A preparation for new reflections on the everyday supernatural (for Meatfare Sunday 2018)

A preparation for new reflections on the everyday supernatural (for Meatfare Sunday 2018) February 11, 2018
The last sight of meat today: Fatso’s Last Stand in the shadow of St Nicholas Cathedral, Ukrainian Village, Chicago – photo by me

This is the week. Scrolling down my Facebook wall, I see the familiar ritual. I have had too much social media, evangelical friends across the ecclesial kaleidoscope say. I am getting off Facebook for Lent. By Wednesday, the frozen chosen will be gone. The rest of us, including those of us in the Byzantine churches who do not get to choose what we will give up for this season, will be left behind.

I have not written for the last few weeks. A lot, however, has happened. For us in the Kyivan Church, we have been having ‘Lent’ for the last three or four weeks, depending on who’s counting. When I wrote my last post, I was still in the Richmond time zone, where we are synced with our Latin sisters and brothers on the New Calendar. Then I went to church the next day, only to discover that some of us in the Kyivan Church are in a different timeframe. Here, the group that I am dubbing the Kyivan Psychoanalysis Study Group is on the Old Calendar. The temple where I attend Divine Liturgy and the Orthodox parish where I freeload off their Vigil service are both on the Old Calendar. I suspect, however, that the Orthodox are on the ‘Revised Julian,’ whatever that means. I asked my friend Julian Hayda, arguably the ringleader of our anti-colonial psychoanalytical cabal in the Chicago Eparchy, whether we were on that one. He told me that the Kyivan Church is only ever on the real Julian Calendar. I did not argue with him. His name is Julian.

In any case, the real reason I switched over to the Old Calendar for my time in Chicago is because I wanted to have an extra week of meat. That delicacy is now gone. Today for me is Meatfare Sunday, the Sunday of the Last Judgment, in which my desire for flesh has been judged and expunged. My cholesterol is about to see some improvement.

I suppose what I have to do for the next few days is to write a bit about what has happened during this preparation period. It is not yet the Great Fast – that starts next Sunday at Vespers for me – but I have a lot of catching up to do. I have to explain, for example, why I am going to try to have a Tolstoy binge for the next few weeks. I’ll probably say more about the time the Kyivan Psychoanalysis Study Group came over to my apartment with a Freud candle to bless it. I might say a bit about my full-fledged transformation into what some of my students are calling ‘Prof Yenta.’ I need flesh out more fully the term that my student Eugenia Geisel is attributing to me: the ‘everyday supernatural.’

But most of all, these last few weeks have been a kind of preparation for me to get back into the mode of catechesis, of soaking yet again in the teaching that I received as I was entering the Kyivan Church. My catechumenate, as far as I remember, was not just about learning the catechism, important as that is. I am not downplaying that component; in fact, the hierarchs of our church structure our catechism around the Anaphora of St Basil, which is the Divine Liturgy that we celebrate throughout the Great Fast.

Yet in my catechetical sessions, my soaking in the liturgical services of the church became the basis of reflection on praxis in my life in the world. There were two levels that my spiritual father seemed very interested in. At a micro level, we talked a lot about my marriage. At a broader scale, we also discussed politics. In this way, the church’s liturgical engagement with the supernatural reality of the world played out in my everyday life at multiple scales – in my home, in my work, in my engagement with the common life of the world.

It is in this spirit that I recently found a letter that I wrote to a friend who was chrismated into the Latin Church at Pascha last year. I had written it at the culmination of reliving my catechumenate during last year’s Great Fast. At that time, I was quite troubled about my ongoing relationship with Protestant Christianity; in fact, even after it was over, someone called the relation uncomfortably ‘oedipal.’ I worked through a lot of that baggage last year, and by the end of that season, I wrote (and have permission to reprint, with the recipient anonymized):

Dear Y—,

Your RCIA table leader asked me to write a letter for you as you will be received into the Catholic Church by chrismation on during the Paschal Vigil. I am such a sinner; first I assented, then I forgot, and then I remembered, by which time it was too late for your retreat. However, it is still before your chrismation, and I think I owe it to you to come through, as this is a big deal.

Many of the things about joining the Catholic Church are known to you, and I do not need to reiterate our conversations from the past. However, as we anticipate your chrismation, I am reminded of my own feelings before my own chrismation. I could share some of them with you. The most important feeling I felt was actually fear. I feared that the Church would not accept me because of some of my old evangelical habits and ways of thinking, I feared that at the last moment something about Catholicism would not be acceptable to me, I feared that perhaps my family would come down on a disapproval. I remember almost shaking as I slowly admitted that I was feeling this fear to my spiritual father.

My spiritual father received me with such love and tenderness, revealing that many of my fears were idle speculations and fantasies that at best were projections of my own mind and at worst were planted there by some evil spirit. It was in this moment that I realized that joining the Catholic Church was not about being good enough to be Catholic; the source of my fear was that I had become increasingly aware during my catechumenate of my many sins and saw the Church as the site for mercy, and I was afraid that her maternal arms could not embrace me, a sinner. Putting it this way, this made no sense, because the whole point of being received into the Catholic Church was because I was a sinner needing God’s mercy, yet I feared that I was too much of a sinner to deserve God’s mercy.

I have no idea how you are feeling as you anticipate your chrismation, which is why I can only write about how I felt before my chrismation and to be honest with you that I cannot say anything more without projecting myself onto you. This would be inimical to the very meaning of Catholicism – to be Catholic is to enter a Church in which we are each in communion, which means that we do not project ourselves onto each other, but actually are there for each other as persons. The irony of the Catholic Church is that for all the talk about the possibility of having joined a herd, I have discovered that it is the place where I have experienced the fullest autonomy because without autonomy, there is no possibility of communion. In fact, among my many sinful inclinations is the tendency to project onto others and to allow myself to be projected upon; as I grow in my Catholic faith, I am learning more how to simply be a person.

I will continue to pray for you as you approach the Paschal Vigil. May the fire of the Holy Spirit be kindled within you so that in your chrismation, you will encounter what in a deep, primal way the very Being of God and say with the best of the Latin tradition, Ubi caritas et amor, Deus ibi est.

Welcome to the Catholic Church, in which the fullness of our Lord Jesus Christ subsists, and may the love of the Father animate you this Great and Holy Week through the power of the Holy Spirit who already dwells in you from baptism and will be enflamed through your chrismation.

Glory to Jesus Christ!
Justin

I found this letter during this preparation season while in conversation with this person. It reminded me of where I got to by the end of the Great Fast last year. I had begun to see that a bad intellectual habit I had developed as a Protestant was to see the world as a mirror. I would see myself in a situation, in a text, even in other people. By the end of the Great Fast, I had begun to call that practice into question. With my explicit resistance to seeing this person’s journey to Catholicism as reflecting what I went through, this letter is arguably evidence of my ongoing intellectual conversion. But it will be up to my friends and family – indeed, the people I call my community, ecclesial or otherwise – to tell me how I am actually doing in practice with regard to this conviction.

In fact, I have been having quite a few extended intellectual conversations with some dear friends in the weeks leading up to the Great Fast, which I found last year are actually spiritual dialogues of the hesychastic sort. This letter puts into words some of where my intellect had grown toward by Pascha last year. I hope to crystallize through some writing this week where it has gone up to this Great Fast. That will take me into diving back into the catechesis that has formed my intellectual agenda on the everyday supernatural, which has not only informed my blogging but is also feeding into my academic analysis of politics and publics in the Pacific region.

All of this I submit to the patience of those who are left behind on social media during this Great Fast. As for the cyber-raptured, I am at a loss as to how they will find it.

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