On Being a Blessing for All

BenedictChurchStatue1Abraham’s call to leave his country and kindred has been a monastic trope ever since there was a monastic presence in Christianity. Entering the monastic life does entail leaving behind the life one had been leading up to that time. It is also a venture into the unknown. Reading books on monasticism or even visiting monasteries do not fully prepare one for life after actually entering. The author of Hebrews said that Abraham did not know where he was going and lived “as in a foreign land.” (Heb. 11: 9) The author of Hebrews was not writing for monastics but for a Christian community under pressure. For this author, all Christians have “no lasting city. (Heb. 13: 14) Abraham did not simply turn his back on his family and his culture. God told him that he would “be a blessing” and through whom all families would be blest. (Gen. 12: 3) This would include being a blessing for the family he had left behind. Monks, for that matter remain involved with their families of origin and offer help when it is needed. Benedict himself had left the Roman culture of his time in which we was well-placed socially to enter a new life in which he became a pioneer for many sons and daughters in the millennium and a half since his life.

St. Paul’s prayer that we “may have the power to comprehend, with all the saints, what is the breadth and length and height and depth” (Eph. 3: 18) is fitting for the monastic quest as we seek to know God deeply through prayer in the Divine Office, in the Eucharist, and in our hearts. It is significant that this deep prayer, even when done individually, is communal as Paul is praying that the whole Ephesian congregation will seek this depth in prayer. Benedict wanted his monastics to prefer nothing to the Work of God. He also wanted his monastics to “run on the path of God’s commandments, our hearts overflowing with the inexpressible delight of love.”

The closeness to God gained in prayer is imaged in the vine and the branches in John 15. As a branch clings to the vine, so should we cling to Jesus, keep the Abba’s commandments, and “abide in his love.” (Jn. 15: 10) This image of the vine and the branches is communal as the vine connects us deeply to each of the branches. Indeed, Jesus goes on to admonish us to love each other as we have been loved by Jesus and His heavenly Abba. It is through this love and not from intellectual study, that everything made known to Jesus by his Abba is also made known to us. The comprehending of the breadth and length and height and depth of God is a comprehension, partial to be sure, that comes from the same love that would lead us to lay down our lives for our friends if that should be required of us. In his Rule, Benedict would have his monastics serve one another. This applies to serving at tables, serving the sick, and in general tending to the needs of others.

Although we may be pilgrims and wanderers we, like Abraham, remain rooted in the hope for the city “whose architect and builder is God” (Heb. 11: 10) even as, like St. Benedict, we tend to the community we are called to serve in this life so that we may be blessings for all people.

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My reflections on the Rule of St. Benedict are available in my books Tools for Peace

 

Hope as Inheritance

churchDistanceBlossoms - CopyThe faithfulness of Jesus opened up a new way of living, a way hitherto inconceivable. In this way, Jesus is a pioneer of faith, as the author of Hebrews tells us. (See Faith as Faithfulness) A pioneer blazes a trail that others can follow which otherwise would be either very difficult or downright impossible. In some ways, Abraham had a harder time blazing the trail in that he didn’t even have Jesus to follow, but as Jesus says in John, Abraham followed Jesus’ trail retroactively by seeing Jesus and rejoicing. Abraham rejoiced in Jesus when he saw the ram caught in a thicket by its horns and understood what that meant. As Kierkegaard argued, it was not the willingness to give up Isaac that constituted faith but his belief in the promise made to him that his descendants would be as numerous as the stars in the sky and the particles of dust on the earth.

Abraham’s faith was grounded in hope, but it was not hope in the subjective sense in which we hope things will turn out okay. That is the hope we have when we read a story, say a story about a boy or young man who is about to be sacrificed, and we hope the boy somehow escapes that fate. Likewise, we might read the Gospels hoping that the hero escapes the cross, but he doesn’t and our hope is dashed. But hope is not dashed at all.

In a provocative paper, James Alison helps us redefine hope. By that I mean Alison helps us see how Jesus has redefined hope. To begin with, redefined hope is grounded in the death of Jesus that seemed to blot out all hope. Jesus’ being raised from the dead might be enough to revive hope in the subjective, “hopeful” sense but that did not redefine hope. What does redefine hope is that the risen Jesus adopted all of us as brothers and sisters so as to make all of us adopted daughters and sons of Jesus’ Father. Alison picks up on the dynamics of inheritance and runs with it. When his mother died, the family inheritance entered the process of coming to him and his two siblings, same as it does when we inherit from our parents. Alison and his brother and sister had not actually inherited the estate right away, but they already were placed in new status because the transition of transferring the estate was in process and one day it would be completed, which it was one fine day. They weren’t “hoping” they would get the estate; the estate was already theirs.

If we return to Abraham and Sarah, we see that their faith became strengthened by hope when they understood that the promise of heirs meant that they had already been made the progenitors of countless descendants even before the first descendent was born. It was because of his prearranged status as a forebear that Abraham could see the ram for what it was, at which point he also understood what the culture he was being led to was all about: that it was about sparing the sacrificial victim. Even when it looked like he would have no heirs after all, Abraham acted like the progenitor God has already made him to be and so he spared Isaac.

With us, the pre-established status is the opposite. We are not progenitors but heirs. This is why faith is the substance of things hoped for; the proof of things not seen. (Heb. 11:1) The substance is the testament of our inheritance. Alison says this substance is a demonstration of what is not seen. The change of status as an heir has already changed us: “At the testator’s death, the promised inheritance is substantially mine even when it is not yet in my possession, and because of that, I already now find myself starting to become a publicly visible demonstration, a reliable sign of what is on its way. Who I am is objectively being altered as someone else’s promise, their desire, moves towards its fulfilment in my reception of it.”
Let us follow this anthology further. Imagine a ten-year-old son of the owner of a vast estate who is the heir of that estate. Because of this status, although he is not yet the owner of the estate, his father takes him around to begin teaching him how to run the estate: how to handle the workers, make sure the foremen order supplies at the right time, etc. This boy spends time learning these things because he is the heir.

Now let us change the story the way God changed it. Imagine being one of the workers in the vineyard of this vast estate who is sweating profusely while the well-dressed boy coolly walks by with his father on his tour of the place. Imagine further being caught up in the rebellious fervor that spreads among the workers so that you go on strike and allow the grapes to grow wild. When the son, grown into a young man, comes to collect the produce, you join in the attack and kill the heir. Then comes the reckoning. You and your fellow workers are brought to the magistrates and you expect to suffer a grim fate for what you have done. To your shock, the son you had killed shows up at the court, very much alive, although the wounds inflicted on him are still there. This really has you shaking in your boots. But to your further shock, the father gets out his will and announces that the vineyard was bequeathed not only to the son but to all of the workers. More shocking still, the father and his son assure welcome all of you back to work in the vineyard as joint owners. As fellow heirs, you are ready to act like an heir who will work to keep the grapes from growing wild so as to produce so much wine for the wedding feast that they will never run out. So it is that hope, far from wishing for a happy ending to the story of the workers in the vineyard, is, in Alison’s words, “ a realignment of our whole way of being towards what really is, as what really is begins to manifest itself in us.”

