Month: November 2011



That, of course, would be the annual opening of the boxes of Christmas decorations…

The must of the old newspapers in which the ornaments are wrapped, the lights a tangle of wire and plastic, everything hurriedly wrapped and put away the previous January, the boxes lying for eleven months dark and cold in the back of the closet, the pang of joy when I plug in the lights and my palm jumps with tiny flames: electric blue, ruby red, burning white. 

The crèche from Africa: three hippos painted pink and black; brown clay figures wrapped in batik loincloths: the three wise men; Joseph with a ring through his nose; Mary’s breasts bared; the baby Jesus in a basket. In the background a palm tree, a single triumphant green frond, a scrap of cotton cloth stiff with paint, attached with wire to a cardboard trunk.

The cloth and gilt dolls from India, the gold bow I found on the sidewalk in Salem, Massachusetts circa 1989, the straw angel we bought in the Dominican Republic, the terra cotta cherub from the late, lamented Claudia Laub’s Studio on Beverly Boulevard, the raffia star made by Sister Benedicta (R.I.P.), the stencilled Christmas tree on handmade red and green paper the L.A. Catholic Worker sent out one year as an invitation to their tree-trimming party.

The teardrop bulb—sea blue and hot pink stripes—I bought at Yoken’s gift shop in Portsmouth, New Hampshire the summer I stayed with Cousin Dickie at the beach house, the Guatemalan dough ornaments I bought on Water Street in Exeter one afternoon on my lunch break, the 3-D stars our Koreatown neighbor Michael made out of brown and gold gift wrap the year he died of AIDS, the Victorian decoupage balls I found in Little Tokyo, the two glossy green bunches of fake cherries I brought back from Cholula, Mexico, the lights I got at an after-Chrismas sale at the Thrifty’s on Wilshire before it merged with Rite-Aid and moved to Vermont sometime after the divorce.

A history of the places where I have lived, the countries from which I have been granted a safe return, the stream of family and friends who have buoyed me up, borne me along, given me the strength to endure.

sparkly Christmas  paper bag
made by my nephew Allen

The Advent calendar I bought at the 99-Cent Store several seasons back. December 1st: “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light…”

“We can do no great things,” said Mother Teresa. “Only small things with great love.”



FR. ALFRED DELP, 1907-1945
“My chains are now without any meaning,
because God found me worthy of the ‘Vincula amoris’ (chains of love).”

“Life means waiting, not Faust-like grasping, but waiting and being ready…Anyone who remains stuck, waiting in fearful expectation just to see whether or not he will survive, has not yet laid bare the innermost strata. For the fearful expectation was sent to us in order to remove our false sense of security and behind it is this other metaphysical waiting that is part of existence.”

“The deepest meaning of Advent cannot be understood by anyone who has not first experienced being terrified unto death about himself and his human prospects and likewise what is revealed within himself about the situation and constitution of man in general.”

–Father Alfred Delp, condemned to death and executed by the Nazis during WWII.

I learned of Fr. Delp through Magnificat, and have just reserved his Prison Meditations at the library. For now here’s an article by Michael Holman, S.J. (Fr. Delp was also a Jesuit priest, and took his final vows, handcuffed, in his cell).  “Faith in Jesus is very, very rare”…

A special order by Heinrich Himmler required that the remains of all prisoners executed in connection with the July 20 Plot be cremated, and their ashes scattered over the sewage fields.

Fr. Delp was hung from a meat hook on February 2, 1945.




This Addict Is a Saint

By Jim Manney

Posted: 22 Sep 2011 01:11 AM PDT

“A friend of mine recently sent me a unusual holy card.  It honors St. Mark Ji Tianxiang, a Chinese layman who was murdered in 1900, along with dozens of other Catholics in his village, in the vicious persecution of Christians during the Boxer rebellion.  That’s not the unusual thing.  The Church has canonized many martyrs, including many Chinese martyrs.  What’s unusual about St. Mark is that he was an opium addict who was barred from receiving the sacraments for the last 30 years of his life.

Mark couldn’t receive communion because his addiction was regarded as gravely sinful and scandalous.  He prayed for deliverance from his addiction, but deliverance never came.  Nevertheless he remained a believing Catholic.  At his trial he was given a chance to renounce his faith, but he refused. It is said that he sang the litany of the Blessed Virgin Mary as he was led to his execution.

Saints are exemplary people.  The Church creates them so we can learn from them.  So what can we learn from St. Mark Ji Tianxiang?

For starters, he shows that anybody can become a saint—even a man who was kicked out of the church for giving public scandal.  By canonizing him, the Church also signals a different attitude toward addiction than the one St. Mark’s pastors had a century ago.  Drug abuse is sinful, but addiction is also a disease of the mind and body.  Addicts today are not excluded from the sacraments because they are addicts.

