Shirt of Flame: A Year with St. Therese of Lisieux

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If you have not read Heather King before, her honesty may shock you. In this remarkable memoir, you will see how a convert with a checkered past spends a year reflecting upon St. Thérèse of Lisieux—and discovers the radical faith, true love, and abundant life of a cloistered 19th-century French nun.

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If you have not read Heather King before, her honesty may shock you. In this remarkable memoir, you will see how a convert with a checkered past spends a year reflecting upon St. Thérèse of Lisieux—and discovers the radical faith, true love, and abundant life of a cloistered 19th-century French nun.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
King (Parched), a self-proclaimed “sober alcoholic” and Catholic convert, combines witty humor and spiritual depth in her latest memoir, which recounts the year she spent reflecting on the life and writings of St. Thérèse of Lisieux. The book explores Thérèse’s life from childhood to early death, and relates the experiences and spirituality of the 19th-century cloistered nun to King’s own life and spiritual journey in Los Angeles. Refreshingly and brutally honest, the author describes a spiritual path full of poverty, loneliness, and suffering as she struggles to come to terms with her divorce, the death of loved ones, and unrequited love. She reminds the reader that “the scandal of Christ is that to have a relationship with him means to share in his suffering,” and that to live a life of radical social consciousness in the 21st century is often an alienating endeavor. King offers a genuinely moving account of her quest to follow Thérèse’s little way, become a “victim of love” and, indeed, to redefine what love means in the modern world. Recommended for anyone who is experiencing a “dark night of the soul” or interested in contemporary Christian spirituality. (Nov.)
From the Publisher

Refreshingly and brutally honest, the author describes a spiritual path full of poverty, loneliness, and suffering as she struggles to come to terms with her divorce, the death of loved ones, and unrequited love. She reminds the reader that "the scandal of Christ is that to have a relationship with him means to share in his suffering," and that to live a life of radical social consciousness in the 21st century is often an alienating endeavor. King offers a genuinely moving account of her quest to follow Therese's little way, become a "victim of love" and, indeed, to redefine what love means in the modern world. Recommended for anyone who is experiencing a "dark night of the soul" or interested in contemporary spirituality."

Publishers Weekly, October 2011

Library Journal
The fascination of Thérèse of Lisieux, known as the "Little Flower," is apparently inexhaustible. An obscure French Carmelite, dead at 24, she became celebrated and eventually canonized after the publication of her spiritual autobiography, The Story of a Soul, which spoke of the "Little Way," her distinctive path to sanctity. She has attracted a spectacular array of devotees, including John Paul I, Vita Sackville-West, Edith Piaf, and Jack Kerouac. King's (Redeemed: Stumbling Toward God; Parched) record of a year spent in the study of Thérèse is just the latest, then, in more than a century of mash notes for the tubercular saint. VERDICT This joins the stream of Paraclete's successful encounters—both systematic and personal—with saints; King's memoiristic approach should appeal to readers hungry for the autobiographical slant.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781557258083
  • Publisher: Paraclete Press
  • Publication date: 10/1/2011
  • Pages: 196
  • Sales rank: 375,809
  • Product dimensions: 5.40 (w) x 7.90 (h) x 0.70 (d)

Meet the Author

Heather King is an ex-lawyer, sober alcoholic, contemplative, and Catholic convert who lives in the thick of Los Angeles. She is the author of two previous memoirs: Parched, and Redeemed: Stumbling Toward God, Marginal Sanity, and the Peace That Passes All Understanding.

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Read an Excerpt


A Year with St. Thérèse of Lisieux


Copyright © 2011 Heather King
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-1-55725-808-3

Chapter One

JANUARY EARLY LOSS (On Facing Ancient Grievances)

I don't remember crying a lot; I didn't talk to anyone about the deep feelings I was experiencing ... I watched and listened in silence ... Nobody had the time to be concerned with me, so I saw lots of things that they might have wanted to keep hidden from me. Once, I found myself standing in front of the coffin lid ... I stopped and considered it for a long time. I had never seen anything like it, but nevertheless I understood.... —The Story of a Soul [p. 25]

Thérèse's family was deeply religious—so religious, in fact, that her father Louis Martin, thirty-five at the time of his wedding, had initially proposed a celibate marriage. He and his wife, Zélie, went on to have nine children, three of whom died in infancy, a daughter who died at the age of five, and the five daughters who lived: Marie, Pauline, Léonie, Céline, and the baby, Thérèse, born on January 2, 1873.

