Saints as Models: We Can Be One Too

vocationersAtTable1On the Feast of All Saints we are often encouraged to look up to the saints as models. Usually we point to St. Benedict or St. Francis and say: Follow his example. However, this feast is actually about us, the ordinary saints who didn’t make the cut for canonization in the Catholic Church or the Anglican calendar.

That is to say that this feast draws our attention to what we model to each other and what we do with what is modeled to us by others. René Girard has given us much insight into this matter. He is well aware, of course, of the importance of setting good examples in our actions but his concept of mimetic desire takes us much deeper into what modelling is really about. We do not just copy each other’s’ actions, we copy each other’s desires. We tend to desire what we see other people desiring. In this way, other people are constantly acting as models for us, usually without realizing it. Likewise, we are models to other people through what we desire. Putting it this way raises the question of who models to whom. This is actually a chicken and egg kind of question, especially since this whole process is usually unconscious. We are usually more conscious of what we desire then what we pick up from another person’s desire. The result is that we each thing we desire what we desire and we claim ownership of that desire.

Girard has demonstrated how this copying of each other’s desires, what he calls mimetic desire, can easily lead to rivalrous situations. This is especially true with things that cannot be shared. But once mimetic desire has become mimetic rivalry, it seems that nothing can be shared. So it is that Cain and Abel and Isaac and Jacob fought over blessings, thinking that blessings couldn’t be shared, and this after God had made Abraham a blessing for everybody. In scenarios of mimetic rivalry, each person is the model for the other, but a model who also has become an obstacle. This is a tight situation where at least one person loses. Actually, many lose in the crossfire of this kind of rivalry.

There is a different kind of modelling and that is what this feast calls our attention to. Jesus modeled behavior that was never rivalrous but was always expansive and generous. In this, Jesus was modelling his heavenly Father’s Desire which also is expansive and generous. To be a saint is to imitate Jesus but it isn’t primarily a matter of external imitation. To model ourselves on Jesus means to model ourselves on Jesus’ desires. If we want what Jesus wants, we find ourselves wanting the good of other people. To begin with, we realize there are plenty of blessings to go around and we want to be blessings to other people the way Abraham was made a blessing for everybody by God.

There is an element of choice in whom we choose as our models. The disciples, for example had Jesus modelling non-rivalrous desire right before their eyes but they still modeled to each other rivalrous desires as to who was the greatest. We all know how easy it is to be caught up in rivalry so that we are tied up in knots over it with no escape unless someone else comes along to untie the knots. Untying the knots for other people is one way to model Christ. Such people have to be pretty good at not getting tied up in knots themselves to be good at it. This is one of the qualities of saints such as Benedict and Francis who provide models in generous desiring. Those of us who follow them, when at our best, or at least not our worst, are individual variants of their personalities.

René Girard said that when he first met Raymund Schwager, a theologian who worked fruitfully with Girard’s ideas for many decades, he said that Raymund made him doubt his theory because Raymund had no mimetic rivalry in him. That was my experience with him as well. The professors at Innsbruck who studied under him show the same qualities. Not only do they imitate Schwager’s thinking but they also imitate his desires for the good of other people. This is how we can be saints in ordinary ways in our ordinary lives.

The Affirmative Way

churchDistanceBlossoms - CopyIn Christian theology and much more so in mysticism the negative or apophatic way and the affirmative way are posited as a fundamental contrast but actually they are two sides of the same coin. We can’t get anywhere if we can’t say anything about God and yet everything we say about God has to be wrong. God isn’t a rock on somebody’s front lawn any more than God is Pure Being. The dark cloud on Mount Sinai, the Cloud of Unknowing and the Dark Night all indicate negation and yet dark clouds and dark nights are still images that have to be denied. With that said (or unsaid) I will focus on the affirmative way even as I have to negate it at every turn and I will relate the affirmative way to mimetic theory.

Many see God in nature.  Even unbelievers tend to feel some reverence when they see mountains and trees and squirrels scurrying about.  The stars in the sky and stones and lakes and growing things all resonate with God’s Desire. God has profound respect for even the smallest pebble and hazel nut because God willed them to be. The more we participate in God’s Desire, the more we also will respect what is in nature and, although we must use nature, we will use nature in a sharing way rather than dominate it. Nature does not grasp at anything. It just is. This is why nature can teach us to desire in a non-rivalrous way.

