Swimming with Scapulars

Orthodox Catholic open to modern culture

"I don't think the Church is trying to oppress me; I think the Church is on the side of love."
  • "I don't think the Church is trying to oppress me; I think the Church is on the side of love."


In Lickona's "true confessions," we are introduced to a unique and singular voice, but one that is emblematic of a new generation of believers who combine a premodern faith with a postmodern sensibility. Swimming With Scapulars is a modern-day Catholic coming-of-age story that takes its author from the austere Catholicism of his Irish-French family in upstate New York to the exotic spiritual tapestry of California. It is the story of the formation of an ardent young believer who is painfully honest about his shortcomings, yet who finds joy in receiving the Eucharist and embracing "the ancient treasures of the faith."


From Publishers Weekly: As personal faith stories go, Lickona's is a breath of fresh air, thoughtfully written and happily absent of platitudes and pious moralizing. A 30-year-old husband, father of four, and writer for the San Diego Reader, an alternative weekly, Lickona lives a Catholicism that is orthodox but also dynamic and relevant to modern culture. He reads Salon and The Onion and gleans life lessons from contemporary film and fiction even as he embraces beliefs and traditions rejected by his parents' generation. He admits to being a virgin when he married, and he and his wife practice natural family planning in keeping with their church's ban on artificial birth control. Lickona also wears a scapular, fasts during Lent, and has a statue of St. Joseph in his front yard. In writing about these beliefs and practices, he explains how he came to accept them, often after a period of questioning. As he navigates the realm of Catholic faith in the 21st Century, Lickona reflects candidly on his failures, foibles, and doubts. He confesses to "parish hopping" in search of a Mass that will not disturb his peace of soul, to personal struggles with "constant wanting" and anger, and to his weakness in communicating his faith. Most readers will disagree with Lickona's assessment that he is a poor communicator and will find themselves captivated by this winsome story of a soul.


Matthew Lickona was born in Cortland, a city in upstate New York, in 1973. He attended Thomas Aquinas College in California. Upon graduation in 1995, he began writing for the Reader. Since 1999, he has written "Crush," the newspaper's wine column. He lives in La Mesa with his wife Deirdre and their four children.


Q: Why didn't you want to write this book?

Lord help me, I wanted to be a novelist. I didn't want the memoir serving as a Rosetta stone for the novels. I'm a Catholic, and my early attempts at fiction clearly arise from a Catholic sensibility, but there's a difference between a sensibility and a sermon. I was afraid that people would accuse the novel of preaching — a cardinal sin in fiction — simply because they already knew what I thought about this or that. "Oh, when he writes X, it's just because he believes Y. It's all there in the memoir."

Q: X? Y?

Take Portnoy's Complaint, a novel I enjoyed immensely. When Philip Roth writes about a Jewish guy whose sexual appetites bump up against his religious imprinting, it's hilarious. People don't view it as a morality tale or a sermon, even though there's a moral verdict handed down on Portnoy at the end. I've been trying to write a similar sort of novel about a Catholic guy. But even if I did a decent job of it, it would be easy to dismiss, given the personal sexual mores I lay out in the memoir.

Q: Personal sexual mores?

I adhere to the Catholic Church's traditional teaching on sexual matters, up to and including the prohibition of contraception. I do this not simply because the teaching is traditional — though that does count for something — but also because it makes sense to me. I understand the Church's claims about sexuality, not in a way that I could logically demonstrate (the book is a memoir about my life, not a defense of my beliefs), but in a way that resonates with my experience. I don't think the Church is trying to oppress me; I think the Church is on the side of love. This puts me in the minority among Americans, even among American Catholics. So if I've got a novel, even a comic novel, in which a guy's sexual appetites muck up his life, you can see how easy it would be to say, "What did you expect? The author's a freak."

Q: So why did you end up writing the memoir?

Enough circumstances coalesced for me to call it providence. For starters, I gained an appreciation for just how hard it is to get a novel published and realized that if I ever succeeded on that score, I should just be grateful and not worry so much about how people might react. That removed my chief obstacle. After that, I sort of got carried along by the tide. Abe Opincar found a publisher for his food memoir Fried Butter, which began as a collection of columns written for the Reader. After it came out (to good reviews), Jim Holman, editor and publisher of the Reader, asked me, "So, when are you going to publish 'Confessions?' " In this, he echoed my wife, my father, and a dear friend, all of whom thought my "Confessions" column was my best work.

Q: "Confessions"? Don't you write about wine?

I write about wine for the Reader, but Holman also publishes a Catholic newspaper, The San Diego News Notes. In 1999, he asked me to write a monthly column for the News Notes about my spiritual life -- such as it was. The column was (and is) called "Confessions"; I wrote it under the name Broderick Barker. I used a pseudonym because I didn't want people I knew reading about my sins, and I knew there would have to be sins in any serious account of my spiritual life.

Q: What sort of sins?

