Transference, mystagogy, and freedom from intellectual second-guessing

Transference, mystagogy, and freedom from intellectual second-guessing July 14, 2018
Anna Freud and her father Sigmund – PD-US – Wikimedia Commons

Two Fridays ago at the Feast of Ss Peter and Paul on the New Calendar, I served as cantor for the reception of two of my friends into the Kyivan Church by chrismation. At the end of the service, another friend whose singing skills I deeply respect said to me, ‘You are a great cantor!’ I demurred, having seen him cantor before and thinking he was only saying that because for this service, he had to endure my hand-waving in the kleros. But he continued: ‘You don’t second-guess! You just go for it! You really are a great cantor.’

His explanation snapped me out of my moment of false humility. He wasn’t just saying what he said to be nice. He knew that I had a history of second-guessing myself because I’d been in his kleros when I was a catechumen. The jokes about me singing fake bass parts are not untrue. I always knew that I was not grasping the bottom notes, and I second-guessed a lot in those days. Finally, I gave up and ended up singing the melody, sometimes in tune. I was the last person I thought would end up cantoring. But there I was, and it wasn’t my first time either. I’ve done Nativity and Theophany, and Pascha too, as well as the world premiere of the English translation of the Vespers of St Ignatius of Loyola, before this too.

Much of this blog has been a record of my mystagogy, my learning directly from the mysteries in our church. When my friend told me that I had stopped second-guessing, I realized that my mystagogical struggle has probably been paying off without me even knowing it. When I was in my catechumenate, my spiritual father explained that there are limits to what you can learn as a catechumen. You can learn how the liturgy works, the history of the church, and even our practices of prayer. But without access to the mysteries of communion at the Divine Liturgy or absolution at the Rite of Repentance, there was a limit to the knowledge that could be experienced. Mystagogy, then, is the period after one’s chrismation in which one can fully participate in the mysteries. One is taught afresh from direct encounters with the G-d whose essence we cannot grasp but whose energies animate us. In mystagogy, one moves beyond pedagogy, following a teacher as a student, and into a face-to-face meeting with the One-Who-Is.

On this blog, I have struggled to reckon with those mystagogical encounters, including the second-guessing and the stupidities. I started this blog as a neophyte, as one who was newly received into the church. With reference to cantoring, I say early on that I struggle musically with pitch and practically with showing up to services on time. That didn’t stop me, my bishop observed, from subbing in as a cantor the second week after I moved to Chicago, two months after my chrismation. When I came back to Richmond for a visit that first year, he said humorously that he wanted to hear ‘the guy who ended up cantoring in Chicago two weeks after moving there’ lead. Not bad, he said, after the service.

But not everyone took the ridiculous situation of me writing and cantoring as a neophyte with such episcopal humor. Some of the traditionalists in our churches were not thrilled with me at all. I wondered sometimes how they would have felt that I was also a faculty member in the Asian American Studies Program at Northwestern University, which meant that I was teaching too – and in what some might consider a radical leftist program, to boot. I never asked; it seemed petty on the one hand while probably stoking an unnecessary fire on the other. For their part, requests for me to stop blogging were circulated on some social media groups, with some thinking that in my spiritual immaturity, I would advance some false teaching or perverted perception of Eastern Catholicism. In particular, there was a lot of complaining about my ‘opining,’ as one critic put it, about politics, including in Ukraine. That wasn’t mystagogy, another critic put it, as it was just me being ignorant about theology. I think they had the idea that the theological was separated from the political, and in my more uncharitable moments, I wondered if they were actually Protestants.

But with enough encouragement from the right people – including my spiritual father – I persisted in blogging. I told them that someone, a big shot whose claim to fame is that he has met five Eastern Catholic patriarchs throughout his life, had commented that I should probably think about whether I had enough knowledge to have an Eastern Catholic blog. They replied that the only thing I needed to know was what I was experiencing and the connections I was tentatively drawing from my personal encounters with G-d in the holy mysteries and my halting hesychastic practice. I put to them the complaint that perhaps I was doing damage to the Body of Christ by writing sometimes perhaps about things that are only spoken of in whispers but I thought were public information, especially because they can be found on online posting boards. One of my supporters then noted that if I was revealing embarrassing things about Orthodoxy and Eastern Catholicism because I was simply reading things on the Internet as a neophyte, then it means that they weren’t hiding their skeletons well in the first place, and so it wasn’t only fair game, but also hilarious to watch unfold. I replied that people were complaining that it wasn’t mystagogy that I was doing, because I was writing about politics too. They said that mystagogy is also about learning to become part of the whole church, including its political agonism. Besides, we are not Protestants.

