I often tell the story of how in a course on trans-Pacific Christianities at the University of Washington, I said in the middle of a lecture that Eastern Christianities don’t matter in that region and then ate my words nine months later by becoming a catechumen in an Eastern Catholic church. I may have mentioned that one of the students in that course actually would count as canonically Syro-Malabar, as her father is technically in that church. Also, her mother is Syro-Malankara. What about me? she protested. I told her she didn’t matter. Because of that experience, I am very nice to her these days. We joke that she will become my spiritual director in twenty years.
But I usually don’t tell the tale of how I got from that point to the catechumenate nine months later. Some may assume that it was because of the Umbrella Movement protest occupations in Hong Kong, but that had actually occurred the year prior, which meant that I really had no excuse for my in-class comments. The truer truth is that it had to do with another student in that class, Eugenia Geisel, who told me that I just had to meet this friend of hers who is a kind of Catholic lay superstar in the Seattle area, a guy who has now become a dear friend, Lawrence Lam. Actually, she said, he was more like a brother, as he was godfather to one of his brothers, so he technically counted as a Geisel in his own right. Now he’s my bro too, so you could say that asking their permission to tell this story was more like pinging siblings and informing them that they were about to be pranked (except the prank’s on me, as it will become clear).
Eugenia felt that we’d really get along, and what’s more, he had a Vancouver connection, so we might have mutual friends. I think I tried to inform her that my wife and I really would have had no Catholic contacts in Vancouver at the time, as we ran almost exclusively in Protestant circles, except for my more secret flirtations with Catholicism, which were quite significant because there was, for example, the case where that nun saw the Virgin Mary standing next to me that one time. I did not realize how closely the spirituality of some in the Latin Church in Vancouver and Seattle hew to evangelicalism at the time, and I also was not aware that that connection might have yielded unexpected networks, had I thought about it more. In any case, Eugenia was also a Korean major at the University of Washington and thus was a regular at all the local Korean joints, where numerous restauranteurs were charmed by her excellent Korean speaking skills after getting over the initial shock of it coming out of her mouth. She had taken Lawrence to a place that at the time was called ‘BBQ Chicken’ on the street we affectionately call ‘the Ave,’ the main street in the University District, which was misnamed because actually it was a Korean fried chicken joint. She suggested that we all go together. We could have our fried chicken with soju, the alcoholic drink of choice in Korea.
What we truly had not told either Lawrence or Eugenia at that point was that we were planning to move back to Vancouver – to Richmond, specifically. There were many reasons, but chief among them was that my wife had recently acquired a full-time position as a community pharmacist and I was nearing the end of my postdoctoral fellowship in Seattle and was not sure what my prospects were on the arduous job market that we have. I am glad to report that I am doing much better nowadays, but with the uncertainty that that brought at the time, we figured that the smartest thing we could do was to move home. It was unexpected news for both Eugenia, who had expected that I might deepen my flirtation with Catholicism in the world of the Latin Church in Seattle (which truly can be called a local church in its own right for reasons of both archdiocesan history and the experience of more than one person who has encountered it, including me), and Lawrence, our new friend.
But they took it in stride, and with that, our soju came before the fried chicken arrived. Eugenia prompted Lawrence to talk about his Vancouver connection. He then began to say that he was in Vancouver so frequently that he had become a ‘Parishioner-at-Large’ at a parish in Richmond, which he explained to us was the Chinese suburb (Jenny and I nodded; we’re both from there). The church was a strange one. Its pastor was a Jesuit, and he was Chinese, but for one reason or another, he was ‘Byzantine Rite.’
Fr R—–! I blurted out, obviously the soju beginning to talk. I hesitate to give the full name here, as the man who is my spiritual father now does not like being named unless absolutely necessary. Those who know who he is will chuckle; those who do not aren’t missing much.
Lawrence said it was him, and asked whether I knew him. Of course I know him, I say, he was the priest who coordinated the solidarity prayer meetings for the Umbrella Movement! This revelation confused Lawrence, as he had been under the impression that I had been living in Seattle for all of the last two years, including during those momentous events in Hong Kong. The truth was indeed confusing: I was indeed a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Washington, but for both professional and personal reasons, I was often in Vancouver and probably considered my life over most weeks neatly divided between both places, which were only a three hour drive apart. I can, as many friends of mine will attest, do that drive on I-5 pretty much in my sleep, and the truest truth of this is that it was in doing that drive that I got into podcasts, because the first season of Serial came out that year.
