Book review: Shirt of Flame by Heather King

I love stories of people’s spiritual journeys.  Even if they are nothing like my own — even if the circumstances, steps and stops, and outcomes of these journeys are different from mine — I still learn so much from others’ frank discussions of how they’ve gotten from Spiritual Point A to Spiritual Point B (or C, D, or Z).   And when the writing is beautiful and heartfelt and vulnerable, then it becomes a book I can’t get out of my system, a book that I re-read and re-re-read.

Heather King’s new memoir Shirt of Flame: A Year with Saint Thérèse of Lisieux is that kind of book. King takes one of Catholicism’s most popular saints, spends a year reading and meditating on and living this saint’s spiritual insights, and shares that experience with the reader in a book that is truly unique and beautiful.

Heather King first crossed my path a few years ago, when I read her terrific memoir Redeemed.  She’s a lawyer-turned-writer, a former alcoholic, and an adult convert to Catholicism.  Though her past journeys into sobriety and into Catholicism are not the primary focus of Shirt of Flame, those experiences do inform the book in meaningful ways.   There’s a structure to the book; each chapter, corresponding to a different month of the calendar year, looks at a particular aspect of St. Thérèse’s spirituality, using excerpts from her famous memoir The Story of a Soul.  In each chapter, King also reflects on how St. Thérèse’s writings have challenged her, inspired her, enlightened her, shaped her.   She brings Thérèse with her into her daily life in Los Angeles, explaining how the saint’s famous writings about God and love are powerfully relevant to any Christian who hopes to take her relationship with the divine to the next level.

And King explains, quite frankly, that these writings are very, very hard to live by.  Thérèse famously wrote about what she called the “little way,” a way of responding to small annoyances with generosity and love rather than anger or frustration.   As King writes in the introduction, “Try that next time someone jumps the line at the bank, or cuts you off as you try to merge onto the freeway, or insinuates that you’re not working hard enough!  Begin to ponder the years of discipline, prayer, and the  turning of the will toward God required for such a “tiny” taming of the instincts.”  And for  all the pretty holycard pictures of St. Thérèse smiling and holding a bouquet of roses, King explains that “the ‘little way’ is grounded in great paradox, great complexity, and great labor.”   So, so true.

I also like the book because it is a deft balance of information about St. Thérèse and King’s own reflections.   If you know nothing about the saint, you’ll have a thorough introduction here; if you’re already a fan of Thérèse, you’ll be edified by the way in which King engages so deeply and frankly with her writings and insights.  And if you’re someone who is interested in living more intentionally and loving more deeply, this is the book for you.  As King writes in one of my favorite passages, Christ instituted a church so that “the whole broken lot of us could gather around the table, throw our talents, gifts, stories, wounds — healed and unhealed — into the pot, and together create something unexpected, strange and new.”   King’s book is certainly an unexpected, unique, and new look at a beloved saint.  It’s a book to savor.

Full disclosure: I received a review copy from Paraclete Press.  Doesn’t matter, though.  I’d buy this in a heartbeat — and will be doing so, for some people I know.

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