On 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.
Since 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)
We often think of a prophet as a person who speaks the word of God such as Elijah and Isaiah do, but Jesus gives us a deeper definition of what a prophet at the climax of his diatribe against the scribes and Pharisees in Mathew: “so that upon you may come all the righteous blood shed on earth, from the blood of righteous Abel to the blood of Zechariah son of Barachiah, whom you murdered between the sanctuary and the altar.” (Mt. 23:35) Here, the prophet is one who says not a word but speaks the Word of God nonetheless in the sense that Abel’s blood cries from the ground.
This diatribe is often cited as a proof that Jesus, at least at times, was violent. It is worth noting, however, that Jesus didn’t shoot an automatic rifle at anybody; he spoke truth to presumptive power with a two-edged sword for a tongue. More importantly, these harsh words are followed by Jesus’ wish that he could gather his “children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings.” Here we see very clearly the Two Ways of Gathering outlined in my blog post of that title.
In Luke, the lament over Jerusalem is put in a different, but similar, context. Warned by some Pharisees that Herod wants to kill him, Jesus calls him “that fox.” (Lk. 13:32) In preaching on this Lukan text, Prior Aelred here at St. Gregory’s, drew out the comparison of the fox and the hen. In the face of a threatening fox, Aelred suggested that Jesus might have been a better protector by being a tougher animal, such as the Lion of Judah. But no, Jesus assumed the role of a vulnerable hen gathering her chicks. Aelred went on to extoll Vicki Soto and her colleagues at Sandy Hook who covered as many of their small pupils with their bodies as they could to protect them, a contemporary embodiment of Christ the vulnerable, protective hen.
A fox scatters, while a hen gathers. What if Jesus had chosen to be a lion to deal with that fox Herod? It occurs to me that a lion would scatter all foxes who might threaten the chicks. Sort of like a superhero crushing the bad guys so that good guys like us can get on with our lives. Aelred noted that Jesus the Hen is not a popular image in Christian lore as is the Lion of Judah. The problem is, if Jesus the Hen gathers, then not only is Jesus the Hen trying to gather the scribes and Pharisees, but Herod and his court as well, thus robbing us of more favorite enemies.
One 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.
A desert monastic said that contempt and reproaching another person in thought will prevent us from seeing the divine light. The monastic pioneers of the fourth and fifth centuries were constantly admonishing each other to stop judging each other judgmentally. This admonition sounds good until we realize that we always have good reasons for our own judgmental attitudes toward people we know or know about.
In one of my favorite stories about the desert monastics, one of their number had committed an unspecified sin and the other monastics gathered to pass judgment on him. The wisest and most respected elder was slow to come and when he arrived, he carried a leaky basket full of sand. The puzzled monastics asked him what he was doing and the elder replied: “My sins are falling out behind me where I cannot see them, and you would have me judge this brother.” End of trial.
This story warns us that judging another person entails losing awareness of our own sins. The other person’s sins distract us from our own. René Girard’s mimetic theory helps us zero in on an even deeper problem. Reflecting on the shortcomings of others hooks us into a rivalrous relationship with them. Our judgmentalism hooks us into the desires that lead the other to that sin. Perhaps this is why we are often warned that we judge most harshly those people who do what we secretly want to do or maybe actually secretly do them. As with every rivalrous relationship, judging another makes that person an obstacle to self-understanding and, as the elder quoted above warns us, also creates an obstacle between us and God.
It isn’t enough to just look the other way as the desert monastics often did. What is needed is an involvement with the other that is not judgmental but loving. In another story, an elder is called to join other monastics in raiding the cell of a monastic who was harboring a woman. When the elder entered the cell, he saw a hamper and sat on it while the others searched the cell without finding the woman. After the elder sent the other monastics away, he stood up, opened the hamper where the woman was hiding and said to his brother and the woman: “Take care for your soul.”
The convoluted chapters about punishment in Benedict’s Rule (analyzed in Tools for Peace) hint at mimetic traps in dealing with delinquent monastics. Finally, he throws up his hands and says that prayer is the greatest remedy of all. In prayer, we make ourselves the equal of whomever we are inclined to judge and we open ourselves up to God.
Mimetic desire, especially when it is good mimesis, is easily overlooked. Usually it’s jousts and fisticuffs that get our attention. Mimetic rivalry drives the plots of novels. Mimetic sharing only drives the plots of lives lived well. (See Human See, Human Want)
When it was time for me to be clothed a novice, I chose Andrew as my religious name because of the example Andrew set by promptly answering Jesus’ call. I hoped, and still hope, that my patron would and will inspire me to listen for Jesus’ call every day, every hour, and follow that call. As a bonus, Andrew was the patron saint of Scotland and my Marr ancestors came from there.
As I listened to the Gospel at Mass this morning, I was struck by the communal aspect of the following. It wasn’t just Andrew who heard the call and followed Jesus; Andrew heard the call and brought his brother Peter with him. That is, Andrew entered the mimetic process of following Jesus and drew Peter into that same mimetic process. The next day, James and John were drawn into the same good mimesis of following Jesus, a rerun of yesterday’s story. That’s what good mimesis does. Like mimesis of any kind, it is contagious and it replicates itself.
