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Book review: 'Holy Desperation: Praying As If Your Life Depended on It'

“Holy Desperation: Praying As If Your Life Depended on It.” By Heather King.  Chicago: Loyola Press, 2017. 224 pages. Paperback: $10.84; Kindle: $9.99; Nook:  $10.49.
 
Like Heather King’s previous books, the most accurate word to describe this one is “honest” – sometimes brutally so. However, it is that very quality that makes “Holy Desperation: Praying As If Your Life Depended on It” so powerful. It is the honesty of a soul who has gone about as far down into the abyss as one can go, only to be overwhelmed and lifted out of those depths by the unconditional love of a forgiving God. Such an experience leaves a person changed forever.
 
As I read through the 13 chapters of this book, I thought how much the tone of King’s words echoed those of St. Paul, for it is obvious that she too is on fire with the love of God. By telling her story – without pulling any punches -- “Holy Desperation” ultimately becomes a book of hope for those who thought they had none left.
 
Although it is a reverent book, it is not a pious one, at least not in the ordinary sense of that word. The author makes no attempt to cover up the grittiness and messiness of life that brings people to God, nor does she say that, in order to approach the Almighty, one has to have on, as it were, one’s “Sunday best.” God, who knows us as we truly are, simply asks us to show up. “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,” she says.  “Come…you who are caring for a parent with Alzheimer’s while your siblings play golf. … Come, you who live in chronic physical pain, you who are perpetually broke…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.”
 
It was just for these that Christ came into the world, she continues, for the sick, the wounded and the rejected. “Christ, with his special heart for the mentally and emotionally ill, constantly cast out demons from the people who came to him,” she writes. All that God requires of us is to acknowledge our own neediness and admit to our own demons.
 
That, however, is the hard part, and one that most of us do not come to easily. For King, who was battling her own demon of alcoholism, it came at the end of a very dark road. Then, what seemed like despair became instead the most sincere prayer of all. “The essence of prayer consists in doing what most of us have never done before and that no human being does unless we are utterly, completely out of ideas,” she admits, “and that is to acknowledge defeat and ask for help. Kneeling, our heads are close to our hearts. Kneeling, we feel our exhaustion. Kneeling, we’re the height of children.”
 
 
 
The balance of the book consists of lessons learned, experiences shared and encouragement to continue no matter where in our journey of life we happen to be. There is a chapter devoted to the traditional prayers of the Church, which the author loves and prays on a daily basis, but we are also invited to join King’s own prayers, which are as honest and sincere as everything else in the book. “Heavenly Father, help me believe that I am loved in spite of my ongoing incompetence, littleness and brokenness,” she prays near the beginning. “Help me remember that our brokenness is why you came. Help me not be afraid to come close to you, in any way, at any minute of the day or night.”
 
This book is highly recommended.
 
Author biography
 
Heather King is an essayist, memoirist, blogger and former lawyer. She struggled with alcoholism for many years, got sober in 1987 and converted to Catholicism in 1996.
 
She has written several books including “Stripped,” “Parched,” “Redeemed,” “Shirt of Flame,” “Poor Baby” and “Stumble.” A contributor to the Catholic magazine Magnificat, her column "The Crux" appears in Angelus, the publication of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles.
 
She currently lives in Los Angeles.
 
Kay Winchester

Kay Winchester lives and works in the Roman Catholic Diocese of Albany, New York.

Vermont Catholic Magazine © 2016 Roman Catholic Diocese of Burlington