I never get much time to write, much less blog, but I keep trying to write as it is indeed my first love. This week, I was invited by my friend and fellow editor Brett Colasacco of Sightings asked me to write a response to the canonization of St. Mother Teresa of Calcutta. I focused on her experience of the dark night of the soul. You can read it here or click the image below.
Those who suffer from their own dark nights of the soul often feel as if they are doing something wrong—as if their faith were somehow weak because of these interior struggles. Mother Teresa, like her patrons St. Teresa of Avila and St. Thérèse of Lisieux, is an example to the countless souls who pursue a spiritual life of charity but are frustrated by feelings of doubt, loneliness, and depression. They now have a contemporary champion, someone who shows the way to a faithful selflessness, who could work for the good of others despite, or because of, her own struggles.
My latest podcast features Michele Chronister of My Domestic Monastery and we talk about a lot of fun things in this one. Namely, her work with disabled adults and what powerful lessons she learned about life, sanctity, and joy from that challenging and rewarding vocation. We also talk about the monastic rhythms of domestic life and the things she’s gleaned from the Liturgy of the Hours.
Take a listen by clicking here or on that image you see below. Then be a doll and give us a share and a subscription.
Alright folks, time for one of my Big Mama Lichens moments:
Friends, I am Michael Lichens. I write and I edit. Catholic media has been a gift for me in that I get to do what I love and pay most of my bills. However, I would have nothing to do with it if it weren’t for my love of the Church.
Now, there are rumblings on the blogospere right now. In many ways, I don’t want to step in because I am aware I’ve started my share of flame wars and also because any attempt at dialog makes me sound like a mother who is tired of hearing her kids argue.
I won’t get into specifics. If you read past the first paragraph then you already know what I’m talking about. However, so many blogs seem to be like what my friend Kevin Tierney describes as tribal warfare. All among Catholic. Not just Catholics, but what might be called “conservative” Catholics who love the faith and try their best to heed all the teachings and proclamations of our Holy Mother Church. Yet, they act like someone has come in and stolen their jelly beans.
Let’s make it clear: we are judged by how we love one another. Really. No Kidding. Is it love to call people out and then insult their masculinity? Or to assume that they are some kind of secret liberal because they didn’t vote for your favourite statesmen? Perhaps some think it’s love to tell authors to kill themselves or to find some way of insulting their station (whether it’s single, celibate, married, gay, whatever).
Not just no, but frak no.
Don’t get me wrong, I hold some positions that are controversial. I’m anti-war, anti-death penalty, anti-torture, pro-doctors, pro-vaccines, and love to eat gluten even though I’m trying to avoid it. Never did it occur to me that someone is a bad person for being in disagreement with me. Wrong? Yeah, maybe even a tad naive.
I wasn’t always this way. I used to pick fights and start little wars all the time. If you search this blog hard enough, you can see where I’ve been downright insulting. But I grew up, and that’s what I’m calling us all to do. Ladies and gents of the Catholic blogging world: It’s time to grow up.
Also, a wise priest chided me. He told me something that made me realize how ineffective anger is. He also asked me, when I was in the midst of a flame war, “Suppose your non-Catholic friends come over and saw you calling that guy an a-hole? Would they think that this religion held the truth?”
As Catholics we’re not called to merely write clever lines about the news and hold our fundraisers. These are not bad, but if we don’t help people to see the truth, beauty, and love in our faith, then just what in the-literal-hell are we doing?
So, what I’d like to offer is a challenge. From here on in, before you write about another person, try to remember that they are a person with pain, suffering, and struggles. Perhaps what they need is less arguing and someone to take them out to coffee and listen to them. If you can’t write anything without turning it into a scene from Glengarry Glen Ross then it’s probably time to take a breather and go play with your kids or say a rosary.
Oh, and don’t compare yourself with St. Catherine of Siena or St. Jerome. You are not them. Trust me. St. Catherine cleaned the wounds of lepers and those afflicted with disease and felt a call to such compassion that she drank the water she used to clean them. St Jerome lived in a cave and did great work for the Church. They didn’t make their whole career at taking potshots at people; and that is why they’re remembered.
