LIVING STONES IN THE HOUSE OF THE FORGIVING VICTIM:
Abiding in Humanity’s Deepest Connections
by Andrew Marr, OSB
[Presented at the Julilanfest, hosted by the Order of Julian of Norwich on June 9, 2018]
Violence holds all of us in thrall with varying combinations of repulsion and fascination. We are frightened of the violence around us and the violence within us. Many of us wish we could live without violence yet we also fear that violence is one of those things we can’t live without no matter how much it kills us. Some think that increased rationality and reasoning power will help us overcome violence but we are starting to see that human rationality often becomes rationalization of the worst atrocities. Those of us who are religiously inclined think that religion offers an escape from violence but even followers of religions that theoretically preach peace commit atrocious acts of violence in the name of “god.” How does that happen? Since violence threatens us with the annihilation of human life, this question is urgent and I have puzzled over it for many years.
In this quest, I have been greatly helped by the French thinker René Girard (1923-2015). He called his fundamental concept “mimetic desire.” Girard did not invent the concept or even discover it. Rather, he discovered other peoples’ discovery of mimetic desire in the greatest works of Western literature. He noticed that the most astute writers such as Cervantes, Flaubert, Dostoevsky and Shakespeare uncover the human tendency to imitate not just the actions of other people, but the desires of other people. That is, the more somebody wants something, the more somebody else will want it. In Shakespeare’s early play The Gentlemen of Verona, Valentine and Proteus are two friends who always like the same things. But then they end up wanting the same woman. To begin with, Proteus desires a young woman named Julia until he is overwhelmed with Valentine’s desire for Silvia. Valentine cannot be confident in his desire for Silvia until his friend also desires her. Meanwhile, Proteus loses confidence in his desire for Julia because Valentine does not desire her. All of this seems funny, but at the climax of the play, Proteus attempts to rape Silvia in an attempt to win the rivalry with his friend. This play has a happy ending of sorts but Shakespeare’s happy endings almost always include some irresolution. We see these same dynamics of mimetic desire throughout the plays of Shakespeare as he explores them with ever greater sophistication. This sort of rivalry through mimetic desire begins in the nursery. If one child begins to reach for one toy out of many, the other children want it. The other toys magically disappear as only one becomes desirable.
The research of Andrew Meltzoff demonstrates that imitation begins at birth. He discovered that when an adult sticks out his or her tongue at an hour-old baby, the baby will stick out its tongue in response. Other researchers have accounted for this phenomenon through the discovery of mirror neurons which react to the intentions (and thus the desires of others.) If you grab a banana, the same neurons fire in my brain that would fire if I grabbed the banana. Our caregivers share their desires with us and educate us in matters such as what foods are desirable. I still remember how my father shared his desires for pizza and butterscotch sundaes with me. Fundamentally, mimetic desire is a profound connection between humans that is ever-present. It works as automatically as our breathing and heartbeat, undergirding both our nurturing and conflictive relationships. This phenomenon is contrary to what we have been formed to believe, namely that desires originate from within our autonomous selves and move out to objects that are intrinsically desirable. On the contrary, our desires are as fluid as the matrix of desires in our social systems, making the self as protean as the aptly named Proteus in Shakespeare’s play. We do have biological drives, but the way these drives pan out is in the interaction of our desires with the desires of others in our social ambience. As advertisers well know, the more people think other people want something, the more they want it too. We tend to like the music the other people in our social set like and hate the music our friends hate. For good and for ill, whether we like it or not, our desires are deeply immersed in the desires of others and vice versa. All this means that when a social environment is rich in possibilities, the desires to imitate can become complex, drawing from more than one group at times while in a social environment with few possibilities, the field of desires shrinks.
Mimetic desire often leads to two or more people wanting the same thing or the same romantic partner who cannot be shared,. OR two or more people believe that what is mutually desired cannot be shared. This leads to conflict. When it comes to struggle over power, one could say there is plenty of power to go around for people to share. This is what democracy is all about. But it is easy to fall under the illusion that power cannot be shared and one must fight to have more of it. Many thinkers in various traditions have noted the infinite craving on the part of humans. It is mimetic desire that makes this craving infinite. If we have to have more than others, we always have to have still more.
