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Errantry: Novak's Journal
...Words to cast/My feelings into sculpted thoughts/To make some wisdom last
Personal/Theological Notebook: Turning in the Dissertation; Surprise Letters 
24th-Feb-2010 07:05 pm
So I'm finally done done. There was still some nit-picky detail work to do on the dissertation before I turned it in, and it was way more time-consuming than I'd expected. Even just constructing my Table of Contents took six hours of work this past weekend, which is absurd. I finally had everything copied at the print shop for the committee members to turn in Monday after class, before I headed over to the meeting of the Seminar on the Jewish Roots of Christian Mysticism. As I was picking the copies up, I realized that the 20 page file of the Table of Contents, Preface and Acknowledgments didn't have the extra indent I was supposed to have on the left margin for the thing to be bound. So I had to do the same pokey work on the Contents Monday night, as well as tweaking the Acknowledgments and Preface, which was another three hours. So on Tuesday, the copies got into everyone's hands in their final form. I vegged out in the evening by reading part of a book that had nothing to do with my dissertation topic, which seemed like an act of wanton rebellion after so much time working on the same topic. Dinner Monday night after the Seminar at Louise's with Anthony, Mike and Markus also felt like something of a reward.

While last week still was dominated by this nagging, one-more-thing kind of detail work, I did have a few really cool surprises in the form a few letters out of the blue. One was from a former a student at Saint Joe, Mira, who I had last seen as a high school sophomore and who is now a University of Chicago grad in politics and doing graduate studies in China through Johns Hopkins, which was beyond cool to hear. I was once again floored by the way you can discover that you have had long-term effects as a teacher when she mentioned revisiting a paper she had written for me, returning to what she dealt with from a classic of spirituality – Julian of Norwich – and also from my comments on her work. On her Blackberry, along with other lines or sayings she's come to appreciate, she apparently keeps this line I'd written: "Sophistication will reveal itself more truly in what you're saying than how you're saying it." I had to laugh, writing back to her, that hearing that now for the first time in years, it sounded really good to me, too! But as she rightly pointed out, it was one variation on one of those pieces of wisdom we spend our lives having to learn and re-learn, expressed a number of ways in different traditions. Still, for all the awareness I carry around in me about the ways in which my teachers have affected me, it still kind of boggles my imagination that I can do that to others, myself. But it was even cooler just to hear something of who Mira had become.

The other letter was an even trippier piece of time-traveling, originating from the summer after my freshman year. As I had written some time ago in my photo album with regard to this picture, this particular camp was the first time I had ever worked with high school students, and where I first began to have a sense that perhaps I had some particular talent for working with teenagers. That was a bit of a surprise, since I was still 19 myself, but now coming from a different angle than a peer or near-peer one: not so much that I had a designated authority, but that I was now in possession of a role, someone of whom it was expected that I might have something worth hearing. This camp was also the first time where I had made any kind of friendship with a camper, staying in touch with one of these students for a few years, and another for a shorter time. (It was also a bit of an early lesson in how settings like camp or teaching often are intrinsically temporary kinds of connections: that the intensity of something like a camp setting, in particular, just cannot be sustained in the same way outside of that setting.) So I got a Facebook note from Dan, one of this tight group of four really funny guys, older than the others, who had been in my small group. All these years later, to hear that described as one of the best weeks of their lives was also amazing, because it had been so for me, too, if from a different angle.

In my acknowledgments for the dissertation, I had to revisit this chain of my teachers, too, both "official" and unofficial. It's like what I love about history in general: all of these amazing chains of connection, of influence and of cause-and-effect. There's little better in life than the way we human beings are bound together. Now if someone will just start paying me a real salary to do this once again....
25th-Feb-2010 02:38 am (UTC)
heh, I'm both charmed by the early 90's camp vibe (I grew up in Christian camping during these same years, although I would have been a toddler here), and rather amused at you running a camp for *Lutheran* confirmation. How did that come about? Was this during or just after your "evangelical phase"?

And just out of curiosity, I've wondered (having grown up evangelical) what exactly did your "evangelical phase" consist of? What brought it about? And what brought it to an end? :)
25th-Feb-2010 03:08 am (UTC)
Yes, that was back in the Evangelical undergrad days. :-) How it came about and all the rest, well that's a book chapter or a telephone conversation right now, as I'm eager to step away and make a late dinner.

Long story short (which is painful for me, you know), the "Evangelical phase" consisted of later high school and throughout undergraduate being involved in Evangelical Bible studies and fellowship groups. It came about in that it was Evangelicals who got me seriously reading scripture and who broke through with the idea that there was a commitment involved, either way: for or against Christ. This had not gotten through to me in my stereotypically weak Catholic catechesis.

What "brought it to an end" was a combination of factors, the most classical one being discovering and reading the Fathers of the Church as an undergraduate History major focusing in ancient and intellectual history. (Along with the patristic era, the Lutheran camp, curiously enough, introduced me to medieval Christianity in the form of Francis of Assisi, who had a huge effect upon me.) The Lutheran camp was also a place where I got re-acquainted with liturgical worship, being just enough different from the Mass to be fresh and make me attentive, and so that paralleled the sort of free-form guitar spontaneous worship that I enjoyed back among Evangelicals at school. When I got to Notre Dame to do my Master's in Theology as an Evangelical, it only took me a few months (although I foot-dragged the whole year) to start to get God's joke: that I was a Catholic after all. I had gone and accidentally catechized myself without realizing it.

I will also say that a significant factor in this had been an increasing frustration with Evangelicalism later in my undergraduate because of the Evangelical spirituality's fixation upon the conversion experience. It was so wrapped up, experientially and theologically, in that "born again" experience that the only legitimate spirituality it could derive from its reading of Scripture was that one. I began to feel that there had to be more to being a Christian than forever after "trying to recapture that first fervour of when you came to Christ." To use Paul's image of maturing and eating, that seemed like nursing forever, and never getting on to solid food. In the Catholic Tradition, I was beginning to discern just how many spiritualities were possible, without just "making them up," but without being limited to a certain reading of Scripture to justify them. The notion of the Development of Doctrine was enormously important to me because the Evangelical fixation on "certainty" regarding the canon of Scripture seemed to me to make God as effectively "dead" in the now as the old 1960s "Death of God" theologians would have said.

I couldn't imagine, myself, the God I found active in history up to and including (but not limited to) the formation of the New Testament would simply stop being involved in a creative way. Scripture, it seemed to me, did not actually teach the Evangelical theory of Scripture. Nor did an understanding of Scripture where Scripture was the end-all and be-all of Christian spirituality make sense to me if I understood God as active in history. Scripture must indeed remain an essential foundation of any contemporary theology, but it's a part, it's the foundation: it's not the whole house.

So that's me being brief.
25th-Feb-2010 12:54 pm (UTC)
You're done! Cowbell for you!
28th-Feb-2010 02:15 pm (UTC)
I have indeed be gloriously cowbelled!

25th-Feb-2010 08:07 pm (UTC)
Angelia Brunner DeWeese commented on your note "Personal/Theological Notebook: Turning in the Dissertation; Surprise Letters":

"Ah, and hopefully soon the salary will complement the experience."

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