I have read the biographies of many saints and have been to many chapels. I have yet to see a celebration to someone whose job was to be angry on the internet. If you aspire to be St. Catherine or St. Jerome, awesome! Just know that you have a lot more work to do than just being cranky.
I still love what I do, but let’s try to remember what we are called to be. No matter how well I write, I have a feeling that when I’m before the judgement seat of Christ he isn’t going to ask me how many flame wars I started or how many debates I’ve won. Rather, he’s probably wondering how many widows I comforted, how many hungry I fed, and how I showed love to the people who needed it most.
That is all. I’m out.
*drops the mic*
I am happily writing this blog in a coffee shop in snowy Boulder, Colorado while my family hangs out and is slowly winding down their evening. This is the second year in a row that I am able to be home for Christmas and I am all too aware of how fortunate I am to talk to my parents face-to-face while my nephews play with the Yodeling Pickle that I got them (why, yes, the Lichens family shares a weird sense of humour).
For a good three years I was unable to go home for anything as I had no money and little in the way of vacation time. As a single guy, this was a difficult thing to bear especially as more and more of my friends were growing their own family and I was feeling more and more alienated from the seasonal cheer I was supposed to exhibit. The very last one, 2012, my untreated depression started to make me afraid of crowds to a point that I missed the Christmas Eve mass and was sure not going to go the following morning. In fact, that Christmas I had one of my most intense let’s not talks. These talks are familiar to many who suffer mental anguish wherein you start to run out of reasons to take your own life and then must decide let’s not end our life, even though living hurts. I don’t tell you this for sympathy, my dear reader, but to tell you that I do know the pain of being alone and single at Christmas. If you are also suffering the pains of the mind, you know also how the darkness of winter can so easily overcome the glittering lights of the Christmas octave.
There are, no doubt, some of you who are reading this who have no family to go home to even if you have the funds to travel. While there are others who, either through divorce or other tragedies, are having an empty place at Christmas that was once filled with some semblance of family. No matter what, it’s a painful place to be and I know it far too well. However, I am not here to remind you of something that is far too familiar as much as to offer some things that have helped me and to also offer those who are more fortunate a glimpse of what your neighbor may be enduring.
At this time of the year, I often contemplate the Christ child in the cave with a tired, weary, and perhaps even frightened Joseph and Mary looking over him. How often we’ve passed by a Nativity set or seen the Christmas pageant without even thinking of the strangeness of the Lord of the universe, the Word of God who was in the beginning of the world, sleeping in a place that was previously used to house and feed livestock. Those very hands that would cure the blind and be nailed to a cross were now too small to touch the creatures of the earth that once laid in that cave. Christ would say, “Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of man hath not where to lay his head,” but that was even true at the very beginning of His earthly life. The Holy Family was in the most humble of circumstances and yet this was what the angels would call attention to and what the prophets had promised.
Joseph had taken on the heavy burden of looking after Mary and this new child and he would later have to flee to Egypt; a land his ancestors fought so hard to escape had now become a refuge for him. We don’t know a lot about St. Joseph and we understand that he was not necessarily a man renowned for his heroism in his own life but that was not going to stop him now and his bravery and sense of duty would allow for the world to receive the One who would redeem all of us.
Then there is Mary, the woman that many have called the Joy of all Who Sorrow. This Lady was now the Mother of God and was to now carry the burden of raising this child and to ultimately see his painful and humiliating death.
I bring up this image because the Incarnation is that singular thing that has kept me a Christian through all the loneliness and hardship. The God who could have been born a ruler or a hero had instead such a great love for us that he took on our lowly nature in order to redeem it. I wonder if any of us were to have stumbled onto a homeless God living in a cave with animals if we’d be able to even comprehend what was in front of us. Would we be offended that the Lord of all Creation would not have thought to even provide a house for he and his parents? Or would we be disgusted at the idea that all our hope rested in this manger that barely qualified as a shelter?
The love that Jesus had for us was not one that wanted to merely rule over us as some cosmic despot but was instead one that wanted to experience our most frustrating and humbling times to show us that holiness was possible no matter where life left us. This God did not undergo His birth, life, death, and resurrection just to leave you alone but is indeed with you in your loneliness, despite how distant He may seem.
