Imitating Saint Andrew Following Jesus

AndrewRefectory1Mimetic desire, especially when it is good mimesis, is easily overlooked. Usually it’s jousts and fisticuffs that get our attention. Mimetic rivalry drives the plots of novels. Mimetic sharing only drives the plots of lives lived well. (See Human See, Human Want)

When it was time for me to be clothed a novice, I chose Andrew as my religious name because of the example Andrew set by promptly answering Jesus’ call. I hoped, and still hope, that my patron would and will inspire me to listen for Jesus’ call every day, every hour, and follow that call. As a bonus, Andrew was the patron saint of Scotland and my Marr ancestors came from there.

As I listened to the Gospel at Mass this morning, I was struck by the communal aspect of the following. It wasn’t just Andrew who heard the call and followed Jesus; Andrew heard the call and brought his brother Peter with him. That is, Andrew entered the mimetic process of following Jesus and drew Peter into that same mimetic process. The next day, James and John were drawn into the same good mimesis of following Jesus, a rerun of yesterday’s story. That’s what good mimesis does. Like mimesis of any kind, it is contagious and it replicates itself.

Curiously, Andrew drops out of the Gospel accounts after his dramatic call except for noticing the boy with the loaves and fishes in the wilderness that touched off the greatest bonanza of good mimesis in world history. It is the other three, Peter, James and John who form the inner group of disciples who witnessed the raising of Jairus’ daughter, were present at the Transfiguration, and then fell asleep at Gethsemane. It is tempting to feel that my patron was slighted, but that would be bad mimesis.

It is more encouraging to notice that Andrew was also curiously absent in the fights among the disciples as to who was the greatest. This in-fighting helps make the Gospels “interesting” as it drives the plot until the mimetic issues in Jerusalem take over. Maybe Andrew just wasn’t “interesting” enough to mention. Maybe Andrew wasn’t pushy enough.

The point to being a follower of Jesus is not to be part of the inner circle of the inner circle. The point is to hear the call of Jesus and to listen to the way Jesus is calling others. This way, everybody and nobody is the greatest in the greatest story ever told.

Ignominious Glory—Glorious Ignominy: a Doxology

Since when is glory ignominious ? Probably since humans first became concerned about what others thought of them. Seeking glory from others is a sure way to get its opposite as  celebrities know all too well. In the New Testament the Greek word doxa is sometimes translated as “glory,” sometimes with “shame.” How can one word mean two opposite things. James Alison says that is because the word means “reputation.” What kind of reputation? Any kind of reputation.

The Harry Potter books give some interesting examples of the double-edged meaning of doxa. Harry arrives for his first year at Hogwarts as a celebrity, not for anything he had done but because he had survived Voldemort’s attack when his mother gave her life to save him. In his second year at Hogwarts, Harry is blamed by many for an epidemic of people turning into stone although he had done nothing to earn this ignominy than he had done to earn his celebrity status. In the fourth book, when Harry’s name is entered in the competition in a questionable way but through no fault of his own, there is bad feeling towards him from students of all three schools involved. (Spoiler alert!) His defeat of Voldemort has no external fireworks and he ends up with a quietly respectable position in the wizard world without celebrity status.

Bob Dylan has been praised as one of the greatest poets and songwriters of our time but he has also been the object of much ignominy with every turn in his career. He did not receive it for drugs or sex, but for using electric guitars instead of a simple acoustic guitar like a true folk singer. Then he got it for seeming to relax and live an ordinary life, as if living an ordinary life is a scandal! The worse ignominy was for turning to Christ and doing some Gospel albums.

Speaking of Christ, in his Gospel, John plays with both sides of the meaning of doxa in relation to Christ. Jesus seeks doxa from his Father while the people who put him to death or keep their sympathy for him a secret because  they seek doxa from other people. So it is that doxa inevitably falls into sacrificial violence if reputation is sought from people instead of from God. The raising of the cross is Jesus’ doxa. That is why God has such a bad reputation nowadays. Where do we look for our own reputations?

Divinely Created Abundance

Here is a little thought experiment in spirituality. Imagine being a child who is carrying five barley loaves and two fishes. A crowd has gathered to listen to a man speak. You stop to listen. Maybe you are intrigued; maybe it goes over your head. After a while, you realize that many people are hungry. You are hungry too but you don’t need all the food you are carrying just then. Maybe it occurs to you that you could make a lot of money by selling a fish and three or four of the loaves to the highest bidder. Before you have a chance to act on this idea, one of the men surrounding the speaker asks you to come meet the speaker. Maybe you are nervous about this, but you want to know why such a man should want to talk to you. To your shock and surprise, the man tells you that the people all around are hungry and would you be willing to let him give the bread and fish to the crowd. Before you can reply, one of the men says “But what is this among so many?” You are asking yourself the same thing, but the speaker shrugs off the question. What do you do?

