BOOK REVIEW: Shirt of Flame
How do you write about a book that changed your life and revolutionized your relationship with the communion of saints?? I’m not sure, but let’s give it a shot:
As I mentioned yesterday, a dear friend and lady whose devotion to St. Thérèse I’ve long admired (and also gaped at in wonder) told me that I just had to read Shirt of Flame: A Year with Saint Therese of Lisieux by Heather King. She had recently used it with a group of college women she met with weekly and it was very well received. I added it to the list of 1000 books I intend to read someday but mainly shrugged it off as per my former prejudices against Therese.
Time passed. In the wake of Claire’s death and my newfound desire to get to know St. Thérèse, I picked up the 160 page volume. The book promised me a year with Thérèse, so a year I decided to give. And whoa.
Heather King slaps you in the face with so much truth, beauty, and raw honesty that you can’t help but be moved by this book. It was a visceral experience for me. Having experienced a great deal of suffering in her own life, Heather decided to challenge herself to a year with Thérèse--this book was a spiritual memoir of her journey.
Here’s an excerpt from the introduction:
“No matter which direction I looked, I saw more suffering and the only reason I knew I was marginally on the right path was that for the most part I did not inflict my suffering on others…. Who better to walk with than the little saint who had offered herself as a ‘holocaust victim’ to love? Who better to guide me through this thicket than the Little Flower who from childhood had given up all earthly love in favor of a greater love? I could bring Therese with me to Mass. I could walk with Therese on my daily rounds through my L.A. neighborhood of Koreatown: to the Assi grocery story, the Benitez produce truck, 24-Hour Fitness, the Pio-Pico branch library. I could bring her with me while working at my desk, while driving the freeways, in my interactions with family, strangers, adversaries, and friends. Therese could show me how to continue to steer my own course. She could demonstrate how to get to the love, because love was her vocation.”
Using Thérèse's life and autobiography Story of a Soul as a guide, Heather brings Thérèse's seemingly unrelatable experiences and finds a way to relate them to the life of an alcoholic, former attorney, divorced, Catholic convert (Heather’s not mine). As she related her life to Thérèse's life I could finally see that the profound truths spoken by the Little Flower could revolutionize my existence and actually help me grow in holiness! For more background on Heather King, here’s an excerpt from her own bio from her blog http://shirtofflame.blogspot.com: “Hi, I’m Heather. I’m an alcoholic. And a Catholic convert. And this blog is the place where I open my veins every few days and share my very eventful life. One day you might read a post on Joseph Cornell's boxes, the next a research project on where to buy cheap toilet paper, and the day after that an impassioned plea called "The Homily I'd Give If I Were a Priest" (hint: if you're not in close contact with at least one stripper, one person who's just been released from the psych ward, and someone who's trying to kick meth, you're not getting out enough).”
From childhood wounds, to daring to ask, to wanting too much, to desire and desperation, to social conscience, to losing everything, to facing death with joy… Heather King covers so much in such a short work. Each chapter is only 10-12 pages but packs a big punch. I have since used this book with groups of both college women and my Theresian community--it was also the only Christmas gift I gave out in 2016. One night with the college girls we read one particular paragraph that cut us so deeply to the heart we actually threw our books across the room in protest. That’s when you know it’s good.
My favorite part about the book… and the reason I continue to go back to it even when I’m in the middle of 10 other books is the prayer at the end of each chapter. Heather’s prayers are so raw. So honest. So vulnerable--everything a prayer should be especially when you’re working on your own personal St. Therese impression. Here’s the prayer from January (it’s not even the best one!):
On Facing Ancient Grievances
Lord, help us to remember that the accidents of our birth, family, upbringing are just that: accidents irrelevant to our essential worthiness and lovability.
Help us to see the crust of anger and hurt with which we try to protect ourselves from the world.
Help us not to be at such pains to fix everything, to bring everything into “wholeness” and “health,” to exterminate in us all that is broken and weak.
Help us to remember that we can comfort each other simply by being who we are at any given moment.
Help us to remember that just as Thérèse chose every last bit of ribbon and thread, you choose all of us.
Excuse me while my heart explodes.
A few additional recommendations which you should do immediately after purchasing this book…
(1) Do not let your little OCD heart be bothered by the fact that each chapter has a month’s name. It may or may not have caused me physical pain to start a chapter called “January” not in January. The book works very well as a monthly reflection, but can also be read in a much shorter time frame. But give yourself some time! The chapter-ending prayers are so beautiful that they deserve some quiet reflection before moving on to the next awesome chapter.
(2) Do not feel like you have to have read Story of a Soul before you read this. Heather references Story of a Soul often--it may actually help you to enjoy Thérèse's autobiography more.
(3) Read it with a friend. I’ve since read Holy Desperation, Heather King’s latest work--and I was so excited when I put it down that I was wholly desperate to find a friend who had also read it so we could talk. Something about comparing notes with someone else really brings even more fruit to light.
I love St. Thérèse Week!!
Check back tomorrow for a very special Friendsday Wednesday!