On fire for the light

Heather King. Photo: Courtesy Heather King Heather King. Photo: Courtesy Heather King

Dynamic Catholic convert, writer and speaker Heather King comes to Federal Way

Heather King, a Catholic author, speaker and blogger, has become known for her passionate, freeform talks on faith. She often touches upon her background as a recovering alcoholic, convert and lawyer-turned-writer. King is originally from New Hampshire but now lives in the Los Angeles area, where she has a culture column in the L.A. Archdiocese’s newspaper, The Tidings. She has written several books, including "Stumble: Virtue, Vice, and the Space Between," which will be released in March.

That same month, King will visit Western Washington to lead a Lenten retreat at the Archbishop Brunett Retreat Center at the Palisades (see below).

Who is your audience for this retreat?

Any human being with a questing-seeking heart who is daring to get in touch with the deepest questions of our heart, which are “Why was I made?”; “What is my purpose on Earth?”; “What is my particular little mission that nobody else could fulfill?”

I come as a storyteller and I come as a witness, as someone who had this miraculous event occur in my life. First of all, I was a terrible, terrible drunk for 20 years. I’m not a drunk anymore. I haven’t had a drink or a drug in 27 years and that really remains as a central, astonishing fact in my life.

I’m all about the everyday mysticism of finding Christ in every moment of our lives and carving out great spaces of, insofar as possible, silence and solitude and really meeting Christ in the depths of our lonely, anguished hearts.

What led you to the Catholic Church?

I was working as an attorney in Beverly Hills. I had recently started going to Protestant churches because I’d been raised Protestant, but the meat wasn’t there, being called to my highest self wasn’t there. I just hungered. I somehow had my childhood Bible and I brought it to work and started reading it. I was completely compelled by the Gospels. I read the Gospels with no commentary, no outside help. I just read them as a hungry, hungry seeker of God, and when you do that it transforms you if you’re open enough to it. You just see this is it, this is the only way to live in integrity.

So I went to a noon Mass at St. Basil in L.A. I’d been in Catholic churches many times before to look at the art and, of course, I’d seen a crucifix before, but it was something about this consecrated time and space, in the middle of the day, in the middle of a huge city, with people in there kneeling in the middle of the day. I was so moved by that and I still am.

I just saw Christ on the crucifix, and my heart was just moved with pity for this innocent victim, the guy who had done nothing but speak the truth and act out of love. Of course, we killed him, but there he is, still above the altar in every Catholic church in the world. I just got it, in a very visceral way, that this is an entirely different thing than an empty cross. Then I heard, “Lord, I am not worthy to receive you, but only say the word and I shall be healed.” And oh, this is what I’ve been looking for my whole life!

The Mass is the center of my faith. Not that I’m not distracted half the time when I’m there, but it’s just got everything in it. It’s a scandal, it’s a shock, it’s a mystery and it’s weird beyond weird. If you’re looking at it from the outside, you’d have no idea of the splendor and the sublimeness and the majesty. If you’re not looking for it, not hungry for it, and not open to it, it will be utterly closed to you. You could go to a Mass and just think, who cares. If you’re hungry for it, you just literally have to fall to your knees.


Cover of Heather King's book "Shirt of Flame." Photo: CNS 

How did you decide to leave law and become a writer?

I had a huge, agonizing struggle over quitting my job as a lawyer. I was fairly newly sober, fairly newly married. I was making money for the first time in my life. This call on my heart that I had since I was a child just surfaced, as it did when I came to Catholicism. It was asking those deep questions and realizing that if I don’t at least try to heed this call to write, that will be the biggest sin I have ever committed.

So I quit my job and began to write. I always have been sort of mentored by Flannery O’Conner, a wonderful, genius Catholic writer, who, I think, may be the greatest writer of the 20th century. She had this great quote in one of her letters. She said, “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.” Really, that gave me permission to quit my job.

I came into the church in 1996, and it was right around the same time that I started to write. Writing is my vocation as a Catholic and as a human being. It’s always through a Catholic lens no matter what I’m writing about.

You have a strong devotion to St. Thérèse of Lisieux. Why is that?

St. Thérèse has become a wonderful companion for me. I have a photo of her on my desk, right beside this beautiful Rembrandt of Christ. It’s not airbrushed, it’s not prettified, and she just has this gaze that is not threatening or challenging but it just gazes straight into your eyes and pierces you, makes you want to sit up a little straighter and really be honest.

My life has been so different from Thérèse’s, clearly. I was a barfly, crappy barroom drinking for years and years and everything that goes along with that. I’ve written about healing from abortion — I have a very checkered past. I’m a convert. I live in the middle of Los Angeles. Thérèse was a bourgeois French girl, cradle Catholic, pious, religious family and begged to enter the convent at the age of 15. We have very different backgrounds, but the heart at the middle of it is the same.

I just think Thérèse is just so relevant to our times. I think our culture is very much about let’s just excise the bad parts, cut them out, cosmetically excise all of our defects. I find that’s not the way of Christ. This inner life that’s on fire with Christ that the rest of the world may not see at all, this is very radical in our culture of selfies and “Look at me, and here’s my cat, and here’s my baby, and here’s me! I’m so happy, and my life is so great.”

Thérèse was full of joy but she also suffered, more or less unremittingly. I think that is pretty much the path of any human being. We have all of these horrible problems in the world. Thérèse knew the way to address that. We’re not going to wipe all of that out. The way to address that is by literally surrendering our hearts, our minds, our bodies, in a very hidden, invisible way, whatever our station.

There’s a lot of wit in your writing and talks. Where do you get your sense of humor?

I probably got my sense of humor from my father, who’s super funny. You can use humor to be glib and to avoid your real feelings, and that to me isn’t really humor. But it is tragicomic, our existence. Flannery O’Connor had an incredible sense of dry humor. St. Thérèse apparently was a gifted mimic. Her mother superior said she was a mystic, she was comic, she could have her crying one minute and just on the floor laughing in the next. That’s very attractive. That is how I would like to be known, as a mystic comic.

On the other hand, I live in the middle of, possibly, the hipster capital of the world, Silver Lake, Los Angeles. I live in Hipsterville and I love all the great things about Hipsterville: the good food and eyeglass frames. But I think there’s a real danger in being the hip Catholic, or “I’m going to be the bad Catholic.” I’m like, “No, I’m a stumbling, broken Catholic, but I’m actually a good Catholic.” I’m very, very, in some ways kind of laughably, orthodox.

I do think I have my own voice. I spend a ton of time by myself and I always have throughout my life. My whole drinking career was one of almost pathological isolation in some ways. Now I don’t see those years as wasted, I really see them as an essential part of my formation, and they, in fact, formed me to be in the world, but not of it. Therefore, I can just have this sense of humor and also be, I hope, deeply, deeply reverent.

This interview has been condensed and edited.

Retreat with Heather King

Heather King will lead a women’s Lenten retreat, with the theme “On Fire for the Light,” March 20–22 at the Archbishop Brunett Retreat Center at the Palisades, 4700 S.W. Dash Point Road, Federal Way.

The price is $199 per person (single room) or $165 per person (double room), and includes six meals and two nights in a room with private bath. Scholarships are available. For more information, call 206-748-7991.

Anna Weaver

Anna Weaver was the multimedia, online and social media editor, and writer for Northwest Catholic from 2013-2018.

Website: annapweaver.com