In their hometown of Alençon, France, both parents attended 5:30 am Mass daily. The family prayed and observed Holy Days together. While Zélie tended to her lace-making business, Louis, a jeweler, quoted the gospels, took frequent pilgrimages, and refused to open his shop on Sundays, though that practice meant a loss of revenue. With her high spirits and blond curls, Thérèse was the unofficial favorite of the family. Her early childhood was happy. She was showered with affection. She was impish. She had "funny adventures" [SS, p. 8]. Her mother noted in a letter, "She's a child who gets easily emotional. As soon as some bad little thing happens to her, the whole world has to know about it" [SS, p. 9]. She revered her four sisters, and quickly became inseparable from Céline, the next oldest.

Thérèse left letters, poems, and plays as well, but her autobiography, The Story of a Soul, remains her definitive text. Of her childhood she wrote: "All my life it pleased the good Lord to surround me with love. My earliest memories are imprinted with smiles and the most tender of embraces!.... I loved Papa and Mama very much, and showed them my tenderness in a thousand ways, because I was very expansive" [SS, p. 15].

She recounted the well-known "I choose all!" story:

One day Léonie, thinking she was now too big to play with dolls, came and found us both with a basket full of dresses and pretty little pieces of cloth intended to make others; on top was sitting her doll. "Here, little sisters," she said, "you choose, I'm giving you all this." Céline stuck out her hand and took a little ball of yarn that she liked. After thinking about it for a moment, I in turn stuck in my hand and said, "I choose all!" And I took the basket without further ceremony. [SS, p. 19]

The significance of the incident went far beyond a basket of fabric trimmings. "This childhood trait sums up my whole life," she wrote from the vantage point of adulthood. "Later, when perfection made its appearance to me, I understood that in order to become a saint you have to suffer a lot, always be in search of what is most perfect, and forget yourself" [SS, p. 19].

Thérèse didn't so much want all for herself as to give all of herself to god: "I don't want to be a halfway saint. It doesn't scare me to suffer for you; I'm afraid of only one thing, and that is to hold onto my will. Take it, because 'I choose all,' all that you want!" [SS, p. 20].

She would soon have a chance to give perhaps more than she wanted. Because while those first years were idyllic, tragedy struck early: to wit, when Thérèse was just four and a half, her mother died of breast cancer. The event, naturally, marked a cataclysmic divide: "In the story of my soul up to my entrance into Carmel I distinguish three very different periods. The first, in spite of its shortness, is not the least fruitful in memories: It extends from the awakening of my reason, up to the departure of our dear mother to the homeland of heaven" [SS, p. 6].

No child ever fully recovers from the early death of a mother, and a soul as sensitive as Thérèse's was bound to almost fatally, if temporarily, wither. In fact, Zélie's death marked the beginning of what Thérèse called:

... the second period of my existence, the most painful of the three.... This period stretches from the age of four and a half until my fourteenth year, the period when I found my character as a child again, while yet entering into the seriousness of [convent] life.... [S]tarting with Mama's death, my happy character changed completely. I, who had been so lively, so expansive, became timid and mild, sensitive to excess. One look was enough to make me burst into tears. I was happy only when nobody was bothering with me. I couldn't stand the company of strangers.... [SS, pp. 26–27]

Thus began the "crucible of outward and inward trials" [SS, p. 4] in which this remarkable soul was formed and eventually ripened. Thérèse was forever overly sensitive. She would struggle with highly strung nerves for the rest of her life. But perhaps the true sign of her character was this: though she took the full measure of the hurt, after describing the incident early in The Story of a Soul, she never again referred in her autobiography to, nor by all accounts outwardly dwelt upon this devastating loss.