As we know from John 6, the lad with the loaves and fishes gave them to Jesus and Jesus fed the crowd with an exponential amount of food scraps left over. One fairly well-known theory is that the boy shamed everybody else into sharing their food when he handed over what he had. Maybe that is what happened. That would be a good example of a mimetic process creating abundance instead of scarcity (see Humanly Created Scarcity.) The references to God’s feeding the Israelites in the desert and the amazement in the narrative suggest that Jesus was re-enacting God’s act of creation in the wilderness. The miracle takes on all the more powerful when we realize that Jesus did not create food out of nothing which presumably he could have done, but he created out of a human act of giving. This miracle, recorded six times in the four Gospels show us that God desires abundance in the sense of everybody having enough. (The manna in the desert spoiled if anybody tried to take too much.) But God provides through multiplying our human generosity to others as the boy gave up the five loaves and two fishes to Jesus in the wilderness. Can we imitate this boy as this boy imitated Jesus?

For more see Violence and the Kingdom of God and Tools for Peace

How I wrote “The Ghost of Swiss Castle”

Sometimes the first inspiration of a story comes from an unplanned, surprising source.Here is one of the more unlikely and unexpected inspirations.

While visiting a family in the Chicago area that I am very good friends with, the boys wanted to go to the neighborhood park, so their father and I took them. Among the play equipment there was a  cylinder-shaped piece shaped like a castle’s turret with large holes in it to facilitate climbing all up and around it. The boys told me they call it Swiss Castle because the holes made it look like Swiss Cheese.

I instantly realized that Swiss Castle had to be haunted. From there, I got the image of a hideous mansion on Lake Shore with huge round windows making the facade look like a hunk of Swiss cheese so the mansion was called “Swiss Castle” by its detractors. Why windows like that? Well, the first floor was abnormally high. Why? Because there was a pipe organ in the living room?

Like the Cheese Castle in the playground, this house had to be haunted. Would nice people live in a house like that? The woman who played the organ was a loving person but she had been dead for years and the couple who lived there were about as affectionate as a couple of posts. A couple like that needs to have a pair of children they don’t want come to visit them for a year because their parents don’t want them tagging along with them to Copenhagen.

Two hurt and angry children plus one hurt and angry ghost leads to some interesting situations with a hope of redemption. (See blog post Chills and Salvation) When it came to publishing the story in my collection From Beyond to Here, I decided to change the title to “The Ghost of Swiss Castle” because I thought calling it Cheese Castle was—well—too cheesy. If a fantasy story with a ghost might possibly interest you or somebody, young or old, whom you know, please give The Ghost of Swiss Castle a try.

Humanly Created Scarcity

Scarcity is often believed to be part of the natural order, but is it? It is true that material goods in the world are finite and in times of famine they are more finite than usual. But let us revisit the story in Human See, Human Want. In a house filled with balloons, all of the children suddenly started fighting over one balloon when one child made claim to it and that balloon alone. Suddenly, where there was abundance, there was scarcity. It is as if a magician had waved a magic wand to make all the other balloons in the house disappear. The image of a magician is not so far-fetched. Mimetic desire, the tendency to copy the desires of other people is an enchantment as Shakespeare’s Midsummer Night’s Dream demonstrates. The four besotted and confused young people were enchanted before Puck engaged in his pranks. When two or more people fight over one lover, then lovers suddenly disappear.

This is to say: rivalrous mimetic desire creates scarcity where there was abundance and increases scarcity in times of famine. Our desires are not linked directly to objects of need and intrinsic desire, but are linked to our rivals. It seems so natural to want to keep up the same standard of living as our peers or, better yet, surpass them. When rivalry rules the day, there will always be victims.

Now that the political campaigns are over, at least for a few days, maybe we can see how the rivalry involved creates scarcity that other people cannot afford. The amount of money donated to the political campaigns was massive. As soon as one side got more money it was imperative for supporters of the other side to give at least as much money. All so that more ads tearing down the opponents could pollute the air waves. Just think of all the infrastructure and educational aid and health care could have been bought for all that money! Not to mention having money for the victims of Hurricane Sandy. It’s interesting that health care has come to be seen as a rare commodity to fight over.

The alternative to mimetic rivalry can be stated quite simply: Pay more attention to what you really need and care for and wish for other people to have what they need and really care for. Why is this so hard? As the example of the children and the balloons shows us, mimetic rivalry seems to be natural. The creation of world narrated in Genesis Chapter One says otherwise. What is natural is God’s abundance and care for all creation. Why is it so hard for all of us to desire that?

Life of Benedict

The only biography of St. Benedict is by St. Gregory the Great. Gregory highlights the ways Benedict’s life was lived in imitation of the great figures in Scripture and most importantly of Christ himself. I have posted an article called Imitating Elisha that analyzes Gregory’s Life of Benedict with René Girard’s concept of mimetic desire. The result is a rich vision of the spiritual life for any Christian.

Marriage of Figaro

I watched Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro while in New York this week, and was impressed with the deep insights into mimetic desire this opera offers. (cf. Human See, Human Want) The opera centers on Count Almaviva’s desire for his servant Susanna who is betrothed to the count’s servant Figaro. For all of his roaming for women, the Count seems not to have desired Susanna until Figaro desired her and wished to marry her.

