July 5, 2016

Book Review | Learning to Love With the Saints: A Spiritual Memoir

Learning to Love With the Saints: A Spiritual Memoir
Learning to Love With the Saints: A Spiritual Memoir, (published 2016, by Mercy Press, Wichita, KS, 122 pages) the second book from writer, speaker, psychologist and blogger, Jean Heimann, M. A., is an intimate account of her life’s search for authentic love. Coming of age at a time of social upheaval, widespread religious questioning, and great personal difficulties, she looked everywhere but the Church to find it. Professional success did nothing to quell her heart’s deepest longing for purpose and meaning.

For fifteen years she followed the zeitgeist, not the Gospel, distinguishing, but not fulfilling herself. Slowly, through divine serendipity and the Sacred Heart of Christ, she would reaffirm her faith in God and the Church. Along the way, the saints she had venerated in her childhood reemerged to remind her of God’s boundless love. Like her blog, Catholic Fire, her spiritual biography features men and women of heroic virtue who speak to us today. Learning to Love With the Saints, while familiar in its themes, is wonderfully new in its telling.

A forward by Donna-Marie Cooper O’Boyle discusses Ms. Heimann’s decades long efforts to evangelize the culture and advance the Good News. The book, Ms. O’Boyle writes, "is an inspiring love story." She then poses the question underlying the book’s main premise: "Where was God? Why did He allow the abuse and devastating illness?"

Learning to Love With the Saints is in large part, an answer to that question. Although rarely viewed as such, trials can be occasions of grace. In the words of St. Madeleine Sophie Barat, "As iron is fashioned by the fire on an anvil, so in the fire of suffering and under the weight of trials, our souls receive the form that our Lord desires for them to have." Only through suffering and hardship can we come to truly appreciate the gift of God’s mercy and His plan for our lives.

In her introduction, Ms. Heimann notes man’s undeniable need to give and receive love. Absent this, he is unfulfilled and incomprehensible to himself; a fact Pope St. John Paul II affirms: "Man cannot live without love. He remains a being that is incomprehensible for himself, his life is senseless, if love is not revealed to him, if he does not encounter love, if he does not experience it and make it his own, if he does not participate intimately in it" (Redemptor Hominis, 10). Unfortunately, far too often, we sin, replacing love with money, pleasure, power, and prestige. Whatever our shortcomings, only God can restore us.

Freedom is not What I Expected

Chapter two’s title, "Freedom is not What I Expected", foreshadows the narrative that follows in which the author recounts her disillusionment in the wake of maltreatment and abandonment. It is a timeless observation reminiscent of our first parents' anguished realization at consuming the forbidden fruit. Unlike the Devil’s lies, true freedom is the practice of virtue embodied in moral laws, not license to act as we like.

Jean Heimann was born the third of five children, to a family of modest means in Illinois. Her father, an ironworker and her mother a nurse’s aide, were rigid and devout but loving. Despite financial difficulties, they rarely were in need. Their lives revolved around the Church. Jean attended Mass daily and prayed regularly at home as well as at school. During this time, she developed a special devotion to Our Lady and various other saints. Remembering the trials and tribulations of her childhood, she explains: "I have St. Thérèse to thank for carrying me through childhood with an understanding of how to love in such a way that every life experience could be passed forward for the benefit of someone else."

Upon graduation, Jean contemplated a future with unlimited possibility and freedom. The cultural and ecclesiastical changes occurring in society mirrored in many ways her life and mindset. The Sexual Revolution and Vatican II sent diametrically opposed messages about the nature and end of human beings. The former was trumpeted incessantly. The later was met with confusion and disappointment. Both would affect Jean profoundly.

Her search for meaning led Jean into relationships with unsuitable partners. She married a drug-addicted, abusive man whom she divorced. Believing divorcees were unwelcome in the Church, she left her Catholic faith.

Jean achieved success as a psychologist, becoming accomplished and respected. She lived ‘The Good Life’ with all its material trappings. Yet this, and a stable relationship with a nominally committed man, failed to provide contentment. She still yearned for intimacy, love and dedication.

God’s Ways are a Mystery to Man 

During the 1980s, Jean was again confronted with a series of trials and sufferings. At 33, she was diagnosed with endometriosis which would ultimately require three surgeries to address. Soon after, her youngest sister became gravely ill with cancer, and her mother was afflicted with breast cancer. Hardship had once more interrupted Jean’s plans; necessitating a change of course that would prove providential.

