Sunday, August 16, 2015


One challenge of Catholicism has always consisted in looking around and resisting the impulse to fall into despair at (depending upon the era and your own personal gripes) the priests, parishioners, liturgy, hierarchy, music, architecture, literature, emphasis on social justice, emphasis on contemplation, failure to be sufficiently conservative, failure to be sufficiently liberal.

The impulse is to believe people will improve if we point out their faults to them. The impulse is to exhort. But to think that the Church will improve if other people act better is like making our life's work exhorting “Marriage is imperfect!” Or “People can be unkind!” Or “You live and then you die!” We already know those things.

"Where are the courageous ones?" the indignant voice perpetually asks. "Where are the saints, the heroes, the martyrs? Where is the real follower of Christ?"

At some point you realize: Oh. I'm supposed to try to be that person myself.

"Christianity has not been tried and been found wanting," observed G.K. Chesterton. "It has been tried and found difficult."

“Narrow is the gate,” Christ said, and you can rig little fake cardboard dioramas on either side to make it look wider, but it is still going to be narrow. To be a follower of Christ means being certain that we are to love each other as he loved us, and being very uncertain about what that means in any given situation. It means being certain that the light will prevail, and then consenting to walk in almost complete darkness. It means being certain about Christ, and very, very uncertain about ourselves.

“The operation of the Church is entirely set up for the sinner," wrote Flannery O'Connor, "which creates much misunderstanding among the smug.”

Nineteen years ago this month (why August?: long story) I was confirmed and took my First Communion at the Church of the Blessed Sacrament on Sunset Boulevard in Hollywood.

I never thought the Church planned to solicit my vote to see how it should be run. I never thought the Church was going to be one bit more perfect than I am which, to put it mildly, is not very. I read the news. I go to Mass, often daily. I see what is wrong with the world, with the Church. I have aesthetic tastes, homiletic preferences, and spiritual sensibilities that over the years have been crushed, again and again, to the ground.

But my experience has also been this: There has never not been a church, a copy of the Gospels, a breviary, an altar, a place to kneel, a cross with a body on it, a priest to say Mass and hear my Confession. I have never once been encouraged not to die to myself, not to serve the poor, not to quest, seek, pray, lay down my life. I have never been invited to hold myself to anything less than the very highest standard.

I can't think of a more appropriate place to have been confirmed and taken my first Communion than in the middle of Hollywood. For religion is not separate from life. It is life: our heart, our pain, our divided selves, our shattered dreams, our longing for the infinite.

“We shed tears because we were given a glimpse of the way life was created to be and is not,” observed the writer Frederick Buechner, and no-one felt that gap more keenly than Christ. “O Jerusalem,” he wept before going to his Crucifixion. “How often would I have gathered thy children together, even as a hen gathereth her chickens under her wings, and ye would not!”

After Mass, when everyone leaves and the lights are turned off, there Christ still hangs, broken and bleeding, alone, above the altar.

Out on Sunset Boulevard, sirens blare, traffic races, signs pulsate: “RoRo's Chicken,” “Crossroads of the World,” “Crazy Girls!!”

I think of St. Maria Goretti (stabbed to death rather than yield her virginity), St. Agatha (breasts twisted off with pincers rather than deny the faith); St. Rose of Lima (rubbed pepper on her face so as not to tempt with her beauty, then died serving the street people of Peru).

I think of how the mark of the saint is a capacity for love so extreme that the world often sees it as insane. I think that, after nineteen years of toil, sweat, pondering, loneliness, and often seemingly barren prayer, I still don't much focus on what's wrong with the Church.

I focus on the miracle that She took in a wretch like me.


  1. Heather, many blessings on your anniversary. Thanks for this beautiful reflection. I love your definition of what a saint is ... may it be said of each of us who strive to follow Christ.

