All posts by Michael J. Lichens

StAR Features Another Award Winner

We at Saint Austin Review are very proud to announce that our own Dena Hunt’s Treason is the recepient of the 2014 Independent Publisher Book Awards Gold Medal in Religious Fiction. Out of roughly 4000 enteries in 78 categories, Dena’s excellent novel was chosen as the best representation in religious fiction. You can view all the winners on the IPPY’s press release here

As well, if you haven’t read Treason yet, you can order the now award-winning novel on Sophia Institute’s site

Catholic Coffee: Spoils and Legends

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.Franz George Kolschitzky, a patron saint of Catholic Coffee Drinkers 

Three Unexpected Films for Lent

K. V. Turley over at Crisis Magazine has a fantastic overview of the newly re-released film Roma, Città Aperta. Director Roberto Rossellini filmed his masterpiece in Rome a mere six months after the Nazi’s withdrew from the city and the effects of the war provided the harrowing backdrop. This particular movie introduced the world to Italian neorealism when directors used the streets and everyday citizens of the Eternal City as their studio, giving the genre its renowned grittiness and realistic feel.

As a film junkie, I was pleased that Crisis would cover what is arguably one of the finest movies to highlight the struggles of faith in the face of great persecution. Read Turley’s overview and then find the film on Hulu Plus or Netflix. It is worth your time.

As we are in the season of Lent, I tried to think of other great pieces of cinematic brilliance which lend themselves to contemplation and, one hopes, a touch of hope for redemption. Obviously, I could mention The Passion of the ChristJesus of Nazareth, and a host of other biblical and religious flicks. However, let’s look at two more unexpected classics that will move and delight your senses while also setting your mind on the acts of Christ, who brought the world out of darkness. Because, hey, you need a good excuse to watch a fantastic film.

Nota Bene: These films are not child appropriate. I assume you’ll use all your discretion and not subject your children to the existential pain of great cinema too early.

La Dolce Vita

Federico Fellini’s La Dolce Vita (The Sweet Life) is a film that gave the world an iconic phrase that few realise is abounding in irony. Oh yes, the characters are of the Italian capital’s social elite who enjoy a very fine life of wealth, celebrity, and corporeal pleasures up and down the posh Via Veneto. The imagery is so iconic I had trouble envisioning Rome without the black ties and sunglasses. It is only when one watches the film with an attentive eye that they see the irony of calling this The Sweet Life.

Marcello is the journalist who covers much of these debaucherous affairs for a sensationalist newspaper, often seen with his paparazzi while he cavorts with and charms the wealthy and glitterati of Rome. During the course of seven nights the depravity unfolds as if the deadly sins were each taking a claim to Rome’s famous hills.

While it may look attractive, due to the brilliant cinematography and the lushness of Rome’s physical beauty, Marcello’s life is revealed to be an allegorical tale of a man without a center who is aimless in his ambitions. He has little belief in anything outside of his ever changing passions and thus even his high life is unattractive to him and, eventually, to the audience.

This is a fine movie to reflect on how our ambitions and desire for wealth will bring us little happiness if we don’t ground them in something. The beauty of Rome and its art and architecture is often confronted with the monstrous, the lame, and the downtrodden; a human drama visually acted out like an old street pantomime.

Fellini was aware of religious symbolism, but was not a practicing Catholic and even had an anti-clerical streak in his imagination. Keep an eye out for what some have interpreted to be anti-Catholicism.

 

Ran

Akira Kurosawa is the master of the Samurai films and has inspired just about every action and epic movie trope that we see today. However, his eye for rich visual settings and powerful human tales have given humanity a rich treasure of cinematic art.

Kurosawa was 75 when he directed Ran, a fact that is hard to ignore in light of the fact that the film’s source and inspiration is none other than Shakespeare’s King Lear. Lear is that figure of the “foolish old man” who is powerful and wise in the ways of the world but quite ignorant of the wickedness of those around him. Like Lear, Ran tells the tale of of a powerful war lord, Hidetora, who abdicates his throne to divide his kingdom among his children but still hopes to keep the trappings of kingly power.