Meanwhile, Marcellina, a servant of Dr. Bartolo, wishes to marry Figaro and Dr. Bartolo, wishing revenge for Figaro’s helping the count marry Rosina when he himself had desired her, supports his servant’s claim based on Figaro’s unpayable debt to her. This triangle becomes farcical when it turns out that Figaro is Marcellina’s son begotten by Dr. Bartolo himself, who had done with his servant what the count wants to do with Suzanna.

The adolescent servant Cherubino provides a comical mirror image of the count in that he also desires all women, especially the countess, the only woman the count does not desire. This infatuation does not make him a serious rival to the count, but he becomes entangled with Rosina and Susanna’s plot against the count.

The count only shows any desire for his wife when he believes (mistakenly) that she is desired by another. In Act 2, he believes Cherubino was flirting with his wife and was hiding in the closet (which he was until Susanna helped him escape). When it is Susanna who emerges from the closet, an uneasy forgiveness ensemble ensues that foreshadows the opera’s finale, but then unravels when the gardener complains about somebody (Cherubino) jumping into the flower garden.

The abortive plans of Act 2 to trick the count come to fruition in the last two acts where Rosina and Susanna disguise themselves as the other and so entrap him so that the count has no choice but to drop to his knees and ask his wife’s forgiveness, which se freely gives.

The disguises and mistaken identities throughout the opera dissolve the characters into the indifferentiation of mimetic desire. At a deeper level, Mozart’s music weaves a unity out of the passions of all these characters so as to unite them in the mimetic desires, a unity transcending the class differences of the characters and creating a vision more subversive than the play by Pierre Beaumarchais used by the librettist Lorenzo Da Ponte.

The noble forgiveness scene is as fragile as it is beautiful; a fragile fleeting vision that can be blown away by the next breath of mimetic desire.

Christmas Stories

For quite a few years, I wrote a Christmas story as the Season approached and sent copies to family and friends. Once the number of stories had grown, I collected the ones I thought were particularly effective and published them in a volume called Born in the Darkest Time of Year: Stories for the Season of the Christ Child.” The Christmas season is offered as a time of hope in the midst of darkness. The hope is fragile, or at least seems so to human eyes. After all, God the Word had been born as a baby needing care from others to survive. Today, Christmas seems to be threatened at times even as Herod threatened the Christ Child. So it is that many of my stories deal with threats to Christmas through human folly, weakness, commercialism, or just plain malice. I know it is early for Christmas but some people will be thinking ahead already to their Christmas shopping. I invite you to read the opening story that I have just posted: Silent Night: How John Beaconsfield Saved Christmas.” John is a devoted chorister traumatized when all Christmas music mysteriously disappears just a few days before Christmas day.

Article on Rule of St. Benedict Added

I have added an article called Gathering a Community in the Spirit which is an introduction to the Rule of St. Benedict. This chapter comes from Tools for Peace. Introductory chapters on both René Girard and Benedict are now available. If a dialogue between the two interests you, please buy Tools for Peace.

On Expelling the Accuser, not the Victim

It seems that every time a hurricane or other natural disaster strikes, there are some religious leaders who proclaim that the disaster was a punishment from God. This is an old game. During the Middle Ages, for example, plagues were routinely blamed on the Jews or on those who tolerated their existence in the city. Interestingly, such accusations are still leveled mainly at unpopular minorities, such as homosexuals. If God is punishing New York for its wickedness, why not suggest God is punishing the city for the misconduct of financial leaders?

Does Jesus go for this sort of blaming game? On the contrary, Jesus insists that the eighteen people killed when the Tower of Siloam fell on them were not worse sinners than the rest (Luke 13:4). Jesus sounds threatening when he says others will likewise perish if they do not repent, but Jesus is not exasperated by the people killed by the falling tower, but by the people who thought the victims were greater sinners. Jesus is reminding us that the disasters that fall on other people can just as easily fall on us, regardless of how good or bad we are.

A stronger repudiation of this blaming theology comes in John 9 when Jesus’ disciples ask if it was the blind man’s parents who sinned or the blind man himself that he was born blind. Jesus replies that neither were to blame, but the man was born blind that so the “works of God might be manifest in him.” That is, nobody was blamed for the blindness, but Jesus responded to the situation by giving the man his sight.

Most important of all, Jesus was executed because he was blamed for the social unrest in Jerusalem when any historian can see numerous causes that had nothing to do with Jesus. When Jesus rose from the dead, he did not cast blame on his killers, but returned as the forgiving victim. Is it credible that Jesus would encourage his heavenly father to send hurricanes to people who don’t measure up to his standards?

On the contrary, the story of the man born blind makes it clear that that the proper response to catastrophes is not blaming but compassion. That is, we should do everything we can to manifest God’s works in the face of these catastrophes. The name Satan means “Accuser.” In Revelation 12, Satan was cast out of Heaven when Jesus was raised into Heaven. With Jesus, there is no room for accusation. There is only room for healing the afflicted and doing everything we can to prevent or mitigate further catastrophes.

See also Two Ways of Gathering and article Violence and the Kingdom of God