Monday, April 24, 2017


Recently I stayed at the Joshua Tree cabin of my friend Lisa Marr for a three-day, self-designed residency.

This was my “Mission Statement”:

I chose my dates to coincide with the Triduum, in the Catholic church the three days preceding Easter: Holy Thursday, Good Friday, and the Easter vigil that takes place Saturday night when Christ, in the tomb for three days, is resurrected.

To that end, I plan to spend my time in Joshua Tree reveling in nature, taking hikes, playing the piano, taking photographs and notes, working on an essay about my desert experience, and contemplating my death.

Paolo Davanzo, founder of the community storefront and resource known as the Echo Park Film Center, is Lisa’s life and creative partner. She walked in one day during the Center’s infancy and neither of them have ever looked back. They give free documentary film-making classes to the elderly and kids (I met them several years ago when I took their Intro to Documentary Film-making class myself).

They travel around the world showing people how to make movies about their neighborhoods and families and friends. They’re always learning something new: how to teach people how to film with Super 8; how to process film using native materials like, say, cranberry juice from Alaskan bogs; how to convert an old bus into a Filmmobile they drive to spots in and around LA for screenings and impromptu parties.

As Paolo says, “We never know who will walk into the Center: a kid on a skateboard, an older guy wanting to convert home movies to digital, a CalArts film theorist, a homeless woman wanting to use the bathroom.”

The day of my arrival, I drive out to Joshua Tree and meet the two of them at the downtown Two Sisters Café. Like all people of integrity, they dislike talking about or drawing attention to themselves. When I offer Lisa a donation to the Center for my time at the cabin, she demurs, “No, NO! That’s part of the deal. We don’t want to take money for the residencies. We just want people to feel free to create.”

After breakfast, I follow them out to the 5-acre property, which Lisa bought 17 years ago with a friend. The cabin, set high on a hill overlooking a bowl-shaped valley, has neither running water nor electricity and the idea of opening the place up for artist’s residencies is new. Together, Lisa and Paolo help me haul up my stuff and give me the grand tour. You put your food in a Coleman cooler, heat water on a two-burner propane stove “do your biz,” as Lisa charmingly puts it, in a spackling compound bucket set beneath a toilet seat in the outhouse—then dump it in the compost bin.

As soon as they drive off in their beat-up Honda, I unpack and set out for a walk, to explore. Dirt paths lead in every direction and treasures abound. Rocks in a variety of shapes and colors, from boulders down to pebbles. Pieces of desert driftwood that resemble human hands, devil’s claws, the squished head of a Jack Russell terrier. Chips of old colored glass, worn smooth by wind and sand. Desiccated cactus skeletons, shot through like Swiss cheese with holes. Fallen-in-on-themselves Joshua trees, their foliage like the corpses of gray fright wigs.

Within an hour I’m reflecting that the desert is full of contradictions.

A place of death where 30 or 40 kinds of wildflowers are in bloom.

A place of silence punctuated by noise: helicopters from the nearby military base, drunken revelers in gigantic pickup trucks, gunshots.

A place that draws people from two very different ends of the spectrum. At one end are those who view the desert as a place to despoil. People who tear up the earth and disturb the animals with dirt bikes, or dump their garbage, or put fences and barbed wire and guard dogs around their property in order to fortify what is “theirs.”

Then there are the Lisa and Paolos. People who don’t lock their doors even though the cabin was burgled several years ago and the thieves made off with, among other things, the indoor-mounted solar power controller. Instead of purchasing another solar controller and a dead bolt, they stocked the cabin with candles. As Lisa says cheerfully, “Seventeen years and one break-in: that’s pretty good.”

Instead of bringing extraneous stuff in to make the desert their own, Lisa and Paolo have built on what is already there. Out of painstakingly collected rocks, they have fashioned a labyrinth, a bocce court, and the stone floor of what they hope to eventually make into an open-air “Dream House,” for looking at the sky and dreaming.