The illusion that desires originate within ourselves leads to the illusion that our desires are our own. When we enter into conflict with another, we assume that it is the other person who is “stealing” not only what I want but is trying to “steal” my desire as well. This is how one’s eye is filled with a log while trying to take a splinter out of the eye of another. In this sort of conflict, the other is always to blame. When both people in conflict blame each other for their strife, we have an endless cycle with no beginning or end. As Girard said: “Nobody ever starts a fight.” In a later development of this insight, Girard used the New Testament word skandalon, a stumbling block. This word also means the Satan, the Accuser. Leveling accusations at each other is what rivals do. In the Book of Job, the Satan distorts reality through making accusations at Job, making the Satan a liar as well.
Girard calls two people involved in such a conflict mimetic doubles. That is, the two become mirror images of each other. Mimetic doubles usually draw many allies as happens with political parties. The same party spirit creates rifts in many churches and other religious groups. When rivalry reaches a high level of intensity, any object of contention melts away, leaving behind rivalry for the sake of rivalry. This is why rivals can hold opposite views on life but act exactly the same. When rivalry permeates a society, the most vulnerable people suffer for it. In rivalrous situations, the rival becomes an idol. How can people we hate be idols? I suggest that the best definition of an idol is anything at all that, not being God, becomes the primary organizing principle of one’s life.
At bottom, the phenomenon of mimetic desire indicates that humans have what Girard calls an inherent “lack of being.” It is this nothingness at the core of our personhood that causes us to look to others to fill this lack. Ultimately this lack of being is our natural longing for God as only God can fill this lack. Unfortunately, most of us look to other people who seem to have more being than we do because they have a new car or the latest device for text messaging. The truth is that other people are looking to us to try to fill their lack of being. It is because of this lack of being that we don’t know what we desire until somebody else models a desire for us. Then we want it too. The next step is to want to be the other person who seems to have the being I lack. No wonder we think our rival is trying to steal our desires when the rival is trying to steal our very being!
Girard was something of an atheistic iconoclast when he began writing his book Deceit, Desire, and the Novel, where he discusses the pull of mimetic desire in the European novel. But during weekly train rides between Baltimore and Bryn Mawr during 1958-1959, he had visionary experiences where the direction for developing his insight of mimetic desire came to him. More important, he began to see himself in the fictional characters he was writing about. As Don Quixote and Stepan Verkhovensy in Dostoevsky’s The Possessed needed to repent of their involvement in dysfunctional mimetic desire, Girard also needed to repent in the same way. A medical scare over a case of skin cancer intensified the effect of his visions and he rejoined the Catholic Church which he forsook in his youth.
Girard followed his literary studies by exploring the social implications of mimetic rivalry through anthropological studies that probe the dawn of humanity. He arrived at the hypothesis that a society in turmoil either imploded or directed its collective hostility towards a victim who was deemed fully responsible for the social unrest. The relief from killing the victim was so dramatic that the victim was then deemed the savior, the one who had delivered the society from its own violence. So it was that the victim was deified, a deity to be feared as the cause of the violence, and a deity to be revered as the savior. Such a deity was a pharmakos, a word that means both medicine and poison in Greek. This is how we get deities who are not God, that is, idols. The collective violence “worked” as it did for two reasons: 1) it was unanimous, or as Girard put it: “unanimity minus one”; 2) as a movement of mimetic desire, it was unconscious. As Christ was to say from the cross, they did not know what they were doing. Girard calls this process the victimage mechanism because, once the spirit of the persecutory crowd is unleashed, its outcome is inexorable. Since the victimage mechanism is veiled by sacred institutions, Girard calls it sacred violence. There is much talk today of our having become a “post-truth society.” What Girard shows us is that civilization has been post-truth from the beginning. As Jesus said, the Satan, the accuser, has been a liar and a murderer from the beginning.
Girard posits such acts of collective violence as the foundation of human civilization, which is to say, civilization is built on the sand of lies. The frenzy of the spontaneous collective murder becomes institutionalized in three ways 1) Prohibition and law which sets up structures to contain mimetic rivalry. This results in hierarchies where competition for power is limited to only a few people. The rest become perpetual victims, slaves and servants for the most part. 2) Sacrificial rites that re-enact the collective murder, usually substituting animals or plants, but during times of crisis, reverting to human sacrifice. 3) Myths that hide the reality of the collective murder even as they reveal it obliquely. For example, Tiamat was responsible for disturbing the cosmos and so she deserved to be cut into pieces by Marduk. The dismembered pieces of Prajapati became the four castes of Indian civilization. Here we see prohibition and myth working together.