Even as a child, Thérèse seemed to have looked inward for solace. She seemed to have understood from the beginning that life is a series of losses. She seemed instinctively to understand that the love of god does not protect us from separation, illness, grief, diminished family members, dysfunction, or death.

My own spiritual path, by contrast, had been a long, tortuous journey of not so much giving all to god as having things progressively wrested from me: my drinking, my career as a lawyer, my marriage, my illusion that if only I sufficiently managed and controlled, I could wrest satisfaction from life. Only recently had I begun to learn what Thérèse knew at four and a half—that no matter how far in the spiritual life we progress, we can't save anyone else. We couldn't have saved our siblings, our children, or our parents and, as we continue to meditate on Thérèse, we see that they couldn't have saved us.

This was a useful reflection as my own mother was still alive, back in New Hampshire, and I'd be lying if I said my feelings toward her were entirely unconflicted. She had given me so much!—a contemplative bent, a love for music and books—but Mom was hardly demonstrative, and I'm mortified to admit that I was still miffed because she'd never told me as a child (or an adult, for that matter) that I was pretty. Imagine my surprise to discover that Thérèse had received no compliments, either: not from her mother; not, after her mother died, from her nonetheless loving and attentive sisters. "you gave a lot of attention, dear Mother," she observed as an adult to Pauline, "not to let me near anything that might tarnish my innocence, especially not to let me hear a single word that might be capable of letting vanity slip into my heart" [SS, p. 46].

I'd never considered that not having received compliments might have been a gift. I'd never considered that learning to muddle through alone, without validation, had served me well: as a human being, as a writer. Just so, if we're 1) reading; 2) any book; and 3) especially a book about St. Thérèse of Lisieux, chances are that no matter how much we've suffered, we've also had enough to eat, we have a roof over our heads, and somebody, somewhere along the line, has done right by us.

Chances are that most of us are also still a teensy bit conflicted about our loved ones. Perhaps we're holding a grudge against a father who, say, never quite trusted us, or a narcissistically self-absorbed mother. Thérèse's whole spiritual life was built on the fact that, in spite of her early loss she'd been doted upon, embraced, treasured as a child. What of the rest of us who, for whatever reason, have never felt especially treasured? What of those of us who instead feel a lifelong lack, a fretful craving? Thérèse demonstrates that the point isn't so much what happened in our childhoods as what we choose to do with them: after all, many children have been treasured as she was but have not gone on to attain sainthood. Many have suffered as she did and become not more loving, but more bitter.

Thérèse's gift was to have suffered early loss but to also have chosen to remain childlike. Not childish, for from a very young age she was mature beyond her years, but childlike: trusting, resilient, lost in wonder:

I don't know if I've already talked to you about my love of snow.... When I was quite little, its whiteness used to delight me.... Where did I get this liking of snow? ....Perhaps from the fact that being a little winter flower, [having been born in January], the first covering with which my child's eyes saw nature embellished must have been its white coat. [SS, pp. 174–75] [Jesus] sent me in profusion sheaves of cornflowers, big daisies, poppies, etc., all the flowers that delight me the most. There was even a little flower called a corn-cockle. ... [SS, p. 199]

The contrast between the child who could swoon at a flower, and who would soon also long to shed her blood to the last drop for Christ is compelling. As spiritual writer Ronald Rolheiser puts it:

Thérèse of Lisieux fascinates us, and has a rare power to truly and healthily fire both our religious and our romantic imaginations, for three interpenetrating reasons: i) She is a child mystic, the Anne Frank of the spiritual life; ii) she is a woman of extraordinary paradox and complexity; and iii) she has that rare power to touch that previously touched part inside of us.

That "previously touched part" has been touched by Christ, in what rolheiser goes on to call our "moral soul":

Inside of each of us there is a part [of] our being that might be called our moral soul. It is that place where we feel most strongly about the right and wrong of things and where all that is most precious to us is cherished, guarded, and held. It is also the place that feels violated when it is not sufficiently honoured and respected. It is in this deep inner place that we, ultimately, feel most alone. More deeply than we long for a sexual partner, we long for moral affinity, for someone to visit us in that deep part of ourselves where all that is most precious to us is cherished and guarded. Our deepest longing is for someone to sleep with morally. This is particularly true for very sensitive souls.