From this advice, I learned that blogs are not a place from which to pronounce with authority. The genre is exploratory, tentative, playful, and reflexive. It’s a place to work through the second guesses, the confusions, and the contradictions – indeed, a great place to keep a public record of one’s mystagogy, if one is bold enough to post such reflections. As the channel editor who recruited me told me, I needed a place to narrate myself. I give you three years to tell your whole story, he said. We are now in the third year, and finally, as my singing friend indicated to me, maybe there has been some progress after all. But it has not been without constant struggle.

A word that I have rediscovered in the process of this self-narration is the psychoanalytical term transference. When I was a teenager, I learned this word from the worst person possible: my father. I don’t know how Anna Freud or Judith Lacan did it (badly, I heard), but more power to them, though I would hate to learn that my situation mirrors theirs to some extent.

Among many things, my father is a Chinese evangelical pastor ordained in the black church who later joined the Anglican Communion as a priest, a hospital chaplain, and a practicing psychotherapist – and that doesn’t cover the really cool jobs he used to have when he was in college, especially when he punched out a waiter in a Greek Canadian nightclub at which he worked for calling him a chink and was quickly promoted from lowly busboy to bouncer, after which he became the bartender and a waiter in his own right. He had the moves for the punch because he was also a kung fu master, skilled in hung kuen because he was the student of the student of the student of the great Wong Fei Hung.

As my father became a psychotherapist, he started using the word transference a lot. He told us stories of his training. He said that he’d been called out by his supervisors on more than one occasion for orienting himself toward his clients as his sons and daughters, and he had learned that this affective phenomenon that can take you anywhere from becoming your patient’s surrogate parent to falling in love with them was called transference, the subconscious (or even unconscious) transfer of affect from one intimate situation to another. He liked to talk to me a lot about this topic especially because he thought I was good at identifying transference. In fact, I think I really may be good at it, but that’s probably also why I started second-guessing so much. My friends jokingly refer to me as a ‘psychic,’ and I can confirm that it’s both a blessing and a curse.

It would have been good if the conversations with my father about transference were restricted to the dinner table, but in the mess of the fallout that took place when we left non-denominational evangelicalism for a charismatic Anglican parish, we found ourselves in the awkward situation of him being re-ordained as an Anglican priest and serving as the de facto supervisor for the second-generation English ministry where I was interning alongside my best friend at the time. My father saw that friend as terribly undisciplined, partly because he had a girlfriend who was still in high school who unceremoniously dumped him for her locker neighbor and plunged him into a kind of depression in which he became non-functional. He was also good-looking and charming, so he was able to use his personal charisma to win the affections of the girls in the youth group we had started together, which was important because they happened to be the rebellious teenage daughters of a number of parish council board members. Dad didn’t like that either. If transference was fire, he felt that this guy was playing too much with it and might burn the proverbial house down.

Unwilling to put up with a situation that amounted to me doing the grunt work while my ‘friend’ took all the credit while playing with fire, my father confronted this guy, eliciting his speedy but fully voluntary and un-coerced resignation. He did not factor in that the affections that my ‘friend’ had stirred up would then be transferred to me, and though nothing even remotely inappropriate happened between me and them, those teenage girls eventually mounted what amounted to be an adolescent breakup with me, especially because they suspected me of conspiring to get rid of the ministry partner who had been my friend. That was bad because the net result was that the core of the youth group just stopped showing up for reasons of transference gone wrong. Strangely enough, no one thought of firing me; in fact, everyone still expected me to go up for ordination in the Anglican Communion at some point. But I had had enough. Mirroring my friend, I too got out: I got off the priesthood track and applied for a PhD in geography, and I got in, with funding. In hindsight – this all happened about ten years ago – the transference was more complete than I had ever imagined.