I also marvel at St. Mark’s confidence in the mercy of God. He probably shared the village’s opinion of him—that he was serious sinner who was behaving terribly.  He must have felt despair in his futile struggles and perhaps some bitterness too. But he persevered in his faith.  I suspect that in his brokenness he met the suffering Christ.  In the end, he went to his death confidently, trusting that love would receive him.  May we all imitate St. Mark.”

And may we all, IF POSSIBLE, put down the opium BEFORE we get martyred.

From Ignatian Spirituality. See also “The Addict Saint,” by Max Lindenman (from which I cribbed the top photo). 



Dappled Things: A Quarterly of Ideas, Art and Faith recently interviewed me about the genesis and writing of Shirt of Flame.

An excerpt:

I also had a huge conflict over the cover, which I find intensely incongruent with my own sensibility, and especially with the sensibility and spirituality of St. Thérèse. It’s a chick-lit, pastel cover, designed to be bland and non-threatening, the only redeeming feature of which is that it is slightly—but only slightly—less offensive than the one originally proposed, which was a la-la-la New Age girl in a swirly dress floating through an acid-green, flower-strewn pasture. That kind of Disney Christ cover says nothing that can be argued with and also nothing that’s remotely truthful, compelling, interesting, challenging, original, or real. Spirituality to me is blood, sinew, tendon, a heart nailed to a cross.


Thanks to editor Katy Carl.



“Eh! We’re on the moor now sure enough,” said Mrs. Medlock.

The carriage lamps shed a yellow light on a rough-looking road which seemed to be cut through bushes and low-growing things which ended in the great expanse of dark apparently spread out before and around them. A wind was rising and making a singular, wild, low, rushing sound.

“It’s–it’s not the sea, is it?” said Mary, looking around at her companion.

“No, not it,” answered Mrs. Medlock. “Nor it isn’t fields nor mountains, it’s just miles and miles of wild land that nothing grows on but heather and gorse and broom, and nothing lives on it but wild ponies and sheep.”

“I feel as if it might be the sea, if there were water on it,” said Mary. “It sounds like the sea just now.”

“That’s the wind blowing through the bushes,” Mrs. Medlock said. “It’s a wild, dreary enough place to my mind, though there’s plenty that lies it–particularly when the heather’s in bloom.”

–from The Secret Garden, by Frances Hodgson Burnett

photo: Dennis Hardley

I’m gonna be on Barbara DeMarco Barrett’s radio show “Writers on Writing” today, live at 9 a.m. PST. Listen in while you mash your pumpkin here



EL GRECO, oil on panel, probably before 1570

“There is no worldly reward for our spiritual efforts. There isn’t even a connection. The payoff for turning to God is more God, not more world.”

Hugh Prather

The Gospel reading Friday was Luke’s account of the cleansing of the temple: “Jesus entered the temple area and proceeded to drive out those who were selling things, saying to them, ‘It is written, My house shall be a house of prayer, but you have made it a den of thieves.’ ” [Luke 19: 45-46].

The Magnificat reflection was from German Dominican priest and mystical theologian Father Tauler (d. 1361):
Who were those who bought and sold in the Temple, and who are they that do so now?  And take notice that I am to speak only of those buyers and sellers in the temple who are good people, and who are nevertheless scourged out of His temple by the Lord; not gross sinners or such as are consciously in a state of mortal sin; and yet they are buyers and sellers. They are souls who, indeed, guard against grievous sins, and would do good works for God’s glory; they fast and pray and keep vigils and do other good things. But what is their motive? It is that God would in return do good things to them, bestow on them the favors they wish. They are, therefore, self-seekers; they are merchandisers with God, as anyone can see. They give that they may get. They must traffic with our Lord. 
I wonder what might happen, to that end, if we spent a little less time trying to evangelize everyone else and a little more time trying to evangelize ourselves. I wonder if the abuse of children by priests wouldn’t have been quite so widespread if all along we were trying to promote not so much the Church triumphant as the Church humble, poor, and meek.

We are all complicit in the suffering of the world. We are all broken, all fallen, all lonely. That is exactly why Christ came. He didn’t come so we could win. He didn’t come so we could vanquish our enemies. He didn’t come so we could have the flashiest churches, the biggest crowds, the best numbers.

Coming home on the plane last week I sat beside a middle-aged couple on their way to Hawaii: a woman with an injured foot and a guy who’d taken–had sacrificed himself by taking, I’d wager–the middle seat.

The woman spent the first hour fretting and complaining and digging endlessly and noisily into various cellophane bags of snacks and chomping away and carrying on. Then suddenly like a child she leaned over, snaked around her arm around the guy, laid her head against his chest, and fell asleep.

I thought That is John on the breast of Christ at the Last Supper. That is the heart of our faith.




I flew to Chicago last week, had pizza in town, and stayed at Mundelein Seminary.