While explaining this, I saw out of the side of my eye that it was Eugenia’s turn to start processing the information that the instructor who had said that Eastern Christianities don’t matter in the trans-Pacific region personally knew a Chinese Eastern Jesuit who had been the spiritual leader for trans-Pacific Umbrella Movement solidarity in Vancouver. She had assumed, of course, from the way that I described my solidarity with the Umbrella Movement from the Pacific Northwest that it was simply that the traditions I had encountered were all Western. They were not, and I could see that she knew at that moment, and that I knew that she knew, that either great disingenuousness or severe lack of self-awareness — and most likely both — had happened in that classroom that day. Of course, we did not say anything about it to each other; indeed, I did not really start telling the story of needing to put my foot in my mouth till closer to the time I was chrismated. Instead, we just ate our chicken and drank our soju.
Lawrence, for his part, quickly recovered from his confusion and began talking excitedly about the parish. He may have even used the word temple, as he said that that’s what Fr R—— liked to call it, which weirded me out initially until I figured that like any normal Catholic church, it must keep the blessed sacrament in reserve so that you can genuflect to it (clearly demonstrating that I didn’t have a Byzantine bone in my body at that point). He said that he liked how it felt like a house church. It was just a few people, and the liturgy was sung imperfectly, as everyone was still trying to figure it out. Sometimes, he said, we’d do it wrong, and Fr R—– will say, No, stop, sing it again, and we’ll do it again. And the best part is that Father is always saying so-mi-do so as to give himself the pitches too. That sounded like the Fr R—– I knew, and it corroborated well with my one experience of the temple during our Umbrella Movement retreat, the time my wife and I couldn’t get the front door of the temple open, so we went to the back, only to find ourselves behind the iconostas and being stopped by Fr R—-. Don’t go through the middle doors, he said, or we’ll have to ordain you. Use the side doors. And so it was that my first time into any Byzantine temple, Orthodox-in-communion-with-Rome or not, was by way of the deacon doors.
So when are you going to start going to Fr R—–‘s church? Lawrence asked point blank. My wife and I drew blanks. As evangelicals — and through spiritual direction, I have basically come to admit that my foray into Anglicanism by chrismation was simply an extension, if not the logical outworking, of my evangelicalism — it was already weird enough that after exploring all the possible options for church in Seattle, we had ended up with the Dominicans at the Catholic Newman Center, which was a ministry of the local University District parish, Blessed Sacrament Church. But returning to Richmond and continuing what might appear to others as a serious flirtation with Catholicism was a different matter entirely. We not only had friends in Vancouver, but also families that are still deeply immersed in Chinese evangelicalism there. That would be weird. We gave some non-answer answers and tried to defer. We may have even tried to give the hint that we were probably not interested.
Eugenia then chimed in, her face clearly showing that she had had enough soju for the night. Oh she loved the eastern churches, she said. Apparently, she has relatives who were Antiochian, and somehow they worshipped with the Russians, and oh, the other week, they went with her Lebanese friend to a Maronite church in Seattle where the people couldn’t find a priest or a building so they worshipped in a Latin parish and have a Melkite priest, but she couldn’t really tell the difference because it was all in Arabic, but she kinda knew what was going on because she had been to other Byzantine Rite churches. My wife and I nodded politely. We didn’t understand a word she said, until of course she got to the part about being treated to a Lebanese lunch after liturgy, which we didn’t know wasn’t called a mass. At this point, I became mortified that Eugenia, who clearly knew much more about the Eastern churches than I did, would reveal the secret of the incompetence about Orthodoxy that I had demonstrated in class to Lawrence. Fortunately, she did not.
But basically, the conversation convinced me that I knew next to nothing about Eastern Christianities, and probably less about the Latin Church than I thought, which engendered a bit of a crisis for me and a little bit of motivation to see Fr R—–‘s strange house church. We were soon in Vancouver after that dinner to begin scouting out an apartment for housing, and we attended the temple in Richmond, but not before I had done some reading. I soon acquired Aidan Nichols’s Rome and the Eastern Churches and from it learned the word uniate, which is a term I had not encountered before and led me to wonder whether Eastern Catholics ever really referred to themselves with it. I tore through the references to papal documents, because of course being Catholic meant that whatever the pope says goes, and quickly acquired and read through Orientalium Dignitas, Orientalium Ecclesiarum, and Orientale Lumen. Working on an encyclopedia entry on the Episcopal Church’s ecumenical and interfaith relations office that is now published in the Encyclopedia of Christianity in the United States, I found out the differences between Eastern Catholics, Eastern Orthodox, Oriental Orthodox, and the Church of the East. I made a mental note not to mix them up.
