Living with Mimetic Desire through Meditation: An Introduction to a Practicum Workshop on Contemplative Prayer

FrJudeInChoir - CopyRené Girard’s Mimetic Theory has given us many important insights into the roots of human violence, both in the human heart and at the root of civilization. By revealing the entanglements of our desires with the desires of others and the way this entanglement easily and quickly leads to rivalry, even in people of good will, Mimetic Theory places strong demands upon us. Being a scholar and thinker, Girard wasn’t the sort of person to work out practical disciplines that might help us live by his theories, although his overall character as known to me suggests that he lived by his ideals very well. I have heard of one telling moment when he was asked how to live by his theory. René answered that it requires sanctity. There are many saints over the centuries who have taught spiritual practices that help us live with the challenges that Mimetic Theory brings to light.

Girard analyzed the interaction of human desires on a horizontal level where the workings of mimetic desire in a social matrix can be quite claustrophic. Here we can get hemmed in by the pressure of strong desires that either conflict or draw everyone in one direction that usually ends in persecution. It is this scapegoat mechanism committed at this horizontal level that is the basis of civilization. Given the mendacity that civilization so established requires, civilization has been built on lies since the beginning. This suggests that relief can only come from outside the system, from a desire vertical to the horizontal matrix. The question is, how do we tap into a vertical reality that rises above human mimetic rivalry and offers us an alternative to it?

Of the many disciplines that have been developed in the world’s wisdom traditions that help us tune in to reality outside the human mimetic system, I wish to focus on meditation, known as contemplative prayer or centering prayer in the Christian tradition. One of the earliest and most developed contemplative traditions arose within Hinduism by the sages whose teaching were recorded in the Upanishads. It is surely no coincidence that this withdrawal into meditation was accompanied by questioning and sometimes rejecting Vedic sacrificial rituals. Out of Hinduism, Buddhism arose, a tradition in which meditative practices remain fundamental. Buddhists treatises on meditation often show deep insight into the working of mimetic desire and the need to escape its violent aspects.

There seems to be a contemplative element to much ancient Greek philosophy but I haven’t found much in the way of contemplative practices there except perhaps the Pythagorean community, for which information is scanty. Judaism also produced little in this regard but the many references to meditating on God’s Torah, especially in Psalm 119, suggest that the study of Torah may have included a meditative aspect.

By the fourth Christian century, monasticism had become a highly organized institution. The earliest monastic literature of pioneers such as Anthony of Egypt and Pachomius refer to free-lance ascetics who initiated them into contemplative practices., suggesting that practitioners of contemplation go back to Christianity’s earliest years. The many challenges in Jesus’ teachings involving self-knowledge and self-discipline, especially the Sermon on the Mount, were enough to drive many people into the desert just as Jesus himself was driven out into the desert to prepare for his public ministry. The Beatitude “Blessed are the pure of heart for they shall see God” was among the most meditated on verses in all scripture in this early monastic movement. There are many ways this beatitude can be understood, but surely one of them is that the less a person is affected by rivalrous mimetic desire and the more attuned to the non-rivalrous model of Jesus’s Desire, the more pure of heart one is.

Contemplative prayer did not develop in Christianity as an antidote to mimetic rivalry. The purpose of contemplative prayer is to reach union with God through Christ under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. Even so, the more we learn of mimetic desire, the more we realize that union with God through Christ in the Holy Spirit is a powerful means of withdrawing from mimetic rivalry and developing habits of the heart that foster nurturing other people.