There is another way to look at the early development of civilization. Girard’s colleague Paul Dumouchel argues that the more positive side of mimetic desire showed itself in traditional societies by forging strong bonds of support where people tended to take care of one another. Nobody starved unless everybody starved. The downside was that part of supporting one’s social group was to kill outsiders for the sake of the group. That is, bonds within a social group lead to an us vs. them mentality. This leads to war, an alternative form of scapegoating, to calm social tensions. We see this practice in the smallest tribes to super powers whose leaders manipulate the public when mobilizing for war. A distaste for such violence motivated some to loosen these social ties. This cut down on the violence but lead to indifference to others and neglect of the most vulnerable. Cold neglect can be just as strong a mimetic process as the hot violence of persecuting a victim. The basic trick in being rightly civilized is to affirm and strengthen the social bonds of one’s community but then stretch these bonds to those who are Other so that they are no longer “them” but become “us.” This is the challenge the early Church faced with the mission to the Gentiles.
Although there is a tendency for moralists to focus on individual virtues and vices, the omnipresence of mimetic desire makes our sinfulness primarily relational. When we are caught up in anger, we are caught up in anger with other people. Even when we are alone, the relationship is still swirling inside of us. Since we are caught up in the matrix of desires in our social environment, we are also caught up a society’s scapegoating behavior. More fundamentally, we are caught in the mendacity of our particular civilization, a mendacity that is easily presented as reasonable truth. As a white male growing up in suburban America, white culture based on Enlightenment principles was presented as normative. There is much to like in this package with its notion of human rights, but its positing of universal laws of reason relegated people outside the European culture to automatic inferiority that justified colonization and the Atlantic slave trade. In both small social environments such as a classroom or a workplace to a superpower such as the United States, it is very difficult, even impossible, to escape these lies by individual effort. I suggest that this mimetic process comprises what Paul named the “principalities and powers” that hold sway over us. One can sympathize with Huck Finn who, after running away with an escaped slave only to be caught between two feuding families, decides he would rather not to be “sivilized.”
If mimetic desire is hard to detect and detecting the victimage mechanism harder still, how is it that we know anything at all about them? Since mimetic desire is a vital aspect of human nature as created by God, some awareness should be possible through attending to created reality. Furthermore, our desires are not only entwined with the desires of other people, but also enmeshed with God’s Desire. If humans have a natural capability to tune in on God’s Desire, then there is a chance of seeing, at least to some extent, mimetic desire among humans for what it is. For example, the Upanishadic sages and the Buddha withdrew from sacrificial practices in favor of deep meditation. I don’t see insights into collective violence as the basis of civilization in these traditions, but there is a strong awareness, especially in Buddhism, of mimetic issues and the need to escape such entanglements. Sophocles seems to have come to the brink of uncovering the innocence of Oedipus who was blamed for the plague that struck Thebes in Oedipus the King, but he seems to have held back right at that point. Perhaps that was because the play was performed at the Festival of Dionysius, another dismembered deity who inspired frenzied mob action.
Then, in the Near East, a small ragtag group of slaves was delivered them from the social violence of slavery in Egypt when God sent a strong wind against a body of water that allowed them to escape. These people were then instructed by the God who delivered them to found a culture based on living by God’s Desire. Sadly, the Hebrew Bible is mostly filled with Israel’s failure to live after God’s own heart. Solomon’s use of slave labor from the northern kingdom to build the temple is only among the more egregious examples. However, the Hebrew Bible is unique in world literature for the ways it reveals the workings of mimetic desire and the victimage mechanism.
The narration of the rivalry between Samuel, Saul, and David is penetrating in the way it shows how their interlocking desires bind them in conflict that puts Israel into a state of civil war. The “evil spirit” that afflicts Saul appears to be a projection of his own desire for power onto his rival. In the midst of this turmoil, Saul’s son Jonathan stands out as a rare person from the ancient world who renounced power. It is in Genesis that we find the most profound insights into mimetic rivalry. I was startled when it dawned on me that the fratricidal strife in Genesis is over blessings. One would think that if anything is abundant and sharable, it would be blessings from God, but from one generation to another, blessings are treated as a zero sum game. If one brother has a blessing, there is no blessing for the other. Cain assumed he was rejected because Abel was blessed. I believe that this fear is the beast God warned him was crouching at the door. There is a blessing for Isaac but not for Ishmael, a blessing for Jacob and not for Esau. When it comes to Jacob’s family, there is only a blessing for Joseph so the other brothers gain up on him in collective violence. In the miracle of forgiveness at the end of this tangled tale, the blessing of Joseph has extended to all the brothers.
