How the Church retained me in my 20s, and how I grew disaffected by my 30s (Part 3)


This post was outlined in September 2010, but written up in October 2011.  The outline was hopeful; I will have to add a coda, looking at where I am now.

I believe I left off my last post somewhere in San Francisco.  I had detailed reasons why I stayed in the Church; now I will write about how it began to lose me.

I eventually returned to the parish church.  Part of what made this possible was a retired Lebanese priest who just had a good heart and whose sermons would sometimes wander off in completely unexpected directions.  Still, I seemed to have no connexion to the parish, and I was constantly asked, even after nearly five years of fairly regular attendance, if I was Greek.  (Granted, sometimes this question was posed to me in Greek.)  I suppose I wouldn’t have minded, except that this is the very first question one is asked by Greeks when first meeting someone (unless one is in Greece, in which case the question becomes, “Apo pou eise?”  “Where are you from?”.)

I recall one Pan Orthodox Vespers I attended, somewhat hopeful that this might be an interesting or cordial event, except that afterwards, I was left somewhat lonely in the reception hall, the Palestinian priest glancing at me with daggers in his eyes.  I happened to be wearing a keffiyah that was a gift from a Yemeni student of mine, and I wondered if that prompted his looks.  Regardless of the reason, he did not approach me directly, and I was already feeling apart.  His expression did nothing to make me feel welcome — not that it was his parish in which to offer hospitality; he was, after all, a guest.  As if that were not enough, I did engage a fellow parishioner in conversation, but he merely repeated some old and simplistic polemic championing Photios, and condemning Augustine for his Platonism.  He did not seem to want to hear my position, which took into account Augustine’s rhetorical exigence and the particular audience for his Confessions.  (Simply put, Augustine had to portray himself as a Neoplantonist philosopher to his interlocuter, and purposely chose what aspects of his life he would recount to that individual, and framed them with an eye to convincing this fellow philosopher of the beauty of Christianity.  In other words, Augustine was much less a Platonist than he made himself out to be, and in fact is no more Neoplatonist than some of the Greek Fathers, St Gregory of Nyssa, for example (or even more to the point, Evagrios Pontikos).)

In contrast to my somewhat liminal experience, whenever my partner, a tall dark haired Jewish man would visit, he was immediately welcomed.  People would come up and talk to him, often asking if he was one of the <insert your choice of several typical Greek surnames> sons.  Years later, he once turned to me and said he was sorry that I had that experience; he knew it must have hurt me.  It did.

When I turned to devotional magazines for consolation, or even some translated Patristic works for consolation, in the hope that I could find something that would keep my attachment to the Byzantine faith alive, I was inevitably confronted with a ubiquitous and simplistic polemic, a polemic which far from spurring my faith, spurned my experience and turned me away.

I retreated even further, relying on private devotions.  For me, that meant the regular recitation of  matins from the Mozarabic rite (interestingly facilitated by a study on the shape of Daily Prayer in Christian Spain executed by a priest of the Russian Orthodox Church in England).    While that helped, I stopped going to the Greek parish.  I sometimes attended the Russian service on Geary Boulevard, but not understanding Old Slavonic, and not quite knowing if any post-liturgy reception was held, I didn’t attend that frequently. On the other hand, I would keep Shabbat on Friday night and Saturdays with my partner, and study the history and roots of Jewish mysticism with him.  I would sometimes go to Temple on Saturdays and then go to Divine Liturgy on Sundays, lending a different significance to fourth meal, celebrated after the close of the Sabbath and called ‘the feast of the Messiah King’.  I enjoyed the home-based aspects of Judaism, the study that could be done during long Shabbat mornings, the festivity of the meal, the imagery of the Sabbath Queen.  I did not see a complete contradiction between the two traditions calling themselves Orthodox.

At some point, another priest, whose captivating sermons I always enjoyed and whose personal focus on social justice I always admired, returned to the Greek parish.  He set up a ministry in which those community members who could not come to the church would be visited.  That ministry met about once a month, and involved the Eritrean members of the parish as well.  We would typically cook some meals and then bring them, in small groups, to various people throughout San Francisco.  In this way, I got to know some of the older Greek women in the parish, and they began to forget at times that I was not Greek (and they would sometimes speak to me in Greek and vice versa).