We came late for Sunday service to the temple. Fr R—- was there, incensing everyone as they sang. The singing was terrible, much worse than the Umbrella Movement retreat, more on par with what Lawrence had described. The booklets were easy to follow, though, as the words came with markings on whether to go up or down in pitch. The problem was that of the eight people who were there, nobody seemed to know what the pitches actually were, so folks went up and down barely in unison and only in the general vicinity of where the note actually was. In the middle of the service, a woman stepped out into the pew and announced that the prokeimen would be in tone one. I did not know what a prokeimen was; others who have shared my ignorance tell me that their first time hearing it reminded them of pokemon. Later on, it said that Lord, have mercy should be chanted twelve times, six by the priest, six by the people. We wondered how that would happen. And then they did it, and it was fast. That was bizarre.
But it was a little fun in its badness – so bad it might even be good, I began to say for the next year, well into my catechumenate even — and we had a nice chat with the people over coffee afterward. Fr R—- asked us how we ended up there, and we said that Lawrence had sent us. He laughed. Lawrence! he said. That guy wrote us a Yelp review! I then told him that I had done a little bit of reading before coming. Woah! he said. You did your homework! Both statements amused us to no end, so my wife and I went home that night and co-authored our own review. It is now above Lawrence’s review and serves as online documentation for our first Sunday service visit to the Eastern Catholic Church in Richmond, occasioned by fried chicken and soju with Lawrence and Eugenia and the reading that ensued from that dinner because I felt terribly incompetent after it and wanted to fix my ignorance. In fact, having that dinner is probably the reason why I am able to tell the story of how I got the question of Eastern Christianities in the trans-Pacific so wrong in class. My students were probably willing to let me get a pass. It is I who am not able to get over it, and I now realize that my first epiphany about my stupidity in that moment probably occurred over a sip of soju.
That was about three-and-a-half years ago. Tomorrow is Theophany on the New Calendar, and tonight, we will have a Vesperal Divine Liturgy of St Basil the Great with the Great Blessing of the Waters. I am going to cantor it. In fact, I have cantoring dreams nowadays; indeed, I even had one last night. Eugenia is in town for it. I convinced her to come up partly by saying that the kleros that is arising from the people, who still use the up up down down markings, is becoming extremely competent, such that we do not only pretend to be making music, but are actually being musical now. Lawrence is still a Parishioner-at-Large. I do not know if my newfound love for making Korean food has to do with my free association of chicken and soju with being suckered into giving Eastern Catholicism an actual chance after my initial fascination with it during the Umbrella Movement, or whether it is because Eugenia as a Korean major who had exposure to the Eastern churches had to be patient sitting in my class dealing with my ignorance of both topics, or whether it is because secretly my martial arts formation involved Taekwondo, but I do know that I stayed up making kimchi jjigae for my family last night. Probably these associations are more psychoanalytical than spiritual, loose and possibly meaningless. I will probably have to tease them apart.
But something I can say for certain is that as we sing the Great Prokeimen for this Vespers of Theophany that falls this year on the New Calendar on a Sunday, we will proclaim that the Lord is king; he is robed in majesty. I know because we’ve practiced it as a kleros, trying to get all the harmonies to sound right with the Carpathian chant. I like it not only because it sounds good, but also because I agree with it. I can feel the backdrop of the divine economia in the midst of our everyday lives of food and drink and banter, and I do not know how I’d have ended up Eastern Catholic otherwise.
POSTSCRIPT: Lawrence says he remembers telling me that becoming Eastern Catholic was a great way to become Catholic while remaining outside of Rome, which is what I recall telling him what I was trying to do as an Anglican anyway. I remember this now, and I thank him for reminding me to add this as a postscript. Indeed, some have accused me of never converting from my Anglican insubordination to Rome, to which I reply: teehee. He then asked whether I had had any flirtations with the Anglican Ordinariate in the Latin Church. My answer is that my relations with the Ordinariate are more of the order of fantasy than a flirtation, almost like a girl I would have fantasized about dating but never asked out. Perhaps I can write more about this another day, but that story begins with acknowledging that Bishop Steven Lopes and I are both graduates of Moreau Catholic High School in Hayward, California. Go Mariners.