Off the top of my head: pride, ambition, lust, anger, and greed, plus offenses against faith, hope, and charity. (The latter are less exciting on the face of them but, ultimately, more grievous.) I'm not trying to convince anyone of my holiness. Maybe of my interest in being holier than I am.

Q: That's what you're getting at with True Confessions Of A Young Catholic?

Not just that. Happily, I was allowed to turn my gaze outward as well as inward. I got to write about things that affected my spiritual life — books, movies, events in the Church and in the general culture. And I got to write about the ways in which my spiritual life led me to interact with the world. Hopefully, that helped keep things interesting. There's a wonderful moment in the animated version of Watership Down where Bigwig says to Fiver, "It's 'Me, me, me,' all the time. Frakah! I'm finished with you. And what's more, I'm going to make sure everyone else is." The scorn in Bigwig's voice has stayed with me. It's a memoir, but it's not all about me.

Q: The book is published under your own name. Why abandon the pseudonym?

Because I'm sure that no one I know will read the thing. I'm kidding — well, mostly. I do think that most of the people who read it won't know me, and it's always easier to tell your secrets to a stranger. But the main reason was that the column was me musing on stuff, while the book is my life story. It seemed silly to put someone else's name on it.

Q: So, back to the circumstances that led to its publication.

Judith Moore, who usually writes this column, interviewed Paul Elie about his book, The Life You Save May Be Your Own. It was a sort of literary biography of four Catholic writers: Thomas Merton, Dorothy Day, Flannery O'Connor, and Walker Percy. The latter two are great favorites of mine. Growing up, I had no notion that there were authors who had addressed being an American Catholic in the 20th Century, or any kind of Catholic in any century. Then, during my freshman year at college, a friend of mine introduced me to Percy's Love in the Ruins. Regarding the novel, Percy once wrote to his friend Shelby Foote, "What's it about? Screwing and God (which all Catholic novels since Augustine have been about)." I found the book hilarious and wonderful — the intersection of screwing and God makes for fertile fictional territory. Plus, it was remarkable to see someone being funny and wry about Catholicism without simply attacking it. My appreciation of O'Connor came much later. I needed a little more age to understand the violence of grace that she depicts — like the screeching of bent metal being unbent. I still take her in small doses.

Elie gave a good interview about The Life You Save May Be Your Own, and I was curious about the book, but I also noticed that Elie's day job was as a senior editor at Farrar, Straus & Giroux. Here was this young guy working high up in the publishing world and writing about these Catholic authors. If he was interested in them, I thought he might be interested in the columns, in part because I was interested in those authors as well. And FSG was my dream publisher. They had published Catholics like O'Connor and Percy, but their reputation was built on literary excellence, not religious piety. I wanted my book to engage the world — ahem, delusions of grandeur, ahem -- and FSG seemed the perfect way to do that.

Q: Delusions of grandeur aside, how were you hoping to engage the world?

I was hoping it would show that there were in fact young people — I'm 31 — who took the faith seriously but who also took the world seriously and who were aware of the difficulties that each presented the other. I'm acutely aware that a number of my beliefs — that bit about contraception, for example — will seem outdated, quaint, or downright insane to a modern-minded audience. I was hoping that that awareness would make me — and my beliefs — a little more approachable — "I think he's a loon, but at least he knows I think he's a loon."

I also wanted to show there were young, hopefully thoughtful Catholics who still believed in the old things — the devil, confession, the Eucharist, the saints, chastity. In some cases, it was enough that these things had been handed down to me. Twenty centuries of tradition is not something you cast off lightly; neither is the faith of your parents, especially when you see that faith make a serious difference in their lives. Other things I accepted, or accepted more completely, because I had investigated them for myself and found them worthwhile. My formal religious education was spotty — I don't think I went to confession between the ages of 13 and 18, though I certainly needed it. It wasn't until I left home and went to college that I started to really appreciate the sacrament.

Q: So you sent the manuscript along to FSG, and...

Elie passed on it. "Passed" is a gentle euphemism for "rejected." But he did offer encouragement and some kind words about the writing. He suggested I try a Catholic publisher.

Q: Did you?

No. I had this foolish pride that made me determined to get published through a secular house or not at all. First, I thought that the stamp of approval from a secular press would validate me as a writer more thoroughly — I would be getting published purely on the strength of the work and not partly because the work fit the publisher's mission. Second, I imagined that publication by a Catholic press would mean that only Catholics would read it, and I was hung up on engaging the world. I didn't want to preach to the choir.

Hopefully, I'm a little more humble now, and a little wiser. I've realized that good writing can matter to religious presses just as it matters to secular ones, that publication anywhere is a blessing, and that it's good to have a publisher who's interested in your subject matter. I've realized that a Catholic publisher doesn't necessarily mean exile to the Catholic ghetto, and even if it did, I wouldn't be preaching to the choir. There are a lot of different sorts of Catholics in this country, and I suspect that not a few of them would regard me as something of an exotic, a curious specimen.

Q: Exotic? You?