A few years ago they invited some friends to help construct a pottery shed. Here they make bocce balls, wind chimes, little bowls to hold candles, cups in which to put wildflowers. On his hikes, Paolo leaves small bits of these colorful creations tucked among the rocks.

Now that I’ve started to get my bearings, I return to the cabin and explore inside, too. A green over-the-shoulder bag bearing an old-school paper tag with a Russian doll printed on one side and on the other the hand-printed message: “Good for collecting rocks.” Oil, vinegar, salt, honey, tea. Extra cans of soup and sardines. Sunscreen, Band-Aids. Extra sleeping bags, bedding and quilts.

A game of Yahtzee, decks of cards, a tambourine. The out-of-tune piano Lisa had promised.

A woodstove, kindling, and a bookshelf that include Sibley’s Bird Guide, Home Repair, Marvels of Insect Life by Edward Step, and a volume that especially catches my eye: Growing Up at the Desert Queen Ranch by Willis Keys and Art Kidwell.

The chapter “Johnny Lang’s Ranch Visit” features a photo, circa 1923, of a man who looks exactly like Jack Sprat in the Illustrated Treasury of Children’s Literature I’ve carried around since I was a kid.

“On a cold day in January,” the story runs, “the old miner in need of supplies tacked a sign to his cabin door that he was heading out and was expected to return ‘soon.’ Two months later his mummified remains were discovered amongst the desert brush by Bill Keys, Frank Kiler, and Jeff Peeden as they were constructing the Keys View Road in what is now Joshua Tree National Park. The body of Johnny Lang was still covered with a piece of canvas, while nearby the remains of a small piece of bacon wrapped in paper, and the ashes of a last campfire were silent witnesses to what happened that night. Lang’s advanced age [he was 72], his state of malnutrition, and a cold winter’s night combined to make this camping spot his final one.”


That night the wind howls. Pieces of stray plywood rattle. Doors thump.

After my second day of eating sardines, canned soup and mandarin oranges, I begin to feel for Johnny. The thought of that “small piece of bacon” makes my mouth water.


There are three elements in the desert. Fire. Water. Cell reception.

The rising of the sun, the tiny fire flaring from a candle wick, the blue flame of the two-burner propane stove, all elicit indescribable joy.

Every drop of water needs to be trucked in, hauled up the hill and rationed. How grateful I am for enough of this precious, life-giving substance to fill the kettle and make a cup of instant coffee with sweetened condensed milk!

“No Service” reads my phone but I quickly discover that by following the base of the low-lying hills to the northeast, within five minutes I emerge into the clear and suddenly have three bars of reception.

Here, I also discover a stone “chair,” a little sheltered ledge set into a stand of people-height rocks.



The morning of Holy Thursday I go out to the stone chair and have a phone interview with a radio show out of Texas.

That night I drive the dirt road back to the paved roads, Route 62 and, in the adjacent town of Yucca Valley, the 7 o’clock service at St. Mary of the Valley. Holy Thursday is the night before Christ died, the night of the Last Supper when he dips his morsel and points it at Judas. The night that Christ, knowing he’s be betrayed, girds his loins, kneels, and washes the feet of his disciples.

To the outsider, why bother? A suburban church, unprepossessing in every way. A harried priest. Ten parishioners who take the altar, sit in folding chairs, and have their pre-scrubbed feet “washed.” But to those who love Christ, this is the re-enactment of a gripping drama. A God who consented to become man reviled and scorned, as all people of integrity eventually are on this earth. A God of love who failed in every worldly sense, as all people of love do.

Driving the unlit desert roads back to the cabin around 10, I reflect that it would have been “easier” to stay home and observe Holy Week from the comfort of my apartment, near to my local parish. In two months, I’ll be 65. I’m in good shape, and take no medications, but my body aches. Scrabbling among the boulders, I’m not quite as sure of my footing as I used to be. At night, out here all alone, I’m a little afraid.