If you are able, try to contemplate a Nativity scene or an ikon and think of that very first Christmas that seemed all but jolly and festive. Think of the ways you might be like Joseph to a family, helping them with their burdens while they can also ease your own loneliness. This is difficult in our modern society, but it is not impossible.
While I have had to be away from family for Christmas, there was one family that acted as a domestic Church and welcomed the stranger that was me. They always made sure I had a place to eat, drink, and celebrate the season. They were a small part of God’s grace, making sure that I didn’t merely exist in the shadows. This is a task many families are afraid of undertaking for fear that their home may be too chaotic for the childless. For me, and many singles, this was never an issue for the many noises of children and adults at Christmas are better than the silence of a small apartment. So, welcome who you can and be willing to accept the welcome of others.
As a single person you are also able to help in ways that a family cannot. There is a part of all of us that desires to be wanted, to be needed, and you’d be surprised how well-received your own offers for assistance and help can be. Can you cook a meal for a low-income family and bring them some small items for the octave of Christmas and the New Year? Or, if you are suffering from a lack of funds, see what charities around you need an extra set of hands? If that’s not possible, then go to Mass and ask for an opportunity to help your parish and your neighbors and God will surely find you one. In my own life, showing kindness has meant all the difference when I have those let’s not talks.
If you have a family, try to find those who would spend the holidays alone and let them know that they have a place at your table. Don’t worry that the house is not clean enough or that your children may be chaotic messes. Merely letting people know that they are wanted is the greatest of all gifts and it can seem small to you but can make a world of difference for your single friends. If you give it enough time they will not be that single man or woman from work or church but will be a friend and perhaps a small but not insignificant part of your house.
To you my single friends and my readers who are right there with me, I wish you a blessed and happy Christmas! Christ is born and lives among us and He shall not depart. For all of you who continue to read my work, you are a great and joyful part of my life and I thank God that you are on that other side of the screen.
My latest piece is over at The Catholic Gentleman, wherein I try to actually use my depression for some modicum of good. I have a lot of gratitude for Sam Guzman for giving me the opportunity to reach another audience and help spread awareness about mental illness.
Recently, I’ve been going through what the great Winston Churchill called “black dog days.” These days are defined by an overall low mood, inability to cope with basic things like getting out of bed, or finding enjoyment in my usual passions. Do not fear, reader, this is actually normal for me.
You see, I have something called Major Depressive Disorder, which was in previous times called clinical depression. In the ancient world, the Greek physician Hippocrates labeled it melancholia. It is something I’ve dealt with for some time now, and my family has a long history of it. My family tree is full of folks who either ended up in the mental ward or at the bottom of a bottle due to this condition. A few, sadly, found more permanent ways of dealing with it.
Read the rest at The Catholic Gentleman…
Doing it once more, but hopefully for the last time. I’m packing up boxes, sorting out books, throwing stuff away, and looking to move out for one last adventure. I hate moving and everything that it entails. This, among all the reasons why I didn’t want to leave school, is the most salient excuse I had. I don’t know if it’s because I hate having to organize all my life into boxes or ask myself the uncomfortable questions such as, “Do I really need this old, moth-eaten sweater? Yeah it’s warm, but come on!” “Do I need to have a copy of Descartes in Latin? Do I even remember how to read Latin? Hell, did I ever learn Latin or just enough to satisfy the exam?” “Karl Barth? Sure, it will look great on my shelf, but there’s no way in hell I will ever have the time or patience to read Church Dogmatics.“
I no longer believe there are any strangers who read this blog, all the same I’ve been reluctant to talk about the fact that I have decided to leave academia. Not just because UChicago has rendered me exhausted, both emotionally and even physically, but because I just can’t ignore the stats and figures reported by MLA, AHA, and the facts plainly stated in articles such as Thomas Benton’s “The Big Lie About the ‘Life of the Mind,'” and even a report in The Economist or such great encouragement from Dr. Amanda Krauss and Mr. Rex at selloutyoursoul.com. Reading these reports, combined with my personal observations and conversations with current professors forced me to face the hard truth and ask the question, “If I am no longer having fun, and the chance of me getting a job are rather low, then why spend another four to six years preparing for a career that is unlikely?”
