I have just posted an article called “The Desert Monastics ad Hidden Models.” Some of the stories in the article are stories I have already shared on this blog, but other stories are new to this blog. These are old stories so maybe some of you know them. If you don’t know them, you will be glad when you do. This paper was composed for the meeting of the Colloquium on Violence & Religion (COV&R) meeting at Cedar Falls, IA July 10-14.
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.
Peter was surprised when he had a vision of a sheet carrying all the animals listed in the Law as unclean accompanied by a voice telling him that God had made them clean. Peter was even more surprised when he was told to go to the house of an unclean Gentile named Cornelius and preach the Gospel to him. That is, God had made all humans clean.
We all have a hard time living without the comfort of knowing that some people, some things, are unclean. This fear that sustains us is the fear of what is Other. All we have to do is get to know “unclean” strangers and we will be happy and no longer afraid.
René Girard, however, would give us pause. Girard is often invoked when there is need to scold people for creating “out” groups to make them feel good about their “in” groups. Actually, Girard alerts us to our problems within our “in” groups. Prior to our fear of the Other is our fear of what is the same. Rivalry and the violence rivalry lead to does not originate in battles with strangers but with those closest to us. In Genesis, almost all of the strife is between brothers.
Girard suggests that this fratricidal strife tends either to the death of a brother or a reconciliation through killing somebody else. At the dawn of humanity, a tribe first struggled with rivalry within its own ranks and either imploded through its violence or came together through killing one of its members, who then was designated at Other, the monster who caused the commotion. Then the tribe held itself together on an ongoing basis by warring on other tribes who were designated as Other. In this regard we are not one wit wiser than the most “primitive” of people. A fundamental practice of statecraft today is to deal with rivalry and tensions within a nation by designating an enemy that the whole nation must fight.
Anthropologists such as Mary Douglas have demonstrated the human tendency to divide foods between those deemed clean and those considered unclean. Eating is the central activity of a community. We eat with those who are closest to us. However, as noted above, we also fight most with these same people who are closest to us. By dividing the food we eat between clean and unclean, we create a barrier between us and other people, between us as the “in” group and those in the “out” group. That is, we relieve our communal tensions by banding against those who eat “unclean” foods.
Here we come to the importance of Jesus’ admonition to his disciples, while at table, that they (we) love one another. Some scripture scholars have poured cold water on idealistic readers by saying that John was concerned only with love within the community. But Jesus’ saying that others will know we are Jesus’ disciples by our love makes it clear that this loves does extend beyond the immediate community. These reflections on “clean” and “unclean” further suggest that fostering non-rivalrous love within the community allows the community to reach out to others. This love will make everything and everybody clean and bring us all to one great table in the Heavenly Banquet.
“If there was just one person who could show everyone there is another way. . . . If someone stood up in the middle of the city, with everyone watching, and did something that brought them nothing in return, and happiness to others . . . it might start something that couldn’t be stopped.”
These words are spoken by a 13-year-old girl in The Midnight Charter, the first volume of the Agora Trilogy by David Whitley. These words are a powerful statement of a positive use of mimetic desire (see Human See, Human Want). Lilly says these words in a city called Agora (Greek for market), a city where everything and everybody is bought and sold and all receipts are stored in the city bureaucracy. Even emotions can be bought and sold thanks to a strange technology developed for the purpose. A sort of capitalism gone mad. This shows how deep competitive mimetic desire can be, as René Girard demonstrates. (See Violence and the Kingdom of God.)
While Lilly starts to put her idea into practice by starting an almshouse, something unprecedented in the city, her friend Mark is consumed by a mimetic process that puts him at the pinnacle of the society while too young (thirteen) to realize how delusionary it was until it was too late. (See Ignominious Glory, Glorious Ignominy.)
The fortunes of these two protagonists and the powerful social forces that surround them are explored with ever-increasing depth in the second and third books of the trilogy. In Children of the Lost, Lilly and Mark, suddenly thrust out of Agora, enter a wilderness where the subconscious (the “Nightmare”) engulfs the villagers who live there. Well, the emotions bought and sold in Agora have to go somewhere. The nightmare shows itself most strongly in an act of collective violence, the end result of the denial of mimetic desire. In the midst of all this, Mark begins to really learn how to be a caring human being.