As this mess unfolded, I came to hate the word transference. It was part of the weird superego, the ideal sense of my selfhood that Freud’s disciple Jacques Lacan terms ‘the Name of the Father‘ – my symbolic key for for making sense of the world’s senselessness – that I internalized. Indeed, my feeling was more that my father feared the transference more than dealing with it head on. He could see the transference occurring between my friend and the youth group girls. But my feeling at the time – and this analysis is almost certainly colored by my own immaturity – was that he did not want the fire to touch his own family. He did so, I determined (and again, this assertion is colored by my own foolishness), by emphasizing the transference when it came to my friend and ignoring it when it came to me. The result, at least as I felt at the time, was that I got burned – fire that you choose not to see will still burn your house down – and what was worse, I knew exactly what was going on psychically while I could feel what I felt was his fear and willful ignorance of the situation. Having the word transference available in my vocabulary as the name for my pain just made the slow trainwreck that derailed my ordination aspirations more horrific to witness.

The problem is that as I rebelled against my father (or my projection of him – who knows, really, whether it was really him?), I rejected my own ability to identity and critically examine the transferences that continued to circulate in my life. Feeling that my father was afraid of transference, I felt that I had to open myself up to the transferences in my life. I determined, for example, that I had failed to get a girlfriend because I was too guarded about transference, too afraid to play with fire. This was probably true, because the fact is that it was probably I, and not my actual father, who was afraid of falling in love and had found convenient psychoanalytical language to isolate myself. In fact, I know that much of what I am saying are not valid accusations against my father and more of a mental projection of him as my internalized superego because I recently asked him over coffee whether he found that transference was helpful in his psychotherapy practice. He replied with a twinkle in his eye, Definitely.

As I moved vocationally from the church to the academy, I began to allow myself flow with these transferences, or even to deny that it was happening. As most people with some experience of academia will understand, the psychic knot that developed was dangerous indeed. Academia is, as I’ve said before, a transference machine, and if you’re not aware of the transferences that you project onto other scholars, you will be in some serious trouble. In fact, properly speaking, the real danger is with what Freud called counter-transferences, the ways that others who positioned themselves in authority over me (whether institutionally or not) projected their affections onto me. If you follow the debates about whether academics should be teaching a ‘Western canon’ or engaged in contemporary issues of social justice, the real crux of the issue is that some people pine for the good old days when an old boys’ club acted as what the king of these nostalgic daydreamers Allan Bloom calls the ‘midwives’ of a philosophical tradition that students would yearn to learn with all the intensity of lust. What messed up academia as an erotic space, Bloom claims, is the folks who are lambasted now by the Right as ‘social justice warriors,’ scholars invested in racial and sexual justice whom Bloom pretty much accuses of cockblocking an entire generation.

But all that we – and I count myself among this number of radical academics – are really doing is pointing out that counter-transference, which is all that Bloom’s intellectual midwifery actually is, can be dangerous stuff, the fire with which my friend played and burned the youth group down. And in serious danger I truly was: a friend of mine once overheard a conversation I had with an older scholar and told me that it was seriously weird, that I should not be having discussions about that person’s sex life (or lack thereof, as it was the case) under any circumstances. It didn’t get any weirder than that, but my experience leads me to find most stories ranging from microaggressions to outright sexual assault credible. It’s what happens when people in power dream more about the good old days when they could play with fire than practicing the skills of controlling and channeling it. It’s the undercurrent of the orientalism against which we set ourselves in Asian American studies. The canon wars are directly connected to #MeToo.

To put it another way, my rejection of the need to examine critically the transferences and counter-transferences in my life was itself an act of affective transfer, a rejection of the Name of the Father and thus of my way of making sense of the world altogether. It took my mystagogy in the Kyivan Church to undo this knot. One of the interesting things about Orthodox liturgy is that its dependence on a cappella singing leaves the people doing the liturgical work very exposed. Especially in small temples such as in Richmond where I did my catechumenate and the initial parts of my mystagogy, how you sing tells everybody a lot about your psychological state, which is important in our wisdom tradition because we emphasize the integration of the conscious part of the psyche – the nous, which is roughly translated the intellect – with the prayer of the heart. In a liturgy that is sung without accompaniment, there is no hiding one’s progress (or lack thereof) in spiritual maturity. If you are prone to second guessing, you will enact many false starts. If you are prone to impulsiveness, you will rush into mistakes. If you tend to dominate a room, you will dominate the singing. If you are socially withdrawn, you will croak out the liturgy in what you think is a quiet inaudible voice but actually distracts the people around you trying to sing harmony. Liturgies in small temples can be cruel. You confess everything without going to confession just by virtue of participatory congregational singing.

