So, I arrived in South Bend Friday evening with The David and The Daniel in tow, and headed to the dinner for conference participants. It was at the home of a faculty member, and the first thing my hostess said to me as I entered the house was, “I know it’s Lent, but you are bound by manners to eat what I put in front of you.” I’m not even sure how she knew I was Orthodox, but she clearly was Catholic, and pretty much everybody there was either Catholic or Orthodox (save a couple a self-described disgruntled Evangelical and an “ex-low-church Pentecostal who’s trying to figure out what to believe”), and everybody was aware of that and comfortable with it. It also became clear that I was in a room of people who had the same interests I did, and had them from more or less the same point of view — that is, there wasn’t anybody trying to tease out sadomasochistic imagery from martyrdom accounts, for example. If somebody wants to make the argument that faith informs the scholarship of people like this, well, sure — faith informs all scholarship. It would be impossible for this not to be the case, even with atheists. What you don’t believe is as much an article of faith as what you do. It is merely a question of how much one acknowledges this, and whether or not one pretends that the bias, whatever it is, is objective.
The dinner was extremely informative on other points, as well. There were a couple of people who were St. Vlad’s alumni, and it was very useful to be able to hear their perspective on some matters. One somewhat stark reality which was driven home is that all of these folks are basically, shall we say, older teenagers in the field, but still not fully formed one way or the other, and I’ve got at least five years to go (by current reckoning) before I’ll be anywhere close to where they are. Nonetheless, the conversations I had with them lead me to believe I can get there.
Conference day itself was a fascinating experience. The papers were all very interesting, ranging from linguistics to textual traditions to St. Ephrem the Syrian and so on. The intellectual dynamic, largely because of reasons mentioned above but also because of other factors — it was on an openly Christian campus, there was a crucifix on the wall of the room in which we presented, a faculty member said a blessing before lunch, one of the Notre Dame faculty present as well as the keynote speaker were priests themselves, etc. My paper, which deals with liturgical imagery in martyrdom accounts, includes some supporting detail such as specific attestation to the baptismal practice of threefold immersion in sources such as the Didache, Apostolic Constitutions, etc. and it’s there because the professor for whom I wrote it was extremely skeptical of the legitimacy of assertions about exactly that kind of liturgical practice. When I was reading that part of the paper to this group, however, I felt sort of silly, because it was clear that these weren’t people who needed to be convinced on those kinds of points.
I felt generally good about my presentation; the odd part was that once the moderator called for questions, there was this awkward silence that filled the room, and nobody had anything (even the cheering section of The David and The Daniel — but then again, it would have been obvious that their questions would have been plants). I got direct comments during the break, and they were all positive, but during the actual question-and-answer period nobody had anything to say. A few different people offered me their takes on this; one person suggested that the after-lunch slot is always problematic when it comes to questions, and it was just luck of the draw. Another thought that part of the problem was that everybody else was talking about manuscript and textual issues, and I was talking about theology and theory. Another person said, “Well, everybody in there knows each other but you, and it’s clearly their playground. They meet, toss around ideas, read each other unfinished chapters of their dissertation, and have a good time. You’re here as an unknown quantity with a pretty polished piece of research, and you’re presenting it authoritatively. I think nobody quite knew what to do with you on that basis.” Could be — I really don’t know.
I’ll say this — it was not lost on me that the vast majority of participants were people from places like Notre Dame and Catholic University of America. Besides that majority group, there were two from Princeton, two from University of Chicago, one from Brown, and then lil’ ol’ me from IU (I suppose I might count as half a student from there). When I said where I was from, more often than not I got a very curious reaction — “Really? IU? Who are you working with down there?” An awkward question, to say the least, since the answer is, well, nobody. I would tell people the name of the professor for whom I wrote my paper, which would usually generate a furrowed brow, and then the name of my Syriac teacher, which would then garner recognition — but usually accompanied by some surprise that he would have students at an event like this. “Well, I’m not really his student, per se,” I’d tell them, and explain my situation a little more. (“Oh,” said one faculty member. “I guess that leaves you a bit at loose ends then, doesn’t it?” Um, yes, it does, thanks, very kind of you.) Anyway, the point is that I’m understanding a little better why over the last month, post-rejection, what I’ve been hearing is “People with your interests aren’t trained at places like IU, and they don’t work at places IU either.”
Not that these things are necessarily bad; as I said, the reactions as expressed afterward were positive. The keynote speaker told me, “Very good, Richard, and the way you lay it out, it’s obvious.” I explained to him the skepticism I had encountered with the professor in question when I had proposed the paper topic, and was told in reply, “Well, I don’t know why he would have told you that.” One of the faculty members in attendance asked if I would send him a clean copy of the paper, which I did. It seemed like a good start in getting to know the other people in this field, and one way or the other, that will have been worth something. (It also cements my resolve to go to New York in June. Tip jar, baby, tip jar.)
On a less academic and more tourist-y note, I’ll just say the Notre Dame campus struck me just the right way on just the right day. The Basilica is something else, inside and out — although, people, I don’t care what you think about Catholicism, don’t go into Catholic churches if all you’re going to do is go in to leave Jack Chick tracts. That happened while I was in the Basilica, and it was simply embarrassing. I’m not going to go in and start leaving Archbishop Chrysostomos publications in the pews — it’s just bad manners, and shows an utter lack of class. Going into somebody else’s house for the express purpose of insulting them is poor Christianity indeed.
So, one thing we found at the Notre Dame bookstore that I volunteered to buy as soon as I saw they had it: Vatican, the Board Game. I had heard of this for the first time about a year ago, but had gone beyond looking at the website. I played it with The David and The Daniel that evening, and The Daniel was elected the first English pope. I will say, it does a great job of never slipping into satire or wearing biases on its sleeve; it seems to genuinely attempt to be educational. Whether or not it truly succeeds, I have no way of knowing — I just know that there was nothing that leapt out at me as a fundamental disrespect of the Catholic faith. If there are people with differing opinions, I’d be glad to hear them. Anyway — consider it recommended.
Matins and Divine Liturgy were at St. Andrew’s, the Greek parish in South Bend — it would have been very nice except that I had to run out of the church four times during the Liturgy because I was sick. Quite embarrassing, and I’m not entirely sure what brought it on. The last time was right before Holy Communion, and I limped back in after it was over. Oh well; I guess it solved the dilemma of what to do if I should throw up after receiving.
In my Syriac class this morning, I recounted my experience. As a point of background — we’re reading the Life of St. Ephrem the Syrian in class, and one of the things it depicts is St. Ephrem meeting St. Basil of Caesarea. Whether or not this actually happened has been discussed in class as being a point of contention, and a voice or two in class have been very specific about believing that it’s pure fantasy. After describing the weekend, I jokingly mentioned that I didn’t ask any of the hardcore Ephrem scholars there whether or not they thought he met Basil; somebody replied, “Sounds like they were probably the kind of people who do.” Ouch. As I said earlier, I think I’m beginning to understand why I’ve been told what I have about IU ultimately being a bad fit for somebody like me.
Anyway — I’m really glad I was able to participate. I hope I’m able to play with some of the older kids again at some point. One way or the other, there was a bit more of this crazy world which I was able to see, and it’s a lot to process. I think it may take some time.
I leave you with my favorite of the pictures I took inside the Basilica: