The Five Kinds of Prayer (3): Penance

sideAltarsIcons1Much of what is written about penitential prayer is centered on personal, individual sin. However, our tendency to desire according to the desires of others suggests that a more interdividual model is needed in our approach to penance. To begin with, sin is never personal in an individual way. Our own participation in sinfulness is intertwined with the sinfulness of others. As with petitionary and intercessory prayer, penitential prayer, confessions of our sins to God, is an important way of becoming aware of our own desires in their interactions with others and what we are doing with them. The old list of seven capital sins from traditional Catholic teaching is a handy structure for a brief look at how to confess these sins in the light of our participation in mimetic desire.

Lust and Gluttony are the sins most grounded in the physiological structure of each person. There is a physical craving involved with these sins, but our physical urges in these areas are pulled by the advertising media and cultural factors where we want a particular kind of sexual mate or food or drink because they are presented as more desirable than various alternatives. In my first post on Respect, I noted the rivalry that surrounds what often passes for love in human relationships. Gluttony is not subject to rivalry in the same way but some people seem to make a point of consuming more than others as a way feel that they are “winners” in the game of life.

Both lust and gluttony are subject to bodily addictions that are easily exacerbated by mimetic rivalry. The exasperation of people who live with addicted persons often amounts to a contest of wills. This is perhaps where the term enabler is most applicable. That is, the enabler adds to the tension caused by the addictive behavior so that the addict feels that he or she “loses” by giving up the addiction and being healed. In fact, many enablers fail to cope with healed addicts. Family systems thought illustrates the systemic elements of addictive behavior and it reaches for the jugular of the social system, not the individual who is addicted.

Envy and avarice are the most mimetic of the capital sins. Envy, of course, is pure mimetic desire, wanting what somebody else has and usually preferring to destroy what the other has if the envious one cannot get it. Avarice is envy in advance, or peremptory envy. An avaricious person wants what others want and tries to get it before anybody else can. Such a one, for that matter, often tries to anticipate what others will want, make that thing desirable, and then grab before anybody else can.

Sloth is a sin that can be committed with little or no reference to anybody else except that the failure to perform deeds others need or would appreciate affects them. The Latin word is accidie and it means a lot more than laziness, although it includes it. Accidie is primarily a lack of seeking the good; staying in the dumps rather than make an effort for the good, especially for the things of God. One way we are afflicted by sloth is by not noting how the desires of others are affecting us. When we do that, the default is that we just float along on others’ desires without taking any responsibility for our lives.

Anger is the opposite of sloth insofar as it is energetic while sloth is lethargic. While Sloth is uncritically floating with the social mimetic process, whatever it is, anger is an equally uncritical participation in mimetic movement but one that is overcome by the contagion of the crowd’s collective anger. Anger, of course, is the fuel for mimetic rivalry and most particularly for the desire for revenge. The more revenge is fueled by anger, the less examination as to the appropriateness of revenge. We tend to think of anger as personal because we feel it physiologically in our bodies but anger is always relational, even if it is in relationship with oneself. Because of the involvement of body chemistry in anger, it poses the danger of falling into a substance addiction.

Pride and his cousin vainglory have already been examined at length in the posts on humility. In examining ourselves in confessionary prayer we need to be especially alert to pride that begins with tempting us to claim our anger, our possessiveness, our lust as our own, something to fight for as much as the people and things we think we want. In all mimetic rivalry, there is a strong dose of pride.

Above all, we need to remember in our hearts the Gospel’s revelation of the truth of sacred collective violence. As the culture of lynching in the US reminds us, collective violence can easily slip into a cultural matter—the way we have always done it—therefore an eternal “truth” when the real truth is that it is the old lie of the devil who has been a liar and a murderer from the beginning.

The sacrament of confession is well-known as a therapeutic exercise, one that lifts a heavy burden from us. Even for those who do not believe in penance as a sacrament find it important to confess their sins to another to get them off one’s chest.

The mimetic dimension of our sinfulness also impresses upon us the necessity of turning to the Other who is outside the system of the mimetic process that constitutes the principalities and powers to gain an alternative to them. The story of Peter walking on water—or trying to—illustrates this turning. The wind and the choppy waves represent our being overwhelmed by the mimetic movements that tend toward rage and persecution. When Peter looked at the waves instead of at Jesus, he started to sink. By himself, he would have sunk and drowned. By looking again at Jesus, he was pulled into the boat and taken safely to shore.

Continue to part 4: Thanksgiving

Respect (1)

churchDistanceBlossoms - CopyHumility and respect are the two fundamental attitudes that are most conducive to living constructively with mimetic desire and avoiding its more destructive potential. Both attitudes need to be habitual dispositions to be effective. Such habitual dispositions are not automatic the way many habits (especially bad habits) tend to be. They need to be renewed every day, every hour, or they will fall away.

Although St. Benedict attaches great importance to outward action, both in manual work and what he calls “the Work of God,” i.e. the Divine Office, Benedict also attaches much importance to the inner disposition supporting these outward observances. In his short chapter 20, “Reverence in Prayer,” Benedict says: “Whenever we want to ask some favor of a powerful man, we do it humbly and respectfully, for fear of presumption. How much more important, then, to lay our petitions before the Lord God of all things with the utmost humility and sincere devotion.” When the Gospel is read at the end of Sunday Matins, the worshippers should “stand with respect and awe.” After each psalm, we should stand in honor of the Trinity.

Humility and respect are so intertwined that it is hard to separate them. They are inseparable in the sense that one cannot have one without the other. However, there is some distinction between them in that respect is directed towards the other, whether God or our neighbor whereas humility is rooted in the self. I want to deal with respect first and then move on to humility.

The first question that comes to mind is: Why respect instead of love? Isn’t Love the primary Christian virtue? Yes, love in the sense of agape is the primary Christian virtue but I think we need to start with respect. It is a case of serving milk before solid food to make sure we are ready for it, trained “to distinguish good from evil” (Heb. 5:14). That is, respect is a prerequisite for love. If we try to leapfrog this prerequisite, there is a real possibility of mistaking lust and other noxious attitudes for love. A tragic example in the Bible is Amnon. He probably thought he loved Absalom’s sister Tamar but his use of force to rape her and his callous rejection of her afterwards makes it clear he had no respect for her and therefore no love. Love is often spoken of as a conquest or an attempt at one. Amnon conquered Tamar through a clever but devilish plot. Don Giovanni made such conquests by the hundreds If Leperello is to be believed. But does Don Giovanni show respect for Donna Anna, Donna Elvira or Zerlina in Mozart’s great opera? Not in your life. What erroneously passes for love sidesteps respect entirely and sidesteps love as well.

One never tries to win respect by conquest. There is no contest with respect, neither is there any mimetic rivalry in respect. Whereas love without respect tries to woo another person into conformity to one’s feelings for that other, respect does no such thing. Respect does not require that another person feel the way I do about anything. Respect is about relating to another, not winning anything. Maybe relating doesn’t seem like much compared to conquering another person. Actually, relating is quite an accomplishment because it involves conquering oneself.

Continued in Respect (2)