Stumbling Toward God, Sanity, and the Peace That Passes AllUnderstanding
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After twenty years of drinking in dingy bars and living in cockroach-infested apartments, Heather King was sober and starting over. Newly married, she and her husband Tim moved to Los Angeles from their native New England. She passed the state bar exam and began using her long-neglected law degree—King had supported herself during her drinking years as a waitress—to work as a civil litigation attorney. While grateful for a routine that didn’t involve blacking out and waking up next to strangers, deep down, she was still unfulfilled. Deep down she wondered if there wasn’t something else to strive for.
At thirty-eight, she began a spiritual quest, reading, praying, and visiting various churches in the hopes of finding a new direction. She also started to confront the reality that she was not meant to be a lawyer after all, that, in fact, her lifelong dream was to become a writer. After years of agonizing, she quit her job, converted to Catholicism, and began writing—the three events were inextricably intertwined—combining monastic, lonely days in front of the blank page with soul-seeking weekends of Mass at Los Angeles’ St. Thomas the Apostle church and wilderness retreats in hillside convents. Slowly, a God of paradox and mystery began to reveal himself and King’s life started to take on meaning. At first, she embraced Catholicism with an addict’s zeal, living as a pauper and withdrawing from the world and her marriage. It would take the loss of her father, a bout with breast cancer, and the end of a fourteen-year marriage to challenge her assumptions about faith and what it means to truly live a holy life. Sainthood, it turned out, was not the answer.
In this follow up to her darkly humorous memoir Parched, King, who until middle age, had “never much believed in anything,” shares her unexpected journey to the religious life and to her vocation as a writer. In a series of essays written with humor, wonder, and a decidedly self-deprecating sensibility, King explores the presence of God in the most profane corners of the city, in the faces of strangers, and in the work that people do to acknowledge and support one another. Appealing to agnostics and believers alike, Redeemed is a painfully honest, deeply moving account of a perpetual misfit who finally finds acceptance, love, and hope.
An attorney turned writer and Catholic convert, Heather King is a commentator for NPR’s All Things Considered and a communicant at St. Basil’s Church in Koreatown, Los Angeles. She is the author of the critically acclaimed memoir Parched, the story of her struggle with alcoholism. Her writing has appeared in, among other places, The Utne Reader, the Los Angeles Times Magazine, and the Best American Spiritual Writing anthologies. She lives in Los Angeles, California.
Q. Your first book, Parched, dealt with your struggles with alcoholism. Do you see Redeemed as a sequel? How has your perspective changed in the time between books?
I do see Redeemed as a bit of a sequel. Parched ends with my last night at rehab, followed by an epilogue written from an eighteen-year remove. Redeemed is the story of what happened during those intervening eighteen years, which is to say the story of my spiritual path: of how I became a Catholic and a writer. I’d been sober eighteen years before I felt I had enough perspective to write a book about my alcoholism, and a Catholic twelve years before I had enough perspective to write a book about my conversion, and the perspective of both books—and any book I might write in the future, it is to be hoped—is the same. Gratitude, humility, compassion. Mystery, wonder, awe.
Q. Throughout Redeemed there is some tension between the urban setting—its endless strip malls, blaring music, and poverty—and your spiritual quest. Several times you write of a desire to move away. What made you decide to remain in Los Angeles? What is the relationship between your particular spiritual life and the city?
Really, several times? I did have that bad spell when I was married and couldn’t find another decent apartment . . . I feel as if I write of the beauty of L.A., or rather of the paradox of L.A. as a place of great poverty and great wealth, great ugliness and great beauty. I became a Catholic in L.A., I became a writer in L.A., and I’ve also fallen in love in L.A., which perhaps enshrines a place in a person’s heart—if not forms a person’s heart—most of all. In the last chapter, I write: “It’s October now, and the days are getting shorter, and I walk the residential streets looking at the sycamore leaves curling on the trees, the lilies-of-the-Nile in the gathering purple dusk, and think, Who am I that I should be so lucky, that I should have been allowed to be born, and to see the light on a fall afternoon in Los Angeles . . .” That’s a sentence that I think was pretty self-evidently written by a great lover of L.A. I might not live here forever, but it’s forever the City of Angels, and forever part of my inner landscape . . .
