[Read an excerpt from Swimming with Scapulars: True Confessions of a Young Catholic here]
GODSPY: What's been the reaction to your book so far?
MATTHEW LICKONA: Well, it debuted at number five on the Catholic Book Publisher's Association hardcover bestseller list. Publisher's Weekly gave it a starred review and called it a "breath of fresh air" and "a winsome story of a soul... happily absent of platitudes and pious moralizing." That was very gratifying. Borders front-tabled it for the month of April. I was profiled in the May 9 issue of US News & World Report. It ran with a big photo of me standing in my wife's flower garden. Fr. Richard Neuhaus is writing about it for First Things, for an upcoming issue. Most personal reactions I've heard about have been positive. We'll see what happens.
How did you get into writing?
Dumb luck. [laugh]
Was that in the book?
That's in the book. Certainly, growing up in my house there was an emphasis on writing. My father always worked hard with us—striving for clarity, for good, solid, clear writing. All my college application essays went through seven drafts. He would circle paragraphs and say: tighter, tighter, tighter...
And your first writing position was with the San Diego Reader, an alternative weekly paper?
It was. I put together a little magazine at Thomas Aquinas college, sort of on a lark, but it got me enough of a reputation that when the career director got a call from Jim Holman, who publishes the Reader, asking for people to train, he suggested me. I went down and interviewed with Jim, and started there right after college, in 1995, as a staff writer. Four years later I became the wine columnist.
How did you come to start writing the Confessions column?
I came to write it largely through the curiosity of Jim Holman. He also published the Catholic newspaper, San Diego News Notes, which is kind of an apostolate—he also does Catholic papers in LA and San Francisco. After hiring me for the Reader, and after a number of years of writing there, he got fond of me and became curious about what the spiritual life of a young Catholic was like. He asked me to start writing about my spiritual life for the News Notes, and happily didn't restrict the scope to my interior workings, because that might have gotten old fast. He allowed me to cast my eye outwards and look at the world, and how I engage the world.
When Loyola found my stuff they said, "Oh Gosh, now we have a first-hand account of a ‘New Faithful’ Catholic…"
Did he give you direction about the tone of the column?
No, he just said write about what's going on inside, and he let me go. I did know that spiritual writing can be very abstract, which I knew would be as dull as dirt, because I'm not that wise, and I'm young, so I just said I had to dig as far as I could into personal details to make it engaging and worthwhile.
Did writing under the pseudonym "Broderick Barker" help? And does it matter to you that you've now been outed? Will this inhibit your future writing?
Yes, I was freed up by the pseudonym—people I knew would be reading the columns, and I was happy not to put my name to my sins. And there were some considerations of charity. I wrote about things that would cause other people pain if the identities were known. But I had to drop it when I wrote a book that told the story of my life so far. It's no longer a bunch of random musings; now, it's me on the page.
The column in the News Notes will continue to run under Broderick Barker, but in general, I'm committed. I don't plan to use my writing as my confessional—bless me, reader, for I have sinned—but I know that I can't be hesitant when writing about spiritual matters. If I am, I suspect the writing will get boring really quickly.
I imagine your experience writing for a secular, alternative weekly has helped...
Yeah, that's probably true, because you're given a certain amount of freedom when you write in the secular world. You get over the idea that there are things you shouldn't write about; you get over the idea of taboos. It was a great experience. I got bounced around all over. I did cover stories on anything they assigned to me. I did an architecture piece; I did a piece on natural childbirth, on the best high schools, interviews with street people, interviews with families trying to make ends meet, with people waiting to talk to loved ones in prison...
It must be interesting—even difficult—for a devout Catholic like Jim Holman to publish an alternative paper like the Reader in a major city...
