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.
Any of you follow me on facebook or twitter are probably aware that I was at the 34th annual GK Chesterton Conference in San Antonio, TX this past weekend. I was mostly there to work, to promote books and the Catholic Exchange brand but I still got to go out and enjoy the many friends, old and new, who descended upon the historic hotel for some wine, songs, and quotations of Chesterton. In many ways, it was like being at summer camp but for adults. I miss everyone already.
Among the great joys were getting to sit down with the brilliant author of the upcoming The Woman Who Was Chesterton, Ms. Nancy C. Brown, for a bit of a podcast interview. So take a listen by clicking here, or that big ol’ GKC image to right. That’s a good fellow.
I’ve heard of Nancy’s work and it was a joy to be able to speak with her to learn more about what drives her. I also got to meet fellow writers and editors, so it was an odd lot of rowdy men and women who proclaim the love of Christ while giving you a hug or a clever insult. That part is done and I look forward to next year. Also, my dear reader, I look forward to meeting you there if you’d be so kind as to join us.
For you partake of that last offered cup,
Or disappear into the potter’s ground.
When the man comes around.
-Johnny Cash, The Man Comes Around
Yesterday would have been Johnny Cash’s 83rd birthday. In years past, when I was thin enough to fit into it (thanks food binges and booze!) I would wear my black suit on that day and find a bar to toast the man. This was especially effective at the Waterloo in Louisville, CO which is a giant memorial to The Man in Black.
To say the least, the man has had a rather large impact on my life. Of course, I heard him in childhood due to my dad’s love of all things music. That passion for his music grew and became something of my own during my high school punk/rock phase where I was seeking anyone that could exhibit the raw emotions and the spare lyrics that I found in The Sex Pistols and Dillinger Escape Plan. Of course, as someone who grew up Evangelical but always struggled with doubt, he was many times a reminder of the “beauty, ever ancient and ever new” that I was always seeking but not finding.
Thanks to a Cash marathon for his birthday, as well as a Twitter conversation with Dawn Eden, I have decided to call this A Johnny Cash Lent. Stay with me, this will make sense if a bit.
Since our last Easter, which marked my tenth anniversary as a confirmed Catholic, a lot has happened. I grew in my job as an editor, published two well-received articles on depression, and lost a friend and mentor. Despite that a lot was going well in my life, I had to face some challenges within my own soul and confront some uncomfortable demons. I entered the Church with confidence and exuberance, but by my tenth anniversary I found many of my prayers were a rant at God while also trying to remember to praise Him. In prior years, I drowned these thoughts and voices in booze, sensuality, and everything that goes with it. This year, I found writing, prayer, and contemplation was far healthier but also quite a bit more difficult. If I’ve learned anything in my 30’s it’s that the slow death of self-medication is far easier than trying to wrestle with your own demons in the hope that life is worth living.
While my life, compared to Johnny Cash and many others, has been incredibly easy, his music has meant a lot to me. In his lyrics I found an Old Testament man strumming the steel strings of a guitar, singing once about how “God’s Gonna Cut you Down” while also begging “Lead me Father, with the staff of life/Give me the strength for a song” and it was all from the same man who knew well both the disappointment of his own life as well as what Graham Greene called “the appalling strangeness of the mercy of God.”
Cash grew up listening to and signing the songs from his mother’s hymnal. In fact, one of the reasons why he left Sun Records was because of Sam Phillips reluctance to let him record Gospel. He was publicly a Christian who wrote moving words about Jesus and his own struggle to grow closer to Him. When asked about his faith Cash would say, “The gospel of Christ must always be an open door with a welcome sign for all.” However, he was also not shy about the complications of faith and life. In one interview he said:
“I confess right up front that I’m the biggest sinner of them all. But my faith in God has always been a solid rock that I’ve stood on, no matter where I was or what I was doing. I was a bad boy at times, but God was always there for me, and I knew that. I guess maybe I took advantage of that.”