It was in this liturgical situation that I began to work out my personal problems. As one of my closer readers Daniel Chen has recently written, it is noticeable that I spend a lot of time living in my own head. What he names is a symptom, not the cause. What happened when I revolted against my version of the Name of the Father and did not pay attention to the transferences and counter-transferences in my own life was that I got a lot more fathers. Deceiving myself into thinking that I was simply respecting the opinions of people around me – especially in my professional life, but also in the context of congregational singing – I internalized many of them as mini-superegos, contradictory keys to the Lacanian symbolic order. This kind of transference led to two complicated layers of second-guessing. First, I’d second-guess the melodies, pitches, harmonies, and speeds of our Galician tones, which led to a series of musical disasters for the people around me because I’d throw them off with my hesitancy while accusing them of throwing me off because it is they who were in my head. But second – and this was more serious – I’d do a double-take on the phenomena of transferences. As I said, I know when transference and counter-transference is happening. But instead of identifying, critically examining, and channeling these affects, I’d deny that it was even happening. That willful denial is what my spiritual father came to call my ‘internal backward Kantian move,’ a paralysis of thought where my intellectual inclination is to go one direction and I use all the powers of my intellect to deny myself the veracity of those thoughts. It became a kind of self-gaslighting, making myself feel crazy by denying myself the realities that I could naturally perceive.

Flubbing the liturgy and having entered a nearly complete paralysis in my intellectual work, I sought spiritual direction. Wisely, my spiritual father’s modus operandi is always to point out the moments of counter-transference, the points where my desire for him to just tell me what to do could open the door for him to give into the temptation to manipulate me. The sessions I had with him, which at times felt like pulling teeth because of all this psychic resistance from my part, yielded some strangely profound insights. The first is that I had a tendency to think through my feelings instead of simply letting myself feel. The second is that all of this living in my head was a denial of the body. The third, then, was that acting is more important than thinking, that the body can trick the mind out of its own delusions. The great thing is that prayer in the Kyivan Church is a full-body act. We stand in prayer, we reverence by bowing and crossing, we prostrate, we move around, and most of all, we sing. Our chants and the flow of our liturgy, especially if we get fancy with our four-part harmonies, are really less about being able to read music than about muscle memory. I threw people off because I second-guessed my muscle memory, and as I began to learn the liturgy and people began to look to me as someone who knew it well enough to lead it – which literally put me into the de facto position of cantor – I lost the luxury to be able to second-guess. I had to throw myself all in and block the internalized transferences and counter-transferences. Practicing this primacy of the body became a big part of my catechumenate, which became more developed in my mystagogy. The critical self-examinations became less about what I was thinking and much more about what I was doing, feeling, acting, singing, and praying.

And slowly, as if it was muscle memory, I began to name, critically examine, and channel the transferences and counter-transferences again. It was not an overnight process, and it was not because a father, whether biological or spiritual, had to me to do so. Instead, it was like recovering more muscle memory, with my psyche beginning to act as confidently as my body in the liturgy. What gradually began happening at the temple started creeping into my academic teaching, which is another activity in which I had to block out my second-guessing in order to deliver coherent lectures and to pay attention to what my students were actually saying. And as that intellectual work began to unfold, I began writing again, sometimes in manic bursts, but much more consistently – on the blog, in articles and chapters, and now in the book I’m working on.

The blog, which incidentally connects to the liturgy because I write about it a lot, became especially important to my process. The key to blogging, my editor told me at the time, is speed writing, a kind of warm-up exercise for the intellectual heavy lifting I have to do in the academy. Blog posts are not perfect. They are experimental. They meander and sometimes go nowhere. They garner a lot of critics. The key to production is to block those criticisms instead of internalizing them. On this point, my former editor sometimes informs me that he observes some unexpected growth too. While I used to engage in social media by saying that everybody who comments is right about everything in their own way, he is occasionally surprised to see me punching back, occasionally. My blogging, in other words, has been on the exact timeline as my experiments with cantoring in the small temples at which I worship, as well as with a new phase of intellectual growth in my academic profession as a teacher and an Asian American geographer of postsecular Pacific publics.

