Heather King, Viking Adult, 256 pages, $24.95
There have been times, in the course of raising my little brood of Young Catholics, when I have sighed and wondered, “What does religion have to do with my children, with their experience of life? Christ came as a remedy for death. Christ came to give meaning to suffering. My kids don’t suffer — not much, anyway — and they cannot really imagine death. How can I ask them to be grateful for a gift they don’t really feel they need?” I know it’s hardly a perfect argument, but the thought has crossed my mind.
I think Heather King, author of the memoir Redeemed: A Spiritual Misfit Stumbles Toward God, Marginal Sanity, and the Peace that Passes All Understanding, might sympathize. She was born in a Christian home, but the meaning of her faith simply didn’t register. Quite the opposite: As she writes, “My mother had made all eight of us kids attend Sunday school, so for years I’d been against God in general and all churches on principle [emphasis mine].” By the time she’d spent a couple of decades communing with a bottle, Christ wasn’t even a memory. Redeemed is a story of Jesus discovered, not recovered.
For King, conversion — the great turning of the self toward Christ — began with suffering, and with mercy: an alcoholic falling to her knees and praying in the woods outside a friend’s house. “Some would call it coincidence that, shortly afterward, my family staged an intervention and shipped me off to rehab — but that’s never what I’ve called it.” After that, “I was receiving so much freely given love trying to stay sober that I almost couldn’t help coming to believe in some kind of God.” Nor could she help but cling to Him. “Everybody’s spiritually sick to one degree or another, of course, but what’s interesting about alcoholism is that if I don’t tend to my spiritual sickness, I’ll die.”
That particular suffering is writ large, but she is careful not to make it special. King writes with awe about a Tutsi woman who had watched the Hutus “butcher all seven of her children, been gang-raped so many times she lost count,” and who then named her next baby — “the result of one of the genocide rapes — Akimana: Child of God.” But she also writes with careful solicitude about loneliness, anxiety, and fear in the most mundane social circumstances. She quotes Victor Frankl’s argument that “suffering completely fills the human soul and conscious mind, no matter whether the suffering is great or little. Therefore the “size” of human suffering is absolutely relative.” Redeemed is very much a book about ordinary life, lived under the extraordinary auspices of Christ and the Church — the Psalms interwoven with the search for a new apartment.
The intervention from her family was the beginning of conversion. What came next was gradual — a turning, not an about face. It began with a sense that “something was desperately wrong, that something fundamental to reason, to my very purpose on earth, didn’t add up.” It progressed to “a tiny spark of light” that “it seemed to have something to do with other people, with the fact that they suffered, too . . . a distant, faint desire to perhaps share or participate in the burden . . . .” And it culminated, in a way, with the vision of Christ on the cross at noon Mass in a Catholic Church in Los Angeles. “I remember instinctively understanding that here was consecrated time, consecrated space; that the people who had come to worship . . . were part of a parallel universe that intersected with eternity.” Looking up at the “beautiful fourteenth-century Tuscan crucifix . . . everything in me wanted to move to him: to comfort him, to touch him, to be near . . . . I saw that he’d come to address the deepest mystery of humankind — the mystery of suffering.”
And, as she writes elsewhere, “to me, the most incredible and best possible news about the Incarnation is that it means God isn’t out there, he’s in here.” The desire to “share or participate in the burden” of other suffering souls gained new clarity and meaning: “That, to me, is Christ: when everything in you longs to be comforted, soothed, held, to do those things for someone else.” King doesn’t say she’s striving to put on Christ so that she can minister to “the least of these” — she doesn’t have to. Instead, she talks about “the fellow addicts and alcoholics into whose midst I stumbled 19 years ago. . . . In community, I discover my task is to play my part, however small, in the ongoing drama of creation.” As she learned from Flannery O’Connor: “We are not judged by what we are basically. We are judged by how hard we use what we have been given.”
This is one of Redeemed‘s strong points — most of its theological flights are thoroughly tethered to reality (a reality that testifies, in its soul-scraping, unshowy honesty, to the author’s humility). To illustrate her image of Christ as doing for others in the midst of your own need, she gives the example of a woman who, “as a way of making things right” after an affair with a married man, begins volunteering at a women’s homeless shelter — and who is still volunteering three years later. If King disappears down her own rabbit hole when exploring her somewhat tortured relationship with money, the exercise still gives her a vivid, grounded vision of Christianity’s opposite:
It would have been one thing to build my life around free concerts and the discount produce bin at the grocery store if I were supporting my sick mother . . . but my scrimping was all for me. And because it was all for me, I was creating my own private, ever more restricted and isolated hell.
Such is King’s devotion to reality, in fact, that there are whole stretches that barely mention theology at all, and these make for some of her best pure writing: getting a job in a law library after rehab, weathering a bout with breast cancer. The account of her family’s vigil over her father during his last days achieves beauty through the modest description of what happens, plus the occasional flourish: “Then, over her shoulder, I spot the box of Depends, the walker, the IV pole huddled in the hallway, and the sight of these alien objects, invading the family abode like soldiers from an occupying army, takes my breath away.” Together with work, family, and all the rest of it, being Catholic has become a part of King’s life, even if it’s the part that makes all the difference.
What difference does it make? “The radical overhaul of one’s entire viewpoint.” “A kind of ongoing consent to the crucifixion of my ego.” “A whole different way of seeing the world and being in the world: a consenting to be emptied.” “Outside, I sit in traffic jams and buy groceries at Trader Joe’s; inside, my soul thirsts for him, my flesh ‘faints’ for him, ‘as in a dry and weary land where there is no water,’ as the psalmist says.” How is that difference brought about? Through struggle, through individual efforts and encounters. And through the Eucharist. King has Jesus saying, “In offering up my flesh, I’m going to transform the consciousness of all humanity, for all time.”
Ongoing. Consenting. Going to. These words bring me to my favorite part about Redeemed: It’s a difference that is still coming into view. Again and again, King talks about conversion, the turn toward Christ, as a lifelong work. “When I started this book,” she writes at the end, “I thought I’d arrived somewhere, but now I realize I’ve barely, barely begun — as a human being, as a Catholic.”
Addendum: file under, “Orthodoxy Watch.” Some readers may be tempted to scratch or even shake their heads at one or two of the theological views expressed in Redeemed. There is more than one “hm” scribbled in the margins of my copy. I chose not to address them, however, because they aren’t quite the point here. More than anything, what came through in the memoir is that King is a thoughtful, grateful Catholic who loves God, lives in the Spirit, and seeks to bring Christ to a suffering world.
Doctrine matters, of course, and I think King agrees. My advice to the head-scratchers: Go easy. Have a conversation with the book, and see what you can glean. There’s so much here that’s good — a serious effort at a kind of holistic Catholicism. An attempt to marry worship and service, the love of Christ and the love of neighbor, personal sanctity and the communion of saints. Heather King has found the Catholic Church, and she has found it beautiful, and she has proclaimed it to the world. Thank God.