Updated: Jun 4, 2020
This piece was originally published on Patheos Catholic on the Eastern Catholic Person blog as its final post on July 24, 2019. For reasons unknown to me, it has disappeared from there. I am therefore reposting it with my church's website so that a record of it exists online.
Shortly after I was received into the Kyivan Church, I met up with my friend Sam Rocha. Sam, of course, is in the Latin Church, and for the duration of my catechumenate, he had been saying that he was suspicious of my interest in Eastern Catholicism. We opened the front doors of the Latin Church to you, he’d say, and you go, ‘No, I’d prefer to enter through the side door.' I’d begin correcting him, pointing out that Greek Catholics are actually in another building that is fully connected to our sister church, but he looked like he’d spit out his pho at me. He would continue to say that it might have been cute that we called ourselves ‘Eastern’ to attract Chinese people in Richmond, but soon, I’d discover that the people who are Eastern Catholic are very ethnic, especially when I moved to Chicago, and not of the ethnicity of the eight Chinese people with whom I worshipped at the time. Anywhere else, he would always tell me, I’d find that everyone in this church is Ukrainian, and then I’d know better and crawl back to the Latin Church in groveling affirmation of our full communion.
When we met up after my chrismation, he was pretty much of the same attitude. By that point, he was also the editor of Patheos Catholic. For the duration of my postdoctoral fellowship when we first met, I’d been trying to get onto Patheos because I thought it would be a good outlet for my work on ‘grounded theologies,’ the concept that I developed in human geography to describe the ways in which theological sensibilities are part and parcel of everyday political placemaking. Besides, everyone I knew was on there, mostly on the Catholic, Evangelical, and Progressive Christian channels. Over that time, he had also moved from Vox Nova where I first began reading with fascination his posts on deschooling to Patheos Catholic, where he had risen through the ranks to become its boss. When I said that I’d like to write as an Anglican on the Catholic Channel, he refused. But if I were to be formally received into the Catholic Church, then he promised to let me on. A promise was a promise, he said after I was chrismated, even though he could not endorse my entry into an Eastern Catholic church. I give you three years to narrate yourself, he said. I knew what he was doing. He thought that I’d come to see in my own narration that I was just being cute about being Eastern Catholic, that my affinity with it would turn out to be nothing more than a fantasy because of its supposedly inherent ethnonationalism, and that I’d return humbly to Roman Catholicism.
On this day, which happens to be my birthday, my three years are officially up. All of my previous posts as Chinglican and Religion Ethnicity Wired were imported here on July 24 in 2016, I got access to my blog on July 25, and my first post was the next day. It really is my third anniversary here, then, to the day. I am, probably to Sam's chagrin, still Eastern Catholic, even Orthodox, which scares my friends in the Latin Church who always feel the compulsion to remind me that I remain in communion with Rome. I’ve remained in this church even though I really have moved to Chicago for a job in Asian American studies and found out that the practices of our church there over the last twenty years or so had left it as more or less an ethnonationalist wasteland. But instead of joining the Latin Church, I fell in with a small group of folks in the eparchy who channeled the mystagogy that I was experiencing in our services into ruminations on anti-colonial psychoanalysis and social justice. Finally feeling like I wasn't crazy for having joined this Kyivan Church of ours through (of all things) Hong Kong's Umbrella Movement, I learned to do reader’s services with them, and also at home alone, and eventually, I picked up enough Ukrainian to be able to survive a public service.
My sisters and brothers at what we came to call St Mary of Egypt Social Justice Fellowship also showed me that it was fine that my previous spiritual experiences had been in the position of an Asian American evangelical making my way through Anglicanism. Because of them, I began theorizing my journey to Eastern Catholicism as an Asian American evangelical through the terms uniate and model minority in our church's journal of record, The Patriarchate. No doubt because I was teaching Asian American studies, I also had just as many Asian American evangelical friends as I did Greek Catholics. Sometimes, we all even prayed together, though regardless of liturgical practice, the practice of teaching Asian American studies day in and day out solidified a spiritual orientation in me that was hardwired for social justice from the vantage point of trans-Pacific everyday lives. In fact, I was telling a friend there recently that Asian American studies at Northwestern may have saved my life, pulling me out of a very dark place vocationally and personally, though I will never admit the full extent of my gratefulness to my colleagues, for fear of stroking their egos. As I move across the Pacific to become a full-time permanent faculty member at an exciting university with very fresh ideas, I remain Greek Catholic, knowing full well that our church is hardly present where I will be, that the Latins there really think they are the only Catholics, that the Orthodox will consider me a uniate, and that there will be barely any infrastructure for me to practice the prayers of our church.