Many of the psalms are troubling in their violent imagery but they are of paramount importance for giving voice to victims of scapegoating violence. Psalms 22, 69 and 118 were understood by the Church as prophecies of Christ’s passion. What these psalms really show is that what happened to Jesus had been happening throughout Israel’s history and the history of the rest of the world. Prophets like Amos cried out against Israel’s power brokers who would sell the poor for a pair of sandals. The stoning of Achan for keeping some of the spoils of battle by Joshua’s order is also troubling, but in other societies, such an event would have been turned into an edifying myth. The curses of enemies in the psalms make most people cringe and Jeremiah’s wishing double destruction on his enemies does not make a violent society more peaceful. But in the Songs of the Suffering Servant in Isaiah the community expresses repentance when they realize that their victim of collective violence was innocent. The servant was not stricken by God as they first thought but rather was vindicated by God. In contrast to Jeremiah, the Suffering Servant not only turned his back on the smiters but he also turned his back on any retaliation or cursing of his persecutors. In the Suffering Servant, Jesus clearly saw a model for himself.
Healing and forgiveness are at the heart of Jesus’ earthly ministry. The two are explicitly linked when Jesus’ tells the paralytic in Capernaum that his sins are forgiven and then heals him. Many healings involve casting out demons. Few people believe in that sort of thing these days, but Girard suggests that the Gadarene demoniac, whose name is Legion, is possessed by the conflicts in his community. The reason Jesus was asked to leave the region after casting out the demon was most likely because the people did not like losing their communal scapegoat. Of course, a society can’t give up scapegoating without embracing forgiveness. Turning the other cheek sounds like a pious cliche but the severe pain expressed in the vengeful curses in the psalms shows how difficult it is to renounce vengeance in the face of a violent attack by fist or tongue. But not only does Jesus teach us to renounce retaliation, he tells us to forgive our enemies. The Parable of the Prodigal Son reverses the traditional teaching that one must repent of sin and then God will forgive. In the parable, the father forgives the wayward son preemptively. Whether the son perseveres in living constructively with this forgiveness on a long-term basis or the elder brother forgives the younger remain open questions, leaving us to live out the ending ourselves. The Parable of the Unforgiving Servant also teaches forgiveness but ends on a threatening note: if you don’t forgive, you will end up in the fire of Gehenna. This seems odd for a God who forgives preemptively. Girard’s theological colleague Raymund Schwager is helpful here. He suggests that the threats in Jesus’ later teachings are warnings of the “hell” people bring on themselves through mimetic violence if they continue to reject his teachings. The miserable sulking of the elder unforgiving brother in the other parable illustrates this hell.
All four Gospels conclude with a detailed narration of the death of Jesus by a combination of mob and judicial violence. The various factions in Jerusalem who hated each other suddenly agreed on one thing: Jesus of Nazareth must go. Jesus’ disciples, who had fought constantly over who was the greatest, fled when Jesus was arrested at Gethsemane. But Jesus did not stay dead; he was raised and appeared to his disciples, much to their shock. Schwager notes that, even after his brutal death, Jesus practiced what he had preached and came in a spirit of total forgiveness, re-gathering his errant disciples. On the road to Emmaus, Jesus explained the scriptures to two dispirited followers, showing that he is what James Alision calls “the living interpretative principle of scripture.” By the day of Pentecost, these disciples were emboldened to preach the risen forgiving Christ to the people in Jerusalem. This preaching, far from hiding the truth in myth, recounted the facts and then offered forgiveness through baptism so that all may be saved. The apostolic preaching in Acts as well as the Passion narratives in the Gospels make it clear that Jesus died because it was the will of human beings and not the will of God. (One could only consider it God’s will in the sense that it was better for Jesus to be put to death than to use violence to save himself, which would only have kept the cycle of violence turning.) This indicates that the Greek word dei, meaning “it was necessary,” speaks of human necessity rather than divine necessity.