In Johnny Cash one can find faith, but it was complicated. Even in his infamous amphetamine habit, he saw that he was trying to escape something. “I used them to escape and they worked pretty well when I was younger,” he admitted in the same interview. “But they devastated me physically, emotionally, and spiritually. That third one, spiritually, is the one that hurts so much—separation from God.” Even in his benders, he knew that he couldn’t escape and only in Christ was he to find that solid rock he’d been searching for. Though he was not even looking for God, he saw that God was still looking for him, “There was no line of communication. But that came back. He came back. And I came back.”
As I said, Cash’s faith was complicated. However, isn’t it always? Aren’t we all a lot like the young Augustine, praying daily make me chaste, Lord, but not yet! As Christians, especially confirmed Catholic with the Sacraments, we know that Grace is always there and available to us and that God hears our cries, but how often have taken advantage of that time we think we have?
If I could go back eleven years ago and talk to my younger self I’d give a lot of advice; “See a therapist, don’t stop taking your medication, and try to go for a walk once-in-a-while.” However, I think I’d more likely tell my young, idiot self, the wisdom of The Man in Black, “It takes a real man to live for God—a lot more man than to live for the devil.”
Lent is a time where we join Christ in the desert and ultimately prepare ourselves to remember his death and resurrection. We also take this time to remember our own sins and where we have fallen short. It can be hard, dangerous and exhausting. Like Christ, we’ll be tempted and many of us will fall like we have oh so many times before. That is the real challenge of Lent: to come face-to-face with yourself and to be able to turn that face to light of Christ. To live for God is going to take real courage, but grace is sufficient to give us the strength to stand when life exhausts every ounce of energy we had.
This Lent, let’s be more like Johnny Cash! Let’s admit our faults and our shortcomings but do it with the confidence that they are not what defines us. Rather, let those challenges give us a tender heart to stand up for the weak and displaced and be a symbol of God’s mercy. Let this Lent be the time where you’re not shy about your faith but also willing to meet everyone where they are and offer the love and friendship this world so terribly needs.
As Good Friday approaches you may don black and I hope you can sing, along with Johnny, “Were you there when they crucified my Lord?”
Nota Bene: Of course nobody can write a post about Cash without mentioning “Hurt.” I appreciate an old artist who is aware of his mortality and especially enjoyed the “Hurt” music video because he strikes me as doing what I imagine every writer wants to do: write his own ending, and make it sound like the Book of Ecclesiastes
Katrina Fernandez and I have something in common in that she’s been blogging about as long as I have. Only she’s, you know, way more successful than I am. However, her and I get to share the experience of reading our younger selves and thus shaking our heads at our own youthful folly. Ms Fernandez recalls that she wrote, “As a single woman in the Catholic Church I am quite contented.” A few years later, she wonders how she could say that.
I never weighed in on “the single vocation” but I was still very optimistic about life would look like in my 30’s. You can read my posts of vocations, grad-school, and quitting and realize very quickly that few things happened as planned. I still think I’d be happy in a religious order, but the twin demons of debt and depression make most vocations directors flee. At the same time, I am still not sure I’m called to marriage but have dived into Catholic dating. You, my dear reader, can decide if that’s a bad idea or the worst idea, but I’ve learned that vocations are rarely realized in pure contemplation and so I’ll try it unless a talking donkey or a fiery bush tells me different. However, I used to be optimistic about the single vocation and spoke highly of it. That dummy 24-year-old Mikey needed to be slapped and reminded that he saw joys in being single because all his friends were single and his college dorm provided a temporarily stable environment.