Among the differences in contemplative disciplines in various traditions, there are many similarities. The greatest of these is that the nuts and bolts of contemplative prayer, if you will excuse such a mechanical image, seem to be roughly the same across the board. In these traditions, including that of psychologists who recommend meditation for the sake of mental health, the primary technique is a gentle focusing of the mind that collects a person and leads to a withdrawal from the inner noise that plagues us most of the time and often fuels mimetic rivalry. Zen Buddhist masters aptly call it the monkey mind. The approach to focusing should always be gentle. When the monkeys in the mind get active, they are irritating and it is tempting to get angry at them and try to swat them away. In this way we easily get caught up in mimetic rivalry with the monkey mind, which is the opposite of meditating. More problematic, when we try to quiet the mind in order to meditate, we often find our minds filled with rivalrous thoughts where every little grudge or slight blows up and takes center stage. It is enough to make us think that trying to meditate makes us more rivalrous than we were before. That is not the case. What is happening is that rivalrous desires and actions that were below our radar have become more visible in the quiet space we are clearing within us. The noise of mimetic rivalry does not like silence so it makes a huge racket to try and draw us back into the fray until we take it for granted once again. As with monkey mind distractions, it is self-defeating to engage in battle with rivalrous thoughts. We must do the opposite: let the racket continue on its own steam without any fuel from ourselves. Of course, it won’t do to try not thinking about whatever distracts us. We must return to whatever focus we are using for our meditation.

It is when we look at how we focus or what we focus on and the world view we bring to contemplative practice, that we see the differences between traditions. A Christian’s primary focus is Jesus Christ crucified and risen as the normative example to follow. Even if a Christian does contemplative practice without images, the Christian is moving inside the example of Christ. The Spiritual Exercises of Ignatius of Loyola use structured meditations that often involve putting one in a Gospel scene, reliving it interiorly, and making a resolution to apply the fruit of the meditation. Much Buddhist meditative practice is without images but within Tibetan Buddhism, many elaborate mandolas have been devised to focus meditation. Whatever examples we have in our traditions, we open our hearts to invite them to enter deeply within us so that their desires can resonate within us.

The type of focus that mainly, or totally eschews images turns up in just about every contemplative tradition but there is usually a means of focusing that is not tied to images. Many Zen practitioners use a koan, Hindus a mantra, Islamic Sufis practice dhikr. Repetitive prayers turn up in the desert monastic tradition in Christianity, with many of these monastics saying a Psalm verse over and over again. The opening verse of Psalm 70: “O God make haste to help me” was a favorite, noted in the writings of John Cassian. The Eastern Orthodox tradition fostered the Jesus prayer which involves repeating the name of Jesus. The anonymous 14th century English classic The Cloud of Unknowing suggests focusing on a prayer word such as “God” or “Love.” Contemporary teachings on centering prayer are deeply indebted to this treatise. Whether a focusing technique begins with images or without, over time, contemplative practice moves beyond images, beyond thought, and sometimes beyond the focusing technique into a state that is paradoxically called both emptiness and fullness. If and when such a state happens, there is nothing to do but just be.

I have used the word tradition many times. That is because the practices I have been talking about have developed in traditions where teachings were handed down from generation to generation. In these traditions, contemplative practices are deeply grounded in scriptures, teachings, and liturgical practice. Contemplative practice is best performed within a tradition accompanied with respect for other traditions. This has become a problem for many people in modern and post-modern times where a sense of tradition is eroding. Sometimes this erosion can be blamed on people desiring to be autonomous, a trait that Mimetic Theory warns us makes us all the more susceptible to mimetic movements in society. Many times, however, it is a result of scandals within the various traditions where trust has been compromised. In any case, awareness of the traditions in which contemplative practices are embedded is important and can be enriching. The more one can participate in an deep tradition, even if marginally, the better.

Contemplation is an exercise in letting go and letting God, to use a phrase made famous by Alcoholics Anonymous. It is worth noting that contemplative meditation is one of the twelves steps of recovery for addiction. In renouncing the monkey mind, we are also practicing the renunciation of mimetic rivalry. This is a practice that can have real effects in our lives as it gives us practice in renouncing mimetic rivalry in our day-to-day encounters. Mimetic Theory teaches that we are connected to everybody through the interaction of our desires. In rivalrous encounters, we are stuck together in rivalry. Contemplation opens us up to all other people through God’s Desire that is outside of the system. This divine Desire invites us to union with all sentient beings through the Desire that set all of Creation into motion at the beginning before the beginning of civilization.