No doubt, you fine readers know what will occur. The whole of the kingdom descends into absolute chaos and Hidetora is finally reduced to desperation and reduced to absolute desperation and madness; even a desire to take his own life by ritual seppuku—a last act to save his fleeting honour that is still denied. Through the use of colours and a fog of gun smoke, we see all order disappear into a nihilistic world where even the faintest glimmer of hope is smashed against the rocks.

This film is not at all shot with a Christian perspective in mind, but rather has a nihilistic view of the world after the horrors of the last century. I had read that Kurosawa had made this as a reflection of the “death of god.” Like King Lear, where so much of the drama is centered around the word “Nothing”, the action of the film is tending towards an apocalypse where little light remains.

Despite all that, Ran is a great image of what happens in a world without hope. The apocalypse witnessed by St. John speaks of hope for God’s children, but if one is lacking in such hope then surely the end is going to rip apart our previous foundations. In the end, all the power and wealth of a kingdom were undone by a single act of poor judgement. As we draw close to the end Lent, I think this film shows the desperation all were in before the Resurrection of Christ. I would not call this movie a good one to base your life on, but rather the characters serve as a warning for what awaits those who put their trust in the treasures of this life.

With that, may your Lent be a contemplative one in every little thing you do.

nota bene: The image is courtesy of Myrabella via Wikimedia Commons 

Treason, Good Catholic Historical Fiction

Devin Rose at Ignitum Today joins a small and growing chorus of praise for the novel Treason, the acclaimed historical novel by the Ink Desk’s very own Dena Hunt. Rose recognizes the difficulty in writing historical fiction, especially when writing from a Catholic perspective. 

Rose notes:

Dena Hunt does a good job of portraying the political and religious situation in this time. Her characters and the narratives make this period come alive. I had known much of this persecution but reading about how it happened in a story-form brings it to life in ways nothing else can. Now I stand amazed that anyone remained Catholic during these centuries of persecution. And yet they did. In the face of death.”

Read the rest of the fantastic review at Ignitum Today.

Next, bring some good fiction into your life by purchasing Treason by clicking here

“Why did you become a Catholic?”

“Why did you become a Catholic?”shutterstock_121869613

That’s a question every convert hears and it gets harder to answer year by year. The many reasons anyone has for converting are numerous and can be as innocuous as being married into it to a radical change in heart after one event. Indeed, I’d almost like to respond, “Well, why wouldn’t I be one?”

I, like most, could fill an entire book with why I became a Roman Catholic and remain in the embrace of the Church. Such a book, I think, would still be a poor defence of the faith and was probably better said by Bl John Henry Newman or G.K. Chesterton. So, I will give two reasons for my own conversion, the first being summed up by Chesterton, “To get rid of my sins.” The second reason is the much-more complicated truth about the Incarnation, a fact that I’m reminded of as we approach Christmas.

First Confession

I can still remember my first confession with the esteemable Fr. Reginald Martin. He was a stout Dominican priest with a commanding presence and a jovial laugh, when you could tell just the right joke. I felt all kinds of anxiety going to find him to hear my confession. I even wrote notes of what I had done. The journey to this moment was a long one, but a joyful one when I look back.

I was raised an Evangelical and my family was highly involved in a megachurch. The preaching was good, filled with the Biblical literacy that is often missing in today’s preaching. I would say it was mostly a positive experience, but with one small mark. You see, my reader, I had and still have what is now known as Major Depression Disorder, commonly called clinical depression. This caused me to have some rather frightening moods and I have been on medication for it here and there. To put it bluntly, most American faiths do not know how to cope with it. Through no fault of their own, and with the best of intentions, most pastors and spiritual leaders would tell me to “pray against it” or to just resolve to be happy. For most of my life, I considered it a personal failure that I couldn’t just be joyful or cure myself and that feeling eventually turned to resentment and an eventual turning away from the faith.

