Respect (3)

AndrewWashingFeet - CopyThe situation of the cellarer of the monastery providing for people who depend on his solicitude is quite the opposite of the person who approaches God in prayer “humbly and respectfully.” The cellarer himself would be on the other end of the stick on this one. Here is the danger of projecting worldly power on God when God is approached humbly and respectfully. If we picture God as a whimsical potentate who grants favors or withholds them in plays of power the way we do if and when we get a chance, then we slip into playing these power games with people who depend on us. This is precisely what Benedict forbids the cellarer to do. Benedict forbids such behavior because it goes against the Gospel.

St, Benedict famously insists that “all guests who present themselves are to be welcomed as Christ.” Benedict goes on to quote Matthew 25 to emphasize the point. Likewise, the cellarer, in attended to fellow monastics and guests should do the same. Benedict also says that “care of the sick must rank above and before all else, so that they may truly be served as Christ.” Once again, Benedict quotes Matthew 25. “The Lord of all things” whom we approach in prayer with our needs, who is greater than “a powerful man” from whom we might ask a favor, identifies with the humans who approach us in need.

We all have a hard time respecting people in positions subordinate to us, especially if they are needy. We instinctively look down on them because we think we are the ones with something to give or withhold. In other words, were are in the winning position and we like it that way. However, if Christ assumes the “losing” position, and Christ is the King whom we should obey, then we should be obedient to the needs of others in a respectful way. We might say that Christ makes other people respectable even if they have no respectability within themselves. The implication of this, of course, is that we also lack respectability within ourselves and it is Christ who gives us respectability.

The theological principal for saying that a person is entitled to respect just for being a human being is that we are each made in the image of God. That is true, but Christ’s identification with each person in need, and we all are in need in some ways at some times, is superadded to our creation in God’s image. This super-addition is based on Christ’s redemption of us, Christ’s having died for us. Since Christ died for everybody, Christ identifies with everybody. By identifying with each of us, Christ takes the rivalry out of the relationship. The way we relate to one another has nothing to do with winning, with having the upper hand in some way. Christ has leveled the playing field. Christ is focused on the needs of each one of us. That means Christ is focused on our own needs and also the needs of the people we encounter. It is doing what we can with another’s needs and having a kind word when we can’t. (And we often can’t fill another’s needs.) In all this, we participate in Christ’s respect for us, which makes us more respectable than we were.

Respect (2)

WilliamGuestsChurch1

[A continuation of Respect (1)]

The importance of respect can be easily seen when we think of routine encounters. Love is too freighted a term for the way we interact with, say, the person at the checkout counter of a store. It is obvious that courtesy and respect are called for but not love as it rests (and twists and turns) in the popular imagination. We all know how much we appreciate doing business with people who are respectful and how much we avoid doing business with those who aren’t. In such cases, respect isn’t much of a feeling but it is a set of actions and a manner of speaking. Although receiving respectful treatment gives us a low grade sense of well-being, disrespectful treatment tends to make us instantly angry and all sense of respect flies out the window or through the wall. Disrespect makes the smallest exchanges seem big and highly significant while we don’t think of much of respectful encounters. The thing is, both respect and disrespect are highly contagious but the latter is especially so. We tend to think we are owed respect just for being people and feel violated if we are not treated respectfully. Yet we are apt to think other people should earn our respect. This looks like a double standard but I can sympathize. This sort of attitude comes naturally to me. However, if God’s unconditional love for us is taken as a model for human relationships, it follows that we should give unconditional respect, which is harder. We can fool ourselves into thinking we only hate the sin but love the sinner, but how about respecting the sinner while hating the sin?

The chapter on the Cellarer of the monastery in the Rule of St. Benedict (Chapter 31) is the most concise and articulate view of respect and courtesy that I know. The cellarer is the monk responsible for providing for the community and guests. To do that, he needs to respect the tools and all other material goods to the extent of treating them as if they were “sacred vessels of the altar.” Here is an indication of the continuum from respect to God in prayer to respect for material reality in one’s work. The cellarer should provide “the allotted amount of food without any pride or delay lest they be led astray.” That is, the cellarer should be respectful of the needs of others and should not take advantage of his position to play petty power games with people the way some bureaucrats will with their tiny turfs. The Latin for “leading them astray” is scandalizaverit which means scandalize, place a stumbling block before the other. “Scandal” is a word imported from the Greek New Testament and is the word Jesus used when he warned against causing his “little ones” to stumble, a verse Benedict goes on to quote. Jesus and Benedict are alerting us to a human tendency that René Girard has more recently pointed to: the human tendency to make oneself a stumbling block for another by making a simple encounter a contest of wills. This is precisely what Benedict wants the cellarer to avoid. (I discuss scandal in Girard and Benedict in my book Tools for Peace.)