It's true that it's an unusual place for him to be. He comes under fire because he doesn't take the sex ads, he doesn't take homosexual personals. It's not that he ignores the gay community. I did a history of how the gay district got to be that way, and I did a profile of a longtime lesbian couple who had been together thirty years, and he got criticism from within traditional Catholic circles for running that; he was accused of legitimizing it. But he said, "look, this is what's out there; this is how people actually are living... we can tell the story." But he thinks homosexual personals are aiding people in what he considers to be immoral behavior, so he doesn't take those, and he's certainly got his enemies within the alternative press because of that. But I think he's kind of a model for a Catholic engaging the world. He doesn't feel like there's anything he can't say or talk about. He believes in good writing and telling the truth.
I knew I had to dig as far as I could into personal details to make the columns engaging.
What's your assessment of Catholic writing in general?
I think a lot of Catholic writing is worthwhile. It does what it sets out to do, particularly when it stays grounded in news and events. I don't tend to read a lot of general essay-type pieces—I prefer the concrete. That may be a prejudice on my part. When I want spiritual guidance I tend to go to older stuff.
Your columns, and your book, are somewhat unusual—a young traditional Catholic who asks tough questions about his beliefs and practices, who is realistic about his own failings, and who is charitable to non-believers.
Well, Loyola Press is really happy about it because they had this book, The New Faithful, by Colleen Carroll, about young people returning to more traditional beliefs and practices, and that was a big success for them. But she had written in this journalistic, trend-spotting style, and then they found my stuff and said, "Oh Gosh, now we have a first-hand account of the sort of person she said existed," and which some people, I think, didn't believe really existed. The skeptics thought, well, she found a few people, but three doesn't make a trend. Whether my book is proof that there is such a subculture, I don't know, but I think Loyola was just happy to have a first-hand account of someone who actually is like what Carroll says is out there, and who's willing to sort of show from the inside what it looks like.
Yes, there's some debate about whether the "New Faithful" Catholic revival is real or not, and whether there are hard numbers that confirm the trend. What do you think?
I don't know if there are hard numbers to confirm the trend. It seems to me like it could be a self-fulfilling prophecy. If enough stories run about how people are returning to Eucharistic Adoration, people might start to pay more attention, they might ask what it's about, and they might find the answer appealing. I've used the image of poking around in the Church's dusty basement, picking things up, examining them, and wondering why they're down there. Why did Eucharistic Adoration go away? It's time with Jesus Incarnate. What was wrong with mortification of the flesh through fasting? It's all over Scripture, and still held up by the Church as one of the three pillars—together with prayer and almsgiving—of the spiritual life. Why did the sacrament of Confession go out of style? I don't think you have to be obsessed with guilt to love the sacrament. You just have to acknowledge the reality of sin, something any Christian should be comfortable doing, since sin is the reason for the Incarnation and the Resurrection. Where there's sin, there's guilt, and hallelujah whaddya know, confession removes that stain from your soul.
Personally, if I were not a member of the New Faithful—if by that you mean a person interested in connecting with tradition and conforming to the truths proclaimed by the Church—I can't see why I would be a Catholic. If I didn't think the Church had the power to teach authoritatively in matters of faith and morals, if I didn't think those teachings were ordered to my spiritual well being and, ultimately, my salvation, I don't know why I would stay. But as it is, I think that the Catholic Church has the best grasp of the fullness of truth, so I'm all in, even if some of the teachings prove difficult to understand or obey. And perhaps most importantly, the Church has the Eucharist.
You don’t have to be obsessed with guilt to love the sacrament of Confession. You just have to acknowledge the reality of sin…
I do know that at least some of the New Faithful are breeding. I was at a wedding a while back—the 17th of 17 children was getting married, and there must have been over 100 grandkids running around the reception. A friend of mine—the 16th—was best man, and he said during his toast, "Keep it going—we'll win by attrition." I think it's telling that there were so many grandkids. The children who grew up in that family of 17 kids didn't reject the culture their parents created. They carried it on. Granted, that's an exceptional case in terms of sheer numbers, but the pattern isn't unique. And if parents succeed in passing on the tradition they've inherited and preserved—a tradition that is friendly toward having children—then we're going to have a whole bunch of New Faithful in the years to come.
Was Loyola Press surprised to find a traditional Catholic—a "New Faithful" Catholic-who wrote in a personal, confessional style?