Proceed to Love as Ultimate Respect

Faith as Faithfulness

altarDistance1Faith is often presented as conformity to a set of doctrines like those laid out in the Nicene Creed. I believe in what the Nicene Creed says but believing it isn’t faith. If we turn to St. Paul we find something different. It is often believed that Paul says throughout his epistles that we are saved by faith in Jesus Christ, suggesting that if we believe that Jesus died and rose from the dead, we will be saved. That is, we substitute a more primitive Creed for the Nicene. But this is not what Paul said. In his exhaustive and exhausting book The Deliverance of God: an Apocalyptic Reading of Justification in Paul, Douglas Campbell argues that Paul’s phrase should not be translated faith in Christ, but the faith of Christ. This doesn’t seem to make much sense because Jesus couldn’t have believed in any kind of doctrine. Paul must be talking about faith in some other sense. That is what Campbell thinks when he suggests that a better translation of the word Greek word pistis would be “faithfulness.” That is, Jesus’ faithfulness to his heavenly Father by enduring the mockery of humans and the cross and then being raised from the dead saves us. That is, the faithful acts of Christ save us. We are not saved by our faith; we are saved by Jesus’ faithfulness. This also fits the understanding of “faith” in the Hebrew prophets. When Habakkuk said that “the righteous live by their faith,” (Hab. 2: 4) he was saying that the righteousness live by acting in faithfulness to Yahweh. When James said that faith without works is dead, he was really saying that if there are no works there is no faith because works, the acts of faithfulness, is an integral part of faith.

We can see this point more clearly when we reflect that for Paul Abraham is the father of faith because of what he did when God called him by name. Abraham was told to leave the only life he had known and move to a land God would show him. This is precisely what we are called to do in baptism. We are to leave the life we have known, the life that has formed us and clothed us in what Paul calls “the old person” and move to a life we have never known, a life that will form us and clothe us in “the new person.” This may seem laughable to those of us who were baptized as infants but the baptismal vows of renouncing the world, the flesh and the devil, even if made on our behalf, are still our responsibility as we come of age. We find ourselves formed by the social matrix around us which René Girard argues is run primarily by mimetic rivalry and sacrificial mechanisms and we are called out of these social matrixes into a way of life grounded in the Forgiving Victim.

What makes Abraham’s journey so remarkable is that he was travelling into uncharted territory. He moved out of a culture based on sacrificial violence without a New Testament in his hip pocket to tell him what kind of story he was entering. In this way he was a pioneer of faith about as much as Jesus. Both put their lives on the line, though in different ways. Abraham only had a promise that his descendants would be as numerous as the stars in the sky, although he had born no children up to that time. Jesus hoped to receive from his heavenly Fathers descendants just as numerous (Jn. 17: 10) although it looked hopeless when even his disciples deserted him at the end. Abraham’s wife Sarai went with Abraham on this journey, making her also a great pioneer of faith. I doubt that either of them could have done it alone. It is because this pioneering move is so fundamental to Abraham’s faithfulness that Paul denies that being circumcised constitutes the faith that was reasoned as righteousness. (Rom. 4: 9-12) That is, Abraham was circumcised after he had set out for a new land.

Abraham’s geographical move was not enough, of course. Indeed, if faith has to do with migrating from a sacrificial culture, it is the spiritual geography that matters. After all, Canaan was as in the thrall of sacrificial culture as Ur of the Chaldeans. The real act of faithfulness was bringing Isaac back from Moriah. In a culture that demanded sacrifice so powerfully that even Abraham thought he had to participate in it, he listened to the voice from outside the system that told him not to lay a hand on the lad. On his way to Calvary, Jesus as a pioneer of faith (Heb. 12:2) had to believe that he had been sent from outside the sacrificial system and would return to a place outside that system after having cracked the structure for all time.

[For more on the near-sacrifice of Isaac, see Abraham out on Highway 61]

Proceed to Hope as Inheritance

The Earthquake that Saves

abyssIn Matthew’s Gospel, the Resurrection of Jesus causes an earthquake. Just as an earthquake shakes up the earth, the Resurrection shakes us up, fatally undermines the way we have lived our lives, and gives us a radical reorientation. But did the Resurrection have to be an earthquake? Could it possibly have been a smooth transition from a good quality of life to a better one?