Ultimately, however, I had to look at what I wanted and what I was doing to achieve that desire. I am still discerning a vocation with the Dominicans, but as my diagnosed mental health difficulties keep becoming apparent I am no longer certain if it’s possible. If it is not to the religious life I am called then I still desire a family and, as most professors will tell you, it is almost impossible to start a family while in graduate school unless blessed with a very patient and supportive spouse. Even with such a great spouse, divorce rates are all too common among graduate students and professors. It really is no wonder that the University has been the traditional domain of consecrated celibates and confirmed bachelor dons.
Also, the demands of the academy require you to put everything second to your scholarship. This is why the most posh and cosmopolitan man in the world will end up in Kalamazoo or Eugene, OR instead of their natural New York/Boston habitat. This means that family is often put second and many academics are expected to delay having children until their 30’s and 40’s. While cultural norms tell us that thirty is the new twenty, biology still dictates when having children is optimal and when it becomes nearly impossible.
The Good News About Being A Quitter
All these family concerns are what finally made me want to quit grad school and move to Colorado. I want to be near the family I already have, which includes my ageing parents, my nephews, and my impossibly patient older brother and his wife. For the last six years I have had to live thousands of miles away from what little stability I have in life, and now it is time to try to get my roots and actually be from somewhere instead of just having another destination to travel back and forth to.
Ultimately, this freedom is the good news for all of us who have quit grad school and braved the uncertain job market. We will give up the chance for prestige and academic fame for the freedom to move where we want and to do what we wish. However, this freedom necessarily means a great deal of uncertainty, which is why many never leave the ivory tower even after years of working for $20k and no benefits. The reality is clear, but life outside of the hollowed halls of academia is a scary place, especially for someone in their mid-twenties with no job experience and a degree in a seemingly useless field like philosophy or English.
I’m moving to Colorado so I can be closer to family and the mountains I have missed so much while living in Chicago. Yes, I am scared shitless, but I’m also excited. For the first time in six years I have no clue where I will be in September; this is also the first time where I have a real choice where I will end up and what I will be doing with only the normal, quotidian circumstances dictating what I have to do with my days. I am unemployed, not at all certain of the future, and at the end of the day I’m ok with that because of the rewards of finally having the freedom to decide the course of my life.
How will I explain this decision? How do I explain to people why I have spent so many years writing and studying an obscure subject? At the end of the day, I don’t know a bloody thing, but nobody ever said I had to. Also, if I can make it through the great volumes of research and all the work it took to get where I am, I doubt that anything can be that daunting. We shall see, and you shall hear much more from me as I write this out. However, for all of you who might be reading this and about to go through the same experience and feelings, try to keep in mind the freedom you are purchasing in exchange for the small comforts of the academy.
Pray for me, my dear reader, and see if you can offer any advice. As always, I love feedback and would enjoy any observations or violent disagreements you might have.
On 14 June 1936 the world lost one of the most colourful and controversial writers of the modern era, and it is this man that I raise a glass to and say many thanks to Mr. G.K. Chesterton. It has never been a secret that I have great appreciation for the Beneficent Bomb, and I would go so far as to say that I owe him so much that I often wish he were alive so that I could in some way pay his debt. It is not just for his use of paradox, his exciting mysteries and thrillers, but it is the combination of his witty prose and larger-than-life attitude that I have been thankful for, but a combination of these things that have made him admired by authors such as Aidan Nichols, Slavoj Zizek (who actually quotes GKC more than any other non-Christian critic I know), Graham Greene, and C.S. Lewis. For all these things he is admired, but for me it is because he did what so few authors outside of the realm of mysticism were capable of doing: showing that innocence and joy were within reach without succumbing to ignorance.
Innocent, But Not Ignorant
Chesterton and many of his followers are often derided for a “Chestertonian Gusto” that can frankly be annoying to the more cynically-inclined like myself. Kafka is said to have remarked that Chesterton was so happy that one would think that he had found God, which is perhaps closest to the truth of the matter. There has been much written on the happiness exhibited by Chesterton and the almost controversial nature of his joy, but there is one thing that many writers seem to miss when analysing and scrutinizing how a man can be so happy at a time when so much seemed to be going wrong. The assumption that I have long suffered from and one that permeates almost all of society is that if one is innocent or has a feeling of joy then they are not paying attention. I believed this myself, and often still do during my ‘black dog days,’ but it is from this illusion that I will forever be thankful to Chesterton. In a way, he literally saved my life.