Being Eastern Catholic, after all, is not primarily a matter of subjectivity. It is perhaps the function of the secular age in which we live, where (as scholars like Charles Taylor and Talal Asad have shown) the conventions about what religion and spirituality are normatively evangelical in the sense of their reduction to anti-institutional intentionality, that it is assumed that how you feel automatically determines where you are. As students have pointed out, I retain the Asian American evangelical habit of feeling calmed by quiet, nostalgically romantic worship songs accompanied by the guitar strumming symptomatic of the folksy domesticity of Americana, and as I have revealed more than once on this blog, my long flirtation with the Latin Church as an Anglican means that I’ve picked up more than one devotion to Western saints, with all the guilt-ridden corniness that our sister church often channels among people too smart for it into dark Hitchcockian humor. I have even — for better or for worse, and with dubious accuracy — been named an Asian American theologian by more than one blogger. But I really am in the Kyivan Church, received into it by chrismation in a temple in Richmond, and as my bishop in Chicago often says, the fact that this church can handle my eclectic background, odd habits, and dubious intentions indicates that it really is Catholic, that the local church of Kyiv in global form really is as universal as that sister church of ours in Rome that everybody, including themselves, mistakenly thinks is the only Catholic game in town.
The local church in this sense can be in some ways compared to a house. We are, after all, the house of God, our people gathered around a table of the Lord that is set up in Kyiv. St Sophia’s Cathedral in that city is usually taken to be the epicenter of our church’s life, so much so that it was the site where the newly autocephalous Orthodox Church in Ukraine, who are as much the children by baptism of the Holy Equal-to-the-Apostles Volodymyr and Olha as we are, was formed. Over the apse stands the Oranta, the Most Holy Theotokos with her arms upraised in prayer over the city, such that she is called the Immovable Wall, that as long as her hands are lifted high in prayer, the city will not be taken. In that temple is also the icon of Holy Wisdom herself, the very name of the cathedral, where the words are hung like a banner over the personification of Wisdom, Wisdom has built herself a house and set up seven pillars, and God the Father, with his Spirit like a dove, enfolds her with a cloud from above saying, I have set its pillars. It is as if one can hear praying with the words of John Wimber, Jesus, come and fill your lambs.
The ‘sophianic culture’ of Kyiv, as our Patriarch Sviatoslav put it in a recent pastoral letter, marks the practice of this house, our local church. Sophiology, of course, is that branch of theology that brought the Russian émigré theologians of what became known as St Sergius Orthodox Theological Institute in Paris — folks like Sergei Bulgakov, Paul Evdokimov, Pavel Florensky, and so on — to prominence in translating Orthodoxy into terms that appealed to what Charles Taylor calls the personal quests for fullness that are the hallmarks of the new spiritualities of a secular age. It also got them in trouble, Bulgakov especially, for daring to call the personification of Wisdom, the Lady in Proverbs revealed in John’s Gospel as the Logos who was before God and who was God, as the Divine Feminine. But for all that is said about the conservatism in our church about ‘gender ideology’ being the ‘new ideological colonization’ in Ukraine, the best among our theologians not only have no problem with sophiology, but we, as Fr Andriy Chirovsky shows, also own it. Chirvosky’s book Pray for God’s Wisdom argues that the guy who brought our church into our fullest consciousness of being Orthodox in communion with Rome, Metropolitan Andriy Sheptytsky, was as much a sophiologist as the more well-known guys in Paris. The only reason he has not been more popular is because instead of spending his time writing, Metropolitan Andriy spent his four-decade career as a pastor, shepherding our church through a number of ideological regime changes in Ukraine and teaching us to pray, including writing a ‘prayer for God’s wisdom’ in which he calls on us in the Kyivan Church to invoke the personification of God as Sophia in our daily lives.
Metropolitan Andriy also ordered that above every altar in our church should be placed the icon of Holy Wisdom, the one that portrays Wisdom as woman, the one for whom St Sophia’s Cathedral in Kyiv is named. It’s why our friend who fell asleep at the beginning of the Great Fast this year, Fr Myron Panchuk (memory eternal), used to refer to the church as 'one big buxom black mother.’ The historian Marta Bohachevsky-Chomiak may refer to Ukrainians as ‘feminists despite themselves’ for their matriarchal and matrilineal culture, but Fr Myron took the ecclesial dimension to its logical conclusion. We are womanists, like the black women who struggle for everyday erotic agency as they (and arguably, we, for oppression affects everybody) are oppressed by the intersectional grid of the double patriarchies of white supremacy and what Michele Wallace calls ‘black macho.’ Womanism as such is also viscerally described by the spiritual daughters of James Baldwin, Alice Walker, Toni Morrison, and Maya Angelou, as well as scholars like bell hooks, Angela Davis, and Audre Lorde and singers all along the trajectory from Ma to Bessie to Billie to Nina to Lauryn, all women whose voices have been formational to my spirituality since I learned of them in Catholic high school. As a people, we are of course still trying to know our womanism, ‘marchin’ as we are to Zion, ‘beautiful, beautiful Zion.’ But black lives matter is, in this sense, the cry of Sophia herself, the voice foretold by the Prophet Jeremiah, who is himself displayed in her icon, out of Ramah, Rachel weeping, for her children are no more.