Unfortunately, this good news includes some bad news that is currently threatening the life of our planet. The good news is that the Gospel has blown the cover off sacred violence and brought its truth into human consciousness. This means that all attempts to unify society through collective victimization now fail and will always fail. The unanimity of the past can no longer happen. Somebody, somewhere, blows the whistle. But although collective violence no longer “works,” it is, unfortunately, not for lack of trying. The crumbling of old and unjust hierarchical structures brought on by the unveiling provides opportunities to build a nurturing society but it also widens the field for more people to participate in mimetic rivalry. Frantic attempts to reinstate class boundaries only fuel greater injustices and chaos. More importantly, the awareness and sympathy for the victim that began with the Hebrew Bible has grown and escalated in modern times. Our planet is full of charitable organizations giving aid to the most vulnerable people. Unfortunately, more people need emergency help every day as violence escalates all over the globe and most governments foster neglect of these same people to strengthen the rich and powerful. Even the sympathy for victims is warped by mimetic rivalry. Whereas it had once been a disgrace to be a victim, it has become a badge of honor where even persecutors claim to be “victims” when people resent their power. Even more disturbing is the mimetic rivalry between advocates of some victims against the advocates of other victims. We saw this in the last presidential election where not only did the candidates trash each other, they trashed the most downtrodden supporters of their opponents. Girard says that the unveiling of sacred violence has destroyed the economy of the old way of Caiaphas where one person dies for the sake of the people. Now, many people die and possibly, everybody will die. That is, sacred violence has given way to apocalyptic violence. The Sermon on the Mount was urgent two thousand years ago; it is all the more urgent today.
Just as Israel was often pulled away from Yahweh by the way of the other nations, the same thing happens with the Church. The human habit of projecting one’s own desires and violence on others and so projecting one’s wrath on “god” is too strong for humans to give up instantly. The forgiving Victim draws us towards the Kingship of God while the fury of apocalyptic violence pulls us into its vortex. We see this falling away in petty matters as when church members, like the Corinthians, like cry out their slogans: “I am of Cephas!” “I am of Apollos!” The Church is absorbed by the Principalities and Powers more than she challenges them. St. Augustine, for example, wrote eloquently about the Love of God but he asked the imperial forces to attack the Donatist churches that he deemed heretical. The Church’s acceptance of and even affirmation of slavery is among her most egregious failures. In the case of the early Church, where slavery was already woven into the structure of the Roman Empire, one can argue that the Church undermined slavery by claiming that slaves were as much one in Christ as free persons. But there is no such excuse for the Atlantic slave trade. After the slaves were freed, the institutional violence continued with Jim Crow laws and the practice of lynching by churchgoers who were otherwise kind and charitable. Today the prison system targets a disproportionate number of black youths for its cells. Just as Israel was pulled in different directions by the prophets and the kings who fostered oppression, the Church has been pulled in one direction by prophets like Dorothy Day, Martin Luther King, Jr. and Dietrich Bonhoeffer and in the opposite direction by most politicians and an aggressive capitalist market. All this leads Girard to say that scripture and the Church herself are “in travail.” It is a travail between projections of human rage on to “god” that leads to belief in a wrathful “god” and the truth of God who is pure Love with no trace of wrath at all.
The mendacity of civilization that tries to perpetuate the scapegoat mechanism in the face of the risen forgiving Victim leads to some destructive biblical interpretations and theology. Among the most harmful theological notions is the penal model of Atonement theology. St. Anselm of Bec and Canterbury was one of the greatest saints and theologians of the Middle Ages. In tackling Atonement theology, he was trying to rid the church of earlier models that had serious problems, such as the notion that “god” made a deal with the devil and then tricked him. Anselm rightly took the devil out of Atonement theology but imported a current model of civilization, namely the feudal system. On the analogy of a lord and his vassals where vassals owe honor to their lord, Anselm notes that humans do not give God the honor that is due and so are infinitely in debt to God. Anselm is exactly right about that. We do not give God due honor. Anselm is also right that only God can pay this infinite debt. That is what Jesus was doing by giving his life as a “ransom for many.” But then Anselm made the fatal move of failing to note the pre-emptive forgiveness of Christ when he gave his life. Like all structures of civilization, the social violence of the feudal system does not allow for “justice” without due punishment to repair the dishonor. Therefore, dishonor to God can only be recompensed through punishment. Anselm softens this hard doctrine by stressing Jesus’ love and willingness to suffer for the salvation of humankind. Later versions of the penal Atonement dramatize the “father” inflicting “his” wrath on “his” Son, making “his” son suffer the punishment the Father would otherwise have inflicted on humankind. Ironically, and sadly, in one of his celebrated meditations, Anselm declared that God is “that of which nothing greater can be thought.” Some people may see this sort of grim justice as the greatest that can be thought but I think the risen forgiving victim of the Apostolic preaching and the pre-emptive forgiveness of the prodigal father in the parable bring us a lot closer to that of which nothing greater than can be thought. It is understandable for theologians to make analogies between God and images of everyday life, but this example shows us the hazards of trying to discern God’s Desire while living in a civilization built on vengeance and lies.
