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.

An Extraordinarily Ordinary Saint

BenedictChurchStatue1St. Benedict, as portrayed in the Dialogues of Pope St. Gregory I, is an imposing figure, performing miracles with the flick of the hand or the eyes. The St. Benedict we see in the Rule composed by him is rather ordinary, even boring. That’s okay with Benedict; he wasn’t trying to be anyone special. He was a man devoted to a life of prayer in community who was put into a position of leadership and the responsibilities that entails. He wrote a Rule for his community to give some spiritual teaching and practical guidelines. A lot of abbots had done the same. Benedict cribbed much of his own Rule from one of the monastic rules lying around. He probably didn’t expect it to be remembered for long except in the eyes of God. That’s all that really mattered to him.

The document Benedict drew from is an interesting contrast to Benedict’s Rule. It is called The Rule of the Master, authorship unknown. The Master seems to have thought that he was writing the ultimate rule to end all monastic rules. Everything in this ideal community was in place and nobody would need to write another rule. For every sort of delinquent behavior the Master could think of, he composed a perfect speech to remedy the problem so that no abbot would be at a loss for words no matter what happened. (Hah!) Benedict didn’t think so. He didn’t bother to write a critical review of the Rule of the Master; he just took material that he found useful, much of it actually cribbed from John Cassian, and left out the rest. The silences were deafening. No endless lectures on overcoming monastic vices for one thing. No pulleys lowering baskets at mealtimes to indicate that the bread came from heaven for another. There are loose ends everywhere so that any abbot using this rule can improvise according to the time and place and the weaknesses and strengths of the monastics in the community/

What we’re left with is a document so short that it makes for an ideal book report if shortness of book is the main issue.  There is spiritual teaching about listening to God in silence and in the Divine Office. There are verses urging us earnestly to run in the way of God’s commands and cautions about being humble by putting oneself constantly in God’s presence and never forgetting it. There is much about worshiping with care and doing humble chores with equal care, to the point of treating the tools of the monastery as if they were the vessels of the altar. There are also admonitions for treating the other members of the community and guests with care, perhaps suggesting that they, too, should be treated as the sacred vessels of the altar.

There’s nothing out of the ordinary. Anyone can do it. Benedict said it was a rule for beginners. There’s nothing about doing fabulous miracles like the disciples or attributed to Benedict in Gregory’s life. The monastic life isn’t about healing the sick, but it is about tending the sick to give them the best chance of being cured. It isn’t about casting our demons except to build up a community life that doesn’t give demons much room for maneuver. It isn’t about raising the dead except to give of oneself to improve the quality of life for others.

One thing Benedict does accomplish in his Rule that the disciples accomplished was the miracle receiving freely and giving freely. Benedict freely received the tradition of the Gospels, the Sayings of the Desert Monastics, the writing of John Cassian derived from the Desert Monastics, and the fussy Rule of the Master that would be forgotten if it weren’t for Benedict. All this, Benedict has freely given to us to guide us in ordinary lives of prayer in community.

Contemplative Prayer as a Pearl of Great Price

indwellingcover_tnBecoming conscious of mimetic desire, our inborn and pre-conscious tendency to copy the desires of other people (See Human See, Human Want) poses a large challenge to our daily living. When we bring in the tendency to fall into rivalry with other people and how that can lead to collective violence (see Two Ways of Gathering) then we need tools to live with this challenge.

I wrote Tools for Peace to suggest ways that the spiritual practices from the monastic tradition and the Rule of St. Benedict in particular can help us with this challenge. Contemplative Prayer, although important in monastic practice, has a small place in the Rule of St. Benedict and so there is not a detailed discussion of the practice in this book, although I have a few comments about it.

Many years ago, I wrote a pamphlet called “The Indwelling God” to introduce the practice of contemplative prayer and give practical suggestions for initiating and sustaining this practice. Last year, I wrote an article for our Abbey Letter called “Resting in God’s Desire” which discusses contemplative prayer specifically in connection to mimetic desire. The Divine Office is indeed the heart of Benedictine spirituality, but praying in silence, just being before and with God, allowing God to contemplate us, as Saint Gertrude and other writers have suggested, is a pearl of great price, a pearl worth some of our valuable time and worthy of much room in our hearts.

This pamphlet has been available in hard copy and is still available in that form, but I have just had a eBook made of it to make it available in that form since many readers are using that medium. I have coupled the pamphlet with the essay “Resting in God’s Desire” as they make good companion pieces.

“The Indwelling God” with its companion article can be purchased on the abbey’s website at http://www.saintgregorysthreerivers.org/digitalpubs.html   A hard copy version which has only “The Indwelling God” is available at http://www.saintgregorysthreerivers.org/orderpage.html

May we all give of ourselves to receive this pearl of great price.