According to seismology, an earthquake is caused by one or more faults under the surface of the earth. A fault can hold its position for some time but it is inherently unstable and it will slide sometime or other and cause the earth to shake. The Resurrection could not help but cause an earthquake because there were faults in human culture just waiting to shift when the event occurred. A look at the Old Testament readings we read during the Vigil can point out where the faults were and still are.

The story of the Flood shows us what Cain’s murder of Abel led to: a society overwhelmed with violence. They did not need God to create a flood to carry them away; their own violence had overwhelmed them like a flood. The near-sacrifice of Isaac by Abraham refers to the institutionalization of sacrifice to stave off the meltdown of the Flood. The people were convinced that somebody must die in order that the people might be saved. That is what Caiaphas said to justify the execution of Jesus. Abraham thought somebody must die until an angel (messenger) of God told him otherwise. In Jesus Risen in our Midst Sandra Schneiders points out that God wanted neither Isaac nor Jesus to die, but while Abraham obeyed God, Caiaphas and Pontius Pilate decided otherwise. Pharaoh’s Egypt was a society held together through institutionalized sacrifice: the enslavement of the Hebrews. When plagues struck, Pharaoh blamed the Hebrews and drove them out. God transformed the event into a deliverance from slavery. Like the people in Noah’s time, the Egyptians were overwhelmed by their own violence. (When Jesus welcomed the children that his disciples tried to keep away, he showed for all time that God is not a child killer.) These are the fault lines that could only slip and shake the earth when the angel of the Lord “descending from heaven, came and rolled back the stone and sat on it.” The guards, representatives of the sacrificial culture, became “like dead men.” Death is what sacrificial cultures lead to.

The angel’s words “Do not be afraid” are at least as earthshaking as the earthquake. These words of peace turn us upside down and around in circles. What is the man we killed to stabilize society going to do to us now that he is out and about again? Why would he tell us not to be afraid? What is this world coming to? Two women both named Mary who live on the margin of the society of their time, a society that would not let them testify in court as witnesses, are asked to be witnesses to this momentous news, to the momentous presence of life. They run off with “fear and great joy.” Mary and Mary don’t get far before they meet up with Jesus who greets them and repeats the angel’s words: “Do not be afraid.” Jesus de-centers us once again by taking us from the center of religious and political power to that backwater Galilee where he will start a new life for us. St. Paul says of the Hebrews who were delivered from Egypt that we all “passed through the sea and all were baptized into Moses in the cloud and the sea.” (1 Cor. 10:2) When we renew our baptismal vows, we renewed our commitment to being overwhelmed by God’s deliverance from a sacrificial culture that creates fault lines to a new culture based on the forgiving victim. These words are spoken not just to the two women but to the two guards and to each one of us. Sandra Schneiders says: “In the Resurrection God gave back to us the Gift we had rejected. Can we accept the gift of peace this time around? Can we spread the news to others and, most important, to ourselves that we have been delivered from the flood waters of our violence to a new land, a new way of living where we do not need to be afraid?

Mimetic Blessing through Abraham (2): Abraham’s Offspring

Jacob_Blessing_the_Children_of_Joseph_-_WGA19117[Continuation of Mimetic Blessing through Abraham (1): Cain and Abel

God promised Abraham that he would have as many descendants as the dust of the earth. (Gen. 13:16) I like the later image of the stars in the sky and the grains of sand on the seashore (Gen 22:17) but the earlier image ties in with the creation of humanity out of dust, thus making it clear that descendants of Abraham (like us) are part of God’s ongoing creation. That’s how expansive God’s blessing and being God’s blessing can be.

When Abraham and his nephew Lot found there was tension between their herdsmen, Abraham suggested that they separate and he gave Lot the choice of taking the land to the left or the land to the right. This is quite the opposite from what most of us do which is the first see what the other desires and then desire it for ourselves. Instead, Abraham renounces desiring what his nephew desires and goes in the other direction. (The better-looking land turned out to have its liabilities but that is another story.)