Curiously, Andrew drops out of the Gospel accounts after his dramatic call except for noticing the boy with the loaves and fishes in the wilderness that touched off the greatest bonanza of good mimesis in world history. It is the other three, Peter, James and John who form the inner group of disciples who witnessed the raising of Jairus’ daughter, were present at the Transfiguration, and then fell asleep at Gethsemane. It is tempting to feel that my patron was slighted, but that would be bad mimesis.
It is more encouraging to notice that Andrew was also curiously absent in the fights among the disciples as to who was the greatest. This in-fighting helps make the Gospels “interesting” as it drives the plot until the mimetic issues in Jerusalem take over. Maybe Andrew just wasn’t “interesting” enough to mention. Maybe Andrew wasn’t pushy enough.
The point to being a follower of Jesus is not to be part of the inner circle of the inner circle. The point is to hear the call of Jesus and to listen to the way Jesus is calling others. This way, everybody and nobody is the greatest in the greatest story ever told.
The only biography of St. Benedict is by St. Gregory the Great. Gregory highlights the ways Benedict’s life was lived in imitation of the great figures in Scripture and most importantly of Christ himself. I have posted an article called Imitating Elisha that analyzes Gregory’s Life of Benedict with René Girard’s concept of mimetic desire. The result is a rich vision of the spiritual life for any Christian.
I have added an article called Gathering a Community in the Spirit which is an introduction to the Rule of St. Benedict. This chapter comes from Tools for Peace. Introductory chapters on both René Girard and Benedict are now available. If a dialogue between the two interests you, please buy Tools for Peace.
In one charming story, a monastic who has shared his cave with another, notes that they have never had a quarrel and proposes that they try to have one, like all other people. The other monastic says he doesn’t know how to start a quarrel. The first monastic puts a block of wood on the ground between them and says” “This block is mine. Now you say the same thing.” The second monastic said, “This block is mine.” “No, this block is mine,” insists the first monastic. “Okay, it’s yours,” says the other. And so they failed to have a quarrel.
Would these monastics have quarreled if the first had put a gem between them instead of a block of wood? The story about the children and the balloons in “Human See, Human Want,” suggests that question is whether any article at all is given worth by the desire of the other. A block of wood can become as desirable as a gem if somebody else desires it and another person gets caught up in that desire.
If these two monastics were not quarreling, what were they doing? The desert literature tells us they would have spent large amounts of time in prayer, much of that in psalmody, and then the rest weaving baskets they would sell to give the money to the poor. That is, they were not focused on each other but were opening themselves to God’s Desire and to the needs of other people. Prayer and helping other people does not guarantee there will be no quarrelling, but the two combined surely help quite a lot.
My story “Haunted for a Time” in From Beyond to Here offers a counter-example to these two desert monastics. At the beginning of the story, Murray is so absorbed in his possessiveness of his comic books at the expense of others that he cannot see anything beyond that. Some unsettling apparitions from a ghostly figure challenge him to reconsider his ways.
My book Tools for Peace examines Benedict’s teachings on stewardship of material goods in the monastery that build on the insights of this simple story of the two desert monastics who failed to be movers and shakers in the world, but also failed to have a quarrel.
At a children’s party, the house was filled with balloons and the children were all happily playing with them until one child suddenly grabbed one balloon and yelled: “This balloon is mine!” Suddenly, all the children forsook the other balloons and fought over the one balloon. This story, told me by an eye witness, is a classic example of what René Girard calls “mimetic desire.” Just as we imitate each other in actions, dress, etc., at a deeper level, we imitate each other’s desires. That is, once one child voiced a desire for one particular balloon, all the other children instantly desired that one balloon and none other. Later in life, one youth’s desire for a certain girl triggers a desire for the same girl in another youth who had ignored her up to that point. So deep is mimetic desire that we often do not realize it is there and we claim our desires for ourselves alone.
This conflict, what Girard calls “mimetic rivalry,” might give the impression that mimetic desire is, in itself, a bad thing. That is not the case. Mimetic desire can easily be benign and non-conflictual. For example, my father shared his love of pizza and butterscotch sundaes with me and I desire them to this day. Likewise, a teacher who loves Shakespeare will try to instill the same desire for Shakespeare in his or her students.
In his book The Four Loves, C.S. Lewis suggests that the mark of a friendship is that the two friends are focused on a common interest more than on each other. This is mimetic desire working in a positive way. On the contrary, when two or more people fall into a mimetic conflict, they are focused on each other to the exclusion of anything else, most of all whatever it is they think they are fighting about.
We cannot avoid mimetic desire. We are tied into a sea of mimetic desire as soon as we are born. Mimetic desire connects us with other people whether we like it or not. So much for individualism. The question is whether we will be connected through expansive sharing or connected through constrictive conflict. Most important, we are born into God’s mimetic desire for us and for all other people. We are constantly faced with the choice of which direction we are willing to go with the mimetic desire we share with all others. Do we make war or do we make peace?