Another aspect of parish life I participated in was the Bible study group which met midweek.  My experiences there were mixed.  I suppose I was wanting to go even more in depth than we had time for — or than some participants were academically trained for.  That, I suppose is my own fault; it was a pastoral group, not a scholastic one.  At the same time, though, some academic argument did take place, notably with the same fellow I met at Pan Orthodox vespers.  Unfortunately, that friction never quite smoothed itself out, and I was often disappointed that this interlocuter was not as critical of his sources as a historical theologian could be.  (Subsequently, I came to learn just how much of a dearth of historical perspective many theologians in America seem to have.)  My partner and one or two friends also began to note that I was coming home from church in bad mood.  Not irritable so much as melancholy.  It was obviously not the best place for me to go.

I would note that some persons in that group knew about my partner, and some did not.  Those who did not, did not because they were expressive of their attitudes towards (for example) Gavin Newsom’s politics when it came to gay marriage.  Other conservative elements emerged when discussing certain psalms, an inquirer adding to the verse at hand punitive implications not present in the text before us.  That sort of scriptural interpretation seemed unwarranted and uncoordinated.  It is one thing to link several verses because of similar language; quite another to add to or detract from the verse to make it say something other than a meaning which could be drawn forth from it, and which would lead to a deeper relationship with God or a deeper appreciation of the text itself.

Although I was feeling more integrated with the community via the outreach ministry, it really began to pick up steam at about the same time my partner and I decided to move back to the East Coast.  After we moved to Vermont, I went to church only once or twice.  I was welcomed by the priest, immediately put on a mailing list — but I was still dealing with the fallout from the previous parish and my time on Athos.  (Aside from that, the music was a mix of Russian and Greek and English, and did not really appeal to me; at least my former parish had an excellent choir — one I would have joined had we stayed on the West Coast.)

My parents are Latin-rite Catholics, and when i would visit them, often at Christmas, I would sometimes go midnight mass with them (usually held at 9pm or some hour far removed from midnight).  The service held little appeal.  Not only did the semi-circular modern church design not appeal to me, the sermons were spiritually impoverished.  I would listen to the prayers recited during the Christmas liturgy, impressed at their theological depth, pinpointed references to Athanasios of Alexandria, Gregory the Great, and others — themes of theosis and Incarnational theology that could have been developed or explained in greater detail to the audience — but those themes never were so much as alluded to.  I would come away from this church to which some Athonites claimed I was too attached feeling like it was a complete stranger and lacked appeal to me.  I was clearly not Latin-rite Catholic; I felt much more at home in Byzantine liturgies.

Theology school helped in some ways, though.  I applied so that I could pursue higher studies in Rome, Navarra, or Thessaloniki afterwards; in order to be accepted to schools in Rome, I needed a prior degree in theology.  So I decided to get such a degree, initially thinking of combining it with the MA in Classics at UVM.  While that latter idea did not pan out, in theology school I was brought into contact with the texts I loved.  I was able to work on projects and put my experiences into writing.  I learned more about Vatican II, Judaeo-Christian apocalypses, North African patristics, and Jewish patterns of exegesis.  I enjoyed my classes in medical ethics and ecclesiology; I brought the Greek text of the gospel along with me to my classes in Scriptural studies.  I had some rough spots — one class during the summer stands out — but that class also saw me produce one of the papers I was most happy with (and which I have posted to this blog).  That instructor also encouraged me to pursue a Ph.D. in theology by the end of the course; for that, I remain grateful to her.  Yet when it came to asking of my various professors about what sort of jobs theologians had, I was left with few answers apart from teaching.  For some reason, that did not appeal to me.  Nor did I have much success when I asked what was the edge of theological knowledge and what were the current questions being generated in the field — in other words, what is the ‘cutting edge’ of the theological project?