It was Holy Week when Jean traveled to San Antonio to support her elderly parents. At their parish, she was affectionately greeted by their deacon and a sister in full habit who were joy-filled and loving. There she witnessed a dramatic re-enactment of the Passion of Christ. The experience changed Jean’s life:
On Good Friday that year, I watched my dad fall to his knees and hug the large cross, tenderly kissing the feet of Jesus. Then, in an instant, my mom was reaching out, bending low, nearly falling off her wheelchair to her knees, to embrace and reverently kiss the feet of the life-sized corpus. It was at that moment that I recognized where the void was in my life. Jesus had been missing!
Only His love could fill that hole. This was the turning point in my life, the decisive moment when I knew I would return to my faith. I realized how much I loved Jesus and how much I missed Him and I yearned to receive Him in the Eucharist.
Faith is a gift. Trust is the indispensable disposition necessary to receive it. Ms. Heimann observes that, "All conversions are the result of a personal encounter with Jesus Christ. …[I]t is only when our hearts are transformed by the love of Christ that we are able to follow after Him." The year after her personal encounter with Christ, Ms. Heimann returned to the Church.

Learning to Love With the Saints is a poignant spiritual memoir, chronicling one woman’s sufferings, trials, estrangement from, and joyous return to, God and the Catholic Church. It is a modern-day testimony to the power of grace to redeem, heal and transform. Jean Heimann expertly weaves St. John Paul II’s Theology of the Body, Sacred Scripture, brief biographies of saints, and their wisdom in quotes to show how infinitely loved we are in the eyes of Our Creator. True freedom means surrendering to God, embracing God’s tender love, and accepting God’s mercy. Then, with the saints as our guides, we can serve others in imitation of Christ. In a world where the Church is reviled and God rejected, amidst increasing faithlessness, this book – a spiritual antidote of faith, hope and love – is a story worth reading.

The Saints

At the beginning and within each chapter are quotations by saints pertaining to the subject at hand. The seven saints and one blessed cited (St. Thérèse of Lisieux, St. Teresa of Avila, Sts. Louis and Zélie Martin, Pope St. John Paul II, St. John the Evangelist, Blessed John Henry Newman, and St. Sharbel) were instrumental in the author’s spiritual formation. These men and women of great sanctity overcame adversity to achieve holiness. May their example inspire us to do the same. The quotations below are taken from the text.

St. Thérèse of Lisieux

St. Thérèse of Lisieux
How happy I am to see myself imperfect and to be in need of God’s mercy
Prayer is a cry of gratitude and love, in the midst of trial as well as in joy.  
My life is but an instant
a passing hour.
My life is but a day that escapes
and flies away.
My God, you know that
to love you here on earth
I have only today!
The goal of all our undertakings should be not so much a task perfectly completed as the accomplishment of the will of God. 

St. Teresa of Avila

St. Teresa of Avila
It should be observed that perfect love of God consists not in those delights, tears and sentiments of devotion that we generally seek, but in a strong determination and keen desire to please God in all things, and to promote His glory.
Let nothing trouble you, let nothing frighten you.
All things are passing; God never changes.
Patience obtains all things.
He who possesses God lacks nothing:
God alone suffices.
Christ has no body now, but yours.
No hands, no feet on earth, but yours.
Yours are the eyes through which
Christ looks compassion into the world.
Yours are the feet
With which Christ walks to do good.
Yours are the hands
With which Christ blesses the world.
May He Who waited so long for me be blessed forever. I beseech Him with my whole heart to give me grace to write this account of my life... The Lord Himself, I know, has long wished it to be written but I have not presumed to write it. May it be to His glory and praise.

St. John Paul II

Pope St. John Paul II
Every generation of Americans needs to know that freedom consists not in doing what we like, but in having the right to do what we ought.
In the ‘unity of the two’, man and woman are called from the beginning not only to exist ‘side by side’ or ‘together’, but they are also called to exist mutually ‘one for the other’... To say that man is created in the image and likeness of God means that man is called to exist 'for' others, to become a gift. (Mulieris Dignitatem, no. 7.)
From the paradox of the Cross springs the answer to our most worrying questions. Christ suffers for us. He takes upon himself the sufferings of everyone and redeems them. Christ suffers with us, enabling us to share our pain with him. United to the suffering of Christ, human suffering becomes a means of salvation.
It is suffering, more than anything else, which clears the way for the grace which transforms human souls. Suffering, more than anything else makes present in the history of humanity the powers of the Redemption.

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