Q. You have structured this book in a way that is not always strictly chronological. How did you decide on the book’s organization? Did you write the chapters as discrete essays or think of the book as a whole?
Actually, it is fairly chronological. It may not be a strict narrative, but it is roughly chronological. Probably a third of the book consists of previously published essays, so I sort of laid them out and then decided the best way to order a book about my ongoing conversion around them. I did a chapter outline as part of the proposal my agent went out with, which I more or less stuck to and was very helpful. I was very clear from the beginning that I wanted to write a book about my conversion to Catholicism, but one that would appeal to any questing human. That meant acknowledging up front the objections people have to religion in general and Catholicism in particular. In the early part of the book I make clear that I am no theologian, no biblical scholar, but that I thought deeply, read widely, and prayed fervently before I made my decision to join the Church; I explain, in layman’s terms (the only terms I know) why I made the decision. The rest of the book consists of essays about my daily life (which I assume is a variation of just about everyone’s daily life), the experiences of the last twelve or fifteen years—leaving my law career, the death of my father, the feud with my little sister, breast cancer, divorce, my misguided desire to be “holy,” existential angst, the joys of the writing life—all through the lens of the Gospels and my own myriad, tragicomic shortcomings.
Q. There’s an interesting moment in the book when you receive your first communion and drink a sip of wine. Was this something you prepared yourself for? What allowed you to have alcohol at that point without losing control over your sobriety?
I prepared myself for the cataclysmic event of the Eucharist, but not for partaking of the wine. I’m sure other alcoholics would disagree, and in fact I have a sober alcoholic priest friend who has special permission from the Archdiocese to have grape juice in the chalice when he’s saying Mass. But for my own part, my belief in the Transubstantiation means that I am drinking the real blood of Christ. It’s not a sense that I’m under some magical protection—that’s alcohol in there all right—but it is a sense that I’m drinking a different species of substance, and that my intention to taste the blood of Christ, to fully participate in the Sacrament of Sacraments, is pure enough so that I am in some sense protected. Obviously, it’s the only “wine” on earth for which I would make such an exception and more to the point—this is what really makes me feel safe—I don’t obsess about it. The notion that I’m derogating or jeopardizing my sobriety has never gone round and round in my thoughts, nor have I ever once left Mass and started fantasizing about hitting the liquor store.
Q. You place an emphasis on honesty above goodness—in this book you readily “boast of your own weaknesses,” often through self-deprecating humor. How does your religion help you maintain this worldview?
One of the great blessings of being an alcoholic is that I’ve experienced my own brokenness and fallenness in a way “normal” people perhaps mostly don’t. I’ve seen how low I am willing to go in the pursuit of anesthesia; how incapable I am, without anesthesia, of bearing simple reality. Left to my own devices, I would much prefer to live in a fantasy world, or really any other world except this one. And so I’m very, very clear on the fact that the only way I am able to bear a single day—never mind twenty-one years now—without alcohol, drugs, nicotine, anonymous sex, is by virtue of the unfathomable grace of a power infinitely greater than myself. This is the paradox St. Paul speaks of when he says he “boasts of his weakness”: in the very admission of my powerlessness over alcohol (and subsequently a whole bunch of other things) I receive the power, one day at a time, to refrain from drinking alcohol. By admitting I’m petty, jealous, prideful, gluttonous, angry, slothful, etc., I can let God in and begin with his help to start changing in tiny ways. The process is all so subtle, non-dramatic, and seemingly ordinary that it’s easy to miss that it’s also utterly miraculous. And I can’t emphasize enough that part of the miracle is that it can only take place in community. My spiritual transformation, such as it is, has taken place in the context of a whole community of other at-first-glance unpromising people, very few of whom I would have hand-picked myself. These are the people who have saved, and continue to save, my life. And I’m starting to realize that my community is a stand-in for the whole world. Our lives depend on relying upon and connecting with each other.
Q. The way it’s described in Redeemed, the act of writing seems to be deeply connected to prayer, or at least meditation. Did you gain any unexpected insights in the process of composing this book?