From Vermont we moved to Massachusetts.  I had applied to two schools at the same time — theology school and acupuncture school.  Being accepted to both, I decided to pursue both and saw that in terms of time constraints, I could actually pursue both.  the acupuncture school was in the Boston metro area; hence our move.  Living in East Boston, I attended the divine liturgy only once, in an Armenian church in Watertown, on January 6.  I was curious to see how the Armenians celebrated the collected commemorations of the Nativity and Epiphany, Circumcision and Presentation of Christ.  But I had little incentive to try a new church on any regular basis.

I had one more formal class in Vermont to complete.  That class left a very bad taste in my mouth, and nearly turned me off from spiritual practice altogether.  It was little better than an undergraduate intro to world religions but with the added benefit of a spiritual voyeur teaching.  I recall one class, towards the end, when people were discussion how we had formed a community.  Some also talked about recent suicides they had experienced.  I found that community to be a prison for me, and had thought as I drove up to it on more than one occasion that if it were the only community I was in, I would be one of those suicides.  Luckily, it was a brief class, although it had an impact on me which lasted some years.

On the other hand, my partner and I frequented the Chabad house at Harvard on a nearly weekly basis.  There I found a community which shared not only food but intellectual discussion on many topics.  I could attend services, wrapped in a tallis and not worry about whether I’d receive communion that day (since obviously Jews do not celebrate a commemoration of the Last Supper) as I would wonder each Sunday in an Orthodox church; nor would I need to worry about being called up to the bimah to witness the correct canting of the Torah.

The experience was good, mostly, except for the rabbi who wasn’t sure what to make of us. He sometimes seemed like my partner and I were something he ate and he wasn’t sure it agreed with him or not.  His wife seemed fine with us, and another rabbi was was usually there (and last I heard was at MIT) would ask after my partner if I went without him, and about me, if my partner went without me.  I was treated well also — I recall one time when we were nine men total at the service, eight who could be counted for minyan.  When another man joined the group, making to all appearances ten Jewish men, one of the three rabbis would leave the room, leaving us with nine persons in the room.  The rabbis would not single me out as the non-countable member.  This happened several times, and later, at lunch aroused a wondering comment at how long it took to form a minyan that day, and how we’d have nine men, and then a new person would come, but someone would disappear leaving us still at nine.  That simple consideration touched me deeply and left a positive impression on me.

Overall, then, we were accepted, the community was fairly engaging (despite the typical Harvard business school students who sometimes appeared), and I encountered little polemic (even against reform Judaism).  Then again, this was Chabad.  The whole point of Chabad is the belief that in every Jewish person is a spark of the divine which is indeed redeemable, and the role of Chabad is to encourage the person to nourish it.  It also had the side effect of breaking down whatever prejudice I held against ‘elite’ universities.  As a result, when the opportunity to apply to Oxford came, I followed it.

Later, when our landlords sold our apartment without telling us they had split the house up so that apartments could be bought singly, we moved to Watertown, to the street on which I had parked the year before when I went to the Armenian church.  I was only a block or two away from a Greek church, and I went a few times to the services.  I encountered polemic every time I went and the service was conducted by the younger priest.  It seemed he could not celebrate the Byzantine heritage without castigating other ‘Western’ churches.  Sometimes this polemic took the seemingly superficial matter of steeples, others the more thorny question of the late Latin doctrine of the Immaculate Conception.  The positive result seems to be that I began posting to this blog, having become fed up with ignorance and a lack of nuance and historicity (not to mention geographic experience of the Orthodox world) in the Orthodox church.

At least there I was accepted as Greek, people addressed me first in Greek, did not ask if I was Greek, and in fact, didn’t really ask me much at all.  I did not see much opportunity to socialise with or to get to know the people.  When the young priest served, I would come home in bad mood.  The worst was during the Akathistos hymn, when i had had a long day, was looking forward to hearing the full hymn, enjoyed the singing, and found myself content at being in the church — until his sermon.  After that point, I stopped altogether going to church.