But in Wood of the Cradle, Wood of the Cross, Caryll Houselander, lover of traumatized children and one of my most treasured spiritual companions, observes:

“It is the favorite accusation of those who, for reasons of their own, are made uneasy at the sight of someone else’s honest attempt to practice the Faith, that to save one’s own soul is a selfish, egocentric preoccupation which makes one introverted, censorious, and withdrawn from other people.

In reality the opposite is true. As Christ grows in the soul, suffering and the capacity for suffering increase in the life, and with it the desire to suffer grows. This is not because of any morbidity, such as masochism, but because where Christ increases, love increases”…

So more and more I see the value of consenting to some tiny bit of discomfort, of stretching physically and spiritually. You can’t plan for what might or might not happen. You have to let go and offer yourself up, knowing that while you’re stretching you don’t “feel” anything is happening except that you’re suffering, possibly needlessly and not all that graciously or patiently.

I need to participate with people like Lisa and Paolo, simply because of who they are: smart, kind, funny, generous of spirit, excited about life. There’s another reason. The single, celibate life, though not one I would have freely chosen, suits me perfectly. It’s been given to me as a gift and a mystery and a cross.

But two people together can create something that neither one could have created alone. That is the glory of marriage or any in-for-the-long-haul committed partnership. That glory spills over to all who come in contact with it. I find I like to spend a certain amount of time around people who are happily, fruitfully paired. I need that strength to sustain me.

My own life bears some of the same fruit a marriage would, and some different fruit. I hear through my writing from a variety of people. Because I’m available in a way a person with a partner and/or children perhaps couldn’t be, I’m able to respond, and make a conscious effort to respond, in a way that requires time, strength and heart.

I hear from many such people out here in the desert. A nurse from Montana who can’t stop drinking. A religious education teacher whose husband is addicted to porn. A woman from Wales who’s contemplating becoming a contemplative hermit. A retired priest whose ministry is visiting priests who have been convicted of sexual abuse in prison Another woman who’s been diagnosed with cancer and wonders if I could share some experience, strength and hope with respect to my own bout with cancer—and could I pray for her?

I can’t use my laptop but out on the stone chair with my phone, I answer my emails. This tiny discipline is part of what I call my policy of love. You get some exercise every day. You learn something useful. You do something kind that you won’t be recognized for. You notice and give thanks for what is beautiful. You practice a bit of piano.


Good Friday is a day of fasting.

I come out to the stone chair again that morning to pray the Stations of the Cross: the chart of Jesus’s long, tortured walk to Mt. Calvary. Christ Is Condemned to Death. Christ Meets his Mother. Veronica Wipes Christ’s Face With Her Veil. Christ Speaks to the Women. Christ Falls a Third Time.

On one level, really the only important level, I’m beyond thrilled and grateful simply to be alive. Deep down, I reside in a kind of perpetually stunned happiness

But on an incarnate level, I’m hungry and dirty.

I feel hollowed out, empty, devoid of ideas.

I do know this: to bring my body and blood to a place where the bodies of other people I admire and respect and love have been. If there’s one thing I believe in it’s the mystical order. That our little acts of kindness help. That our meager attempts at peace-making help. That our going the extra mile for and with each other register. That our songs and stories and films and pottery cups and dream houses literally hold the world together.

Tradition has it that Christ Was Nailed to the Cross around 9 in the morning. He didn't breathe his last till 3.

I raise my face to the sun. And with Lisa and Paolo’s tattered prayer flags flying in the wind on the surrounding hills, I contemplate my death.


A clip from Haydn's Piano Sonata No. 40.
I am not kidding, Take 75.

Monday, April 17, 2017



I was out in the desert at Joshua Tree last week without wifi, but here's how my arts and culture Holy Week piece begins:

Mary Ann O’Connor, 69, is a cradle Catholic and the oldest of seven children.

She was born in Santa Monica, grew up in the San Fernando Valley and trained on-site as a nurse at L.A. County-General — an experience that had “a huge impact.”

She worked bedside for 12 years, served two years in the military during the Vietnam War and then moved into management and hospital leadership. And for the last four years she has traveled to the L.A. Catholic Worker soup kitchen on Skid Row to wash and tend to the feet of the poor.

“You really can’t do something like this without a place like the Catholic Worker,” Mary Ann said. “If you tried to do it anywhere else, you would have formalities related to licensing and liability.

“But you walk into the soup kitchen at Gladys and 6th, the heart of Skid Row, and you are free to do the work, not as an expert, but responsibly, thoughtfully,” she added.

Karan Founds-Benton, the lead person and organizer of the foot care ministry at the Catholic Worker, has been Mary Ann’s teacher and mentor. “Through her, I came to love the work. I owe her so much,” she said.

By and large, people make a commitment to show up by signing up when they come to the kitchen for their Thursday noon meal. The foot washers usually start with a list of about 12 people, and they take walk-ins when they can. They work from 8 a.m. to noon every Friday.


Tuesday, April 11, 2017



Gil Baile, follower of philosopher/theologian Rene Girard, and a philosopher/theologian in his own right, is the author of the stellar and important Violence Unveiled.

His new book is called God's Gamble

An excerpt:

"Was the outcome of Christ's incarnation and death a foregone conclusion, or did something hang in the balance?...Did Jesus's Passion pose any risk for the Triune God and for the created order stamped with a Trinitarian ordination? Having chosen to bring the created order into the Trinitarian communion through the one creature endowed with true and truly consequential freedom, was the outcome of the plan of redemption--foreseen by omniscience though it was--nonetheless truly dramatic? Was there a sense of a divine gamble on the outcome of which both Jesus's Resurrection and the continued existence of the created order itself depended? "Is there not, right from the start, writes [Hans Urs von] Balthasar, "something we might call 'hope' on the part of Father and Spirit, namely, the hope that the Son's mission will succeed?"

Whatever unimaginable degree of divine condescension the Incarnation itself must have entailed, might we not draw closer to the heart of what Balthasar calls the theo-drama by framing Christ's culminating plunge into the realm of sin and death as quite literally the greatest gamble of all time: the "momentary" interruption within the Trinity of the world-sustaining exchange between the Divine Persons. As preposterous as this may sound, no one has captured this possibility better than did Joseph Ratzinger. Commenting on Jesus's death on the Cross, he writes:

When the human instrument comes to fall away, the spiritual action which is founded on it also disappears, temporarily. Thus something more is shattered here than in any ordinary death. There is an interruption of that dialogue which in reality is the axis of the whole world. The cry of agony in Psalm 21, "My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me," makes us perceive something of the depths of this process.

The Passion of Christ consists of a series of the most important events in history and beyond, but these events are also--and even more importantly--traces of and evidence for an inner-Trinitarian event of literally earth-shaking scope and consequence. For what is at stake is the survival of the created order, imperiled by man's misused gift of freedom and threatening the irreversible disfiguration of creatures divinely destined for participation in the communion of Trinitarian Love. Giorgio Buccellati saw the cosmic peril in Christ's godforsakenness prefigured in Jesus's temptation in the wilderness:

In the tempter's view, the possibility that Jesus might succumb to temptation would have caused a seismic rupture such as to rent asunder (again, in his view) the very core of trinitarian life, hencethe order of being in its integrity. If so, it was by avoiding sin that Jesus saved the whole of reality from ontological collapse.

--Gil Bailie, God's Gamble, Angelico Press, 2016, pp. 218-220.

In my clumsy way, I tried to get at something similar several years ago, in a post called "Waiting Without Anxiety."

Did God himself not know how the events of what we now know as Holy Week would pan out? The more I think about it, the more I think not.

A simple way to say it is that God would never ask Christ and thus us to do something he hadn't done or wasn't doing himself ("If you have seen me, you have seen the Father."). He wouldn't ask us to hold the tension of an anxiety he hadn't himself consented to hold. The whole thing HAD to be a gamble.

Thank you, Gil Bailie, both for the book and for my inscribed copy.