I can still remember on one bus ride from work in Boulder and reading my copy of Orthodoxy when a seed from Chesterton’s work was planted with the simple sentence, “I believe in Liberalism. But there was a rosy time of innocence when I believed in Liberals.” This was one of three times in my life where depression had actually made me into a monster most would never recognise; I had ceased believing in any form of spirituality and had come to suspect each and every person I encountered with a paranoia that I still find unbelievable. I had planned on suicide and had even composed a rather angry letter towards everyone I blamed. It is true that depression makes one act almost like the worst caricature of adolescence, and believe me it is embarrassing to think I am even capable of such behaviour. What Chesterton had planted was an idea that there was a goodness beyond the failures and inconsistencies of life, and in fact that there was great joy to be found in the very things we take for granted.
The world of Chesterton was always a search for a man with a golden key, a figure from his childhood toy theatre that opened a world of possibilities behind the most simple of doors to find something as exciting as a dragon or a piece of chalk. While it is easy to call him a childish optimist it cannot be understated that even Chesterton knew that blind belief in the perfection of the world always led to disappointment. Writing of these peculiar optimist, Chesterton states:
“If optimism means a general approval, it is certainly true that the more a man becomes an optimist the more he becomes a melancholy man. If he manages to praise everything, his praise will develop an alarming resemblance to a polite boredom. He will say that the marsh is as good as the garden; he will mean that the garden is as dull as the marsh.”
His view from the first sentence and through the many adventures confirmed in my mind for the first time that you might say that there are defects–what theologians call the stain of sin–throughout the whole of creation, but there is still an affirming goodness that we often forget about. The Chestertonian view found a goodness in the world that was rooted in the Christian belief that God created out of love, a love so great that God through Christ chose to become one with its creature. For someone who grew up in an Evangelical and liberal setting that imagined all suffering was just perception and could be defeated with prayer and positive thinking, Chesterton was an iconoclast who came to destroy the weak images and open the windows to a new world.
Chesterton believed that all people had the dignity of God in their character as it was imprinted in the order of creation; but this glory was expressed in the rest of the world that he often called a playground or a fairytale. Indeed, he probably looked to many as a mythological figure who had wandered into the real world and needed to be shaken back. However, this joy at life was not at all in ignorance. Chesterton was among the first to warn about Eugenics and the consequences that scientism could reap. Though he certainly spoke an anti-Jewish statement, he was also aware of Hitler and the dangerous ideology he represented while much of Europe remained ignorant, and even in his time he was debating issues that we now know are monstrous but in his own time were fashionable. This was a man who was in love with God and all of His creation, but that love did not mean he had to be delusional about it. When he affirmed the goodness of chalk, trees, his faith and his wife he also knew that this love would drive him to fight ardently while never forgetting why he started fighting. “The true soldier fights not because he hates what is in front of him, but because he loves what is behind him.”
All of this, as I mentioned, was quite revolutionary for a young man who was in a rather great fit of despair. While I have read philosophers and theologians since that bus ride who have helped me in changing how I see the world, Chesterton still holds a great place with me for showing that such a vision was possible. I still have the black dog days and will always struggle with my own cross, but on that day I was able to walk back from the bus stop and look at the mountains with the single thought, “Perhaps it is good, but just has something missing.” Not profound, and certainly not a new idea, but it was something that probably has saved my life. For this alone, I agree with George Bernard Shaw when I say that the world is not thankful enough for G.K. Chesterton.
Even though I am certain that he doesn’t appreciate my pirate jokes, I am enjoying the new- found blog by fellow bibliophile and beer enthusiast, Kevin Huges. As someone who quaffs more than his average share of beer, I think his reviews are pretty straight forward and seems to agree with my tastes in the bitter stuff. Go forth and read, my beloved reader!
Along with this blog recommendation, I give you the greatest news for today:
A new paper in the journal Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research suggests that – for reasons that aren’t entirely clear – abstaining from alcohol does actually tend to increase one’s risk of dying even when you exclude former drinkers. The most shocking part? Abstainers’ mortality rates are higher than those of heavy drinkers.
Praise be to God, for HE loves mankind!
