from Chapter July, page 177, Coventry Patmore on a saint: "...he will mostly likely dwell with reiteration on commonplaces with which you were perfectly well acquainted before you were twelve years old; but you must make allowance for him, and remember that the knowledge which is to you a surface with no depth is to him a solid..."
"A solid"--firmness, foundation, support, unwavering, not prone to or dependent upon fashions or whims. Something which I honestly have felt myself lacking for months now. "Rock solid" is a cliche we often use, and the book Shirt of Flame has been a rock of sorts--a pebble-- in my life since it arrived on my doorstep. Two forms of a pebble--the one-- that aggravating pebble in a shoe that makes its presence known with each step you take until you finally stop and deal with it. And the other--a smooth, beautiful pebble, held in your palm, as you turn it over and stroke it, an aid to your contemplation, quietly and unobtrusively helping you focus your mind or, to free your mind from focus.
This book dovetails perfectly with our first read, Lizzie's War. They are both real and honest--nakedly so--but Lizzie and Mike, their boys--their various wars, though based on reality, are still fiction and they give the reader the necessary comfort of exploring uncomfortable truths in a fictional setting. In such a way, fiction can influence our lives. Through our discussions of Lizzie's War, we explored the role of vocation and striving to truly live--to thrive, spiritually, emotionally, physically--where we find ourselves. Part of the comfort lay in the truth of the C.S. Lewis quote which heads our blog banner, similarly shared by F. Scott Fitzgerald, who wrote: "That is part of the beauty of literature. You discover that your longings are universal longings, that you're not lonely and isolated from anyone. You belong." We found that we weren't alone as we related to Lizzie, Betty, Fr. Germaine, Danny and saw bits of ourselves, friends, neighbors, and family members in these characters. For me, the language and honesty of Lizzie's War was refreshing, not as a breath of fresh air, but more like a blast of heat, with its cocktails, profanity, and flawed characters, shaking and awakening me from my safe Catholic world. The world I had tried to create, and maybe control, through homeschooling, a retreat from the range of great literature which had previously nourished me in favor of a strict diet of classics and spiritual reading, and fewer and fewer non-Catholic friends and acquaintances. My world--my little world--shrinking and gradually closing in--suffocatingly so.
So, after the refreshing blast of Lizzie's War came Shirt of Flame. I wanted to read this from the first time Lauren shared it with me. I wanted to hear from this real woman she described in Heather King. She lived in Los Angeles. She was divorced. She had worked for NPR. She was a convert. This was no "more Catholic than the Pope" Catholic. This sounded like a real, in-the-trenches, in-the-world-not-of-the-world-Catholic. I had loved St. Therese and grown to love her more when I read her Story of the Soul, given to me by my friend of twenty-four years, my southern Baptist friend, Gina. I finished the book a few weeks before Mama died and St. Therese was my friend and comfort during those first few months.
Heather King and St. Therese, however, did not offer me the insulation of fiction as I delved into the truth of Love--what it means to really love, to truly realize we are loved, and of knowing out Lover. From the beginning, in the title that was inspired by the words of T.S. Elliot, the stage is set for the rawness--the reality--of life: "breaks the air," "incandescent terror," "the torment," "the intolerable shirt of flame."
And I squirmed. I chaffed--at King's words--and from the shirt, described by Elliot, which King and Therese embraced. I rebelled. After the first chapters, the book was left on my bedside table and it grated on me, like that bothersome pebble. And I didn't want to stop and deal with it. I wanted it to go away, so I could go away. I wanted to be left alone to nurse my wounds. But I had to read it. I agreed to be part of this book club. I needed this book club. And I knew, at some level, that I needed this book. So, I picked it up again, in my irritation, in my hurt, in what I realized, as I read--as King and Therese pointed out to me--was my egotistical state, where I didn't simply nurse my wounds--real and imagined--but actually preened over them. My mind and my heart were at odds. Intellectually, I acknowledged it was a great book--a deep, life-changing book. I could see its capacity for profound spiritual and emotional growth. And my heart disliked it for that. My heart knew what wounds were waiting to be exposed--and healed--and it raged against the pain of the purifying fire, denying itself the cleansing and healing of Love.
