WIT welcomes Margaret R. Butterfield as a guest poster. A double alumna of Loyola Marymount University, Margaret earned her BA in English Literature and her MA in Theological Studies. She currently oversees the administrative operations for LMU’s Interfaith Programs, including the Huffington Ecumenical Institute, Jewish Studies and Catholic Studies programs. Her research focuses on the conversation between religion and literature, specifically within apocalypse genre studies and eschatology. She also serves as co-lead sacristan for the annual Los Angeles Religious Education Congress.

I recently traveled to Greece for an academic conference entitled Mapping the Una Sancta, which centered around global Christian theologians, ordained and lay, unpacking the intricacies of age-old divides within ecclesiologies. The discussion lasted for four days on the Cycladic island of Syros, where many of the speakers remarked playfully that full communion would be instantly achieved if such discussions were held in such exquisitely beautiful places.

Through the week, I found my mind returning constantly to the idea of language. It began with the most relevant association: speaking, and more directly, speaking Greek. People were very gracious, and I am grateful for Fr. Cyril Hovorun, my supervisor, and his fluency. I caught on with various basics of kalimera/kalispera, and Fr. Cyril reminded me that efcharistos (‘thanks’) derives from Eucharist. The conference itself was in English, but held in the company of highly accomplished polyglots whose words at the dinner table flowed effortlessly from Greek to Russian to Polish—at certain points, I didn’t even notice when it cycled back to English! Not fully multilingual myself, I got excited when I was able to recognize enough Greek characters like theta to read theotokos on a church sign. And in Athens, while in an elevator, I laughed with some gentlemen from Madrid in my poor excuse for Spanish about my American oversight of pressing ‘1’ instead of ‘0’ for the lobby. I was astounded by the variety of language swirling about me.

During the conference, I listened to the language of the presentations and the theses of these academic papers—opinions on primacy, Filioque, etc. My theological acumen is grounded in biblical studies and eschatology, but I find ecumenism in ecclesiology fascinatingly practical. Being immersed in fine-tuned Patristics at this conference, something woefully missing from my graduate education, didn’t hurt either. This is not to say that the Bible and eschatology are not living fields, nor unrelated to ecclesiology or ecumenism—not at all. For example, one presenter delved into the narrative language of the mirrored roles of Peter and the beloved disciple in the Gospel of John, and spoke of its utility to the debate over papal primacy. Although I prefer John’s Gospel for literary exegesis, I would have overlooked John entirely in favor of Luke, who makes frequent use of parallel structure. This parallelism, whether it is to “fulfill” certain callbacks to Jewish texts, such as Isaiah, or simply Luke’s framing and word choice for Jesus’ actions,[1] focuses on Christology, and it occurred to me that such language could and should apply to other biblical figures and their own importance in shaping the Church.

Scholarship was paramount at this conference, but it did not ignore the ‘so what’ question that often excuses itself from academic conversations. These people came for the same purpose—a consent to talk more about unity, not disparity, and how to take these conversations back to parishes and communities, how to transform ‘church’ from a blanket term of Tradition to the actual people. This conference was a respite from navigation through the dark recesses of the duplicitous doublespeak, the unpleasant polarities, the precipice and reality of ecclesial fracture, and the fear-mongering that often laces itself in the charismatic homilies of people who hide behind the institutional church. While there was no straying from the truth of such things as the subversive revival of Manualist ideology and its parallels to nationalism and sordid alt-right mentalities, the conversation was relieving in its honesty. Although most people came speaking in different native tongues, the conversation itself had a warm familiarity, and I found the intersection with Pentecost a particularly fitting backdrop.

But spoken words and intellectual vigor weren’t the only languages surrounding me. There was also a void of language with which to grapple—the plaguing whirlwind of trying to comprehend the sudden death of my friend and academic mentor, Dr. David Sánchez. Our mutual interest in studying Revelation made Greece, while lovely, an extremely painful place to be. Through the week, I searched for our common language, as a way to peace; I thought this would be perfect closure. I strained my eyes for anything revelatory, be it biblical text or murals. And while I heard exegetical presentations and discovered no shortage of graffiti in Athens, the same frustrating loneliness remained. 

I miss the human connection that pervaded our shared interests. We would sit opposite from one another and entertain a wholly liminal space when we spoke of Revelation, considering its utility in the sacred and secular, sharing our respective cultural experiences, joking about how we would have jobs until the ‘end of the world’, and agonizing over the limited understanding of life’s painful events. He was a singular man who spoke a language that could navigate the ivory tower, but come down from it faster than anything when it was time for a round of golf, a praxis I took great inspiration from (though we never did get to the golf course). He would encourage me as a female theologian to press on, to be strong and confront my anxieties and obstacles, but in the same breath would recognize how fear can viciously magnify itself in marginalized perspectives. He was never uncaring, never full of himself, and never cruel, as I have sadly observed many other men in my religious world to be.