I'm headed out to a cabin in Joshua Tree with no electricity and no running water for the rest of Holy Week! Sardines, crackers, vinegar mixed with gall...let's see if I make it.

Wishing one and all a deep Semana Santa. I'll bring my camera.

Monday, April 10, 2017


My avoidance of PR may have hit a new low. I myself didn't realize that as of April 1, my newest book is out!

I'd love for you to read it.

Here's the press release:

Holy Desperation by Heather King
New Book Offers Spiritual Survival Guide for Desperate Times

Heather King’s new book Holy Desperation: Praying as if Your Life Depends on It (Loyola Press, $13.95 paper back, April 1, 2017) combines mysticism, 12-step wisdom, and a clear-eyed view of human nature into a survival guide for desperate times. “When life has driven you to your knees, this is the prayer book for you,” says King, a recovering alcoholic. “No one knows better than a drunk who’s been struck sober that things happen on a level we can’t see.”

King reclaims prayer for those who feel beyond the reach of God, debunking the myth that we have to shape up before we come to God. Prayer is not about becoming good, it’s about becoming fully human.

A survivor of years of hard living, King’s first prayer of desperation was said on her knees while she was strung out and half-drunk. “I was thirty-four, and it was the first time in my life I had ever sincerely prayed. I had just had what we drunks call a moment of clarity,” King writes. “For me, the moment consisted of the realization that if I didn’t stop drinking, I was going to die.”

Her recovery remains the central fact of her existence, King says. When she joined the Catholic Church twenty years ago,“the paradigm of Crucifixion and Resurrection, the parable of the prodigal son, the merciful God, the conscience-based teachings—all made perfect sense to me.”

King offers ways to pray when you’re uncertain that God exists or when you feel that you’re beyond God’s reach. Practices she has found transformative are Lectio Divina, a slow, rhythmic reading and praying of scripture passages; the Jesus Prayer, a brief, repetitive prayer; and examination of conscience or moral inventory—the basis of Ignatian spirituality, 12-step spirituality, and the Gospels. She also recommends the Divine Office: “If you don’t know about the Divine Office of the Catholic Church, you are missing one of life’s great mysteries and joys: psalms, feasts, solemnities, saints, and holy days; birth, death, resurrection, the whole cyclical pageant of the liturgical and human seasons.”

Prayer leads us beyond ourselves—beyond our own suffering and into a life of purpose, lived for the good of others. As King says in Holy Desperation:

• Prayer can help us wake up “from a narcotic culture that at every every turn numbs without ever really killing our pain.”

• The Gospels are meant to have practical application: “The teachings of Christ apply first, forever and always at the personal level: to our daily interactions with our fellows, to our relationships to money, power, and sex, to our secrets resentments and fears.”

• “Prayer gives us the increasing ability to discriminate between the true and the false, the authentic and the fake, the excellent and the mediocre, the vital and the inert.”

• “The sign of a follower of Christ is not necessarily that we have only healthy relationships and our checkbooks are balanced and our children are going to Ivy League schools. The sign of the follower of Christ is that we get a kick out of life.”

• “Spiritual awakening consists in our ability to rejoice at the awakening of another.”

• “I began to see that I had always loved God and that what I did each morning —sitting quietly watching the light, listening to sparrows, feeling incoherently grateful, letting my mind wander to the mysteries of the universe as prayer—was a form of prayer.”

King eschews the idea that prayer, or mysticism, for that matter, are esoteric matters. “Mysticism is not antithetical to reality. Mysticism underlies reality,” she says. “Prayer means nothing if its fruits can’t be communicated to a person of reasonable intelligence and goodwill in a way that is completely relatable and understandable. What is our prayer for if we’re not able to sit down with another human being, face to face, and say, ‘Tell me your story?’”