On the contrary, if the cellarer does not have a requested item, he should “offer a king word in reply.” When I was guestmaster for the monastery, there were times when I did not have room to accept any more guests and I kept this admonition in mind and tried to speak kindly and give encouragement for coming at another time. If the cellarer should be the one who suffers discourtesy, he should “reasonably and humbly deny the improper request.” The onus is on the cellarer to stem an escalation of disrespect by treating even a disrespectful person with respect.

Continued in Respect (3)

Human Weakness the Cornerstone

peter healing cripple_RembrandtThese days we take ramps and handicapped parking spaces for granted. However, such considerations for people with special needs are quite a flip-flop from what such people experienced in the early days of humanity. In the social crises at the dawn of humanity as envisioned by René Girard, when everybody was at everybody’s throat, the choice of the victim was usually arbitrary, almost like a lottery. It could be anyone. However, if any person in this melee of undifferentiation should stand out in any way, that person would be the most likely victim. The person who stood out might be the most talented; a scenario often repeated today. (See Ignominious Glory, Glorious Ignominy: A Doxology) Many mythological victim/deities were great musicians or poets. Another way a person might stand out is by being handicapped. René Girard points out that a predatory animal will spot the weakest member of a herd and go for that one and that the same holds true of a society in crisis. One need only think of the many lame victims such as Oedipus or deities like Odin with only one eye.

The flip-flop started as soon as the Church, inspired by Jesus’ healing ministry, had the resources to build facilities for the sick and disable. As far as I can tell, hospitals are a Christian invention. We are so used to infirmaries that we think nothing of Benedict’s provision for an infirmary in his Rule, but Benedict was an innovator in his time. The teaching and ministry of Jesus that involved reaching out to the weak, the people formerly rejected by society, had become the cornerstone of Benedict’s monastic vision that consideration should always be shown to the weak. Of course, Benedict meant far more than sick and handicapped people with this admonition, as Benedict well knew that we all experience weakness in many ways. I have discussed care of the sick and its ramifications at length in my book Tools for Peace.

Many years ago, when I was a seminarian taking CPE (Clinical Pastoral Education), one of the chaplains, who was legally blind, gave a talk on issues involving handicaps. He helped us greatly in sensitizing us to how people in his position felt with being helped either too much or not enough. He was also very honest about himself and he admitted that being handicapped did not necessarily make him any more sensitive to other handicapped people than anybody else. As an example, he told us of how he recoiled when introduced to a person with a withered arm.

To this day, even those of us who care for others experience this kind of recoil when we encounter others who are a bit different, especially if the difference is grotesque. But our treatment of alleged nerds and celebrities shows us that a difference in conspicuous talent raises the same sort of dread. If we notice ourselves in this respect, we can experience a kinship with our brothers and sisters who made sacrificial victims and then deities out of the likes of Odin.

Mimetic Laughter

outsideSupper1Laughter is one of the more pleasant things in life, but is it just a frill? In his book The Phantom of the Ego,” Nidesh Lawtoo discusses the importance Georges Bataille attached to laughter for the emerging consciousness of a newborn child. Laughter is one of the first things a baby learns in imitation of a mother, father, or other caregiver. So it is that laughter comprises the first bond a newborn child makes. Interactions with babies may seem silly, something to be transcended with intellectual maturity and so we don’t value laughing with babies.

At its best, laughter is spontaneous and infectious. How many times do we laugh without knowing why, just because other people are laughing? When children are laughing helplessly as part of playing, happiness spreads to everyone around them. We don’t want to be left out of the joke, even if we don’t know what it is. Just think of some of our best times when we laughed with family and friends with no other reason than we were together and we got caught up in laughter.

There is a darker side to laughter, however. Actually it is a darker side of us and our mimetic desires, rather than a darker side of laughter. Often laughter is used to wound others, to score points against others, to put others down to lift ourselves up. Almost as soon as they learn how to speak, small children use laughter in this way. School playgrounds are filled with this sort of thing. Children learn all this from their elders, of course. Just as they imitated the spontaneous laughter of those around them as infants, they imitate the cruel humor that surrounds them as they grow older. Unfortunately, children usually learn this mode of laughter through being shamed by adults who think ridicule is a good way to train children for the hard knocks of life. Laughter continues to be a bond between people, but it is a bonding at the expense of someone, a butt of jokes, a victim.