I mostly considered myself an agnostic, but I still had the seed of faith. After extensive reading, especially of GK Chesterton and Thomas Aquinas, I resolved to try again. So it was that I attended my first Mass since my grandmother’s funeral. At Thomas Aquinas Parish in Boulder, CO I experienced a Good Friday liturgy. I was so unfamiliar with the practices, and I was unsure how everyone but me knew when to sit, stand or kneel. Everything about the service was alien, but it was also familiar as if I had gone back to a house from my childhood. It was also the first time that I knew the feelings of guilt and shame, but not in the oppressive caricature that society makes it out to be.

It was in that moment, as the Cross was being venerated that I knew what I had been, that God knew what I had been, and that I knew He knew. Yet I was not feeling beaten down as much as I felt as if I had injured a good friend and all I desired was to make it right.

After RCIA and struggling with some theological issues, I was told when I would be confirmed and a made a member of the Church. I was also informed that I needed to first receive the Sacrament of Reconciliation by having my confession heard. There were a lot of pitfalls I had to overcome in this process, too many to get into. I struggled with the idea of the Eucharist, I was in a committed relationship with an atheist, and I was just too prideful about my own brilliance.

My first task was to go to the parish garden and find Fr. Reginald, which struck me as a burdensome task. It reminded me far too much of when my parents made me go to the convenience store to apologize for being rude in their establishment. However, the good priest took me to his office and we began the process of remembering. As I said, I had a small notebook of each sin I had committed from my baptism at age 11 to that very moment. It seemed daunting and yet we made it through each item.

Finally, Father prayed the words and we made the sign of the cross. I shook his hand, thanked him for taking the time to hear me and walked back to my car. The feeling of relief was overwhelming, it was almost euphoric. Even if you are not a Catholic, if you have ever wronged someone then you know how much it can eat at you. If you have also then apologized to that person and they have not only forgiven, but have given you assurance that all is right then you can begin to understand that feeling of relief.

The Incarnation

As we continue the season of Advent and look forward to Christmas, trying to dodge all the different commercial trappings of our culture, I think back to how many times the idea of the Incarnation has brought me from my own dark night.

The word incarnation is from the Latin incarno, to be made into flesh. So, in as simple terms as I can put it, the event of the Incarnation is the taking on of flesh by our Lord. This idea was new to me, even if I had heard it before. The idea that God was born of a virgin, taking on flesh, and being fully God while yet fully human was not just exciting, it was also scandalous to me when I stopped to think about it.

We sing every Christmas, “remember Christ our saviour was born on Christmas day,” but how is it that those words are a comfort? How does anyone wrap their mind around such a strange notion of Christ, our Lord, being in flesh and walking among us. I have heard that we are too comfortable staring at the crucifix, but how much more so should we be so uninterested and unmoved by the idea of God in the flesh of a baby, laying in manger in some cave?

Chesterton summed up this shocking paradox when he beautifully noted,

A mass of legend and literature, which increases and will never end has repeated and rung the changes on that single paradox; that the hands that had made the sun and stars were too small to reach the huge heads of the cattle. Upon this paradox, we might almost say upon this jest, all the literature of our faith is founded.

No matter what dark periods my mind will enter, no matter my struggle, this has always brought me back. It was what made me want to be Catholic and keeps me in the Church. While it is not a cure all, and I often forget this matter, there is much comfort for those of us who know that Christ came in the flesh and dwelt among us; that there is a God whose love for us is so powerful that he will take on our nature in order to redeem it.

It has not always been easy, I still stumble and have many sins to atone for. My depression is far from being cured, but the Church offers comfort and examples of how to remain holy despite my own propensity for self-destruction and doubt.

Nota Bene: This article first appeared on Catholic Exchange and is reprinted with kind permission.