Imitating Saint Andrew Following Jesus

AndrewRefectory1Mimetic desire, especially when it is good mimesis, is easily overlooked. Usually it’s jousts and fisticuffs that get our attention. Mimetic rivalry drives the plots of novels. Mimetic sharing only drives the plots of lives lived well. (See Human See, Human Want)

When it was time for me to be clothed a novice, I chose Andrew as my religious name because of the example Andrew set by promptly answering Jesus’ call. I hoped, and still hope, that my patron would and will inspire me to listen for Jesus’ call every day, every hour, and follow that call. As a bonus, Andrew was the patron saint of Scotland and my Marr ancestors came from there.

As I listened to the Gospel at Mass this morning, I was struck by the communal aspect of the following. It wasn’t just Andrew who heard the call and followed Jesus; Andrew heard the call and brought his brother Peter with him. That is, Andrew entered the mimetic process of following Jesus and drew Peter into that same mimetic process. The next day, James and John were drawn into the same good mimesis of following Jesus, a rerun of yesterday’s story. That’s what good mimesis does. Like mimesis of any kind, it is contagious and it replicates itself.

Curiously, Andrew drops out of the Gospel accounts after his dramatic call except for noticing the boy with the loaves and fishes in the wilderness that touched off the greatest bonanza of good mimesis in world history. It is the other three, Peter, James and John who form the inner group of disciples who witnessed the raising of Jairus’ daughter, were present at the Transfiguration, and then fell asleep at Gethsemane. It is tempting to feel that my patron was slighted, but that would be bad mimesis.

It is more encouraging to notice that Andrew was also curiously absent in the fights among the disciples as to who was the greatest. This in-fighting helps make the Gospels “interesting” as it drives the plot until the mimetic issues in Jerusalem take over. Maybe Andrew just wasn’t “interesting” enough to mention. Maybe Andrew wasn’t pushy enough.

The point to being a follower of Jesus is not to be part of the inner circle of the inner circle. The point is to hear the call of Jesus and to listen to the way Jesus is calling others. This way, everybody and nobody is the greatest in the greatest story ever told.

Life of Benedict

The only biography of St. Benedict is by St. Gregory the Great. Gregory highlights the ways Benedict’s life was lived in imitation of the great figures in Scripture and most importantly of Christ himself. I have posted an article called Imitating Elisha that analyzes Gregory’s Life of Benedict with René Girard’s concept of mimetic desire. The result is a rich vision of the spiritual life for any Christian.

Article on Rule of St. Benedict Added

I have added an article called Gathering a Community in the Spirit which is an introduction to the Rule of St. Benedict. This chapter comes from Tools for Peace. Introductory chapters on both René Girard and Benedict are now available. If a dialogue between the two interests you, please buy Tools for Peace.

The Failed Quarrel

The stories of the desert monastics of the fourth and fifth centuries in Egypt are the bedrock of monastic lore that continue to inspire all who attempt to live by monastic spirituality.

In one charming story, a monastic who has shared his cave with another, notes that they have never had a quarrel and proposes that they try to have one, like all other people. The other monastic says he doesn’t know how to start a quarrel. The first monastic puts a block of wood on the ground between them and says” “This block is mine. Now you say the same thing.” The second monastic said, “This block is mine.”  “No, this block is mine,” insists the first monastic. “Okay, it’s yours,” says the other. And so they failed to have a quarrel.

Would these monastics have quarreled if the first had put a gem between them instead of a block of wood? The story about the children and the balloons in “Human See, Human Want,” suggests that question is whether any article at all is given worth by the desire of the other. A block of wood can become as desirable as a gem if somebody else desires it and another person gets caught up in that desire.

If these two monastics were not quarreling, what were they doing? The desert literature tells us they would have spent large amounts of time in prayer, much of that in psalmody, and then the rest weaving baskets they would sell to give the money to the poor. That is, they were not focused on each other but were opening themselves to God’s Desire and to the needs of other people. Prayer and helping other people does not guarantee there will be no quarrelling, but the two combined surely help quite a lot.