Dear Reader, my apologies for the stream of consciousness which follows in this post. I wished to announce a change in program and a new direction in my blogging but found myself bearing a lot more of my heart than I generally like to do on the internet. That being said, I hope you can forgive an amateur author on the Digital Vanity Press for his sudden outbursts.
I am sitting in my room suffering from the most severe writers block with regards to everything I’m supposed to be working on. The University of Chicago is a wonderful school that demands much and I am sometimes afraid that I fail at answering the call. All the same, I know that it is my vocation to write in whatever capacity I can and to share in whatever minor truths that I find cause a cause to rejoice. No doubt, my most endearing reader, you have noticed a lot of changes to the layout of this blog; these outward signs are quite indicative of an inner change that I’ve been going through the last year and a half. Insofar as I remain the Catholic Coffee Drinker and a man driven to madness for love of the truth, I have also begun so many new things since I started self-publishing over three years ago.
In 2007 I was still a new convert to the faith and my zeal could not be contained. A convert to any grand idea will tell you of the excitement of unburying an ancient truth and of parading that long-known truth around as if it was the most grand and revolutionary idea that any person has ever come upon. When it came to Catholicism, especially of the orthodox variety, I was just such a convert and I found myself quoting Chesterton, St. Paul, Elijah, and Augustine as if they had just written me letters on a new way to be human and this excitement drove me to read and write like no other time in my life. A few things have changed. I am a Catholic, but now I see that I suffer with–and perhaps, though indirectly, from–the Church Militant that truly is one great family with all the love, joys, pains, and awkward conversations that come with every family. I need not tell you of the crises of faith and praxis which have taken hold of the Church these last few decades, and, even less so, do I need to tell you of the power and the glory that comes with being part of that very Church.
Further, I have grown up considerably and am no longer the bright-eyed child of the Liberal Arts who is rediscovering eternal truths. I still look in wonder at the volumes of wisdom contained over the thousands of years but am now in grad school and find myself needing to remember the joy I feel after long study. A friend of mine once exclaimed, “I wish I could remember how I felt after I went for a run,” and I too need to remember the joy I feel after completing my studies, saying my prayers, and jotting down a few hasty notes on the experience. In all of this, I realized that my blogging needed to be reprogramed and thus my announcement to the handful who still read this blog.
A few changes you will see or have already seen:
- A new look and a slightly more diverse set of subjects.
- My posts need to become a little more honest while not falling into the folly of keeping an e-diary. Language is given to us by God to make our thoughts known to one another, but I am rather certain there are still a few things I will keep private.
- With regards to the previous point, I am also determined to tackle the hard subjects of life and faith. These subject cause me a lot of anxiety, but they are the anxiety of many of us and only by talking about it do we begin to renew the things that matter most.
- I am also taking the time to go through my years of postings and deleting the ones that were rather unkind or unconstructive. As well, I am trying to be better about my editing.
- Finally, I am going to put a pause on my Best of Chesterton blog. I would like to undertake the project again, but will need to be better disciplined about two blogs before I undertake a wholly different venture. That said, do feel free to contact me if you should like to help with such an adventure and perhaps write or edit the blog.
I thank you for reading this and do ask that you return as I start my new project. As well, if you have any ideas of what you’d like to read on this blog or see more of than do please contact me or leave a comment. My warmest gratitude to you, my constant reader.
I have not had the time to blog as of late, given my papers and obligations, but I felt something ought to be said after I just cleaned out my comments folder.
There was a large number of antisemitic comments I had to delete from the Comments pool. I am very glad, now, that I made the decision to only allow comments that I have approved. All the same, I am rather disturbed that a bigot would feel as if I would be sympathetic to their cause or that my blog was an appropriate forum for their ridiculous beliefs. So it is that I offer the following announcement to anyone holding racist or antisemitic beliefs: kindly find somewhere else to peddle your filth.
I am a firm believer in free speech, but I shall exercise my free speech to decide what is appropriate for a forum which is run and published by yours truly. If you really need to express your silly beliefs outside of whatever hole it is you talk about it, I’m sure there are other forums. This, however, is not one of them. As an additional precaution, I will simply say that if you violate this warning on more than one occasion I will take it upon me to tear away your mask of anonymous hate by publishing your email address, IP address, and location. Thank you, and that is all.