I often feel very alone, as our shared physical spaces like work begin to vanish as time pushes forward. While I understand intellectually that death in itself is not evil, but that which gives rise to the new, my anxiety keeps me in spasm, and protecting my memories feels as daunting as handling fragile glass. The person I spoke to about death and resurrection is now deceased. The crude question of ‘Well, what the HELL do I do now?’ pops up, and spirals off to feed a deeply seeded imposter syndrome: ‘What if I don’t live up to what I am supposed to be?’, ‘What do I even know about theology?’, ‘I wasted so much time.’  ‘Everything I said before now seems frivolous and hubristic.’ ‘He’d be so disappointed with me for not taking more chances’. And, worst of all, battling the fear of ‘What do I do to make sure I don’t waste any more time?’. I fight the swollen scream that sits in my chest, the one that implores ‘Don’t leave me behind’, which usually renders me silent in regular discussions, forgetful and dissociative in work tasks, and at risk to be labeled as mistrustful, misanthropic or lazy. It is a poisonous language that heightens death, and shuns resurrection.

The metaphorical vaccine is the language of loneliness’ most obvious trait: it feeds on isolation, and rejects dialogue. It sits in soliloquy, but not a reflective one, and the accompanying grief becomes infected with a deep selfishness. If I am to draw anything from this conference, I must refer back to its very core—it was a dialogue. And dialogue is a way to healing, a route to unity, a way for the new to actually develop, even in death or separation. Even now, my emptiness has been mitigated by my loved ones and their care during this time, to whom I am eternally grateful, and to whom I hope I can be present with, instead of becoming too internally stranded. This external dialogue of healing inspires the internal one, rejecting the selfish, and replacing it with self-care—a choice to life, not death—a choice of accepting grace.

I realize I might not have gone to Greece at all, if not for such an event in my life. And although I could not visit the place we both dreamed of going (Patmos/Caves of Revelation), I had to be honest with myself. I concluded that such a sacred experience would be tainted by the raw rage that I still harbor, bitterly laced with tears, pleading, fury, even jealousy at others’ happiness in scholarship. I realized that being in such a state in such a place, that I would continue to remain alone by my own design. In that healthy decision to wait on it, I made my peace. I told myself, ‘We’ll make it there someday, Boss.’

And thus, I came to the revelation that I had completed another sort of journey. I made an almost-solo, twenty-eight hour trek to arrive on Syros and the same trek to depart from it. There, finding thetas for theotokos reminded me of finding Guadalupe in unexpected places, and I remembered the penchant David had for engaging similar themes across cultures and faiths. I renewed my own passion for my study of narrative’s multivalent language, and I learned that clamoring alone for solace isn’t the best way to achieve it—that it is rather selfish, especially since I possess many privileges, amidst a world in so much active pain. In all this and more, I learned to hold the dialogue I had with David as a strength against darkness that, while mitigated, can strike at any time.

Thus, we must all continuously interact with such language of honest dialogue. We must study it, speak it, observe it, listen to it, and know it. Because from that, we can begin to enjoy a new perspective—we can meet each other where we are, we can begin to answer the ‘so what’ questions, and even bring life out of death. Ressourcement need not only apply to the process of revisiting biblical text and Church fathers, but should reflect its wider scope—the entire spirit of the personhood within the Church community, of how to utilize that revival to seek unity, and thus break free from a limited, isolated understanding of God’s love. A Nouvelle Théologie indeed.

Rest in Peace, my friend. As I always would say to you amidst everything going on, I wait in joyful hope. Now, I wait in joyful hope to see you again, when all things are made new.

[1] Jeffrey S. Siker, “‘First to the Gentiles’: A Literary Analysis of Luke 4:16–30,” Journal of Biblical Literature 111, no. 1 (1992), pp. 73–90, http://www.jstor.org/stable/3267510.

One thought

  1. Thank-you, Margaret, for this eloquent reflection. Although I did not know David Sanchez, I learned about his death and the the tremendous effect his loss has been for LMU and the Latinx community. I resonated very much with your commentary on the conference and it reminded me of a time that I was traveling to one after my father’s funeral. I also had an experience of how important “dialogue” is not only in ecumenical /intercultural work, but also in negotiating grief and the loss of mentors. Thank you for your courageous sharing!

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