The Gospels have made Christ crucified, risen, and forgiving the source of all true knowledge. When confronted with postmodern skepticism about truth, Girard would always counter with the bedrock truth of the victim. But knowledge in itself is not enough. Just as Girard was convicted by his discoveries in literature, we also need to be convicted by the truth the Gospels unveil. If we are not so convicted, we don’t really know the truth. Understanding and embodying this truth cannot happen at an individual level. Seeing and acting rightly requires the social mimetic movement of the Kingship of God. The Kingship of God must be experienced at a gut level since it is our neurological system that must be caught up in it. As Jeremiah and Ezekiel prophesied, we need God to write Torah on our hearts. With the Psalmist, we need God to create new hearts within us. We need to be the Church as the Body of Christ crucified, risen, and forgiving. St. Paul’s analogy of the human body and its parts has some force but I especially like the image of a temple or household of “living stones” used in First Peter. Stones are hard. In sacred violence, they are used for stoning. Yet the stone rejected by the builders of civilization has become the cornerstone of this new household. Living stones embody this solidity with a deep resonation with others. This is a powerful image of mimetic desire working to affirm and nurture other people, building a new culture in Christ through this resonance.
It takes disciplined practice to persevere in being living stones in God’s household. One of the fundamental practices to this end is worship. We have already seen that ritual is the natural mimetic action to bind people together. In ancient times it reinforced the binding of collective violence through sacrificial ritual. Ritual is pervasive, as we would expect it to be when mimetic desire is so omnipresent. Etiquette, for example is so ingrained in us that we usually don’t notice that it consists of a set of small social rituals. Music, perhaps the most mimetic activity of all, is ritual’s constant companion from shouts of “hallelujah” to Benedictine monastics chanting psalms. King Nebuchadnezzar ordered that when the “horn, pipe, lyre, trigon, harp, drum, and entire musical ensemble” played then all should bow down to the idol he had made or be thrown into the fiery furnace. With Jews and Christians, the mimetic process of worship is redirected towards God’s Desire where right thinking melds with the gut level. The shared meal is one of the foundations of culture. When celebrating Passover, the youngest child asks what this night means so that the elders can explain it. When Jews and Christians say or chant the psalms they sing of praise, lament and penance, but most often, they cry out against collective violence. St. Paul quotes hymns sung in Christian worship including the famous hymn in Philippians that praises Jesus for entering human nature as a slave, even unto death on the cross.
While using the Passover as its background, the Eucharist has a different story to tell, the story of Jesus’ passage from death into life. The Eucharist brings the worshiper into the story of Jesus’ Passion and Resurrection where one tastes the bread and wine and yet eats and drinks the Body and Blood of Christ. In earlier sacrificial meals, the gods demanded sacrifice. With the Eucharist, Jesus Himself is the sacrifice for us, which is how Jesus turns the old cultural order upside down. Likewise, the Eucharist teaches us to invert the old cultural order where a few people exploit the many. The Church, however, being in travail and entangled with imperial cultures, continues to have trouble with this teaching. St. Paul berated the Corinthians for not sharing their food with the poor whose duties as servants or slaves prevented them from arriving for worship as early as the richer members. St. James upbraided congregations who gave the rich deferential treatment but treated poor worshipers shabbily. St. Benedict, who made worship the center of the monastic life, said that it was the poor who should receive preferential treatment because the rich and powerful already inspire awe.
St. Benedict knew full well that worship can be mechanical. That is why he said we should remember that we pray in the presence of God and the angels and we should “sing the psalms in such a way that our minds are in harmony with our voices.” It is this inner connection between persons and with God that is the key to uniting worship with our lives as a whole. When Benedict says that nothing is to be preferred to the work of God, he not only means that we should show up for the Divine Office but we should act all the time as if worship is the most important thing. The right inner attitude is, above all, respect. When the gloria patri is sung, the monastics should “immediately rise in reverence.” When the Gospel is read, the monastics should “stand with respect and awe.” Benedict finds the most powerful teaching for basing life on worship in the Our Father, especially the words “forgive us as we forgive” because “thorns of contention are liable to spring up.” We must let this prayer cleanse us from “this kind of vice.” Here, Benedict used the Greek New Testament word skandalon that is transliterated in the Vulgate. “Thorns of scandal” is a most apt image for sharp interlocking human rivalries that culminate in the crown of thorns imposed on Jesus.