Unfortunately, Abraham does not renounce mimetic desire and rivalry when it comes to his sons Ishmael and Isaac. In spite of being called to be a blessing and promised as many descendants as the dust of the earth, Abraham fails to believe that both of his sons can inherit the blessing he has been given by God. Far from fighting each other, Ishmael and Isaac play well together but they fall victim to the rivalry between their mothers. (Women are equal participants in the mimetic rivalry game in Genesis.) Abraham casts Ishmael out so that his favorite son born of Sarah can inherit the blessing. God, however, makes it clear that there is a blessing for Ishmael, too, even if Abraham did not believe it.

Following his father’s example, Isaac assumes that only one of his two sons can receive his blessing and, like Abraham, he wants to give it to his favorite son. Rebekah’s involvement in this rivalry causes this Isaac’s scheme to misfire. This time, it is the son who receives (takes) the blessing who is exiled where Jacob spends many years in rivalry with his kinsman Laban. When Esau re-enters the story on Jacob’s return, we can see that Esau has done well for himself and has no need to envy his brother’s success. Apparently there was a lot more of a blessing left for Esau than Isaac thought.

Jacob stubbornly upholds the family tradition of disbelief in the scope of God’s blessing and singles out his favorite, Joseph, over/against his ten older brothers. This time the fratricidal strife has enough brothers to create a scenario of collective violence. In contrast to the primitive sacred, however, the unanimity is not complete. Both Reuben and Judah, separately, make plans to save Joseph but they both fail. If they had stood up to their brothers, the mimetic process would likely have been redirected in a peaceful direction. The upshot of the story is that Joseph ends up becoming a blessing to Egypt and to lands far beyond and he saves his own family through his foresight in collecting food during the years of plenty. (Joseph’s making the Egyptians buy back the food that had been taken from them does make Joseph less generous than his God.)

Before he dies, Jacob blesses the two sons of Joseph: Ephraim and Manasseh. He crosses his hands to indicate that Ephraim will be greater than his elder brother, but he gives both boys the same blessing. Finally, through excruciatingly painful experience, Jacob has learned that God has blessings for all of Abraham’s offspring.

Mimetic Blessing through Abraham (1): Cain and Abel

Cain_slaying_Abel,_1608-1609Fratricide is a running thread throughout Genesis. The rivalry portrayed in its stories do not involve romantic triangles as in novels and plays, but rather, the disputes are over blessings, the other running thread throughout Genesis.

In Creation God blesses humanity with all that God has created, but humanity rejects that blessing for the sake of one tree that then shrank to a barren landscape. To begin the process of re-gathering a scattered humanity after the Tower of Babel, God calls Abraham to leave his father’s house, i.e. the scattered, rivalrous civilization he was born in, and move to a land God will show him. When Abraham leaves the entanglements of mimetic rivalry behind, whole new vistas of possibilities suddenly present themselves.

God then tells Abraham:  “I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing” and by him “all the families of the earth shall be blessed.” (Gen. 12: 1-3) We are so habituated to getting (or taking) blessings that we often fail to notice that God said Abraham would be a blessing and a blessing not just for him and his household but for all households. The intervening verse that God will curse those who curse Abraham is discordant. If God really is in the business of blessings, then God is not in the business of cursing. After all, Jesus did not curse those who cursed him and worse. However, we could say that when we curse someone who is a blessing, and through Abraham everybody is a blessing, then we are consumed by our own cursing.

We see all this already at play in the story of Cain and Abel who fight over a blessing and the supposed lack thereof. Genesis does not tell us why God accepted Abel’s sacrifice and not Cain’s. Girard’s theory of collective violence founding culture leads me to suggest that tilling the ground was a factor. There could have been mimetic rivalry among nomadic herders of sheep but tilling the ground like Cain was all the more conducive to rivalry over particular plots of land, such as Ahab’s coveting Naboth’s vineyard. The proliferation of vegetative dying and rising deities in mythology suggests that landed economy lead to mimetic crises and their resolution through collective violence. On the other hand, when we note the alleged zero sum blessings in the fratricidal strife that follows, maybe Cain jumped to the conclusion that when Abel was blessed, there could be no blessing for him.