I don't know if they were surprised; I know they were very pleased. When I got the first calls from the editors, Jim Manney and Joe Durepos, they said, "This is great, it's all in here, it's all the stuff that you wished that people in that world would engage and talk about."
How did Loyola find you?
Well, after five years of writing the Confessions column I looked back over what I had written and thought, "This is a curious portrait I've painted—maybe curious enough to be of interest to people." I was very fortunate. I sent the columns to Paul Elie at Farrar, Straus and Giroux, after his book, The Life You Save May be Your Own, came out. He was kind enough to read it—but he passed on it. But when Loyola went to him searching for writers and projects, he passed my name along. That's how they found it.
What was it like editing the columns into a book version?
When I tore the columns apart and turned them into a memoir, I was trying to give a fuller picture of the people who showed up in the story—but I was also trying to write a story that would engage anyone who happened to pick it up. Someone who might be coming into my world with absolutely fresh eyes.
Why don't we see more candid, personal writing from traditional Catholics?
I think with traditional Catholic writers there might be an inclination, when you're feeling that you're a persecuted subculture, to circle the wagons, and just want to keep a brave face on things. I don't know if that's what's actually happened but I can certainly see how it would, just because a lot of traditional Catholics feel like they're under fire, even from their own church. They watch their churches get remodeled. They watch the mass get changed from the way they would like it to be, and so they feel like they're under fire. If it's wartime it's not about exposing ourselves and showing a shaky interior life. It's about putting on your best face, being brave and going to war. I can see how that might happen, but it's not something I had consciously in mind when I was writing the columns.
You mentioned you prefer classic Catholic spiritual writing—who are your favorite writers? Given the title of your column, I imagine Augustine is on the list.
Actually, when I originally sent the manuscript to Paul Elie, with the title, "Confessions," he wrote back saying "this has more in common with Georges Bernanos' Diary of a Country Priest, than anything by Augustine. [Laugh] I guess I saw his point—it's all about my trials and weaknesses.
That reminds me—you talk in the book about your difficulties with the idea, or the emotion, of "joy."
It's a difficult concept—is it an emotion? Certainly, I'm gratified by consolation as much as anybody might be. It's why the Eucharist is at the heart of my faith. It's the engine, and the anchor, because I do get my greatest moments of spiritual consolation from it. But consolation is not what I hang my hat on. The faith permeates and colors my whole understanding of the world. It's a lot of things—it's a moral code, an intellectual framework, it gives life meaning. Those things are enough, I think. You're seeking union with God in heaven and you begin heaven on earth as much as you can by coming into contact with Him, but I don't depend on that because it's not promised. I don't feel like it's a guarantee that you're going to experience these consolations. And so when Paul says count it all joy, it's hard for me to understand what he means there. Maybe it's a kind of solid confidence, but I guess that's more hope than joy. I don't know...
If parents succeed in passing on the tradition we're going to have a whole bunch of ‘New Faithful’ in the years to come.
Do you think it might be harder for a lifelong cradle Catholic to experience the sort of "Amazing Grace" joy that comes from hitting bottom and finding God?
Yeah, I certainly can see that. People talk about the zeal of the convert—I don't have that zeal because it's the water I've swum in always; it's more of a conviction than zeal. Maybe that was the point of the Charismatic movement my parents got involved in, to try to "enkindle the fire of Thy love." You know, "Come, Holy Spirit" to rouse the cradle Catholic.
Do you feel comfortable saying that you have a personal relationship with Christ?
[Pause] My prayer life is a strange thing to me. I keep at it but I don't expect particular things from it. It's not a source of particular consolation, unless I go to the Eucharist, and even then doubt starts eating at me: "Is that just something you've conditioned yourself towards? ...or is that just when you expect it, the time you've convinced yourself that you'll feel or experience things?" I don't know. But when I go to the Eucharist I do feel I'm before a presence. I do feel I'm connected to someone, and I think that's Jesus. I would say that I most experience a relationship there.
The Catholic psychologist Paul Vitz has written about how the father relationship affects a person's faith. In your book your father certainly comes off as an amazing guy—a saint almost.
