. From Gail Finke:

    Hi Heather,

    What a great review. I haven't gotten the book yet (my book money is currently nonexistent) but it is on my list.

    I was so surprised by St. Therese's book when I read it. It wasn't at all what I thought it would be like, and I didn't think it was saccarine -- it is occasionally very girly, but I have a teenage girl in the house and they are like that. Therese was not a typical girl, by any means, but I bet she would have written in bubble letters and drawn flowers and hearts all over everything, if that's what teenage girls did then, when she was fifteen and trying so hard to get into the convent.

    She is an amazing example of someone who knew very well that she was a saint and had the courage and the love to do almost anything --but who also knew that she was just a child, and then just a girl, and then just a young woman, who lived in a small town and had not opportunity to do it. So she did exactly what she could do, but she did it like a saint. And then, when she was dying and they would not give her pain medicine, she said just what any normal person would say, "Hey, I said I wanted to suffer but I didn't know it would be like this!" Like Jesus, she didn't shirk or complain, exactly, and she never wavered. She just seems to have been astonished at what it was like.

    And that is the quality of Jesus's suffering that makes us pity him and hardly dare to believe that we CAN pity him. Poor little Therese! You pity her but for her suffering, not for her life.

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  6. Well, it is a terrific book and worth reading several times.

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  7. I second what Barbara says here (twice!). It's my favorite kind of book - the kind that begs to be reread.

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  8. Yes, I totally agree with this review. Heather, I love your writing. You don't try to paint everything as perfect, and because of that, I feel that you get to the heart of our journey with Jesus. I am planning on making a magnet out of one paragraph -- it spoke so much to me. (That's the greatest compliment a Mom can pay: "It's going on the fridge!")

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  9. Dear Heather,
    thank you so much for writing this book! I'm so glad I came across it! I read "The Story of a Soul" some time ago and afterwards thought, "Weeeelll,...." The short biography that was included in the book didn't help either. But after reading your book the penny dropped. I'm impressed, too, by the fact that she was made a teacher of the church so quickly, too; it shows that the folks in Rome saw what made Therese special, too. I'm goint to read "Shirt of Flame" again, this time much more slowly and think that I will get even more out of it. Thanks again for sharing yourself!

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I WELCOME your comments!!!