The affirmative way is often experienced in human relationships. We see Christ in other people even though they do not always (or often) act like him. While the lilies of the field do not strive for the things of tomorrow, people do. In marriage, at least when it works reasonably well, one’s spouse is the primary image of God to the other. There is nothing romantic here as each partner knows very well the foibles and vices of the other. In community life, such as in a monastery, there is not, of course, the focused spousal relationship (except with God) but we have daily opportunities to see Christ through the struggles and kindnesses of others in the community. The image of Christ in the Gospels helps us straighten out the distortions that other people create even as Christ plunges us deeply into his presence within them. Learning to resonate constructively with the desires of other people is part and parcel of learning to resonate with God’s Desire.

rouault clown

One way we participate in God’s image is by creating art. No Lilly pad looks like a painting by Claude Monet but the dissolving images of lily pads on his canvases cause us to resonate with the inner life of these lily pads and to see them in real life in ways we never would otherwise.  The flowers in Georgia O’Keefe’s painting are atomic explosions. Thanks to J.R.R. Tolkien and his Ents we know how God feels in the rumbling roots of trees. Our sense of the sorrows of others is never the same after seeing any of the mournful clowns in the paintings of Georges Rouault, not to speak of the overwhelming agony in his paintings of Christ. We resonate with a certain deep level of Christ’s love through Rembrandt’s famous painting of the Prodigal Son.

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Probably no person experienced Divine Love through a human being as the fictional Dante did with Beatrice in The New Life and the Divine Comedy. In real life Dante seems to have had no more contact with Beatrice beyond being waved at while passing in the street. But in Dante’s imagination the ever deepening smile of Beatrice as she leads Dante to the heights of Paradise transfigure the smiles of those we love on earth.

Music is quite apophatic in that, in itself, it has nothing to do with images and refers to nothing beyond itself. Although music might be set to words, it resists being explained in words. There is a sense of mystery caught in the motets of Thomas Tallis that is not caught in any other way. The constantly shifting keys and moods in the Schubert piano sonatas defy explanation. Music is, however, highly sensuous and it resonates deeply with our mirror neurons. Simple hymns are magnified throughout our bodies when sung in congregations.

Scripture, and not least the Gospels, are filled with images that must both be posited and negated. We know God is not a fretful woman who loses her money and people are not small round metal objects. But the Parable of the Lost Coin teaches us how solicitous God is for us and how precious we are in God’s sight. In John, Jesus says he is the bread from Heaven but resists being taken as only a distributor of bread.  In the Eucharist, we know Jesus is not bread and wine and yet we taste Jesus in the bread and wine and are fed by him so that Jesus penetrates into deep layers inside us that we will never know of except through a glass darkly.

Care for the Small Child

HolyFamilybyGutierrezIt is well-known that humans can be competitive, sometimes just for the sake of being competitive. Competition tends to draw rivals close together, even if, and perhaps especially if they really hate each other. People who are close to each other to start with are often competitive just because they are close to each other. Sibling rivalry is an old story as the story of Cain and Abel tells us. René Girard attributes this phenomenon to mimetic desire. The reason for the rivals’ competition is because they want the same thing. This does not happen by chance. The desire of one person inspires the desire of another. Often the mutual desire is instantaneous, or at least seems so. In any case, when two or more people fight over who is the greatest, each person thinks it is the others who are copying him or her and never the other way around. Girard further suggests that when this kind of rivalry spreads through society, it leads to a social meltdown that is usually resolved by the mimetic desire focusing on one person who is blamed for the crisis and who becomes a victim of collective violence. We see all these elements in a nutshell in today’s reading from Mark. Jesus tells his disciples that he will be betrayed “into human hands” and put to death. And then the disciples fight about who is the greatest, the very thing that has been happening on a broader scale in first century Palestine and so has made Jesus the designated victim of the social tensions around him.

All of this suggests that mimetic desire is a bad thing but that is not so. Mimetic desire is built into humanity by our Creator and therefore, in itself, it is good. It is good because it is the basis of deep connections between people. It is through mimetic desire that our parents and other caregivers initiate us into the world by sharing their desires for certain foods and learning to share desires for the well-being of other people. This is the significance of what Jesus does when confronted with the tense silence that greets his question: “What were you arguing about on the way?” Jesus places a child in their midst and tells them: “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.” Jesus doesn’t reprimand his disciples as we think he should and as most of us would in his sandals. What Jesus does is very simple. Caring for a small child is the deepest manifestation of positive mimetic desire. Jesus subtly breaks up the closeness among the disciples that is brewing through their discord and instead unites them in their desire to care for the small child. This story puts before all of us the choice of how we will connect with the desires of other people: Will it be in rivalry or in nurturing others?