HEATHER KING is a Catholic convert with several books, among them Stripped. Parched; Redeemed; Shirt of Flame; Poor Baby; and Stumble: Virtue, Vice and the Space Between. She writes a weekly column on arts and culture for the Angelus magazine of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles. King lives in LA, and blogs at

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FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE Contact: Kelly Hughes, 312-280-8126



Friday, April 7, 2017



This week's arts and culture column is about a way of teaching religious education that is all about touch, smell, sound, rhythm, contemplative silence, work and beauty: Namely, the Catechesis of the Good Shepherd, a method based on Montessori principles co-founded by Hebrew scholar Sofia Cavalletti.

Here's how the piece begins:

Sofia Cavalletti (1917-2011), co-foundress of the Cathechesis of the Good Shepherd, developed a three-level, nine-year method of religious education for children based on Montessori principles.

A native of Rome and a Hebrew scholar, she had neither the background nor interest in children’s education. But asked by a colleague in 1954 to teach a religion class to young people, Cavalletti read aloud from the book of Genesis. And a 7-year-old named Paolo, wept.

Those tears of joy amazed her. Through a teacher named Gianna Gobbi, Cavalletti learned of the child’s natural capacity for contemplation, love of order and silence and delight in work.

Together they developed a space for combined learning and worship that they called an atrium, and a method — the Catechesis of the Good Shepherd (CGS) — that has changed very little to this day.

A couple of Saturday mornings ago, I drove to Fillmore, a ranching town outside Santa Paula. Here, Richena Curphey, a librarian at Thomas Aquinas College by day, has established a CGS atrium for the children of St. Francis of Assisi parish.


Tuesday, April 4, 2017



“People wish to be settled; only as far as they are unsettled is there any hope for them.”
--Ralph Waldo Emerson

I am back from Death Valley.

The trip was not "easy." The trip in many ways was kind of harsh.

My rear "spoiler" (which sounds hot-roddy but I drive a Fiat; the little ledge above my rear window) blew off on the way out. For several miles I kept hearing what sounded like pebbles hitting the underside of my car: I looked in the rear view mirror, saw nothing, kept going. Only upon reaching my hotel the first night did I see it was gone, leaving an unsightly oblong patch rimmed my dried glue on the roof of my beloved vehicle. As car repairs go, I figured this would be several hundred dollars.

Death Valley is huge, isolated, desolate, sparse. There is no cell reception. I saw about three clumps of wildflowers (wildflowers were one of the many reasons I'd come) the entire time.

Badwater, the lowest point in the lower 48 states, consists of miles and miles of open, utterly empty salt flats. My second day I parked there, walked way out, and lay down. Miles of openness and utter quiet and mountains on every side.

I got alone with God, and what I felt so strongly was the anguish of my heart. So much fear. Will the ice run out? What if my car breaks down and I can't even call AAA? What if no-one ever loves me? What if I never learn to love anyone else? What if AT&T doesn't refund my $17.64? What if back home my hollyhock seedlings are wilting? What if I get Alzheimer's? What if God is mad at me for being so weak, so broken, so lukewarm, such a baby, so stubborn?

From Badwater, I went to Zabriskie Point and hiked down into the badlands a bit. Just as I was leaving, a rogue wind blew up.

As the afternoon wore on, what with the dust and sand, visibility was virtually nil: the highway patrol I learned later, had issued a don't-drive advisory. I arrived at the Amargosa Opera House Hotel, former home of one of my heroines: ballerina Marta Becket, just in time to avoid perishing on the road. Marta died this year and I wanted to say a prayer for her soul and ask hers for mine. The wind howled and I do mean howled all night. I tucked up the curtains so I could see the boughs of the trees in back wrenching and twisting.

On my way out the next morning, with 50 miles to the nearest gas station, my "Check tire pressure: low right rear wheel" light came on."

I limped into Shoshone, commandeered a guy to help me fill my tires, and continued down the lonely desert highway of Route 127. Fifteen or so miles shy of the 15, sitting untrammeled on a nice wide shoulder on the opposite side of the road from the direction I'd been travelling, I spotted my oliva verde spoiler,

I wheeled over, nabbed it, once home brought it to a body shop, and the guy simply snapped it back on. No charge!

This frees me up to concentrate on my many dental problems.