Last year, my sister Summer and my brother Julian, my siblings in this church who are perhaps the most responsible for getting me to feel that this Kyivan Church of ours is my family, went on a trip to Ukraine. I asked them to get me an icon of Holy Wisdom. Julian told me that they searched high and low, and finally, they found one. I had thought they’d get me the classic Greek one, the feminine personification of Wisdom that looks more like Shiva than Sophia. You asked for the Kyivan icon, Julian said, handing me the icon that looks more Western than Byzantine, and this is the one in St Sophia’s Cathedral. It became the centerpiece of my beautiful corner in Chicago, and when I moved to Asia, I packed it with me, among the personal belongings that would go directly with me instead of being shipped with the rest of my stuff.
To me, the significance of this icon runs far deeper than being a marker of my Kyivan ecclesial identity. It marks instead the full continuity of my spiritual journey to the present, what I have been before and what I hope to spend the rest of my life becoming on my way to theosis. In the Sunday school classrooms of my Chinese Christian childhood, the aunties who were my teachers never ceased telling us that if we wanted to be wise, we should read the Book of Proverbs, and in this icon is Lady Wisdom herself inviting me to dine at her table and learn wisdom from her house. In the Pentecostal school of Fremont’s nineties post-racial fantasy (one that is, as Willow Lung-Amam shows, contested by the material facts of living there), our teachers taught us not only to feel the presence of God, but of his holy angels, that in the words of the spiritual, all night, all day, angels watchin’ over me, my Lord, and flanking the Father are the seven holy archangels, the bodiless powers of heaven doing battle with the evil spirits of hell. There is an obsession in evangelicalism with both the end times and spiritual gifts, and on the seven pillars that surround the Lady are the seals, candlesticks, eyes, trumpets, stars, vials, and thunders of the Apocalypse that stand in for the charismata gifted by the Holy Spirit. Like the stages of growth prescribed by those whose interests in therapy lead them to developmental psychology like James Fowler’s Stages of Faith, there are seven steps that lead to Wisdom: faith, hope, love, purity, humility, grace, and glory. The prophets and priests of the Hebrew Scriptures -- Moses, Aaron, David, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and Daniel -- surround the woman, each of them holding objects that detail their unique contribution to wisdom and showing, in a complete repudiation of the anti-semitism and the Islamophobia that plagues all branches of Christianity, that the children of Abraham and the people led out of slavery by Moses are one. Influenced by the Latin theology with which I flirted when I fantasized that Roman Catholicism was where the supernatural truth that constitutes the world subsists (a formulation too particular even for the infamous but very Orthodox-friendly, filioque-omitting Dominus Iesus), the woman pictured is not in fact wisdom, but the Most Holy Theotokos crowned with seven stars, holding her child, who is the true Wisdom in her arms, just like John Paul II’s not-very-subtle depiction of the pregnant woman of the Apocalypse as the Lady of Fatima, the figure in which the ‘culture of life’ he outlines in Evangelium Vitae is most fully realized.
Is not this Kyivan merging of the Theotokos and the Wisdom of God as the Divine Feminine the very same spirituality found in the Showings of Julian of Norwich, which was the central driving force of my prayer as an Anglican? In Julian’s visions — the visionary, not my brother — the initial images of the Woman are that of the Theotokos, gesturing toward her Son as the one whose sovereignty over the world ensures that, in her most famous dictum, all shall be well, all shall be well, all manner of things shall be well. It is in her development of this meditation that she begins to contemplate the Divine Feminine, her commentaries on her own visions referring to Christ as ‘our Mother’ whose blood flowing from the pierced wound on the cross is like the opening of a breast that gives nourishment to those who suck on it. The woman in the Kyivan icon is the Immovable Wall, who throws her omophor over us as a protecting mantle. But like St Mary of Egypt whose prayer with uplifted hands shows Abba Zosimas that she has been transfigured from glory to glory in the erotic attainment of theosis, every icon is ultimately that of Christ, the Wisdom of God, whose Uncreated Light shines on the image and is what makes each saint holy. With such a spirituality, it is no wonder that a central hallmark of Kyivan spirituality is the Dormition of the Most Holy Theotokos, the patronal name given to our temple in Richmond that echoes the one that sits over the monastic caves in Kyiv. The casting of the protecting mantle of the Immovable Wall, the upraised hands of the Oranta, the assurance that all shall be well — each of these are not possible without the Mother of God having first been received in the arms of her Son into new life, and in so doing, her body is fully merged with Wisdom herself.