[For a much more detailed discussion of contemplative prayer see Moving and Resting in God’s Desire]

The Burglar Who Serves

AndrewWashingFeet - CopyThe first verses of today’s Gospel (Lk. 12: 32–34) pick up from where we left off last week. That reading ended with Jesus’ little parable about the rich fool who tore down his barns to build bigger barns (Lk. 12: 12–21) only to find that his life was being demanded of him. This reading begins with Jesus’ soothing admonition to “sell our possessions and give alms” and “make purses for yourselves that do not wear out, an unfailing treasure in heaven, where no thief comes near and no moth destroys.” (Lk. 12: 32-33) This is quite a contrast to two brothers fighting over an inheritance or a rich person gloating over fabulous amounts of wealth. Lest we think Jesus is asking us to make ourselves miserable, Jesus assures us that it is our heavenly Abba’s pleasure to give us a treasure that is the kingdom. If this treasure, the kingdom, is the Abba’s pleasure, then it is our pleasure as well.

It is important to see that Jesus is not telling us to give up desires. The heavenly Abba has a profound Desire for a deep union of love with each of us, a union God would have us share with each other. If God is comprised of God’s Desire, than it follows that we creatures are created with desires. What Jesus is doing here is redirecting our desires from the desires of rivalrous avarice towards God’s Desire that is without rivalry. Isn’t every fight, ultimately, over what we think we are entitled to as our inheritance? Yet aren’t we all offered the whole world to be an inheritance rather than a bone for contention? Since these rivalrous desires embroil us with our rivals, the material inheritance we are fighting for is destroyed as if by moths. Of course, each rival blames the other for being the thief that has stolen the treasure.

Jesus then shifts to an admonition to be ready for the Master’s “return from the wedding banquet.” (Lk. 12: 36) If we servants are alert and ready to greet the master, the master will wait on us as Jesus waited on his disciples at the Last Supper. This little feast shared by master and servants is an image of the treasure our hearts should be set on. The progression of vignettes and admonitions throughout this chapter suggests that the best way to be prepared for God’s coming is to set our hearts on treasure that moths cannot consume and thieves cannot steal. Fundamentally, being alert for the “master” consists of serving one another in the same way that the master serves us when he comes.

The following little parable is comical and a bit threatening. The master who serves those who wait for him is transformed into a thief breaking into a house in the middle of the night. (Lk. 12: 39–40) If our hearts are not set on the treasure of serving one another, but instead we fight over our inheritance and try to gather it into bigger barns, then the God who serves us will be quite alien to us and will be perceived as a thief, a burglar. If our rivalry deepens as it does in the still more threatening parable that follows, so that our rivalry causes us to “beat the other slaves, men and women, and to eat and drink and get drunk,” (Lk. 12: 45), then the gracious master will indeed rob us of our victims.

God is both a burglar and a gracious master who serves. God only breaks in to take away all that draws our hearts away from God and from each other. What this burglar leaves in return is a treasure well worth setting our hearts on.

On Being a Bad Samaritan And a Good Person

Good_SamaritanMany of us instinctively think that knowing is something we have in our heads, something we can recite, like a catechism. This is the sort of knowing that the lawyer demonstrates when he recites, correctly, the two great commandments when Jesus encourages him to answer his own question as to what he must do to inherit eternal life. (Lk. 10: 27) But then the lawyer shows a certain ignorance, a missing piece. He doesn’t know who or what his neighbor is. Jesus answers this question by telling a story that pinpoints exactly the missing piece in the lawyer’s cognition.

The key phrase in this familiar story that shows what the lawyer lacks is that the Samaritan was “moved with pity.” The Greek word is one that twists the mouth all out of shape: splagchnizomai (pronounced splangkhnizomai). Literally, this word means his entrails were stirred up at the sight. Here is a visceral response that didn’t need the benefit of the catechetical verse from scripture to be activated.

The response of the Samaritan, then, was instinctive, a bonding with the victim who had been severely injured. We are naturally wired for this sort of solidarity, but René Girard has demonstrated that this natural solidarity often takes the form of bonding with other people at the expense of those who are excluded from this bond. Paul Dumouchel, in his analysis of this process in The Ambivalence of Scarcity, argues that the social bonds in early humanity required not only self-sacrificial nurturing of others in the group, but also the obligation to kill all those outside the group, who were considered enemies. The natural response to a person in trouble is hedged in with limitations. One’s entrails are not stirred by the plight of just anybody, but only the plights of those who are within the group.