I got a hint of it from Paul Elie. When he wrote to me, he said that my manuscript would be stronger if it was more firmly grounded in the particulars of my religious experience, the way I encountered God. I took his advice seriously, and I kept it in mind during my revisions. I already knew that you don't want a spiritual memoir to be airy and abstract. That's dangerous anywhere, but if you're talking about religion, you've got to keep things as grounded and concrete as possible, or else it becomes not memoir but theology. After getting Elie's letter, I tried to create a particular focus on my concrete experience of God.

But when I started thinking about it, I realized that not only were my encounters with God few in number and questionable in character — you wouldn't want to bet on God's existence based on my experience of Him — but also that such encounters had little to do with my faith. That is, my faith did not depend on the experience of God. Faith was something I had been given. It was up to me to make it my own, but experience was not one of the ways I sought to do that. Rather, I sought — and seek — an increase in knowledge and charity. The Catholic faith made sense to me on an intellectual level, and I found I was able to profess the Creed honestly. What remained was for me to conform myself to Christ. Experience of God was the ultimate goal — the happiness of heaven consists in union with Him — but I wasn't counting on any earthly previews.

Q: What about prayer? You're talking to God; aren't you looking for an answer?

Prayer, of course, can be an encounter with God — perhaps it ought to be. But again, experience of God was not a condition I set on prayer. Keep at it, learn what you can about it, and keep hoping you'll improve — that was my best attitude toward it.

For Elie, I think, it was different. I think he was after experience because he was after proof. At the end of The Life You Save May Be Your Own, he wrote: "We are all skeptics now, believer and unbeliever alike...the burden of proof, indeed the burden of belief, for so long upheld by society, is now back on the believer, where it belongs." I'm a believer. I have moments of doubt — I imagine many believers do — but I'm not a skeptic. I don't feel the burden of proof, and I don't associate "burden" with "belief." In the end, I realized that the book couldn't be about my experience of God, or my attempt to justify belief through that experience. It could only be about a young guy making his way in the world as a Catholic.

So even though I hope that some non-Catholics will pick up the book, I think there's enough variety within the fold to make my particular story an interesting read. But as I said, those realizations came later. In the beginning, it was New York Publishing House or Bust.

Q: So how'd you end up with a Catholic publisher like Loyola Press?

I tried another secular publisher, who passed me on to two others, one of them a religious press. They all passed. I gave up and went back to the novel. My wife gave me a four-day vacation from familial duties to visit a friend in New York and write. I had a wonderful time — I finally got the novel's opening rolling — though I didn't exactly bury myself in my work. While I was in New York, I met with Elie, who was, again, very kind and encouraging. A couple of months after that, he passed my name along to Jim Manney and Joe Durepos of Loyola Press; they had come to him looking for writers. Manney contacted me in December of 2003. He and Durepos were pleased with the columns, but they needed a memoir, not a collection. So I hunkered down, tore the columns apart, and used them as the foundation for my little book.

Q: "Little book"? Is that an attempt at humility?

Well, it might be. At 31, I'm not in a position to be writing a grand, sweeping memoir, full of perspective and hindsight. It's the story of a beginning. But in this case, I'm serious — the book is physically little. It's 7.5 x 6 inches.

Q: Is that you on the cover?

No — but I think the Loyola designers did a great job. One of my editors, Joe Durepos, sent me a version in which he had Photoshopped in a giant toy shark, just about to eat me. It would have been more direct, less evocative: "Why am I Catholic? Because I'm in trouble, and I need help." But I'm happy the way it is. It ties in with the story that opens the book, and it also gets at one of my biggest difficulties with the faith — the notion of eternity, of being happy forever in heaven. On a gut level, I still have trouble separating eternity from infinite time, and it scares me, even when I can manage to believe in it. The guy hunched over in the endless ocean sort of illustrates that.

Q: The Catholic Church in America is suffering through a crisis these days. Stories of priestly abuse and apparent hierarchical mismanagement keep coming out. It seems kind of hard to write about being a Catholic without mentioning it.

I said earlier that the memoir was not just about me. It is, however, still a memoir; I try to keep it tethered to my own experience. The scandal is horrific and heartbreaking, and I wish I had a better understanding of the way it is being handled by Church authorities. But I try to keep my treatment of it limited to my own experience, which, thankfully, is pretty limited — though not purely vicarious. I got kissed by a priest when I was a teenager, but that was as far as it went. Sadly, that priest went further with others.

Q: So, do you still want to be a novelist?

My mother might answer that by saying, "What I want is not as important as what the Lord wants. If He wants it, it'll happen." That kind of piety used to drive me crazy, but Mom's wearing me down. For one thing, she means it. For another, if there's anything experience has taught me to believe in, it's providence. So I'll go with her answer. Though if it happens, I hope to God my mother never reads the thing.

Swimming With Scapulars: True Confessions Of A Young Catholic. Loyola Press; 2005; 256 pages; $19.95.

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