That was the state of things until this past year (2009 — 2010).  During that time, two people got back in touch to speak with me about spiritual topics and ask for historically oriented advice.  Those two friends really helped restore my confidence in all that I had trained myself for in life, but found that I could not actually put into practice in a place where such knowledge and experience was deemed respectable.  They came at a time when I felt I was dying — I had begun experiencing atypical migraines, my physical strength was drying up, and I rarely experienced a day of respite from the ongoing migraine.  (MDs were no help.)  I decided to start this blog primarily to speak up about these problems I saw in the Church, and to record my historical perspective on theological matters.  I wanted to write something worthwhile before what I thought could have been an approaching death.  (Of course, for a time, the blog went the way of Buffy and Angel…)

Also, not long after these two friends got back in touch with me, so did another old friend, who also happened to be my former boss in San Francisco.  He offered me some work as an Associate produce for a film.  Working on the script with him, I encountered interviews with people who described how they came to the Episcopalian church.  I learned that I am not alone in looking for something deeper, and something to do which uses my training and background.  A certain sense of hope was restored to me.

As I was working on the film, I was also looking forward to Oxford.  I particularly interested in meeting some people at the theology school in Oxford, with its Orthodox scholars.  I hoped to be reintegrated into the church, to find a community I could relate to, to find companionship among other scholars in the field of theology — despite the fact that I would be in the anthropology department.

***

That was where I was a year ago, right before I left for Oxford.  What has happened since?  Well, I came to Linacre college and in the first week met a fellow student, also from Northern California, doing a course in Syriac studies.  I went a couple times to the Orthodox church here, a few talks by Metropolitan Kallistos Ware, and attended Holy Week services.  But it didn’t quite gel.  Some students and monks were friendly enough, one student was a typical Magdalen undergrad who turned me off quite quickly, but overall, I didn’t feel a connexion.  I don’t think it had to do with the distance of the church from my college, or the mixture of Russian and Greek music during the service.  No one was particularly mean to me (aside from the contemptuous Magdalen student whose father was a consultant).  The food was good.  But something wasn’t quite connecting.

So I went to Chabad.  My first encounter with Chabad here in Oxford was for the menorah lighting in December.  I was happy to be present outside Balliol college as the public menorah was lit.  Then I went to the second night Seder, and had lively discussions with the rabbi and his wife.  During the summer — at which point my partner of the previous eight years and I had (unexpectedly for me) broken up/ divorced — I was invited to a Shabbat dinner by a coursemate, and I showed up.  Again I experienced the warm atmosphere I’ve come to associate with the Lubavitcher Hasidim.  Recently, I attended the High Holiday services, and met other people who invited me to celebrate a Sukkoth meal at their friends’ home.  I make challah on Fridays and have once again placed myself in a shomer Shabbat ‘home’ here, in my own college room and kitchen.

Am I now counted for minyan?  No.  Do I intend to officially convert?  No.  In some ways, I do not find it necessary.  What then is my faith?  That may be complex to answer, and not something I easily share with others — especially given my past experiences.  The blog posts as a whole may go some way to demonstrating where my faith may lie, though they are more examples of practice than belief per se.

What then is my practice?  My observable practice is simple:  I try to keep the Sabbath and Festivals, and to write posts regularly on topics of Christian theology.  Last Friday, I found myself running to the Bodleian to do some research on the place of angels in Medieval scholastic (Catholic) theology, having two hours to spare while challot rose in the oven.   Today, Sunday, I completed this post, and am writing the third post in the Francis, Stigmata, and Polemic series.  I still say I am canonically Greek Orthodox; though I make a better observant Jew than observant Christian.

What is my hope?  That I continue to write on theological topics, and experience the time and space that is ‘inscribed and constant throughout the Universe, fashioned by He of Most Ancient of Days.’  If I find a community with whom I can share my faith, my spirituality, the knowledge I’ve acquired, great.  Until then, I will try to bring forth what is within me, lest it destroy me.

Jason Scott Johnson

2011, October 23.

Linacre College, Oxford

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1 Comment

  1. chironspupil said,

    November 28, 2011 at 13:02

    Ultimately, I suppose for me what makes or breaks being invested in a Church community relies on 1) Sermons; 2) Songs (bad folk songs vs theologically rich chant); 3) Socially open congregation; and 4) Sacramental experience (especially the pastoral sensitivity of penance, the beauty and healing power of the mystery of Holy Oil, and inclusion or exclusion from Eucharist).


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