As we begin the season of penitence on Ash Wednesday, we do well to put penance in a context beyond our individual selves. René Girard’s concept of mimetic desire tells us that our “individual selves” are merely an illusion; our desires are unavoidably caught up in the desires of other people. (see Human See, Human Want) With that being the case, cleaning up our “own” desires simply does not do the job. Instead, we must clean up the desires we share with others, and that means relating to others.
Early in his great poem “As Wednesday,” T.S. Eliot zeroes in on healing shared desire by following the first lines about hoping to turn his life: “Desiring this man’s gift and that man’s scope/I no longer strive to strive towards such things.” That is, the tenth commandment about coveting includes coveting the God-given gifts of others and their insights. If we turn from our entanglements with the desires of others, we will affirm and rejoice in their gifts and insights and in doing so, will awaken to the gifts and insights that we have within us to give to others.
In Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus follows his teaching on renouncing mimetic rivalry (turn the other cheek, etc.) with a solemn caution against using “good” actions such as repenting, fasting, almsgiving, and praying as occasions for competing with others so as to desire gifts and insights of others. If we practice piety “in order to be seen by others,” then our piety is locked in our competition with others and not on God. That is why God cannot reward such piety which isn’t piety at all. The Desert Monastics also found themselves falling into the trap of competitive asceticism. On of the reasons Benedict, in his Rule, asks his monastics to tell the abbot about their Lenten disciplines is to put the practice of each into the context of building community. All this is compiling treasure on earth just as much as fattening our bank accounts.
The alternative to “praying in secret” may seem to be individualistic but it is really a matter of being an individual before God, which is a different thing. (An individualist flaunts his or her individuality over/against others—another thrust in a life of fencing.) Rather, “praying in secret” grounds each of us in God so that we can rejoice in God’s giftedness of others and ourselves. More important, it is precisely in the midst of these admonitions against flaunting our piety that Jesus teaches us the Our Father which reaches its climax with the petition that God forgive us as we forgive others.
As we turn again back to God, let us look at the turnings we must do in our relationships, realizing that unhealthiness in our relationships is not the same thing as the unhealthiness we may see in ourselves as individuals, although there is a relationship between the two. With T.S. Eliot, let us not even try to want the gifts of others but instead turn to the gifts we have to give to others.
For more about Lent in the Rule of St. Benedict in dialogue with Girard, read Tools for Peace