It is this bonding based on exclusion that Jesus thrusts into the face of his listeners by telling us that a priest and a Levite both passed the victim by but then a Samaritan came to his aid. Since the victim might have been dead, both the priest and Levite would have been rendered ritually unclean by touching a corpse. Ritual purity, like all kinds of purity, requires exclusion. One is pure only if something or someone is defined as “impure” so that the “impurity” can be purged from the social fabric. This kind of bonding by exclusion becomes so instinctive that it trumps bonding through sympathy with someone outside the group. The lawyer’s question came naturally to him because it was natural for him to place boundaries around who was a neighbor and who wasn’t.

The ethnicity of the victim in the parable is not given but Jesus’ listeners would have assumed that he was a Jew like them, most likely a Galilean. Samaria came between Judea and Galilee. This was a problem because all Jews hated all Samaritans and vice versa. When Jesus went through Samaria with his disciples, they were refused hospitality at a village they came to. The reason this Jew from Galilee would have been on the notoriously dangerous road from Jerusalem to Jericho, was because he would have traveled along the Jordon River to avoid going through Samaria on his way to Jerusalem. So, the traveler, in trying to avoid Samaritans, ended up encountering a Samaritan who helped him and undoubtedly saved his life!

What Jesus is doing in this parable, then, is shock us out of our tendency to bond through exclusion and bring us back in touch with the deeper natural bonding through compassion for whichever victim we pass by. For a Jew of the time to help a Samaritan in similar circumstances would have been unthinkable. Such a person would have been a bad Jew—like Jesus. Likewise, the “Good Samaritan” was actually a bad Samaritan in the eyes of other Samaritans and all Samaritans were bad in the eyes of the Jews. In his novel A Boy’s Life, Michael McCammon presents us with a similar situation that brings this parable home for many white Americans. A violently racist white man in a small town in Alabama tried to blow up a museum of Black culture but ended up in a life-threatening situation, caught in his own trap. This racist was then rescued by a black man. The cognitive dissonance experienced by the man who had hated blacks so viscerally all his life was highly dramatic. In the broader context of the novel, the eleven-year-old protagonist Corey, a white boy, consistently showed a visceral sympathy for victims that extended to saving a black boy from drowning during a flood.

Jesus knew better than most liberals like me that we don’t overcome prejudice by trying to be more logical about the problem. Our bonding through exclusion short-circuits rational thinking as the lawyer, the priest and the Levite demonstrate in much the same way as priests, ministers and social workers demonstrate today. What is needed is knowledge through our deepest natural bonds of sympathy with the other that has no boundaries. Then, we need not ask: Who is our neighbor? because, as Kierkegaard tells us in Works of Love, the person nearest us, no matter who he or she is, is our neighbor.

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?

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

Liturgical Animals (3): Stories and Ritual

eucharist1Ever since stories started to be told it has been known that we resonate with them and with the actions of the characters at a very deep level. Aristotle famously called it catharsis where our own emotions are purified when we identify with the emotions of a character on stage. Girard’s theory of mimetic desire gives us increased awareness of the phenomenon. It is no accident that Girard discovered that the best novelists and playwrights had discovered it, not least Sophocles who had inspired Aristotle’s concept of catharsis. (See Human See, Human Want.)

The discovery of mirror neurons adds further scientific and anthropological understanding to the way we resonate with stories. (See Mirroring Desires.) Realizing that our mirror neurons are activated by the intentions of others, we now know that the actions of actors on stage or on the screen also activate our mirror neurons. This is why we are so affected by what they do and most particularly what they desire. By identifying with a thief who is the protagonist of a story, we easily find ourselves desiring the thief’s success although in real life we would normally not desire that at all. But then again, perhaps the story has revealed a hidden desire to steal successfully. Or, perhaps a desire that wasn’t there has been created by the thieving action. Or a combination of both.

