Heather King is a Catholic writer and ex-lawyer based in Los Angeles. Raised on the coast of New Hampshire, she struggled with alcoholism before getting sober in 1987. In 1996, she converted to Catholicism, receiving her first Communion and confirmation at Blessed Sacrament Jesuit parish in Hollywood, Calif. She is a graduate of the University of New Hampshire (1977) and Suffolk University Law School (1984).
Ms. King is a former commentator for National Public Radio's All Things Considered, the author of numerous essays and memoirs (including “Parched,” “Redeemed” and “Shirt of Flame: A Year with St. Therese of Lisieux”) and a blogger at Heather King: Mystery, Smarts, Laughs. She also writes a weekly column on arts and culture for The Tidings, the archdiocesan newspaper of Los Angeles.
Her latest book, Loaded: Money and the Spirituality of Enough, will be published April 30 by Franciscan Media. On Jan. 19, I interviewed Ms. King by email about her book.
Why did you write this book?
A spontaneous desire to share my experience, strength and hope with respect to my awakening, if you like, around money.
You’ve written a lot about your personal life, particularly your recovery from alcoholism and conversion to Catholicism. What role does your personal background play in this new book?
Oh, lots. I came from a blue-collar family. My father supported eight kids on a bricklayer’s salary. My parents were wonderful, but our household was saturated with financial anxiety. Later, when I became a lawyer, I had a deep fear of betraying my roots, of being disloyal to the hard manual labor that my father and his father before him had done. On top of it, I come from New England, where a sign of high character—even for people who have money—is the capacity to “do without.” Then I became a Catholic, and of course I was drawn to St. Francis, Joseph Labre, the Discalced Carmelites.
That’s when I encountered my thin line between passion and pathology around money. I was afraid of not having enough but I was even more afraid of having too much! Not wasting a penny can become compulsive. Self-giving can become self-deprivation. Equating poverty with holiness can become a spiritual trap where we’re seeking to become holy in the way we think we should be holy. Poverty, as an idol, can become a kind of neurotically self-centered athleticism, a feat.
To be fair, in the early ’90s I also quit my job as a lawyer in favor of a vocation in which the royalty split on a book, for example, is 88/12 in favor of the publisher; in other words, that gave me objective reasons to feel financially insecure. So one challenge has been to resist the temptation to become a brand; to resist allowing the marketing of the work to assume precedence over the work itself; to skirt the kind of rabid self-promotion that has become the norm in and out of Catholic culture. On the other hand, I’ve learned to ask for what I’m worth. To trust that if people can’t afford, say, my speaking fee, another opportunity will arise.
I’m not sure any of us ever sort it all out, but God can’t possibly take how much or how little money we have as a “sign” of anything. He just wants us to be happy, joyous and free. So more and more I use the money I have to participate. Throw a dinner party. Travel to visit a friend. Plant a garden.
Who are you writing for?
Everybody. The taboo subject in our culture isn’t sex but rather money. We’re all fascinated by money but we talk around it rather than about it.
One of the things I do in the book is lay out exactly how much money I made and spent over a certain period of time, and on what. Not for the purpose of being confessional, but what is so private, what is the big secret, about how much money I have?
The system under which we live is capitalism, which is to say moneyism. Our cultural god is money, our political and economic system is based on money, we equate the individual’s human worth with money—all of which is utterly false and leads to hideous amounts of violence, squandered lives, unhappiness and human bondage.
Some people are attached to having to be rich; for a long time I was over-attached to having to be poor. The point is that if we’re enslaved to a certain way around money, we’re on shaky spiritual ground.
So there’s a kind of freedom in laying it all out. In saying, “Come on in, judge and compare all you want!” Because I’m just trying to learn and grow, and I hope everyone else is, too.
What does the title “loaded” conjure for you?
Loaded is slang for wealth with a kind of exuberant swagger to it. That’s what Christ gives us, a way to walk through the world with a certain style, and though that may include money it doesn’t remotely depend upon money. Loaded is also slang for high on booze or drugs which, in the context of the book, connotes a kind of divine intoxication.
Catholicism is a stance toward reality, toward existence. So there’s an ease, a sense of humor, a freedom implied in the title.
What is the relationship between “money” and the “spirituality of enough” in the subtitle?
The spirituality of enough cuts both ways. The point is to realize that I have enough riches, and I have enough poverty. I’m doing enough, growing enough, I am enough. I’m suffering enough, I have enough joy. Relax already.
What is the message of your book?
It’s not a message so much as the story of how I’m learning to take the metaphysical weight out of money. Money isn’t our childhood wounds. Money is not our identity. Money is not a symbol of our value in the eyes of God. Money is a tool.
Also, we can’t heal ourselves, by ourselves, from our wounds. We need community. A corollary to our idolization of money is our idolization of the wrong kind of self-reliance.
I run into these “good Catholics” all the time, for example, who would rather die than cast their lot with the rest of humanity and ask for help with their massive psycho-spiritual wounds around family, love, addictions, finances. “We have Christ,” you can hear them thinking. Well, yes, and Christ works through other people. We have a huge fear of appearing vulnerable or weak, of not having all the answers. That is what Christ and the Gospels are for.