 My room had wide windowsill ledges on which to place snacks and books, an old-school radiator, a view of the quadrangle, a bathroom with spacious old sink, wooden medicine cabinet, and patinaed copper fixtures, a simple crucifix on the wall, and a gigantic “living room” (well-worn Schirmer’s Mozart sonatas open on the grand piano) into which I padded in the morning to fetch my coffee.

“Now where are the Great Lakes from here?” I asked at one point and was astounded to learn that Chicago is ON a Great Lake, thereby corroborating that I really need to get out more.


Mundelein has its own lake, with a three-mile perimeter. Graceful bridges, Georgian brick buildings, meandering paths through the trees. I took a long walk at dusk, noticing the little crosses on top of the lamps that line the bridges, the squirrels, the crowns of the trees against the sky…

Thank you for having me, Word on Fire.

As St. Ignatius of Loyola said, Love is an exchange of gifts…



All we writers dream of one person -who “gets” us and our work.

For some, that happens through a review in the New York Times or a National Book Award or a Pulitzer.

Me, I just got written up by Graciela Espinoza in the Belmont (L.A. High School) Sentinel.

T h e S e n t i n e l
Volume 88, Issue 1 …The View from the Hilltoppers October/November 2011

By Graciela Espinoza

Opinion Editor
Essayist Heather King made a special appearance in Brad Valdez’s Advanced Placement English class to guide students through their transcendentalist reading, September 15.
“I loved the way she was deep and offered great explanations that helped my group,” said junior Julissa De La Cruz. “I understand the work much easier now.” According to Valdez, he chose King to talk to his students because of her intellect and success as a published writer. Valdez knew she would be a meaningful guide for the students as they faced the challenge of transcendentalist essays.
King hails from the coast of New Hampshire and relocated to Los Angeles in 1990. “I watched the Beverly Hillbillies a bunch of times so I told my husband, ‘let’s load up the car and move to California,’ ” said King. After enduring her share of suffering over the years, King found sobriety and became a lawyer. “My parents were finally so proud of me. People would say ‘good for you’ or ‘congratulations,’ but I was dying inside and just knew this was not what I was put on earth for so I quit my job,” recalled King.

According to King, she felt she was destined to become a writer. “People come to L.A. in a sense to lose and find themselves and that’s what happened to me. I quit my job, became a Catholic, and a writer. I’ve been here since 1990 and I’ve not regretted it one bit,” said King.
The students in Valdez’s class respected King’s commitment to her true calling. “I admire her bravery to quit her job as a lawyer and follow her passion for writing,” said junior Dayana Reyes. Junior Richard Kent appreciated the chance to learn from her expertise. “I want to go into the law profession and it was helpful to get feedback from her because she was a lawyer,” said Kent.
According to King, she found refuge in books during her tumultuous years.“I just lost my way and all during that time, I always had a stack of books,” said King. Books made her realize that she wasn’t the only human being who was suffering. “Books really saved me from killing myself in the darkest years of my life,” said King.
King’s love for books and determination led to her first published work. “I remember I burst into tears when I got the [acceptance] letter,” said King. “I literally fell to my knees and just sobbed and realized that if I died tomorrow, I would die happy,” said King with tears in her eyes.
The students in Valdez’s class were curious about King’s writing. “She told us her new book comes out in less than three weeks and I’d like to know what her books are about,” said junior Keila Alexis. King has published three memoirs. According to King, her first memoir, Parched, serves as a reminder that suffering leads to pain, pain to redemption, and redemption to compassion for others.
Her second memoir is called Redeemed. The book follows King’s spiritual quest as she quits her job, becomes a Catholic, and a writer. King writes about the isolation and confliction of the human soul, her marriage, the breast cancer that brought her close to the Virgin Mary, the wreckage of divorce, and the death of her father.
King spent 2009 wandering around Koreatown, Los Angeles, inspiring her third memoir entitled Shirt of Flame. “This book is more about finding the transcendent in what we encounter during the day, or the moment when we’re angry at our friend and suddenly our hearts open one more time and say, ‘I love that person so much. Forget it, who cares’ and you’re reconciled again,” explained King.
King left Belmont’s aspiring writers with words of advice. “As a writer, you open yourself to tons of criticism and rejection, to failure and disappointment,” she said “…but life is a paradox. The suffering is there, yet how can we not avoid that?” concluded King.

Can we pull together here and all hope that Graciela Espinoza wins the National Book Award herself one day?

Thanks, too, to photographer Andy Sandoval, to all the smart, hard-working, welcoming students in Room 247 who asked the most intelligent questions about David Foster Wallace’s “Federer as Religious Experience,” and of course, to Brad Valdez–aka Mister–Belmont High AP English teacher extraordinaire 

photo credit


“There are inequalities in the order of grace, just as there are in the order of nature.
We do not mean the inequalities that come from sin, from injustice, against which we ought to fight. What of the natural inequalities of men? Why do they exist? Saint Catherine of Siena says: so that each one may be, in regard to all the rest, both a giver and a beggar.”