There are liturgical overtones to just about everything Benedict writes about in the monastic life. The respect Benedict enjoins during the Divine Office is extended to all relationships so that monastics should be obedient to one another and should serve one another at table. When outgoing and incoming servers are blessed for their work, the abbot prays that the meal may be a “sign and pledge of the heavenly banquet.” Benedict’s practice of excommunication for weighty faults is problematic in that it risks making the delinquent monastic a scapegoat of the community, but the process is a ritual that seeks reconciliation. In all this, the abbot is to act like the good shepherd of Luke’s parable who leaves the ninety-nine in search for the lost one. There is also a little liturgy for the proper way to greet guests who come to the monastery that involves psalm verses and washing of feet. Benedict says it is the poor among the guests and the sick in whom Christ is most present. Benedict’s strongest statement on the unity of worship as the guide to life is his admonition to the cellarer of the monastery to “regard all utensils and goods of the monastery as sacred vessels of the altar.” The cellarer is also expected to be tactful, even when having to turn down an improper request, and to “show every care and concern for the sick, children, guests and the poor.” Clearly the cellarer must also treat people as if they were sacred vessels of the altar.
Fostering respect for others works against mimetic rivalry and builds up a constructive sensitivity to others. More importantly, respect leads to the deeper virtue of humility, which Benedict considers the foundation of communal living. The first step of humility is to live constantly in the presence of God. Being so mindful leads one to be mindful of vices of “thought or tongue, of hand or foot, of self-will or bodily desire.” The twelfth step of humility echoes the first. We should embody humility no less in our hearts than in our bearing “in the oratory, the monastery or the garden, on a journey or in the field, or anywhere else.” In short humility is a full time job. The middle steps involve obedience, willingness to accept hardships and harsh treatment, and turning the other cheek. All of this derives from the Sermon on the Mount and the example of Christ. Being admonished to say: “I am a worm and no man” is a quote from Psalm 22, a psalm applied to the sufferings of Christ. We are not being asked to grovel but to embody the self-giving humility of Jesus. The steps involving coarse laughter seem trivial, but are a reminder that, as a full time job, humility is also needed in small matters. Moreover, jokes and laughter, although a strong means of bonding, can bond some people at the expense of others, which is rivalry and scapegoating. The practice of humility, then, is the constant daily grind of renouncing rivalry for solidarity and the nurturing of others.
Humility is the bedrock of forgiveness. When Jesus breathed on the disciples to give the Church power to forgive sins, Jesus was telling us to practice this ministry. Unfortunately, we also have the power to bind ourselves and others but that is not what Jesus wants us to do. We all know that forgiveness is among life’s greatest challenges. The first difficulty most of us focus on is the severe hurt inflicted by another such as childhood abuse or a devastating betrayal. Hard as forgiveness is, the injured person remains bound to the abuser in what amounts to a losing battle of mimetic rivalry. Having been a “loser,” the abused person wants to “win” through revenge. Sometimes a victory of sorts is achieved such as when the perpetrator is prosecuted for the crime, but without forgiveness the victim is still not free. Telling one’s story and listening to oneself while telling it is an important step towards forgiveness. Telling it to another who listens deeply helps one listen to oneself. Letting go is the next step, a step that can’t be rushed. Forgiveness itself is God’s work in us. Letting go makes us receptive to this gift which comes in God’s time.
As difficult as forgiveness is for the victim, it is often harder for the perpetrator. James Alison stresses what he calls the “intelligence of the victim.” That is, the victim often knows the truth of the victimage mechanism in spite of society’s lies while those telling the lies continue to believe them. Jacob never showed repentance for what he had done and he could not believe in Esau’s forgiveness. Joseph’s brothers came to see the truth of what they had done but still struggled with believing that Joseph really had forgiven them. Here is the catch about forgiveness. Although Jesus reveals the pre-emptive quality of God’s forgiveness, the gift is not received until one realizes the need for it. Like Peter, we have to hear the cock crow and like Saul, we have to hear the question: “Why are you persecuting me?”