What is decisive is that when Cain’s offering was rejected, or he thought it was, he embroiled himself with Abel, which was also to exile God. God called out to Cain, something God continues to do with violent humans to the end of time, but Cain would not let go of his preoccupation with his brother until he had killed him.

Afterwards, Abel’s blood cried from the ground. This is a marked contrast with the fratricidal myth of the founding of Rome where the blood of Remus was silent. Like Romulus, though, Cain was a founder of culture while Abel was the first prophet as defined by Jesus in Mt. 23:35, that is, a prophet is a victim. Abel’s blood seems to have cried for vengeance. The author of Hebrews, however, says that the blood of Jesus “speaks a better word than the blood of Abel.” More proof that God is in the business of blessing and not cursing.

Abraham out on Highway 61

sideAltarsIcons1The near-sacrifice of Isaac by his father Abraham, the Father of Faith, is the most troubling of stories. It should be. Chaim Potok’s young protagonist Asher Lev remembers the shiver he felt when he first heard the story. What is most troubling is the suspicion that Abraham was right to be willing to sacrifice his son. But was he? Jeremiah says Yahweh denounced the sacrifice of children, saying “that such a thing had never entered my mind.” (Jer. 19:5) Perhaps we are right to be troubled by any notion that Abraham was right to even let the idea enter his mind and even more troubled by any thought it ever entered into God’s mind.

Bob Dylan makes a bitter burlesque of the story in his song “Highway 61 Revisited.” The “god” who requires the sacrifice is a bully, warning Abraham that if he doesn’t comply: “Next time you see me, you’d better run.” To the question: “Where do you want to see this killing done? God said out on Highway 61”, the place for “a thousand telephones that don’t ring” and where to “put some bleachers out in the sun” to stage the start of the next world war. As with so many Dylan songs, the imagery reveals a society filled with mimetic rivalry and victimization where sacrifice and war become a spectator sport.

Soren Kierkegaard’s searing Fear and Trembling is at least as troubling as the biblical story. SK’s category of the “teleological suspension of the ethical” raises fears that the author celebrates Abraham’s willingness to do the deed. (What the fancy phrase means is: anything at all God says to do is right—end of story.) However, this troublesome category is coupled with what SK called “infinite resignation.” This is what Abraham had when he was willing to kill his son by God’s command. However, infinite resignation falls far short of faith and faith is what the biblical story and SK’s book is all about. Faith is receiving back what is given with infinite resignation “by virtue of the absurd.” Still troubled?

The most clear and piercing critique of this “infinite resignation” I know of comes in the powerful poem retelling this story by the World War I poet Wilfred Owen. Abraham builds parapets and trenches around the wood, suggesting the sacrifice of sons sent off to the war. But when the angel of the Lord admonishes Abraham to “slay the ram of pride instead of him . . . the old man would not so, but slew his son,/ and half the seed of Europe one by one.” This poet, one of many young victims of the war, and the creator of the bitter irony that poets like Bob Dylan use so well, has revealed once and for all the sacrificial horror of “infinite resignation.” That is, anyone infinitely resigned to sacrifice oneself without faith and will also sacrifice others, especially one’s own children, also without faith.

The typological interpretation of the story where it stands for God the Father’s being willing to sacrifice His only begotten son is also troubling. But Jesus did not go to the cross with infinite resignation. Rather, by “virtue of the absurd,” he believed that God, being the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob was God, not of the dead, but of the living.” (Mt. 22:32) St. Paul says we are saved by the faith of Christ, the faith that, on the cross, embraced not death, but the life of his heavenly father. The virtuous absurd, then, is the ecstatic embrace of God’s love so filled with life that there is no room for death for anybody.