What Really Makes Us Unclean?

AndrewPreaching1Jesus pleaded for understanding when he threw out the words: “There is nothing outside a person that by going in can defile, but the things that come out are what defile.” (Mark 7: 15) He has just been debating with the Pharisees and lawyers about what is clean and unclean. He and his disciples had been accused of being unclean because they were unwashed, something that would make them unclean in today’s polite society as well. However, Jesus may not necessarily have been unwashed by our standards. The Jewish Law as understood by the Pharisees required a specific way of washing right up to the elbow and no other way of washing counted.

In a follow-up discussion with his disciples, Jesus shifted to the intake of food and said the food we take in does not defile us or make us unclean, but actions and attitudes that come out from the human heart can defile us. Mark adds that with these words, Jesus had declared all foods clean. Jesus is suggesting that certain foods had been scapegoated when they were declared unclean, with the foods being blamed for uncleanness regardless of what is in the human heart. Perhaps rejecting some foods as unclean is no big deal but Jesus is calling attention to our tendency to consider other people unclean, polluting.

With our mimetic resonance with the desires of other people, we ingest the desires of others just as we ingest food. If we experience desires that make us uncomfortable in any way, including those that should, we blame other people for arousing the desires in us and we protect ourselves by expelling them. Jesus is telling us that just as foods do not make us unclean, other people do not make us unclean either. It is what we do with the desires of other people that make us clean or unclean. We can indeed be corrupted by bad company but if we spew out the envy and slander and pride we ingested from others back at them, or, more likely, at others with fewer defenses, then we ourselves are bad company threatening to corrupt others.

This gives us another angle on Jesus’ famous warning that if we judge, we will be judged, because when we judge, we see the speck in the eye of the other but don’t see the log in our own. (Mt. 7: 1-5) We think that any envy, deceit or licentiousness we experience in ourselves comes from the other, and maybe we do catch these traits from another, like catching a virus. But a virus caught from another only hurts us if our own bodies react in destructive ways to make us sick. Likewise, the envy, deceit and licentiousness of another only make us sick if allow them to flare up inside of us. If we then expel them in the direction of others, they become the victims of what has come out of us. Even when defiling desires really are coming out of other people, our own defiling desires in response only magnify the impurity in the social atmosphere. That is, the uncleanness is neither in ourselves nor in the other. Defilement occurs only in relationships built upon projecting and expelling the perceived defilement of others.

If we should pull the logs out of our own eyes rather than judge others, then a strange alchemy can take place where what we take in from others becomes pure, or at least becomes a lot less impure than it was, and the social atmosphere becomes better. When the social atmosphere gets better, we can all breathe in the Holy Spirit.

Christian Community (6): The Church as Bride of Christ

NewJerusalemAnother biblical image of the Church is the Bride of Christ. Paul admonishes husbands to love their wives “just as Christ loved the Church and gave himself up for her in order to make her holy by cleansing her with the washing of the water of the Word so as to present the church to him in splendor, without a spot or winkle of any kind.” (Eph. 5:25-27) Here, Paul interweaves the image of spouse with that of the family as a whole with its hierarchical aspects. Before taking too much umbrage at the apparent subordination of women to men in these verses, it is important to note the Christological dimensions of these admonitions. The husband is the head of the woman as Christ is the head of the Church. That is, the husband must first subordinate himself to Christ before he can properly function as the head of anybody else. By saying that Christ gave himself up for his bride, the Church, Paul makes it clear that subordinating oneself to Christ means subordinating oneself to the self-giving of Jesus, a self-giving that took him to the cross. This doesn’t leave any room for dominating anybody in a domineering manner. Indeed, although parents have authority over children, Paul cautions against “provoking them to anger.” (Eph. 6:4)

In Revelation, the seer sees a new Jerusalem “coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband.” (Rev. 21:2) This deepens the Christological dimensions of the bridal imagery for the Church. Throughout this book, the seer sees imperial violence for the destructive force that it is and its inevitable collapse under its own violence. Meanwhile, although the Lion of Judah was announced to make an appearance, presumably to exact divine vengeance, which is what most people expect and hope for, what actually appears is “a lamb appearing as if it had been slaughtered.” (Rev. 5: 5-6) That is, just as Jesus confounded the peoples’ expectations of what kind of Messiah they would get, the risen Christ confounds these expectations yet again, which is precisely what the risen Christ died when he ascended to Heaven and sent the Holy Spirit.