I think we write because we are burning to tell something. I wrote what I was burning to tell, and however clumsily, I feel I captured something of its essence. One of the insights, if that’s the right word, is that I was actually capable, in this case, of reducing my deepest emotions and thoughts to paper. I believe books literally save people’s lives, so as a writer, I can’t imagine any greater gift than the knowledge that, again, however imperfectly, I “got it right.” I think all writing is in some sense a love letter. And maybe one of the other insights is that . . . the love is not necessarily returned. Not the way you long for it to be. On some level my thought was: Oh, if I just tell it right, people will understand! They’ll catch fire with the thing, too! And of course they mostly don’t. And this is a very great lesson for a human being, for a writer. You allow yourself to be consumed. And it is not up to you who or what the flame goes out to, if anybody or anything.
Q. You mention that you did believe in God, even in your bleakest days as an alcoholic, but that your idea of a God was more punishing than the one you found at the Catholic Church. Has your image of God continued to evolve over time?
Well, now I’m thinking I didn’t so much believe in God as in my own loneliness and depression and poetic sensitivity. No doubt about it, you are slowly killing yourself as an alcoholic, but sadly, you’re also killing the people who love you. Anyway, I didn’t so much believe in a punishing God as a score-keeping God, and if you had my kind of track record, that is not good news. I like the description of God I read recently; that He authors all good and suffers all evil. One of the pivotal moments in Redeemed is the day I first attended Mass, saw Christ on the crucifix above the altar, and had the epiphany that he wasn’t saying we were supposed to suffer more; he was acknowledging the suffering we’re already in. . . . I’m not sure I have an image of God, other than Christ, but my understanding of God does continue to evolve, day by day. It’s the God of mercy and compassion who numbers every hair on our head and yet who can also say “I came not to send peace, but the sword” (Matthew 10:34). A God who comes to wake us up, a God of infinite paradox, eternal astonishment, and also a sense of humor. I see God as kind of the eternal wild card. But wild with love.
Q. In your research of breast cancer treatments you describe the current practices of radiation and chemotherapy as “fighting evil with more evil”—potentially a controversial viewpoint. Do you think it’s possible to rid one’s self of illness without conventional medical treatments if one does not believe in God?
I’m sure all kinds of people have “rid” themselves of illnesses without believing in God; I certainly hope so. The passage you mention references an article on Tamoxifen, a drug that at the time I was being treated my physician was recommending that I take for five years. Tamoxifen seemed to work in the short run, this article said, but the cancer, if and when it recurred, was likely to do so in an even more virulent form than the original: a phenomenon which in turn led me to reflect that violence always seems to beget more violence, no matter what the arena. What fascinated me was that universal laws seem to apply whether we’re talking about bombing Nagasaki only to find our own country beset by hate crimes like Columbine or the psychopath who lines up Amish schoolgirls and shoots them in the head; or the teenager who might be temporarily strong-armed into turning down her stereo but then rebels and blasts her music louder than ever; or the “war” we’re encouraged by pharmaceutical companies and a certain kind of civic-minded person to “fight” against cancer and that so often ends in another form of cancer, or a secondary illness, or more often death. What fascinated me is that in my own life—I can only speak for myself here, of course—I maybe need to fight less and let go more.
I am not, obviously, a doctor, and I have absolutely no opinion or any grounds on which to make an opinion as to the medical course any particular cancer patient, or any other kind of patient, should take. The point isn’t whether one does or doesn’t believe in God, or whether conventional versus nonconventional treatments are “more effective.” The point I was trying to make is that each patient should feel free to choose the course of treatment he or she feels is right, regardless of what one’s family, friends, and doctors might feel is right.
Q. Much of your discussion of God is really about finding God in other people around you. Do you believe in a supreme being or do you see God as a metaphorical concept?
I believe in a supreme being who was incarnated as one of us: as a mortal human being. So while I see metaphors all around me for, by way of example, death and resurrection—for the continual crucifixion and the continual rebirth—I don’t see God himself as a metaphor. The camellias that bloom in spring after a cold, dark winter are metaphors—while also real and delightful and complete-unto-themselves material objects—but they’re not God himself. Maybe God simply is; maybe God is reality itself. Anything we say about God is wrong, because it’s inarticulate and groping and incomplete, and at the same time, our whole task in a way, our privilege, honor, and wonder as human beings, is to try to know him. And he seems to make himself known most deeply through conflict and struggle, through suffering and love, which in turn means yes, especially through our relationships with other human beings. We can’t get love right either, but we never stop trying; in fact, I can’t think of a better “proof” that God exists than that we don’t stop trying. It’s as if we intuitively know that our lives, the perpetuation of the human race, and the very cosmos depend on us continuing to try. So maybe we can’t articulate God, but we can articulate our search for him, our seeking for him.