This is where the debate about whether or not violence or any reprehensible actions should be allowed in movies or on the stage of even in books. Does the violence observed or read about make one more violent or does it cause a catharsis, thus acting as a safety valve that prevents violence in real life? As far as I can tell, the answer goes both ways. After the Columbine school shooting, a video game was blamed for motivating the killers to go on a shooting spree, but this accusation overlooks the huge number of boys in the same age bracket who did no such thing. What we are left with, I think, is the need for us to take some responsibility for what we watch and read and more important, for how we react to them. For some, watching cops and robbers programs are mild entertainment. For others, it is more a thrill of surrogate righteous violence. If it is the latter, is this surrogate thrill enough or does it lead to inflicting violence against the “bad” guys in real life and feeling righteous about it? Or, do we act these feelings of righteous indignation without knowing what we are doing? Which puts us in the position of those who crucified Jesus.

Which brings us back to liturgy. It is worth noting that Greek plays were performed as parts of religious festivals, making the expulsion of Oedipus, for example, a liturgical event. To this day, plays and classical concerts often have a quasi-liturgical atmosphere with dimmed houselights and norms for audience decorum similar to what is usually expected in church. The more raucous and extroverted actions at rock concerts and Pentecostal services are liturgical in their own right with different liturgical norms. The thing is, liturgies and plays and concerts all stimulate the same mirror neurons in similar ways.

In Christian worship, the liturgical action is bound up with stories about Israel and most particularly, the story of Jesus. The stories are drawn out in the readings from scripture and the central story of Jesus, the Paschal Mystery, is compressed in the Eucharist where the story is fed to us literally in the bread and wine. Listening to the Word activates the mirror neurons, hopefully making us identify with the heroes and heroines of faith and most particularly with Jesus. Even from ancient times, certain people have been held up as good examples to imitate. As for Jesus settling a good example, since he compared himself to a burglar at one point, we can feel naughty and subversive in following his example and yet also feel righteous about it (Mt. 24;43). The pitfall is that we might identify with the owner of the house, and so try to keep Jesus out so that our lives aren’t subverted and turned upside down. This is just one example of how a story can twist us around in several directions, leaving us to wonder which end is up.

In general, plays and concerts are not repetitious the way the Eucharist is, which tells the same old story time after time to make it sink more deeply into us each time. It should be noted, though, that many people like to hear the same symphonies time after time and some people have favorite movies they see more times than they can count. Children have a ritual sense with their favorite bedtime stories that they want to hear night after night at the same time each night. In the Paschal Mystery, there is disclosure of the deepest truths about the way we humans live but also how we ought to live and could live by absorbing the character of Jesus. This is a story that never ends.

Jesus the Rejected Cornerstone among the Weeds

field1Jesus’ parable of the wheat and the weeds inflicts on us the discomfort of being told that we have to put up with the people we don’t like but the end of the parable and the explanation of it afterwards give us the comfort of knowing that the people we don’t like will get it in the end. But does Jesus really mean to give us this “comfort?”

When we consider the workings of mimetic desire, the image of a field densely filled with plants intertwined with each other is easily seen as an image of our entanglement with the desires of other people, some of whose desires we covet, others we try to separate ourselves from. Of course, each person who wants something we want and we don’t think it can be shared, is an enemy, a weed who should be pulled out, expelled from the garden. In such a situation, each of us is prone to considering ourselves to be one of the intended, desirable plants while the others are weeds. Of course, when we are preoccupied with how “weedy” everybody else is, we are totally wrapped up with them in our hostility. It is easy, then, to understand this parable as teaching us to mind our own business and not worry about everybody else. The trouble with this interpretation is that we are all in the thick of this garden whether we like it or not and we need to find a constructive way to live with everybody else in it. A deeper interpretation that is often offered, and one I have much sympathy with, is that we should commend everybody else to God and let God deal with them. To make this work, we have to commend ourselves to God as well, or we think we are commending those bad guys to God but we are good guys who can take care of ourselves. Moreover, the word for “letting” the weeds grow is aphete, which also is used in the New Testament to mean “forgive.”

If we give this parable a Christological interpretation, everything looks different. In being the stone rejected by the builders, Jesus was a weed. That’s the way Caiaphas and Pontius Pilate and Herod saw him. Jesus identified himself with a lot of “weeds” on the way to the cross such as the woman with a bad name in town who washed his feet at Simon the Leper’s house and the tax collectors Zacchaeus and Matthew. Every planter knows that it can be difficult to tell an intended plant from a weed. This is why well-intentioned but uninformed “helpers” are the bane of gardeners. If we try to weed out the garden based on our own judgment, we are likely to weed out Jesus himself.

