Prayer is not just for the holy. Catholic convert, ex-barfly, recovering alcoholic and author Heather King knows that.
In its rawest form, in its gut-wrenching cry from darkness, from broken hearts and shattered lives, prayer reaches a loving God, even if the person praying thinks that God doesn’t care.
That’s how she felt when life brought her to her knees.
“My first real prayer was before I truly believed in God,” said King, whose latest book, “Holy Desperation: Praying As If Your Life Depends On It” (Loyola Press, $13.95) was recently released.
Its publication follows several other books written about her journey through desperate times.
Embracing the Faith
In her own words, the books are about “my stumbling, tragicomic journey. Which is, roughly, born and raised on the coast of New Hampshire, 20 years as a hardcore drunk, sobered up, moved west, had a spiritual crisis as a Beverly Hills lawyer, quit my job, started writing, converted and took my first Communion ... in Hollywood. Then the hard part began.”
The spaces between were taken up by marriage, divorce, living in poverty, cancer — not necessarily in that order — and experiencing a spiritual awakening and the call to write. Not fiction — she tried that and it didn’t work — but memoirs that reach away from herself, take responsibility for her self-destruction and offer hope and grace to all, no matter where they are and where they have been.
“Parched” (Berkley, $14.98) chronicles her darkest years. In “Redeemed” (Penguin Books, $16), she crawls toward the light. “Shirt of Flame” (Paraclete Press, $16.97) is her spiritual encounter with St. Thérèse of Lisieux, and in “Poor Baby” (self-published, $5.50) she debunks society’s excuses for abortion. (The three abortions she had filled her with “deep, deep sorrow.”)
Does writing so candidly about her past and exposing her vulnerabilities make her uncomfortable?
“If you spent half your life passed out on the streets of Boston, you have already exposed yourself,” she told Our Sunday Visitor. “I never had the capacity for coloring within the lines. I had already skipped out in certain ways, and that’s what I have to offer. It’s not because my story is so interesting; it’s because Christ is so interesting. It’s because there’s a power that delivered me from all that. I can’t forget it, either, because every part of us incorporates who we are. All that’s a part of me, and I bring it to my writing. I don’t try to glamorize my suffering.”
“Holy Desperation” is about prayer that is radical acceptance of self. It’s about being humbled through St. Ignatius’s spiritual exercises, the honest surrender in the 12 Steps and the brotherhood of one person selflessly helping another without judgement. It’s the quiet focus of Lectio Divina and the still small times when silence itself is a prayer.
“Come, all you who have missed the mark, who are dying for lack of meaning, all you who are sick and anxious and lonely and afraid unto death. Come, you who are married to someone you don’t love; you who are caring for a parent with Alzheimer’s while your siblings play golf; you whose mother is a raging alcoholic; you whose husband, son, or father is a pedophile; you whose daughter is a sex worker. Come, you who live in chronic physical pain, you who are perpetually broke, you who live under a totalitarian dictatorship, you who are pregnant with a baby that’s not your husband’s or boyfriend’s, you who have not been touched by another human being in years, you who live a life of hidden, silent martyrdom that not one other person sees or cares about.
“Come close. Come as close as you can.”
— From “Holy Desperation,” based on Matthew 11:28: “Come to me, all you who labor and are burdened, and I will give you rest.”
“I think that we can have a very misguided idea of prayer,” King said. “They say, ‘My husband was sick. He didn’t get well, so where was God?’ That’s not how prayer works. Our prayers are not to sway God but to open ourselves so that we can accept reality. As long as we are praying for specific outcomes, we want God to be Santa Claus or the fairy godmother. We think that maybe God doesn’t exist, maybe God doesn’t love me. But maybe it’s just that my idea of God and prayer are just wrong. Does prayer change things? I think that prayer changes us. I never had one single thing ever change around me because I wanted it to. What a dangerous proposition that is. You can’t just fill in the blank with what you want. Prayer opens a whole different way of being, that, oh, they are not going to change, and I can accept that without being bitter, disappointed, angry or hateful. What I can change is myself.”
Brokenness and grace
King, 64, didn’t have a lightning-bolt conversion. The breakthrough came when she got sober.
“I was the recipient of unwarranted mercy,” she said. “I had the compulsion to drink for 20 years, and it was gone. That brought me to God. Coming into the Church was a slow process. I had deeply religious questions that I had to ask myself. I went to a lot of different Protestant churches, but the short answer was the body of Christ on the cross above the altar in the Catholic Church, and the Eucharist, the transubstantiation. This is the body and blood. How much I love him and long to be kinder and more patient. This is the way, the truth and the life. I was able to recognize that this is the heart of everything, that God became man and came to suffer with us and to teach us.”
“Holy Desperation” is sprinkled with dialogue from a priest-friend who became sober and with references to the late Flannery O’Connor, whose short stories and novellas focus on brokenness and grace.
King tells her own story here and in previous books to reach out to others with something identifiable that leads us beyond ourselves.
“I am a human being with longings in my heart, and I have taken wrong turns that people can understand,” she said. “This is what it is. Don’t despair if you are plagued by a dysfunctional family, anger, lust. That’s what it means to be human. Welcome to the altar. That’s how I see my story, as a sharing of myself.”
Mary Gogniat Eidemiller writes from Pennsylvania.