Now, being single and away from family has a very special kind of loneliness. While I can say my young self was idiotic because of lack of experience, that’s not really an excuse that other members of the Church can use. A lot of single people feel plainly ignored in their parish, and as a single, childless man you may even be treated with suspicion. As David Mills noted in his recent article, “The neglect of single people is a problem that needs a more systematic answer directed by our pastors.” Some do try to tackle it and are given the great answer, “SHUT UP!” Case in point, my friend Kevin O’Brien who has written quite a bit on Catholic Dating and, though he struck a nerve, the comboxes and facebook congresses were full of that saccharine sentimentality that nothing was really wrong and people needed to stop complaining.
With Kevin’s blogs, I was targeted because I had a load of quotable moments with Kevin about the perils of trying to be faithfully Catholic while dating, including a few commentators assuming that I made it all up. Now, some of these folks I know IRL and they are normally good, charitable people but cannot bear to hear that the reality of the situation is different than what they have assumed. For them, there is no vocations crisis and no amount of empirical data or anecdotal information will change their minds. Or, for the strange anon combox warriors, any thinking or oferring a solution that isn’t straight from the 1950’s is immediately treated as evil or (worst) Protestant. Believe me, it’s bizarre.
So, what’s the answer?
I’m not sure. I’m an editor and amatuer theologian and would be a lousy matchmaker, so this is where I admit that I can only point out the problem. But our first step is to acknowledge the challenge. We have a record number of people in the US living alone than ever before and I don’t see that trend reversing. Instead of merely mentioning a single vocation, it’s probably time to define that and figure out how best to live it while we also combat the vocational crisis of marriage and religious life. If we want there to be ample numbers of priests and nuns serving the Church, as well as folks falling in love and having children, we need to start by realizing that there is an issue and then figure out what we can do.
In our own lives, you’ll find that my paucity of solutions is similar to what I offer on the mental health issues of those around us: learn to be a good friend and a good neighbour. I often wonder if the reason why Christ called us to love our neighbour is because this simple act can actually change the world. I’ve seen it in my own life.
For the better part of a decade, I have been away from my family for the holidays. However, I never spent them alone. One family here in New Hampshire has always made a point to invite me over and to make sure I feel welcome. Given my own sense of depression, this has probably kept me within the realm of the sane. Would it be difficult for us all to open our lives to one or two people so that they didn’t have to feel so alienated? Actually, scratch that, it is very, very hard, but love certainly demands a lot.
For my fellow single Catholics, as we enter this season of Thanksgiving, Advent, and Christmas I hope you’ll keep going to Mass. Carry on as best you can and keep trying to be friends to others in your own life. Few things will fulfill you as much as being an answer to someone else’s prayers. Oh, and let’s grab a drink on these snowy nights and see how much we can complain and laugh.
Over at Catholic Exchange, Sam Guzman of The Catholic Gentleman discusses a very interesting legend about Pope Clement VIII blessing coffee and assuring its popularity for all posterity in the West. I am unsure if it is true, but thank God for it.
Really, though, I just wanted to post this image.
Now, the story of how coffee came to the west is even more interesting for me. For, you see, it is from the spoils of war and the lifting of a great siege.
The city of Vienna had resisted a massive Ottoman army in 1683 until Jan III Sobieski of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth brought relief and routed Kara Mustaph’s massive force. The Ottoman army fled so quickly that they left behind many great spoils, including bags of coffee, a substance that was known to some parts of Christendom but quite new to Europe.
Vienna, Europe, and the World owe a great debt of gratitude to one particular man, Franz George Kolschitzky. According to most reliable sources, Kolschitzky was a well-traveled and learned man who knew the value of the precious, dark commodity. He is credited with teaching brewing techniques to the Viennese. He opened the first of what would be numerous coffee houses in Vienna and was honored with accolades and even a statue. You can read more about him and the fallout of these spoils here.
Of course, Vienna’s coffee houses quickly became meeting spaces for some of the most brilliant of minds. If we are to believe some modern scholarship (ahem) we can credit/blame these places of the sacred brew for psychoanalysis, Marxism, and perhaps a few modern wars.
Ah, let’s not think of this and let’s instead get one of my readers to send me a few pounds of Ozo.