He's been a fantastic father. I've become more aware of his humanity as the years have gone by, but I've always had and still have a tremendous admiration for him. People say you have to kill your father to become your own man... I didn't do it [laugh], and I don't feel like it's crippled me.
What about you and your four kids? You and your wife Deirdre believe in home-schooling, which seems ideal for passing on the faith. But yet you wrote very candidly in your book about your frustrations, and how inevitably your children will have to find their own path to faith...
It's true. There are some things I fear my oldest son may never believe, no matter how many times I tell him, even about God and the spiritual life. I mean, I didn't believe it from my own parents—that you can't be happy without God. That drove me insane. I understand the idea that you're not going to be satisfied by any—thing that's out there. But did I go chase after things? Absolutely. [laugh] Do I still? Absolutely. That's something everyone's got to break down in themselves.
Someone once said that faith is not subjective but it is personal...
Yes, and I can become afraid that the faith I have is just something that was passed down to me, and it can't be just that. It is given to me, whether from someone else, and in my case most proximately from my parents, but it's not something where I can say, well this has been given to me and I'm okay, because it will wither and die in my particular person if it's not tended to, if it doesn't strengthen. So you've got to make it your own even though it's this objective thing.
I think being a parent deepens your faith, too. Thanks to my stubborn, strong-willed children, I have a much better appreciation for God in the Old Testament, and the repeated cycle, with Israel, of disobedience and wrath...
Ye children are stiff-necked; I will lay you waste and I will start again! [Laugh]
Yes. But of course you forgive them and you start the cycle all over. You really learn humility...
It's God as father, right?
Do you ever worry that home-schooling might cause your kids to rebel later on?
I think the tendency to rebel will be greater for my kids than it was for me because I don't think my father built such a clear wall between the world and us. Maybe it was because he didn't feel he had to.
In my case, for instance, we don't have television in our house. We rent movies, but we don't have TV. My son Fin feels that difference from other families very keenly, and talks about how other families have TV. And because we home school, he wonders: "What would public school be like?" We have friends and neighbors who are in public school. But we didn't kill TV because of the kids; we did it because of us. We realized that it was taking too much of our lives. We gave it up for Lent and afterwards we said, "Wow, we didn't miss that at all, so let's stop paying for it." But I don't recommend a blanket "Nobody should have TV." Every family limits in the way they feel is necessary. But Fin was only four at the time, and now he feels it more because of other families, and he knows about it.
In your book, I was a bit surprised that you and your older brother, Mark, attended public schools growing up. So did I, but I wasn't really raised Catholic...
I'm not sure exactly why. It may be because my dad's whole career was spent working with the public schools. It may be because he didn't feel the threat.
Did your parents go through a conversion?
A strengthening, when I was about ten, and my brother was 16.
What was that like?
It was really good timing in my case because it was around the time when you start asking questions, when you don't always accept something just because mom and dad say it's so. Their faith was deepening and strengthening right around the time when I needed it to, so it didn't feel like a great shift for me.
Was it jarring to go to college at Thomas Aquinas, where a lot of your peers were probably home-schooled...
It was fascinating more than jarring... I was amazed. I was just in wonder all the time at the strange things that were going on around me—that kids could come out of these environments. But I guess it was jarring to some extent. First semester—I hated it. I wanted to leave right away. I was horrified at the idea of people saying, "Thank God we're here and not elsewhere." I thought, "how smug, how superior." Looking back, I don't think they were smug. I think they were really grateful because maybe they knew more about the dangers that were out there than I did at the time. I was just eighteen. I was like, "What about engaging the world?" The college had a very clear answer to that: You will someday engage the world; but right now you're preparing. You're forming your mind. You're forming your understanding." They didn't want you to go out and wage war without any weapons. So I got over my antipathy. My chaplain had me in and said, 'I hear you're thinking about leaving." This is Fr. Steckler, the Jesuit. I said yes, and he said, "That's ridiculous."
If you follow Church teaching, maintain these devotions, and get to mass, it doesn’t mean you’re not going to go through these terrible earthly storms...