Continuing in the spirit of being forthright, my heart did not open to this book until after I physically sat with others and discussed it. It seemed that everyone approached the discussion with obvious elation. I think everyone else at some point even physically expressed her love for the book by hugging it close to her heart, usually after sharing a quote that had special impact. I listened to my fellow readers as they described how they were touched, how they were convicted, how they were enlightened by the book, by Heather King, and by beautiful Therese. I watched the downcast eyes that finally looked up rimmed with tears. And the cracks began to break. The self-protection and denial of my solitude gave way to an openness and vulnerability in the presence of those beautiful women, each with a wisdom from her own experiences with life and our most recent book assignment. The edges were being smoothed. A light of compassion lit my mind's image of my mother as we discussed the passage about faithful women who keep the Church and homes going with their unnoticed efforts. My mother was that steady heartbeat of our home in the face of the poorly functioning, diseased--spiritually, emotionally, physically--head. The wound of my judgements--Why had she not left? Why had she endured so much?--flared and stung, but I let it be exposed. I let go and let it rise to the surface.
The hurt of lies and manipulation from a person whom I had trusted were allowed to throb, to pulse with pain, as we delved deeper into the idea that perhaps the untainted image we had of people before they hurt us was the way God sees them, ignoring their flaws and sins, of which we are also guilty.
In the midst of Therese's daily, hourly surrenders of her will, I let myself acknowledge my selfishness over the past few months. The way I had jealously guarded what seemed to precious little bits of time for myself in the midst of my 24/7 vocation. It was as if I was giving my heart permission to acknowledge the hurts as objective fact, but let go of the pain they caused. For the first time in months, I was leaving my heart open to God and the change in my heart was as simple and unsophisticated as the cartoon image from Dr. Suess' Grinch, as his heart slowly grows to almost bursting proportions. I kept silent during most of the discussion, only joining in toward the end. I trudged to the discussion, but I left changed.
And now, that worrisome pebble has been smoothed by companionship, by waves of tears, by the brutally honest and simultaneously loving words of St. Therese and Heather King that reflect their journey, their struggles, their painful purification. Since our discussion, the quotes from the book, the thoughts of the women gathered to discuss it, and the immeasurably deep truths expressed in it are like that smooth pebble that I hold in my hand. It's there, always present, as I stop and hold my tongue when I want to gripe at the child who has spilled his drink AGAIN. It's there as I remember the hurts of the past. It's there as I attempt to reconcile the familial dysfunction of my childhood with the strength of my mother who loomed large as a refuge of normalcy and hope. It's there, as I feel less alone and more loved than I have felt in a while. Unconsciously, I turn over the wisdom, rub it against my palm. But it doesn't stop there. I've returned to Shirt of Flame each day since that discussion. I'm consciously re-reading, not as a book, but as part of a devotion. The pebble that irritated me now challenges me with the fire, with hope, with loneliness, with Love, even as I know the journey is long and it won't be easy. Valleys and peaks of the spiritual life. I've been in the valley and now I can look up toward the next peak, if I can learn from Therese's Little Way and from Heather King's own journey along her own Little Way.
I sit here typing this, watching my daughter through the window as she enjoys a frozen fruit bar with a purity of which only a child is capable. After she bugged me for hours after I bought the box and I finally snapped, "At 3:00, you can have one! Quit bothering me about food!" (Quit talking to me, my child, while I'm trying to write!) So, good on you, Heather King and St. Therese. I'm surrendering and going very much against my will by leaving this piece without any well-thought out ending. I'm going to go spend time with my children and just enjoy being with them. It's a start--a little one--