Q. When you write about religion, what sort of audience do you have in mind? Are your ideal readers religious or skeptical? How does this inform the way you write?
Brenda Ueland, author of the classic If You Want to Write, quotes Tolstoy to the effect that “There is nothing in the world that should not be expressed in such a way that an affectionate seven-year-old boy can see and understand it.” So maybe my ideal reader is an affectionate seven-year-old boy or girl, for what seven-year-old isn’t already trying to make sense of his or suffering? What seven-year-old doesn’t like a good story? What affectionate seven-year-old doesn’t already have a well-honed sense of the ridiculous and the absurd? Redeemed is the story of how my search to make sense of my own suffering happened to lead me to Christ, but the minute we get attached to our beliefs, in the sense that we begin to appropriate them for our own self-aggrandizing ends, or as part of our identities, we’re in trouble. We’re in trouble as humans, and as writers we’re in particular trouble because we’ve lost our readers. We’re not telling a story, we’re preaching; we’re not inviting in, we’re polarizing and shutting out. I think this is part of what Christ meant when he said, “The foxes have their lairs, the birds of the sky have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head” (Luke 9: 58). A true follower of Christ—and I should be so worthy—has nothing to offer but the continual unknowing of the cross. Of course, the cross is all there is to offer, the cross is huge, but not in the sense that you get a “hit” off it, that it’s going to get you money, property, prestige, power, sex, love, eternal youth, a “program,” ten bullet points to better emotional, spiritual, or mental health, or any of the things we think are going to fix us. We don’t get to have platforms or programs; we get to embrace paradox. We don’t get to know the answers; we get to feed and clothe and comfort the least of our brothers. We get to sing songs and tell jokes and write stories. That is how the world is saved. I believe that down to my last cell.
Lately, I’ve been thinking that religion, which means “to bind back together,” is not about being right, or perfect, or “together,” or enlightened, or even good: it’s about being a friend. In all our poverty of spirit, our bewilderment, our lust and hunger and rage, we get to learn what it is to be and have a friend. I just watched a documentary on Bob Dylan, who is famously apolitical, and he said something like, “I’m for people who are struggling. You don’t have to be political to be on the side of people who are struggling.”
I’m with Bob: I’m for people who are struggling. I’m not trying to evangelize, proselytize, or purport to have one scintilla more of a foothold than anyone else. I’m just trying to grope my way through, seeing through a glass darkly, and to hold out my hand to anyone who feels moved, for however dark or brief a second, to grab it.
- King opines that all addiction is “at bottom, a search for God.” By that definition, does recovery from addiction necessitate finding God or religion?
- King fondly recalls her days as a newly sober young woman working at the real estate title department in Boston. Why is this meaningful for her now and what does the place itself seem to represent?
- For King, what is the relationship between prayer and writing?
- King writes, “People who don’t believe in God, I’ve observed, are often very invested in how smart they are.” Do you agree with this idea? What role does intelligence play in belief?
- How does King explain her tendency to hoard money? What made the practice ungodly in her view and what was the benefit of no longer doing it?
- The book’s title is unambiguous: At what point in her story do you think King was redeemed? Or is her redemption a work in progress?
- King describes an argument with her sister over money. How does her faith ultimately change her view of the fight and help her to work toward reconciliation?
- One of King’s great revelations is that “spirituality is not elevated. It’s as simple as bread.” What does she mean by this?
- When King is diagnosed with breast cancer, she asks herself, “What would Jesus do?” but finds that the question cannot be answered. How does she ultimately determine her course of action and what role, if any does Jesus play in it?
- Over the course of the book, King is inspired by a variety of people she encounters: Mrs. Prietto the legal client, Barbara the dancer, the woman in the hospital, Fred the ex-drunk, Father Terry. How do these people help her along her spiritual journey?
- King’s is a unique voice among contemporary spiritual writing. Did this book change your own religious beliefs? If so, how?