Hospitality Initiative

WilliamGuestsChurch1On May 3-4 I will be attending the Hospitality Initiative hosted at Oakland University in Oakland, MI. The convener is Charles Mabee, a scholar who works with the thought of René Girard. This is a multi-faith gathering where papers from a wide variety of spiritual traditions will be represented by the presentation of papers. I will be presenting a brief paper called “Mimetic Hospitality: Guests and Community in the Rule of St. Benedict.” Some of the content overlaps with my blog post Cleaning up our Unclean Acts which introduces some of the thoughts I develop in this paper. You can read my paper here.

Gathering to Give Life to Victims

eucharist1Since the dawn of humanity, humans have gathered most quickly and powerfully around a victim. (See Two Ways of Gathering and Violence and the Kingdom of God.) Just think of how quickly we gravitate around whoever is currently seen to be to blame for whatever is going wrong in the world today. This gathering, however, is always at the expense of at least one person or group of people. A similar and yet very different gathering around a victim occurred when the eleven disciples saw the risen Jesus in Galilee and “worshiped him.” (Mt. 28:17) The huge, even infinite difference in this gathering is that the victim is alive and is gathering people around victims, “the least of those who are members of [his] family.” (Mt. 25:40) Ever since, Christians have gathered in worship around Jesus and his fellow victims, primarily in the Divine Office and the Eucharist.

The Divine Office is structured prayer that is uses the Psalter and other biblical canticles as the primary vehicle of prayer. Much can be said of the psalms but the thing that jumps out at anyone who prays them with any frequency is the many outcries of victims. “They surrounded me like bees; they blazed like a fire of thorns; in the name of the Lord I cut them off!  I was pushed hard, so that I was falling, but the Lord helped me.” (Ps. 118: 11-13) Verses such as these raise the question of whether we gather “like bees” around another person, or if we are entering the circle of bees in solidarity with the victim. Being a victim tempts us to anger, bitterness and violence. “Cutting off” our assailants in “the name of the Lord” is the reflex reaction, but is the opposite of what Jesus himself did in the same position. These rough verses help us renew our awareness of our own violent reactions to being victimized, even (especially!) petty matters such as being slighted by another. If we focus on Jesus when we are in the place of the victim, we find that the Lord has made the rejected stone the “chief cornerstone” that is “marvelous in our eyes.”

In the Eucharist, we gather around an altar which has been transformed into a table where, instead of laying out a sacrificial victim for slaughter, we place a piece of bread and a cup of wine to share among those present. We do this in memory of Jesus’ Last Supper, suffering, death, and Resurrection. The Greek word anamnesis does not mean a mere memory but to make present. That is, we enter the place of the victim with Jesus when we gather around the table. In so gathering, we feed on Jesus’ forgiveness of us for our own victimization are our challenged by this forgiveness to give this same life to others, both in terms of physical needs and emotional and spiritual sustenance. (See Miserable Gospel)

In his Rule, St. Benedict says that prayer should be made with “utmost humility and sincere devotion.” Entering the place of the victim with Jesus leads to both humility and devotion, attitudes that allow us to follow Benedict’s admonition that we sing the psalms (and also break bread in the Eucharist) “in such a way that our minds are in harmony with our voices.” (I develop these thoughts on the Divine Office in Tools for Peace)

Turning on Ash Wednesday

altarDistance1As 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

A Way of Meeting with Others

commonRoomOne of the more remarkable and attractive chapters in the Rule of St. Benedict is Chapter Two: “Summoning the Brothers [and Sisters] for Counsel.” Although Benedict was not so democratic as to have matters put up to a majority vote (as most modern monastic constitutions are), Benedict considered it essential that the abbot listen to all members of the community before making a decision. In my time as abbot of my community, I am profoundly grateful for the suggestions and cautions from my fellow monks on numerous occasions. Most writings on the Rule remind us that the first word is “Listen.” Much is made of the need to listen to God and to then to others, especially the superior, as a means of listening to God. Here, Benedict reminds the abbot to listen to the community. Given the toxic atmosphere of much debate in political and religious matters, I cannot stress enough to importance of listening as a first principle to healing the exchange of thoughts and opinions.

We can make it easier for others to listen to us by expressing ourselves in a way that makes it easier for them to listen. Benedict says that we will do this if we “express [our] opinions with all humility, and not presume to defend [our] own views obstinately.” If we take a moment to think about how hard it is to listen to a person who does the opposite of what Benedict enjoins here, we will see the importance of this admonition. More important, when we express our views humbly and without obstinacy, it is easier to be focused on the issue rather than our relationships with other people which, in the course of debate, tend to become more competitive than constructive. Benedict would have us discern the right thing to do, not strive to gain the most debating points.

Even more startling than the foregoing: Benedict says that the reason the whole community should be called together is because “the Lord often reveals what is better to the younger.” This is not an over-idealization of young people, but is a salutary reminder that the points of view of marginal people, which includes the young, may prove to be vital to a right discernment. Our tendency is to push those we consider marginal to the margins, usually while assuming that we are not marginal.

Issues such as gun control and immigration reform being debated right now are complicated and require careful thinking and expression that is most fruitfully done humbly with a heart that listens to ourselves, to others, and to God.

These ideas are developed at greater length in my book Tools for Peace.