As I began to use my intellect in real activity instead of these internalized backflips, my research assistant at Northwestern University introduced me to a colleague who uses psychoanalysis as a literary method to examine (of all things) Protestant religiosity in the United States. We asked him whether we were using psychoanalytical theory correctly in our work, and as he happily listened to our research on the public imaginaries and political practices of peoples of color, he commented that we might be theorizing transference for the public. I was stunned. I had not heard that word for years. But the more I thought about it, my second-guessing paralysis from liturgy to writing stemmed from my refusal to about transference. The difference between now and the ministry disaster a decade ago is that rebelling against my biological father, whether him himself or my projection of him, is not a particularly urgent task for me these days. Extended adolescence though I may have had, maybe I will become an adult after all.

Indeed, I was surprised that my friend told me I was a good cantor because I do not second-guess. After all, second-guessing was all I’d been doing for the better part of an entire decade, all because of my refusal to accept that transferences exist, that they are fire, and that they should be engaged not with fear or repression, but with skill and integration. Integration in this sense is not the language of the popular psychology of yesteryear, when suburbanites and socialites of the sixties were so into the vogue of personal integration that psychoanalysis became a kind of gentrified hobby. To be integrated is nothing more and nothing less than what the Latin Church calls chastity, the ‘the successful integration of sexuality within the person and thus the inner unity of man in his bodily and spiritual being’ (Catechism of the Catholic Church, #2337). On this note, for all of our Kyivan talk about autonomy from the Latins, this part of the Latin catechism was once upon a time objectively superior to its Kyivan counterpart. In the English translation of Christ Our Paschaa previous edition of the section on chastity (#867) that is still in circulation used to state, ‘Marital infidelity is weakened and even ruined by deception, insincerity, jealousy, and thoughtless behaviour.’ That formulation was, as they say, a Freudian slip. To my great disappointment, I have learned that this mistake has been fixed on the pdf version online.

What I am describing here is thus a kind of intellectual chastity, an attentiveness to transference that begins in prayer and flows into everyday life. I’d go as far as to argue that such prayerful practices are central to Orthodox prayerfulness. Is this not, after all, what Dionysius calls the mystical theology, the need to disassociate one’s projections of who God is so that I can actually encounter the true G-d who simply is? Transference even in this Dionysian sense is not a bad thing; it’s part of one’s spiritual journey, and the key is not to repress them, but to let them come up, dismiss them, and break the mirror. With practice, it’s beginning to happen to me too, terrible hesychast that I am, and dare I say, also to the newly received people for whose chrismation I cantored are well on their mystagogical journey too. In their prayer after being newly received, they promise not only to hold to the Orthodox and Catholic faith, but to ‘teach’ it. Immediately after their chrismation, they got up and testified to all who attended, including many evangelical Protestants, as to why they had joined the Kyivan Church. They said that something happened to them in the liturgy, that they began to engage in worship with their whole bodies. Our comment to them was that it was the best and most clearest thing we’d ever heard them say about worship in our church. They too had stopped second-guessing.

In this sense, my biological father, my spiritual father, my sisters and brothers in my church, and I are in agreement with both Freud and Jung about the centrality of transference in the psychoanalysis of everyday life. Jung and Freud have their famous differences, including about transference. For Freud, it is part of an individual psychic relation to one’s experiences to the family that are projected onto the other institutions the patient might encounter, whereas for Jung, it’s about a mystical connection to the archetypes in the collective unconscious. If I were to put my cards on the table, I am more inclined to side with Freud, insistent as I am on the reality of the supernatural. But Jung tells a story in his Psychology of the Transference that highlights how important the phenomenon I’ve describing in this lengthy post is:

The enormous importance that Freud attached to the transference phenomenon became clear to me at our first personal meeting in 1907. After a conversation lasting many hours there came a pause. Suddenly he asked me out of the blue, “And what do you think about the transference?” I replied with the deepest conviction that it was the alpha and omega of the analytical method, whereupon he said, “Then you have grasped the main thing.” (Psychology of the Transference, in The Basic Writings of C.G. Jung, p. 500).

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