There is a paradox in this bridal imagery because, although  spouses are fundamental to families, they share an intimacy that other members of the family simply cannot share. In fact, the fecundity of the spousal relationship, that most usually manifests in producing children but can take many other forms for nurturing other people, requires the unsharable intimacy at its core. I have noticed acts of intimacy among spouses that go beyond physical acts of affection that show the depth of their union, such as sharing food off each other’s plates at meals. This is something I notice when I am the table server at the monastery.

The Church, as Bride of Christ, is foreshadowed by Hosea who married a prostitute and remained faithful to her throughout her infidelities. The prostitute, Gomer, stands for unfaithful Israel and for unfaithful us to this very day. More positively, the Church as bride is also foreshadowed in the Song of Songs where the playful hide-and-seek games of the lovers celebrates the hide-and-seek games we play with God and God plays with us.

The stronger paradox of the image of the Church as Bride of Christ is that every member of the Church shares the marital intimacy with God. That is, we share marital union with Christ and with each other. In this way, the image of the church as “living stones” is personalized in a deep union through mimetic resonance with one another in Christ’s Body. It is this image we see acted out at the Wedding at Cana where Jesus is the bridegroom and we are the Bride. The deeper we move into brideship with Christ, the more subordinationism among humans melts away and we experience our fundamental equality and unity in Christ. Within this union, Christ is the head of each and every one of us in an intimacy beyond our imagining even at times we experience in in fleeting moments.

See also: Christian Community (3), Mimetic Resonance, Strange Wedding

Bread that is Enough

eucharist1In reflecting on the journey through the desert, Moses in Deuteronomy says that God humbled the people to teach them—and us—that we do not live by bread alone. (Deut. 8:3) So often we think that our needs are biological and if we can fill them we’ll be just fine. But somehow the daily bread we pray for every day is not quite enough. Actually, the Greek word epiousion usually translated as “daily” means something quite different. Literally it means super-substantial which is a philosophical mouthful. To add to the puzzle, no other use of the word has been found, not even among Greek philosophers. It has been interpreted as referring to the Eucharist which is both bread and more than bread, but it seems anachronistic to suggest that Jesus was sneaking some medieval scholastic theology into the prayer he was teaching his disciples. On the other hand, it is understandable that medieval scholastic theologians like Thomas Aquinas would understand the word eucharistically. Obscure as the Greek word’s meaning is, the one thing that is moderately clear is that it suggests that physical daily bread that is enough to live on biologically is not enough and we need more. In this respect it could be a brief commentary on the just-quoted verse from Deuteronomy.

There are many ways we speak of needing more than bread, most often by noting our need for a meaningful life. After all, eating and sleeping doesn’t add up to very much no matter how good the food is. Given that, it is instructive that in the desert journey and in the aftermath of Jesus’ feeding the multitude in the wilderness, the people seem to be interested in more food  than in a sense of meaning to life. In John, in spite of the abundance of the feeding in the wilderness, the crowd demands to have this bread always. If we remain stuck at this level, various distortions follow.

The complaints that Moses should have left the people in the “fleshpots” of Egypt is an egregious example of this sort of distortion. Maybe the fare in the desert isn’t luxurious but the Israelites were slaves in Egypt and slave owners have never, in all of world history, gained any kind of reputation as servers of opulent meals to their slaves for all the work slaves might do in serving such meals to others. Further on, the manna appears as if from heaven and the Israelites gather it. Those who gathered more and those who gathered less all had “enough.” They were warned not to try to gather more than enough but many tried it anyway and the manna became foul and full of worms. Quite an apt image for what we get when we try to get too much. Our tendency to try to gather more of anything than we need is an indication that we need more than bread but we are trying to meet that need by gathering more bread. Usually what gathering “more” means is gathering more than other people for the sake of having more than other people. Once we want more than others, it is still never possible under any circumstances to have enough because if we already have more than others, we’ll still want more to make sure they don’t catch up.

In John, when Jesus says that he himself is the bread, he is clearly taking them to a meaning that would bring home the truth that humanity does not live by bread alone. If they really come to him, they will have enough: they will never hunger again. Or will they? Jesus says that they have to believe in him. Raymund Brown says that faith means giving their lives over to the way of Jesus. Will we do that? What is the life Jesus gives us like?