  2. Thank you, Heather, as always for your potent testimony. Amnd many blessings on this anniversary!

  3. Reading this a day late, Heather, but hoping you had a beautiful, blessed day yesterday.

  4. To me, the Church is kind of like having an alcoholic mother: majestic one minute; engaging in some cringingly non-Christ-like behavior the next. But no matter what, she’s your Mother. No matter what, you love your mother. And the way you love her is you notice when she goes wrong, you grieve for her, you mourn for her, and then you silently resolve to help her do a little better. You don’t pretend not to see her faults and get all self-righteous and militaristic if someone attacks her—but you also don’t kick her when she’s down. I think the way we feel about the Church is very much an indication of how we feel, in our hearts, about the least of our brothers and sisters. In one of her letters,Dorothy Day quotes a priest who said, “You love God as much as you love the person you love least.” And by extension, I think we love God about as much as we love His Church... Heather King I love your words!

  5. Dying to self...this is where I get so confused. Growing up with an alcoholic father, I felt like I had to suppress my real self most of the time, and when I didn't, I would get yelled at. It took me a long time to even figure out who my real self was after that.

    But I know Jesus says whoever loses her life for His sake will save it. So part of me feels scared about feels a little like growing up, when I felt like I couldn't be me and show my emotions.

    Then again, Jesus says to give up our lives for HIS sake, not for the sake of someone else who is not deserving of it. Still, the part of me who felt like I couldn't talk or trust or feel doesn't want to give up a self that it took so long to discover. Or does self in this case really mean ego, not the self God made us to be?

    I am curious how you grapple with this, or if you do, because on the one hand, you are a very creative individual, with your own writing style and even clothing style, so it seems like you are your own person, a very interesting self. I mean this as a compliment. And sometimes I just get so confused about how, or if, I can be me and also be Christian when Jesus says to give up our self.

    Maybe you answered this question already in one of your books...I will have to review them.

    Anyway, happy anniversary of your confirmation.

    1. Dear Mary,

      As an ACOA I will try to answer your question. I believe that Jesus wants us to know what and who we are. That happens through great struggle, often with large strands of ego and original sin woven into us. That is OK. As we go further along the journey, though, we realize that the only TRUE self we have is the one that our Creator implanted in us at our conception. In order to move on, through His Grace, we come to realize that our self-designed ego will have to die to make room for our God-given self. Think of the words of Jesus about how the "...grain of wheat must die in order to rise..." The self you are asking about is the ego, or the grain of wheat. This we can only give up when we fully understand who we are and what is asked of us. Be patient with yourself in the meantime, and pray always.

    2. Thank you for your heartfelt reply. I will be patient in understanding all this.

    3. Hi Mary, thank your for this. I understand your dilemma and I love Stephen's answer. It's true: We have to have a self before we can die to self...We're never ever called to be doormats: to say it's okay that you abuse or diminish or belittle or undermine me. On the other hand, we also can't be eternal victims. I think Pope Francis is absolutely on to this. You can't just start throwing rules about say sexual behavior and tell people they're going to hell if they don't shape up when they've been sexually and/or emotionally abused as children; when our culture offers so very few models of integrated, self-giving emotional and sexual health. We're all invited to the table, however we are, and the invitation is to heal, to come awake in love. That's a life-long, ongoing process. from what I've seen, 12-step programs offer a framework and a fellowship that have been helpful to many. I wish you a fruitful pilgrimage...

  6. Amazed and amused to discover the day of your full communion in the Catholic Church is the feast of St Roch or (better) Rocco, patron of plague victims, falsely accused, pilgrims and finally, among other groups, dogs. I once served in Transfiguration church on Mott St in Manhattan and there his statue was: dressed as a pilgrim St Rocco was exposing his leg with a nasty sore. Nearby was a dog who used to lick the sore and healed it. If we have learned nothing else, dear Heather, God works in mysterious ways. Big hugs, Fr P

    1. Hi Fr. Pat! When I was diagnosed with cancer back in 2000 someone gave me a postcard of what had to be St. Rocco. His leg was bandaged, he had a dog, and most thrilling of all, his monkish black robe was of some kind of scab-like material that was raised from the page. I probably still have that card somewhere with my tchotchkes! Glad to be aboard. Blessings to you and your flock in Monterey.

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