Thérèse, of course, was one such soul. Many of us similarly sensitive types tend, when hurt, to shut down; to erect an impenetrable fortress. We will not be so gullible again, we tell ourselves. The world will not walk over us. We will not be chumps. To choose not to shut down, but to open yet further, takes tremendous purity of heart. To choose to remain vulnerable, knowing that vulnerability inevitably invites further suffering, takes tremendous courage. Inside or outside of convent walls, we are all liable to undergo bereavement, tragedy, or spiritual crisis at any time. We cannot change the natural order. What we can do is change the attitude with which we live and die in it.

Gazing at a statue of Mary a month before her death, Thérèse mused, "Who could ever invent the Blessed virgin?" Maybe in a way she was saying that in Mary, we have an über mother. Maybe she was saying that the Holy Family is an archetype for the family we long for, and that very few of us quite have. Maybe she was saying that the Crucifixion consists, in a way, in offering up our childhood wounds in order to die to our old selves and be born anew.

Whether those wounds consist of loss, hurt, sorrow, anger, of grief, neglect, abuse, or abandonment, the operative fact is that everyone else suffers from some combination of them, too. We can be grateful for the time we did have with the people who raised us. We can give thanks for all that we received and acknowledge all that we still lack. We can discover that of the rough material we've been given, every single thread of what we'll eventually contribute back to the tapestry of all humanity is every bit as important, needed, wanted, and cherished as every and any other scrap and thread.

We might never get to tie up all the loose ends, but we get to gather around the table, break out the food, laugh, tell stories, and share what we've been given anyway.


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 ever y last bit of ribbon and thread, you choose all of us.


Excerpted from SHIRT of FLAME by HEATHER KING Copyright © 2011 by Heather King. Excerpted by permission of PARACLETE PRESS. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents


JANUARY EARLY LOSS (On Facing Ancient Grievances)....................3
FEBRUARY THE CONFLUENCE OF WILL AND GRACE (On Illness and Healing)....................13
MARCH THÉRÈSE'S SECOND CONVERSION (On Learning to Serve)....................25
APRIL THE PAPAL VISIT (On Daring to Ask)....................35
MAY POVERTY, CHASTITY, OBEDIENCE (On Radical Social Conscience)....................47
JUNE THE CONVENT (On Shedding Our Illusions)....................57
JULY THE LITTLE WAY (On the Martyrdom of Everyday Life)....................69
AUGUST ARIDITY (On Praying Without Ceasing)....................81
SEPTEMBER THE LONG, SLOW DECLINE OF THÉRÈSE'S FATHER (On Being Stripped Down)....................93
OCTOBER THE STORY OF A SOUL (On Offering Up Our Work)....................105
NOVEMBER MY VOCATION IS LOVE! (On Letting Our Flame Burn Hot)....................115
DECEMBER THE DIVINE ELEVATOR (On Facing Death with Joy)....................129
APPENDIX A: THE MARTIN FAMILY, IN BRIEF....................139
NOTES AND PERMISSIONS....................145
SELECTED BIBLIOGRAPHY....................157
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  • Posted May 10, 2014

    Very Small Print So It Was Very Hard To Read

    Overall a disappointment. The print is so tiny I couldn't even read the book. I don't know why this wasn't fixed?

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  • Anonymous

    Posted August 23, 2013

    Wonderful Inspiration!

    I am someone like the author who is intrigued with the life of St. Theresa and recovery from alcoholism. This book was a wonderful insight into the spirituality and connection with God that Theresa had.
    I often read a chapter to get inspiration and a positive outlook. St. Theresa had said "God wouldn't inspire desires He didn't want to grant" and this book gives me the hope and connection to see that. I am able think about my imagination as a gift and a wonderful tool to my connection with God and my successful recovery.

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    Posted February 21, 2012

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    Posted November 7, 2011

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    Posted November 11, 2012

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    Posted May 2, 2013

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