Today, we are thrilled to present an excerpt from the text of Heather King's brilliant new book, Shirt of Flame: A Year with St. Thérèse of Lisieux. The book takes the reader through a year of Heather's life, month by month, as she faces daily joys and sufferings within the framework of a deeply conscious reflection upon the saintly journey of this Doctor of the Church, attempting in all things to live out St. Thérèse's "little way" of love. Heather offers Word on Fire a portion of the chapter "MAY: Poverty, Chastity, Obedience (On Radical Social Conscience)." Take a look at the excerpt, and be sure to read all of Heather's wonderful journey with the patron saint of Word on Fire, the Little Flower:
Like any thinking person, Thérèse felt the inferior position of women: “Oh! Poor women, how they are disparaged!...It’s no doubt for that reason that He allows scorn to be their lot on earth, since He chose that for Himself….In heaven He’ll know how to show that His thoughts are not man’s thoughts [Isa. 55:8-9], because then the last shall be first. [Mt. 20:16].”
She was also well aware of the fallibility of priests: “For a month [during her Papal visit] I lived with many holy priests, and I saw that if their sublime dignity raises them above the angels, they are nonetheless weak and fragile men.”
Her solution, however, was not to lobby for “rights.” Her solution was not to insist that she could have done a better job, though that may well have been the case. Her solution was to make praying for priests part of her vocation—even though she longed to be a priest herself.
This is part of what spiritual writer Ron Rolheiser means when he calls us to carry the “unresolved tension” of the Cross. We don’t say a novena or two for the victims of abortion and rape, human trafficking, child prostitution, and sex addiction, then wring our hands. We don’t “pray” for peace, and then treat everyone around us badly. We change our whole lives. We do a deep and ongoing examination of conscience looking at our own sexual behavior, orientation of heart, emotional wounds. We look at the way we use other people as objects. We look at the way we are willing to take the shortcut, sexually and otherwise.
For to love means to want the spiritual well-being of the other, and that means we’re called to give way, way more than our political views. We’re called, with the help of spiritual mentors, to root out the old ideas, compulsions, and patterns that drive us. We’re called to be faithful to our vocations, even if nobody else seems remotely interested in our work, thoughts, sacrifices, lives. It’s difficult to feel marginalized and unrecognized, but what’s really hard is, as you’re feeling unrecognized, to recognize and support someone else.It’s difficult to minister to the poor, the hungry, the drug-, alcohol- and sex-addicted, but what’s really hard is to get and stay sober yourself.
I went to Mass often, and observing the many parishioners who were elderly women, I had an incredible sense of how dear women must be to Christ. He sees the plodding, steady devotion of the women who come to church all over the world, day in, day out, week in, week out; who come to daily Mass, who say the Rosary, who pray the novenas, who grip the holy cards, who wear the scapulars, who carry the flame. Who wait. And who in a very real way have kept the Church going. They have kept the Church going—without revolt, without complaint—for the sometimes wayward priests who minister to them. They have kept the Church going while more “liberated” folk tell them they are mindless serfs who should rise up and throw off their chains. They have kept the Church going so that people like me can stumble in, like the five-o’clock workers in the Parable of the Vineyard [Matthew 20: 1-16], and be “saved.” They have kept the Church going so that the Church could produce—as only the Church could have produced—Dorothy Day and Blessed Teresa of Calcutta and St. Therese of Lisieux; Archbishop Óscar Romero and César Chávez and St. Maximilian Kolbe.When St. Paul observed “There is no limit to love’s forbearance, to its trust, its hope, its power to endure” [Cor. 13: 7], he must surely have been thinking of women.
“I choose all!” said Thérèse, and the further I progressed, the more I saw that the human dilemma is to want it all. I wanted to be a celibate, and I wanted to wantonly give myself to a spouse. I wanted the dark secrets, noise, lights, mania, and energy of the city, and I wanted to plant a garden, tend animals, and live on a farm. I wanted to live in the same place all my life, and I wanted to travel every inch of the globe before I died. I wanted to sit utterly still and I was also driven to be in some sense constantly on the move. I wanted to be hidden and anonymous, and I wanted to be famous. I wanted to be close to my family, and I wanted to leave my family behind. I wanted to devote my life to activism and I wanted to devote my life to contemplation.
I wanted to give everything to God and I didn’t know how! I longed to give my undivided self and I couldn’t! If you want all, there is only one place big enough to contain, embrace, and channel that desire, Therese seemed to be telling me: the Sacred Heart of Christ.
Lord, help me to offer everything of myself. All the contradictions: the part that wants to be free and the part that is afraid to be free, the part that wants to forgive and the part that won’t forgive, the part that wants to let go and the part that holds on for dear life, the lion and the lamb. I can’t resolve any of those warring parts myself and have no idea what resolution would even look like.
Maybe the question isn’t so much When will I see Your face? but When will I sit still long enough to see that Your Face is everywhere?: in the quince tree outside my bedroom window, the sparrow on the telephone wire, the sun that, by rising every morning, and setting every night, helps us to hold the tension and encourages us to trust.
Heather moderates her own blog by the same name, Shirt of Flame.
Check the Word on Fire blog next week for a review of Heather's book, Shirt of Flame: A Year with St. Thérèse of Lisieux. Elizabeth Scalia of the Anchoress blog interviewed Heather recently, which we featured here.
In addition, Heather was interviewed on the Al Kresta Show on Ave Maria Radio yesterday. You can listen to the audio file of the interview by searching the audio archives on the left hand column of this page.