When he discourages laughter as a sign of pride, St. Benedict certainly had this darker side of laughter in mind, although it is possible that he had a blind spot for the value of spontaneous, bonding laughter. Certainly, when laughter is a put-on act to gain attention, it is the opposite of spontaneous and it is a prideful act, an act seeking to dominate by drawing attention to oneself at the expense of others. I discuss this at length in my book Tools for Peace.

We get so habituated to using laughter as a weapon instead of a bond of love that we hardly know what the latter is. One way back is to use the wit we acquire to learn to laugh at ourselves and help others laugh at themselves. At its best, a comedy does just that. In Mozart’s “The Marriage of Figaro,” discussed in an earlier post, laughter is used as a means to overcome mimetic triangles and tensions and bring reconciliation. Shakespeare does this sort of thing masterly in comedies such as “Twelfth Night” and “As You like It.” In “The Merchant of Venice,” Shakespeare sets a trap for the unwary, leading us into joining the persecution of Shylock before unmasking this derisory laughter for what it is.

Life is too serious and awesome a thing to be left to sourpusses who always want to be on top of somebody else. We all need heavy doses of spontaneous, selfless laughter shared with others.

 

The Communal Good Shepherd

goodShepherdThe parable of the lost sheep crystallizes the Gospel as only a few others do.  It reverses our usual outlook that naturally tends to think along utilitarian lines where, as Caiaphas suggested, it is better for one person to die than the whole nation should perish. From the dawn of time, sacrificial logic has worked the same way: one person dies so that the community can be at peace, at least for a time. Jesus coyly asks the question: “which of you, having a hundred sheep, wouldn’t leave the ninety-nine to look after the lost one?” The honest answer would be: Nobody. A lone shepherd couldn’t leave the ninety-nine without losing them and probably failing finding the lost one as well. And yet Jesus asks the question in such a way as to ridicule our normal way of thinking and then goes on to rhapsodize about the extravagant joy and celebration at finding the one lost sheep. It’s the same with the woman finding her lost coin. She throws a party that probably cost all ten of her coins.

This rejoicing over the lost sheep and the lost coin and the lost sinner shakes us up into realizing that it is not enough to renounce the sacrificial logic of Caiaphas. If we stop sacrificing people we think are expendable that is something but much more is asked of us. We are to actively and sacrificially care for the ones who are lost, who are considered expendable by society. In his Rule, Benedict writes powerfully about this parable in the context of a community dealing with a delinquent member. As I say in my book Tools for Peace, “Benedict captures the inner spirit of the Gospel by picturing the abbot throwing off any sense of abbatial dignity in much the same way the father of the prodigal son throws off his dignity by running out to greet the son he sees from afar.”

One might think that the good shepherd is sacrificing the ninety-nine sheep for the sake of the one. Maybe. But what really needs to happen is for the shepherd plus the ninety-nine to go after the lost sheep. In his chapters on dealing with a delinquent member of the community, Benedict turns the whole community into shepherds. Paradoxically, one of the ways (and a problematic one) is excommunication where all members must cooperate. It is important to realize this is intended as a means to reconciliation; sort of like a time out in a family which gives a trouble child an opportunity to reflect on his or her behavior. Moreover, the whole community shares the pain of the alienation. Benedict doesn’t leave it at that. He suggests that the abbot send wise monastics to comfort the excommunicated member and reason with him. Benedict then encourages the best remedy of all: prayer. This is a communal effort with the whole community praying for the one who is temporarily lost in the hope that this member will soon be found again. Reconciliation takes place in the monastic church, making this also a communal event.

Benedict gives us one example of living out a difficult scenario. In each instance, we have to find different means to the same end although Benedict’s techniques give us a sense of direction. In the Body of Christ, all of us are called upon to act the part of the good shepherd.

New page for collecting posts by Topic

vocationersAtTable1I have just started a page that collects blog posts by topic. This will save me from cross-referencing posts to help orient the reader, especially on the topic of mimetic desire that I have written on often & will have much more to say as I reflect more and more on this phenomenon. I now have a page collecting articles on mimetic desire that are available here.

Essay on spiritual renewal

buddingTree1I have just posted the text of a talked that I gave at a Theology & Peace conference in Chicago a few years ago called Living by the Breath of God: a Spirituality of God’s Desire. It collects many of the ideas of I have working with on my recent blog posts & it might help some of you get a more coherent view of the vision I continue to develop. You can read this essay here.