You didn't like the classes?
No, the classes were cool. We started with Plato's Dialogues, and also with reading the Scriptures from start to finish, and that was an amazing experience. Those things I liked. What bothered me... I was accusing them of insularity—you know, "We're away from the world, and the world is all going to hell, and we're here and thank God for that."
It was more philosophical...
Yes, the idea of being in this little fish bowl... but I got over it.
You wrote that you hadn't been attracted to the Tridentine mass, until you attended one particular mass and came away deeply moved. At that point you decided you'd like to investigate further. Have you done that?
I have to admit, I haven't done much more investigation into the Tridentine Rite. It's still not my Mass; I still feel like something of a spectator instead of a worshipper or a participant. I imagine that would change if I made attendance habitual, but I haven't felt driven, or called, to do so. What has remained, however, is sympathy for people who love the Tridentine Rite and are frustrated by the difficulties they have in finding one to attend. That and a powerful appreciation of the Rite's potential for aesthetic greatness: the beauty, richness, and significance of its language. I see what people love about it.
Do you have any friends who graduated from small, intensely Catholic schools who later rebelled against the experience?
No, but that may be because of my narrow scope. From the people I know, that hasn't happened. But I think this is all kind of new. We'll see what happens with generations down the line.
I do worry that my son... I keep saying, "He's gonna leave, he's gonna leave the faith at some point for some amount of time. It's just gonna happen." [Laugh] It's probably negative thinking, but I'm just convinced he's going to have to get out there and see what it's like without it before he comes to value it. I see the intensity with which he wants to engage the world, and just be in the world all the way. So I worry and I pray.
I guess that's part of the self-emptying of being a dad, a parent. Giving up control, being purified, giving up spiritual pride...
I have to admit this is something I wrote about recently for the Confessions column, and I called it a fungus that grows in a dark place that you just don't realize... I had started to give in to certain assumptions, that people who follow Church teaching, and maintain these devotions, and get to mass, they're going to be okay; they're not going to have marriages that get into trouble, and they're not going to go through these terrible earthly storms. It's just not true. Certainly the deposit of faith certainly doesn't guarantee that.
Do you think your book might help young traditional Catholics who are going through similar experiences and struggles living their faith?
I'm very curious, because I sometimes wonder if I'm just the freak. [Laugh] I don't know. I don't see a lot of other accounts like this out there, so I don't know if anybody else actually goes through these things, so I'll be very curious to see what people say. Will they say, "Gosh, this resonates," or instead, "Good Lord, what was he thinking? Who the hell is this guy and what's the matter with him?"
It was a revelation for me to talk to Catholic psychologists and find out that faithful Catholics are subject to the same sins, addictions, and problems as non-Catholics. This was several years after my conversion, and I asked myself: Why is this being hushed up? Why are we putting up this façade of perfection? There must be a lot of anxious Catholics out there, putting on a brave front, looking around and assuming everyone else is leading perfect lives, and wondering, "What's wrong with me? Why can't I do it?"
My guess, again, is that these people feel like we're at war, and it's not the time to admit weakness. Maybe they think, "If I admit all these things, people are going to say, 'Gosh, being Catholic makes no difference.'" So you put on your best face and you say, "See, it really does make a difference. Look at us, our lives are different."
I think Evelyn Waugh addressed that dilemma best when he said, "Imagine how nasty I'd be if I weren't Catholic."
Yeah, maybe. I've started up a blog, and I have a friend who wants to get Catholic husbands who follow Natural Family Planning to write about their experiences, to drop the mask and talk about how hard it is for them.
Maybe we should take a page from Alcoholics Anonymous, and be more honest about how difficult it is to avoid sin without God's grace. It would be more Pauline, more Augustinian...
I think there's room for both approaches. Personally, I think there's room for more admission of weakness, but there's also a point to defending the credibility of the moral teachings. I would certainly hope that my book doesn't damage the credibility of the faith, that, if anything, it shows how Catholic faith can help anyone live a full and more meaningful life.