–Cardinal Charles Journet, The Meaning of Grace

Near the Colorado line on a cross-country road trip a few years ago I stopped at a convenience store to use the restroom, glanced into the mirror, and realized that I looked like a member of the Donner party.  I’d been fancying myself a bold, brave seeker, but a middle-aged woman, alone in a grungy bathroom hundreds of miles from home and looking like hell was closer to the truth. The truth was that I had no particular emotional, financial, spiritual, or artistic support in my life, no guarantee that I’d be able to get a book out of this experience, as I hoped to [and in fact did not], no guarantee that the memoir I had coming out in a few months would sell [it did not], or that I would ever publish another one [I did!].

Not to put too fine a point on it, but a childless, partnerless, middle-aged woman is in some sense a beggar. I had to beg companionship on that trip, beg human contact, beg conversation, and if not beg food, beg the sacrament of a shared meal (often when I would “rather” have been alone), beg a moment of shared awe. Beg for someone to say along with me, Isn’t life beautiful? Beg for someone to understand when I asked, In spite of all its conflict and pain, would you trade a minute of it for anything? Beg not to be pitied. Beg to be forgiven for allowing others to mean more to me than I meant to them. Beg for the full value of what I was doing to be treasured while knowing that it wasn’t going to be, not knowing whether God himself saw its value.

Part of the tension I’m called to hold when in pain is to resist my impulse toward isolation; to stay connected with others. As a matter of humility, I must interact with others. I must stay connected to the material: food, faces. I have to acknowledge my own terrible need; I have to continue to give, even if all I have to give is my puny presence, even if I feel that I have and am nothing.

One manifestation of the miracle of the loaves and fishes is that wounded people can help other wounded people in a way “well” people can’t. I first noticed this phenomenon back in ’86 when I was in rehab. The people in white coats with their certificates and degrees were useful enough in their way, but they were not who I or any of the other drunks/addicts there truly wanted to hear. We wanted to hear from another person who had suffered. We wanted to hear from another person who was coming back from the dead. We wanted to hear from someone who needed us as much as we needed them.

For a well person to give is nice enough in its way, but for a person who’s suffering to give is sublime. With the person complete in and of himself who doesn’t need anything, the giving only goes in one direction. When the wounded person gives, there is a completion, a participation, a flow out and in, an exchange. We suffer, we beg, we share what little we have, and in the vulnerability, lo and behold, there is something for us. We get to be part of the feast. We get to eat, too. Even St. Maximilian Kolbe, who offered himself up to starve in another man’s place at Auschwitz, got to “eat.” Because you can be sure that while he was starving to death, and every moment since, he has been sitting with the other martyrs, saints, and lovers of Christ at the very head of the banquet table.

Christ draws us lonely people close; he has a whole constituent of lonely-hearts. We move through life not knowing, not quite daring to believe, and yet we believe anyway.

In The Eden Project, Jungian analyst James Hollis observes that fear is the great motivator and that we tend to deal with fear in three main ways: by becoming a caretaker, by becoming aggressive, or by withdrawing (I  like to do all three, often at once). And that, interestingly, one other way we can sublimate fear, if we’re lucky enough, is through love itself. Sometimes our soul enlarges to the point where we’re willing to open ourselves to the power of the other, to the capacity of the other to wound us. “The magnanimous person,” Aristotle called such a soul: the one with a big enough sense of self to allow the other to be the other, and simultaneously to risk opening to the other–because inherent in enlarging the soul is that the risk is no longer quite so precarious.

On my walk the other day I saw a black man, a young man, by his bike, just a normal human being with one pants leg rolled up and a Vons bag slung over his handlebars, and I swear I almost stopped and said to him: Would you just put your arms around me for a minute? We don’t have to say anything, but would you just hold me in your arms?

I wonder what would happen if we all did that for each other–and for ourselves. I bet the whole world would be instantly, utterly, saved.




From a reader:

All That Remains is a remarkable true story of the power of faith which will utilize state of the art special effects, live-action dramatic reconstructions and computer generated animation, alongside candid and intimate interviews with friends and family of Dr. Nagai, as well as other survivors of the atomic bombing, in order to take our audience on a personal journey alongside Dr. Nagai, as he embarks on his life changing quest for “the ultimate truth”.
We have some amazing people on board, helping us to tell his story, including the University of Nagasaki, his grace Archbishop Joseph Mitsuaki Takami and Fr. Paul Glynn, author of the acclaimed biography on Dr. Nagai, “A Song for Nagasaki”.

Our Facebook page:

In closing, I would like to thank you for taking the time to read my email.
Yours sincerely,
 Ian Higgins
Major Oak Entertainment Ltd