The final volume Canticle of Whispers brings the trilogy to a stunning conclusion. Here, we meet another society, this one living underground, that turns out to be a collective puppet for the fragmented desires of those who live above them until they are freed by Lilly and Mark. The mimetic process started by Lilly in Agora continues in her absence because other people have imitated her desire to help others. One of the greatest strengths of the series is that many characters who seem fairly insignificant emerge in unexpected ways to have great significance, sometimes for ill, sometimes for good.
This trilogy shows us that here are Y/A novels out there that can instruct young readers and older seasoned readers as well, into the depths of mimetic desire. I strongly urge anyone working with youth to take notice.
It seems that every time a hurricane or other natural disaster strikes, there are some religious leaders who proclaim that the disaster was a punishment from God. This is an old game. During the Middle Ages, for example, plagues were routinely blamed on the Jews or on those who tolerated their existence in the city. Interestingly, such accusations are still leveled mainly at unpopular minorities, such as homosexuals. If God is punishing New York for its wickedness, why not suggest God is punishing the city for the misconduct of financial leaders?
Does Jesus go for this sort of blaming game? On the contrary, Jesus insists that the eighteen people killed when the Tower of Siloam fell on them were not worse sinners than the rest (Luke 13:4). Jesus sounds threatening when he says others will likewise perish if they do not repent, but Jesus is not exasperated by the people killed by the falling tower, but by the people who thought the victims were greater sinners. Jesus is reminding us that the disasters that fall on other people can just as easily fall on us, regardless of how good or bad we are.
A stronger repudiation of this blaming theology comes in John 9 when Jesus’ disciples ask if it was the blind man’s parents who sinned or the blind man himself that he was born blind. Jesus replies that neither were to blame, but the man was born blind that so the “works of God might be manifest in him.” That is, nobody was blamed for the blindness, but Jesus responded to the situation by giving the man his sight.
Most important of all, Jesus was executed because he was blamed for the social unrest in Jerusalem when any historian can see numerous causes that had nothing to do with Jesus. When Jesus rose from the dead, he did not cast blame on his killers, but returned as the forgiving victim. Is it credible that Jesus would encourage his heavenly father to send hurricanes to people who don’t measure up to his standards?
On the contrary, the story of the man born blind makes it clear that that the proper response to catastrophes is not blaming but compassion. That is, we should do everything we can to manifest God’s works in the face of these catastrophes. The name Satan means “Accuser.” In Revelation 12, Satan was cast out of Heaven when Jesus was raised into Heaven. With Jesus, there is no room for accusation. There is only room for healing the afflicted and doing everything we can to prevent or mitigate further catastrophes.
We all become at least slightly disoriented when we meet a person who is different. This disorientation is often mixed with fear and distaste, maybe even disgust. If we encounter someone really strange, such as a visitor from another planet or a ghost, our fear can easily turn into panic. Although most daily strange encounters are less drastic than that, we often find that we react with fear and disgust before thinking rationally when meeting even a mildly strange person. If we get to know the stranger, however, we often find that person to be a gift to us.
Fantasy stories give us the opportunity meet with the strange, the weird and the frightening and learn to overcome our fears enough to see the potential giftedness in these encounters. In “Merendael’s Gift,” the opening story in the collection From Beyond to Here, a boy named Eddie encounters a very strange creature with an elusive and frightening appearance, yet the creature communicates to Eddie a desire to give a gift that is very important. As the story unfolds, Eddie has deal with his fears, not only of the creature, whose name is Merendael, but of losing his social standing with the boys he hangs out with. Each story in Creatures We Dream of Knowing brings together one or more allegedly fantastical creature and one or more children. In “The White Tree,” for example, a mysterious white plant growing quickly where four backyards meet frightens some people but offers great musical gifts to those open to receive them.
As a Benedictine monk, I follow a monastic rule that enjoins hospitality as a major apostolate, second only to the ministry of prayer. We are constantly challenged to open our hearts to strangers, some of whom seem strange and some of whom really are difficult to deal with. Hospitality, of course, is a Christian virtue. The author of the Epistle to the Hebrews reminds us that, like Abraham, we may entertain angels unawares when we offer hospitality. I discuss Benedictine hospitality in my book Tools for Peace.
The story “Merendael’s Gift” and the others in From Beyond to Here and in Creatures We Dream of Knowing can help readers of all ages reflect on the challenge of welcoming the truly strange stranger into our lives and learn what God would have us learn from them.