Continuing the Word on Fire Conversion series, today we feature the story of Heather King, a particularly insightful Catholic writer (author of Parched and Redeemed and moderator of the blog, Shirt of Flame) who is also the newest regular contributor to the Word on Fire blog. Read about her journey below.
Turn, Turn, Turn
My New England mother saw to it that I was baptized and attended Sunday school but at the time, I wasn't much interested. Coming of age in the ‘60s, I read Sartre's No Exit and adopted as my personal creed, "L'enfer, c'est les autres." Hell is other people--it was always the others--and the twenty-year bout with alcoholism that followed, the irresponsibility, sexual license and corrupted moral values, only cemented my view of the universe as cold, random and cruel.
If sin is separation from God, then the disease of alcoholism is sin in its purest form. I became incapable of choosing anything but drink, and the resulting alienation was savagely, pitilessly complete. Deprived of free will, I was not naturally good; I was compelled to choose, over and over, the path that separated me from God, my fellow man and myself. Even after earning a law degree, alcohol kept me chained to waitressing work.
At the age of 34, sick, demoralized and thoroughly beaten down, I finally “consented” to attend a Minnesota rehab and turned to other sober alcoholics for help. Sometime during that month, the obsession to drink was removed. It was impossible not to believe in unmerited grace and some kind of power that was greater than myself.
I’d “come to” with a law degree; back in Boston my task, I figured, was to start leading the mature, responsible life of a lawyer. The one thing I’d always wanted to do was write, but that was an indulgence, I sternly told myself now; a childish pipe dream. So I got married, moved to L.A., passed the California bar, and landed a job with a litigation firm in Beverly Hills. Everything in me shrank back from arguing motions, conducting depositions, a system based on conflict. Drudging away in the merciless light of my temperature-controlled office, I went without lunch and breaks and fresh air for months on end. Part of me felt like a crank and an ingrate, but against everything my parents and friends and society told me, I knew that God could not possibly have gotten me sober for this.
In desperation and at random, I started reading about Christianity. I read Dietrich Bonhoeffer's The Cost of Discipleship
followed by a chapter of Meister Eckhart. I read Romano Guardini's The Lord
, Surprised by Joy
by C. S. Lewis, Greene's The Heart of the Matter
, and St. Teresa's The Way of Perfection
. I read Merton's New Seeds of Contemplation
and Chesterton's biography of St. Francis and the Gospel according to Luke.
As Dorothy Day observed, "No one coming into contact with this Man fails to be affected by Him." Even in my untutored state, I saw that Christ--blameless--had suffered as I had, died as I had, been resurrected as I had. I started going to around to churches: Protestant churches for that’s how I’d been raised. The crosses were empty, the sermons bland and safe. My hunger for Christ made me feel embarrassed and frantic, like the stricken man on his knees desperately clutching a fold of Christ's robe I had seen in a lurid color print in my childhood Bible.
One morning after arguing a motion in court, I ducked into a nearby Episcopalian church to pray: soothed by the silence, the slanting light and scent of wax, beseeching God to help me give up the money I was making, to accept my failure as a lawyer, to relinquish the fear of being labelled a quitter, and most of all for the courage—for I could never, ever work up the required courage myself—to write.
Then, almost by accident, I came across some lines in a letter by 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. Success means nothing to the Lord, nor gracefulness." I can never describe the effect those simple words had on me. They were the answer to my prayers, because if I wouldn't be judged on what I was basically--fallen, inept, confused--it meant there was hope, a different kind of hope than mainstream success and trying to be grateful for a career that was killing me.
I quit my job and began to write each day. Inchoate faith flowered. One noon, I found my way to Mass. “Lord, I am not worthy to receive you, but only say the word and I shall be healed" I heard, and knew I was home. I enrolled in an RCIA program. I was confirmed and took my First Communion at the Church of the Blessed Sacrament in Hollywood on August 18, 1996.
"That in this sacrament are the true Body of Christ and his true Blood is something that cannot be apprehended by the senses, but only by faith," wrote St. Thomas Aquinas. Kneeling in my pew afterward, I knew I would always lack faith, always be splintered, always be poor in spirit. My life's work would be to develop the courage to hesitate one more second before saying, "I didn't know him" to save my own skin.
But the seed had been planted; I believed with all my heart that Christ was truly present in that bread and wine, just as surely as I’d seen the years of apparently fruitless, senseless suffering miraculously transformed into the gift of sobriety, the mystery of the writing life, an awakening conscience. From the ashes of sin and doubt have risen the will to search for meaning. A string of seemingly imperfect events had led me to a Savior grounded in perfect Love.
Since then, I’ve experienced cancer, divorce, the death of my father, and moments of stabbing, piercing joy. The events keep changing. I don’t know how or where they’ll lead next. I only know that, with the repentant thief, I continue to turn toward the Word that was made flesh and dwelt among us: that dwells among us still.