As hard as forgiveness is for serious trauma, we often find it less difficult to rise to such occasions than to the daily nickle and dime annoyances. Like respect and humility, forgiveness is a full time job. Even after forgiving serious hurts, the little slights, acts of rudeness or other petty irritations have us flaring up in anger. Before we know it we have snapped a retort or filled our minds with vengeful thoughts. This is why we need to be constantly mindful of living in God’s presence, the first step of humility, to build a habit of forgiveness. At bottom, respect, humility and forgiveness amount to renouncing mimetic rivalry. Jesus is the forgiving victim because he renounced mimetic rivalry.
From navigating the matrix of human desires all around us to handling mimetic processes that move in a persecutory direction, we need to remember constantly the need to be grounded in God’s Desire. In both his Gospel and his epistles, John provides us with the rich term menein, which means to rest, abide, remain, and dwell. Most or all of these meanings apply to each use of this verb. When two disciples “stay with Jesus,” they are abiding with him. After Jesus fed the large crowd of people in John’s Gospel, an event with strong Eucharistic overtones, Jesus tells the crowd that they should desire the “bread from Heaven,” a phrase that connects the bread to the manna the Israelites received in the desert. Further along, Jesus says: “Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them.” Once again, we have the verb menein, abide. After the Last Supper, Jesus uses the image of the vine and the branches, where we are connected to Jesus as the vine and, through the vine, with each other. Again, we are to abide in Jesus as he abides in us.
St. Benedict wrote very little about deep interior prayer, a practice that drops us deeply into God’s Desire, but his few words speak volumes. He begins, again, with respect and humility. We must “lay our petitions before the Lord God of all things with the utmost humility and sincere devotion.” Like humility, deep interior prayer is a full time job, one that requires the deep surrender of all mimetic rivalry. Given the acceleration of violence and mimetic strife in the world today, seeking this grounding through deep prayer and respectful love has become a necessity rather than a luxury for people like St. Teresa of Avila. Not even such deep union through prayer constitutes a magic bullet that shelters us from destructive mimetic processes in the culture, especially the systemic lies currently in effect. We have seen how St. Anselm of Bec stumbled over cultural forces when attempting Atonement theology. The great Cistercian mystic St. Bernard of Clairvaux wrote some of the most sublime works of union with Christ as the Bridegroom in his commentary on the Song of Songs. But Bernard also encouraged the crusades to the Holy Land. At least Bernard was disillusioned by the result, and when he found out that crusaders were attacking Jews along the way, he spoke out in their defense. In this regard, his vision in Christ transcended the usual cultural perspective of his time.
One of the greatest of all Christian mystics is Julian of Norwich. Few writers in the Christian centuries have absorbed the Gospel so deeply as to see above the persecutory elements of the current culture as she. Whereas even many great mystics have projected some wrath onto God, Julian is remarkably free of any such projection. We all know how easy it is to react to the sinfulness of others with anger, whether because we or loved ones have been injured or out of self-righteousness and the desire to feel better about ourselves by denigrating others. We then assume that God is at least as angry and wrathful as we are. But Julian’s visions convince her that human sin does not provoke God’s anger but rather compassion. “As it was shown that I would sin, in just the same way was the comfort shown—safety and protection for all fellow Christians.” Note how she involves “all fellow Christians” with everything she says, never losing sight of her place in the Body of Christ. Few visionary mystics have written more profoundly and sensitively about the suffering of Jesus on the cross. Particularly powerful is her stark description of Jesus’ severe dehydration. Devotion to the suffering Jesus is a powerful way to sympathize with Jesus as victim and so sympathize with all other victims. But sensitivity to Jesus’ sufferings have often inspired anger and rage at the perpetrators, quite the opposite of Jesus’ own lack of retaliation when he returned from the grave with forgiveness. Jesus assures Julian of his love even in the face of such horrible abuse, saying: “‘If I could suffer more, I would suffer more.’” Thus stressing God’s love, Julian reflects: “And when He had thus often died (or was willing to), still He would set it at naught for love; for He considers everything but little in comparison to His love.” Here we see humility and forgiveness on the part of Jesus that reveals an absolute, infinite renunciation of mimetic rivalry. At the heart of Julian’s visions and reflections, she sees the deep truth that the most fundamental way that God is wholly Other is that in God there is no mimetic rivalry whatsoever, but only a Desire reaching out to nurture all persons. Here is the deepest mystery of “the breadth and length and height and depth” of God.