All this took place in the midst of vibrant, chaotic, often maddening L.A.: I attended RCIA, was confirmed, and took my first Communion at the Church of the Blessed Sacrament in Hollywood. "How can you be spiritual in L.A.?" people sometimes ask, and I always think, "How can you not be spiritual in L.A., a city so saturated in paradox, a place where both heaven and hell, often simultaneously, are so vividly in evidence?" More to the point, how can you not be religious, no matter where you are? For religion means to bind back together, and surely the deepest truth of the human heart is that it was shattered, split asunder, in the Garden of Eden, and that we have all been trying to put it back together since.

Since then, I have I experienced cancer, the slow, painful death of my father, a divorce and annulment, the advancing Alzheimer's of my mother, obsessions, compulsions, the ever-advancing prospect of my own mortality, a shattered heart. I have driven across country, twice, in my car alone: pondering, praying, going to Mass. I have driven to the desert, hiked the mountains, sought out in monasteries, convents, and retreat houses. And all along, against all odds, I have grown in spiritual maturity. I have become a better friend, a better sister, a better daughter, a more fervent, if forever stumbling, follower of Christ.

I have also become a writer. During the "dark years," books literally kept me alive, kept me from killing myself. Hung over, in anguish, I almost lost my will to live, but I never lost my library card. Dostoevsky, Flannery O'Connor, Emily Dickinson—the authors who wrote of the truth of the human condition—were my truest, often my only, link to humanity.

I have always considered the vocation of writer to be a calling as noble, in its way, as the calling to be a doctor or teacher or priest, and I believe that even more strongly since I've become a writer myself. "There is only one thing I dread," said Dostoevsky, "not to be worthy of my sufferings." I dread a second thing, and that is not to be worthy of the honor and responsibility of my vocation as a writer.

"Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return," the priest will say today, as he makes the sign of the cross in ashes on our foreheads. We do not come to Christ as Protestants or Catholics, as Democrats or Republicans, or even as believers or non-believers. We come to Christ as sinners, as beggars. We come in fear and trembling, in wonder and astonishment, and let us never forget, in crazy, wild-card joy. We come and then we want to go out to the world and say, "You come, too! You won't believe this! God has come to earth as a mortal human being! He's pitched his tent among us!"

"We do not draw people to Christ by loudly discrediting what they believe, by telling them how wrong they are and how right we are, but by showing them a light that is so lovely that they want with all their hearts to know the source of it," observed spiritual writer Madeleine L'Engle.

And perhaps even more succinctly: "The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it" (Jn. 1: 5).

Even if the light is the tiniest of sparks.