In Ephesians, Paul says that the life Jesus gives us consists of humility, gentleness, patience, and bearing with each other in love. We are to be one Body in Christ, the same body that we consume in the Eucharist. Being twisted to and fro and being blown about by every wind of doctrine is a powerful way of illustrating what it is like to be caught in the insatiable desire to have what everybody else wants and to have more of it. In contrast, the Body of Christ is solid, anchored. Where the winds of doctrine leave us famished no matter how much bread we have, in Christ’s Body we are gifted with being prophets, apostles, pastors, and teachers all being built together in Christ’s Body. That is, in Christ’s Body we all have enough because we are always feeding one another at all levels of our being as we build each other up in love. Sounds like life to me. Let’s try it.

Mimetic Resonance

Xenia1If we desire through the desires of other people, do we have any freedom in our desires, or are our desires determined by the desires of others? And then are other people’s desires determined by ours? This starts to look like a vicious circle, similar to the vicious circle of mimetic rivalry where nobody started the fight; it seems that it had no beginning and maybe will have no end. Actually, this vicious circle of determining each other’s desires undergirds the vicious circle of mimetic rivalry. Nobody starts a cycle of desire; it was already there before it started, or so it seems. (See Human See, Human Want.)

Questions of free will and determinism are the staple of philosophy, often starting with Philosophy 101. Most of us are humiliated at any notion of not being totally free in our desires and our actions. After all, many of our ancestors fought for freedom and many of us are still fighting for it. Besides, if we are not free in our actions, we are not responsible for what we do and we can’t hold anybody accountable for anything. On the other hand, we there are well-known factors that seem to compromise freedom. Psychoanalysis often suggests we are determined by our subconscious, at least until we become more conscious of what is there. Social and environmental forces can greatly shrink options for many. St. Paul writes about how we are slaves to sin unless freed by Christ. What about mimetic desire?

Mimetic desire is often presented in small scenarios such as two people in a bookstore converging on the same book on the sale table. Were both determined by mimetic desire beyond any free will? In the broader scheme of things, many people model many desires to us to the extent that we simply cannot imitate all of them all of the time. That is, there is a lot more going on than two people converging on the sale table. Do we choose what model to follow when there are many of them? It seems likely that in such cases we do make choices, or at least we can and do make them some of the time. To the degree that mimetic desire is deterministic (if it is at all), the desire modeled by the most people will likely win out, or the desire modeled by the person with the greatest impact, such as a parent or best friend will have the strongest effect, maybe even a determinative one. If most of my friends like Mozart, chances increase that I will like Mozart. But then why do I hang out with a Mozart crowd instead of a Led Zeppelin crowd? Of course, this question only applies if both crowds are moving about in my environment.

One can speculate endlessly about such questions but I am going to cut to the chase with a suggestion that gives us a sense of direction for approaching them. The way mirror neurons seem to work is that they resonate with the visible intentions of others. (See Mirroring Desires) These intentions are fueled by desires. This resonance happens on a pre-conscious level. That is, we resonate with the desires of others before we know it is happening, and maybe we never realize it is happening. Our environments are complex and that means that we are resonating with many desires. Many of us working with Girard’s thought call this a field of desires, using an analogy with the gravitational field in Einstein’s physics. Just as moving objects exert a force on other moving objects, desires in a field move other desires in that field.   At this level, I wonder if “mimetic desire” is actually the best term for this phenomenon. Are we necessarily desiring what others are desiring at this stage? Maybe, at least in some cases. But maybe not. I suggest that we use the term “mimetic resonance” for this stage of interacting with the desires and intentions of others. This pinpoints the reality that all of these desires are exerting an influence on us while our desires are influencing them in return.

This mimetic resonance tends to be pre-conscious but it is possible to cultivate a greater awareness of this resonant mimetic field through self-discipline. Of course, the more people who model this self-discipline, the better the chances that I might. These resonances may pull us primarily in one direction or they might pull us in many, depending on how homogeneous or heterogeneous the environment. Sooner or later, usually sooner, we have to act on some of these ambient desires and that is where it is more meaningful to speak of “mimetic desire,” even if this mimesis is still not conscious. So when one person reaches for the book on the sale table that another had just looked, and the first person becomes more interested in the book than before, we are seeing mimetic desire in action, even if neither believe they area imitating the other.

So let’s consider introducing “mimetic resonance” into our vocabulary?