My story “Haunted for a Time” in From Beyond to Here offers a counter-example to these two desert monastics. At the beginning of the story, Murray is so absorbed in his possessiveness of his comic books at the expense of others that he cannot see anything beyond that. Some unsettling apparitions from a ghostly figure challenge him to reconsider his ways.

My book Tools for Peace examines Benedict’s teachings on stewardship of material goods in the monastery that build on the insights of this simple story of the two desert monastics who failed to be movers and shakers in the world, but also failed to have a quarrel.

Human See, Human Want

At a children’s party, the house was filled with balloons and the children were all happily playing with them until one child suddenly grabbed one balloon and yelled: “This balloon is mine!” Suddenly, all the children forsook the other balloons and fought over the one balloon. This story, told me by an eye witness, is a classic example of what René Girard calls “mimetic desire.” Just as we imitate each other in actions, dress, etc., at a deeper level, we imitate each other’s desires. That is, once one child voiced a desire for one particular balloon, all the other children instantly desired that one balloon and none other.  Later in life, one youth’s desire for a certain girl triggers a desire for the same girl in another youth who had ignored her up to that point. So deep is mimetic desire that we often do not realize it is there and we claim our desires for ourselves alone.

This conflict, what Girard calls “mimetic rivalry,” might give the impression that mimetic desire is, in itself, a bad thing. That is not the case. Mimetic desire can easily be benign and non-conflictual. For example, my father shared his love of pizza and butterscotch sundaes with me and I desire them to this day. Likewise, a teacher who loves Shakespeare will try to instill the same desire for Shakespeare in his or her students.

In his book The Four Loves, C.S. Lewis suggests that the mark of a friendship is that the two friends are focused on a common interest more than on each other. This is mimetic desire working in a positive way. On the contrary, when two or more people fall into a mimetic conflict, they are focused on each other to the exclusion of anything else, most of all whatever it is they think they are fighting about.

We cannot avoid mimetic desire. We are tied into a sea of mimetic desire as soon as we are born. Mimetic desire connects us with other people whether we like it or not. So much for individualism. The question is whether we will be connected through expansive sharing or connected through constrictive conflict. Most important, we are born into God’s mimetic desire for us and for all other people. We are constantly faced with the choice of which direction we are willing to go with the mimetic desire we share with all others. Do we make war or do we make peace?

See also Two Ways of Gathering & Tools for Peace

A Bit About Me

A Benedictine monk in the Episcopal Church who writes fantasy fiction? How did that happen? The short answer is: God knows. As for myself, all I can say that the fantastical has always fascinated me and matters of faith have always been a consuming interest. The first two books to have my name written in them were that tales of Hans Christian Andersen and Grimm’s fairy tales. I started writing fantasy stories as a child and I haven’t stopped since. My religious journey took many twists and turns during my youth, including detours in Hinduism and Buddhism, although I consistently believed that religion dealt with the most important things in life. This journey led me back to the Episcopal Church in which I was raised and then to St. Gregory’s Abbey in Three Rivers, Michigan.

Another interest that caught me and has never let me go is music. Singing in a high quality church choir as a boy introduced me to great choral masterpieces and music has been woven with my religious interests ever since. These days, I sing plainsong in the monastic church and listen to music of all kinds in my spare time. Along with my religious convictions, music is a major strand in many of my stories.

Another swirl running through all of these major interests is a concern for peace and for alternatives to violence. In my stories and other writings, seeking peace within oneself and, more important, within social relationships, has become one of the major themes I deal with. Tools for Peace engages in a dialogue between the Rule of St. Benedict and the thought inspired by René Girard, a thinker preoccupied with the social dimensions of violence while my stories take the reader through enchanted but sometimes troubling pathways in search of visions of peace.

I suppose I could sum up my outlook in life as: Saint Benedict in Fairyland. In their various ways, St. Benedict and fairy tales combine an earnest moral and spiritual drive with a delight in God’s goodness. For me, monastic discipline and the freedom of the fantastical imagination reinforce each other. Both my religious writings and my stories witness to my conviction that, contrary to the violence humans perpetrate, God has created a friendly universe grounded in God’s love for all of us.