What helped you recover from alcoholism and what helps you stay sober today?
In large part, a fellowship of recovering alcoholics and addicts that I was graced to stumble upon after doing a 30-day rehab at Hazelden in 1987. The spiritual principles of honesty, open-mindedness, humility, obedience, discipline, examination of conscience, a prayer life and service: in short, the spiritual principles of the Gospels.
Why did you convert to Catholicism in 1996?
The short answer is the one the novelist Walker Percy gave: “What else is there?” A longer answer is the conversion story I tell in my book Redeemed: Stumbling Toward God, Marginal Sanity, and the Peace that Passes All Understanding. I was concerned about the state of my soul. I was desperate for purpose, order, truth, beauty, meaning. If you hunger for those things deeply enough, all roads lead to Christ.
How has your faith grown or evolved over the years since your conversion?
I’m always trying to fashion reality into my image, to arrange things the way I want. Simply from exhaustion, I may be a little bit more likely to let Him make of me and do with me what He will.
I think a lot about an anecdote from the life of Therese of Lisieux. Someone once asked her what she said to Jesus when she prayed. She thought for a minute, then replied, “I don’t say much of anything. I just love him.”
Who have been the biggest influences on your faith and writing?
Flannery O’Connor, Dorothy Day, St. Therese of Lisieux, Caryll Houselander. Beethoven, Van Gogh, Glenn Gould, Maria Yudina. Kafka. Dostoevsky. People who suffered deeply and still went to their desk or piano or easel or place in chapel every day. Those are the people who have saved the world. I owe my life to them.
What are your hopes for the future?
I just moved into a new apartment and I’d really like to find the perfect sofa. I’m also on the hunt for sweet pea seeds.
What regrets do you have about the past?
I don’t really regret the past. I’ve taken a lot of wrong turns, but I can’t say I regret having taken them because the consequent suffering served to form me as a follower of Christ. On the other hand, the three abortions I wrote about in Poor Baby occupy a huge space in my heart, conscience and soul. In a way, my whole life is a pilgrimage to become the mother my kids deserved.
What is your favorite Bible passage and why?
One of them serves as an opening quote for the book:
Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and decay destroy, and thieves break in and steal. But store up treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor decay destroys, nor thieves break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there also will your heart be (Mt 6:19-21).
Others include: “Healthy people don’t need a doctor; sick people do”; “Blessed are the poor in spirit”; “I came to call not the righteous, but sinners.”
What’s your next project?
Famished: A Food Memoircomes out this fall from Marymount Institute Press.
If you could say one thing to Pope Francis about materialism, what would it be?
I’d probably rather listen to the one thing about materialism Pope Francis might say to me. But I’ll probably never get that close to him. I was in Rome last October and, diehard introvert that I am, couldn’t handle the crowds at St. Peter’s.
What do you want people to take away from your life and work?
If I can find my way, anyone can.
Any final thoughts?
You know, last Saturday night I threw a dinner party to celebrate the birthday of my friend Tensie. She and her husband Dennis founded the Guadalupe (Calif.) Catholic Worker. They have a very interesting stance toward money and I tell their story in the book. Their two teenage kids were there, and our dear friends Donald and Alan, and Benny McCabe from Dublin, who works, among other people, with torture victims and was recovering from a heart attack he’d suffered mere weeks before. We all crowded into my relatively small apartment. Donald brought a table and chairs and a tablecloth because, having just moved in, I don’t have any of that yet. People brought flowers, Meyer lemons, drinks, cheese, salami, agave cuttings.
I’d been back in New Hampshire over New Year’s to visit my family. In Portsmouth, the town where I was born, I’d attended a beautiful Epiphany Mass where the priest handed out little pieces of chalk that had been blessed with instructions and a prayer to write over the door of your home to bless all the people who will come in and out during the year. So I’d brought the chalk and the prayer back and together we had a little ritual where we all sort of anointed this new home. Then we sat down and joined hands to give thanks. For the next four hours, we ate (pork braised in cider and fennel), we told jokes, we laughed. Over dessert (persimmon pudding made from fruit of the tree in my backyard), we went around the circle and each told a story about a childhood toy and the significance of the memory.
Tensie left me with a bottle of water she’d collected from the monastery at Snowmass, Colo., where she goes each year for a week of silence. The next morning, I rigged up a little font from a tiny ceramic bowl made by Lisa Marr of the Echo Park Film Center, another dear unique friend, so now that’s by my door, too.
Then I sat back down, looked out at the morning light and the wild parrots who rule the skies of Pasadena, and thought, Grace upon grace upon grace. We suffer so much. Christ never said we wouldn’t. But he also said, “I came so that your joy may be complete.” Every so often—and it is always around friendship, relationship—we feel that. The richness, the depth. The insane, bounce-to-your-step abundance.
Sean Salai, S.J., is a contributing writer at America.