The explanation of the parable seems to be at cross-purposes with the parable itself. Many scholars absolve Jesus of having ever given it, relegating the explanation to a later redactor to the text finalized in Matthew, as Simon Joseph argues with such vengeful texts in The Nonviolent Messiah. Or, we can argue that Jesus was giving us a parody of what an obtuse listener who lacks ears to hear takes away from the parable, as Paul Nuechterlein suggests on his site Girardian Reflections on the Lectionary. The trouble is, self-righteousness takes us to such extremes that it is impossible to parody. Let’s take a look at where the “explanation” takes us. First, we become preoccupied with weeding out the undesirable plants. Second, we identify with the angels who weed the garden. Third we think we shine in righteousness that blinds us to our self-righteousness. That is, we play the role of God, which is idolatry. The end result is weeping and wailing and gnashing of teeth for everybody and no harvest for anybody.

If we look forward to harvesting as opposed to weeding, we get a totally different scenario that fits well with the parable itself. When it comes to harvesting, weeds just don’t matter. The only thing that does matter is picking the fruits and bringing them in so they can offer sustenance to others. When it’s all about harvesting, things start to look a lot like the heavenly banquet that all of us can share without worrying about who is wheat and who is a weed.

Mimetic Laughter

outsideSupper1Laughter is one of the more pleasant things in life, but is it just a frill? In his book The Phantom of the Ego,” Nidesh Lawtoo discusses the importance Georges Bataille attached to laughter for the emerging consciousness of a newborn child. Laughter is one of the first things a baby learns in imitation of a mother, father, or other caregiver. So it is that laughter comprises the first bond a newborn child makes. Interactions with babies may seem silly, something to be transcended with intellectual maturity and so we don’t value laughing with babies.

At its best, laughter is spontaneous and infectious. How many times do we laugh without knowing why, just because other people are laughing? When children are laughing helplessly as part of playing, happiness spreads to everyone around them. We don’t want to be left out of the joke, even if we don’t know what it is. Just think of some of our best times when we laughed with family and friends with no other reason than we were together and we got caught up in laughter.

There is a darker side to laughter, however. Actually it is a darker side of us and our mimetic desires, rather than a darker side of laughter. Often laughter is used to wound others, to score points against others, to put others down to lift ourselves up. Almost as soon as they learn how to speak, small children use laughter in this way. School playgrounds are filled with this sort of thing. Children learn all this from their elders, of course. Just as they imitated the spontaneous laughter of those around them as infants, they imitate the cruel humor that surrounds them as they grow older. Unfortunately, children usually learn this mode of laughter through being shamed by adults who think ridicule is a good way to train children for the hard knocks of life. Laughter continues to be a bond between people, but it is a bonding at the expense of someone, a butt of jokes, a victim.

When he discourages laughter as a sign of pride, St. Benedict certainly had this darker side of laughter in mind, although it is possible that he had a blind spot for the value of spontaneous, bonding laughter. Certainly, when laughter is a put-on act to gain attention, it is the opposite of spontaneous and it is a prideful act, an act seeking to dominate by drawing attention to oneself at the expense of others. I discuss this at length in my book Tools for Peace.

We get so habituated to using laughter as a weapon instead of a bond of love that we hardly know what the latter is. One way back is to use the wit we acquire to learn to laugh at ourselves and help others laugh at themselves. At its best, a comedy does just that. In Mozart’s “The Marriage of Figaro,” discussed in an earlier post, laughter is used as a means to overcome mimetic triangles and tensions and bring reconciliation. Shakespeare does this sort of thing masterly in comedies such as “Twelfth Night” and “As You like It.” In “The Merchant of Venice,” Shakespeare sets a trap for the unwary, leading us into joining the persecution of Shylock before unmasking this derisory laughter for what it is.

Life is too serious and awesome a thing to be left to sourpusses who always want to be on top of somebody else. We all need heavy doses of spontaneous, selfless laughter shared with others.