It is in this church that my journey to theosis, my own body’s mystical fusion with the Wisdom of God, is taking place. I found it particularly poetic shortly after my chrismation that my birthday, which is today, coincides with the feasts of the central figures of this church and opens new vistas into the practice of wisdom. On the Old Calendar, today is the Feast of the Equal-of-the-Apostles Olha, the Princess of Kyiv who is said in the Primary Chronicle to have possessed a wisdom greater than that of Solomon of old. The more appropriate word is perhaps cunning, with a particular sort of ruthlessness, coupled with a capacity to feel her rage, all of it, in the most sublimely integrated way. When her husband Ihor was murdered by the Drevlians, she engaged on a campaign of vengeance, massacring their emisaries and burning their villages to ensure that her kingdom of Kyivan Rus’ would not be assimilated by them. When the Emperor of Constantinople sought to make her his wife and thereby absorb Kyiv into the empire’s fold, she tricked him into being her baptismal sponsor so that they would not be able to marry for fear of incest. In this church, I sit at this woman’s feet as an innocent boy whose naïveté and incapacities to feel such raw emotion is exacerbated by my longstanding involvement in Asian American evangelicalism, and I contemplate her political maneuvering and the abysmal depths of her feeling.
And yet Holy Olha’s ruthless machinations are balanced out by this day’s feast on the New Calendar for her great-grandchildren, the Holy Passionbearers Borys and Hlib, who were killed by their eldest brother to secure his unrivaled ascent to the throne. Our church invented that name for them — the ‘victims of passion’ — as they may not have been martyred in odium fidei, as witnesses to the faith against those who hate us, but in dying as innocent casualties to someone else’s political designs, they experienced in a very real way the Passion of the Lord. The balance of wisdom is applicable to my own struggles as a young person realizing my vocation in the world. To survive in it, I must practice the dimension of wisdom in the form of Olha’s cunning. But against evil I must, in the words of the Holy Apostle Paul on whose day he shares with St Peter I was chrismated, do good, as the Passionbearers did.
Wisdom has built her house and set up seven pillars, which are established by the Father, and three years into my life in this house, I am still here, eating at her table and sitting at her feet. I have not, contrary to how most people thought I might, departed from this Kyivan Church of ours. Instead, I have brought my entire life, with all the transferences that must be psychoanalyzed, in here so that I can fully work out my salvation in fear and trembling. And yet, in keeping with what Sam Rocha told me at the beginning of my time here on Patheos, this is the day, right on the dot, that my three years are up. I have a written record of three years’ worth of mystagogy, but to enter more fully into the mystery of Holy Wisdom that enfolds my life, it is now time to bring my time on this blog to an end. With a permanent academic position, my plate is full. With scholarship on postsecular Pacific publics to conduct, my writing is shifting. Having found my way home, I need time for the silence that is central to the practice of hesychasm, the stillness of the heart when the intellect is brought to meet the Lord there by the Jesus Prayer, the words that ring true as I reflect daily on how far I am from theosis: Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.
I have cherished my time writing here with this Patheos writing community, especially with my colleagues on this Catholic channel. Special thanks are due to Sam Rocha, who brought me here, and Rebecca Bratten Weiss, who continues to steer this ship very ably. My sisters and brothers who have let me write about them have been the stars of this show, particularly the pop psychoanalysis queen Eugenia Geisel and my dear rag-tag group in Chicago, Summer and Julian, as well as countless others whose anonymity, pseudonymity, and otherwise ambiguity I have preserved. I am told that I have the right to develop these thoughts that are preserved in raw form on this blog into newer forms, and I may well do that, hopefully because I will continue to mature. I owe, however, a special debt to my readers, including my critics, from whom I have learned so much about how to be a writer and a person. I hope in time that this tell-all insincerity that is what necessarily plagues all writing in the genre of blogging will turn out to have been more sincere than even I thought. Here, I take leave of this portal and return to the house with the seven pillars established by the G-d whose energies we feel but whose essence we will never be able to grasp. Let me be found there, my eyes not lifted in haughtiness nor my musings concerned with things too lofty for me, but still, like a weaned child within me, wrapped in the mantle of Lady Wisdom herself.