The custom of imposing ashes on our foreheads as a sign of our mortality on Ash Wednesday, the beginning of the penitential season of Lent, has the potential to encourage us to think that mortality is something we should repent of. The opposite is the case. We are not asked to repent of our mortality, we are asked to remember our mortality. Remembering our mortality is an important way to repent and to amend our lives. Since God made us mortal, mortality is not the problem. The problem, a huge problem, is the tendency to deny our mortality, to think that death should not apply to us. Clinical studies inspired by Ernest Becker show that denial of mortality leads to violent and insensitive behavior while some measure of acceptance leads to a much more humane way of relating to others, of connecting to others. I can’t help but reflect that in a great many fantasy novels, the villain tries to gain immortality which can only be achieved by stealing the life substance of others; an extreme example of how denial of mortality inevitably leads to victimization of other people. Such villains are always so deeply isolated as to be living deaths, no matter how many years they survive in this world. But if we accept our mortality, we put our trust in the crucified and Risen Lord, the true giver of life. When we accept our mortality, the time we have to repent becomes precious and we are ready to spend this precious gift wisely in the way we live so that others, too, may live.
The asceticism of self-denial, especially that of fasting gives us an important of the interaction between mimetic realism. There is a paradoxical effect of self-denial that we can fall victim to if we are not careful. It is possible for self-denial to focus us upon ourselves in an unhealthy way. It is I who am fasting. I am giving up pleasures I normally indulge in. If we become so fixated on ourselves, we are puffing ourselves up rather than denying ourselves. Isaiah shows how such self-centered fasting leads to quarreling and fighting and striking others with their fists. (Isaiah 58:4) If self-denial has made us so grouchy that we have to make up for what we are giving up by giving ourselves the alternate pleasure of striking out at other people and putting them down, then it is grouchiness and lashing out at others that we must fast from.
Likewise, Jesus warns us against putting on long faces so that others will admire our fasting or blowing trumpets to call attention to our almsgiving (Mt. 6: 1-2). Once again, our self-denial is being compensated for by self-indulgence in other ways. When the admiration of others is filling our egos, then we need to fast from seeking such admiration. We may well find that this renunciation is harder than renouncing food and other pleasures. As we deepen renunciation, we become aware of deeper levels of our desires that need to be turned into a more positive direction.
Given this pitfall, I suggest that we emphasize the needs of other people and renounce ourselves by thinking of them rather than about ourselves. Isaiah suggests that a better fast would be to let the oppressed go free and loosen every yoke. (Is. 58: 6). Jesus echoes Isaiah’s sentiments at the beginning of his teaching ministry by proclaiming a Year of Jubilee that would free all people of their imprisonment to debt so as to give all a new start in life. (Luke 4: 16-20 Instead of puffing ourselves up, we should build up other people. Perhaps we will find this to be a greater renunciation that cutting back on our eating habits. In any case, renunciations of food and other pleasures will help us grow spiritually only if they are the basis for reaching out to other people. When we really think of others, we have less room in our hearts to think about ourselves.
As we have noted several times, granting forgiveness and receiving forgiveness go hand in hand. Although receiving forgiveness wasn’t listed in the process of forgiveness, it is receiving forgiveness that completes the new cycle and breaks the cycle of revenge. In looking at the Parable of the Unforgiving Servant, we stressed the need to grant forgiveness in order to receive forgiveness. The circle works in the other direction just the same. We have to receive forgiveness in order to grant it.
Receiving forgiveness as a free gift sounds like a good deal until we remember that receiving forgiveness necessarily entails becoming aware of what we are being forgiven for. If we are convinced we have done nothing wrong, then we do not receive forgiveness no matter how often and ardently forgiveness is given us. If somebody tells us we have been forgiven, it implies that we have done something wrong to merit punishment as well as the forgiveness that is given us instead. That is to say, receiving forgiveness only makes sense when one is penitent. This does not negate the peremptory forgiveness given by God and imitated by those who imitate God as deeply as this. God’s peremptory forgiveness reveals the truth of the wrongs we have done and this forgiveness strengthens us to live up to the challenge to amend our lives.
I noted earlier that a major component of granting forgiveness is to renounce mimetic rivalry. The desire for revenge is a desire to win a victory against the person who has “defeated” us through personal injury. It is this desire to “win” that is renounced with forgiveness. There is a similar, but not identical renunciation of mimetic rivalry in accepting forgiveness. In committing sin that requires forgiveness, mimetic rivalry in the sense of seeking to dominate other people is often involved. This quest for dominance is one of the major things that need to be repented of in receiving forgiveness. Just as one becomes a “loser” in granting forgiveness, one becomes a “loser” in receiving it. This is the difficulty that Javert had in Les Miserables. (See A Miserable Gospel.) This gendarme had placed himself in perpetual mimetic rivalry through his determination to catch out Jean Valjean and bring him back to prison. This vendetta started at the moment of his release, without giving Valjean any opportunity to prove himself worthy of his release—or not. This mimetic rivalry on the part of Javert, which was never reciprocated by Valjean, made Javert relentlessly unforgiving and it made him just as relentlessly incapable of receiving forgiveness. He could not renounce his irrational quest to “win.” And so he lost everything.
Receiving forgiveness is essential for one who grants forgiveness. The temptation in granting forgiveness is to claim the higher moral ground over the one forgiven. If we think we have no need for forgiveness ourselves when we forgive others, we put ourselves above those we forgive, which is pride and, more importantly, a short-circuiting of forgiveness. This is why the Lord’s Prayer pairs praying for forgiveness with praying to receive it.
These considerations help us understand the puzzling verse in Romans 12:20. Paul tells us feed our enemies who are hungry and give water when they are thirsty for by doing this we will heap “burning coals on their heads.” Paul is quoting Proverbs 25: 22 here, which only pushes the puzzle back to the Wisdom Sage. If we are truly forgiving one who has wronged us and have renounced the desire for revenge or for someone else (God) to avenge us, then we truly wish to restore connections to the person who wronged us and to enhance that person’s well-being. Feeding and giving water to such as these as much as we give them to our own family and friends is enhancing their well-being. But what of those who cannot or will not forgive and cannot or will not receive forgiveness? Javert is an example of one who experienced a free act of forgiveness as the heaping of burning coals on his head. Valjean’s forgiveness seared his soul. Paul, and the Wisdom Sage before him, realized that forgiveness will burn the person who does not accept it. Such is the teaching of Jesus in the Parable of the Unforgiving Servant who was not tortured by the master but by his own inability to give and therefore receive forgiveness.
Receiving any kind of gift puts us in an inferior position to the one who gives the gift. Since forgiveness is rooted in God’s Desire, receiving forgiveness as a free gift always puts every one of us in an inferior position before God. Likewise, receiving forgiveness keeps us on the same level with other people as we forgive them and receive forgiveness from them. The Satan’s kingdom, the Empire, is fueled by the cycle of revenge. God’s Kingdom is fueled by the cycle of forgiveness. Both cycles are just as infinite but the cycle of forgiveness is infinitely larger than the other.
As we begin the season of penitence on Ash Wednesday, we do well to put penance in a context beyond our individual selves. René Girard’s concept of mimetic desire tells us that our “individual selves” are merely an illusion; our desires are unavoidably caught up in the desires of other people. (see Human See, Human Want) With that being the case, cleaning up our “own” desires simply does not do the job. Instead, we must clean up the desires we share with others, and that means relating to others.
Early in his great poem “As Wednesday,” T.S. Eliot zeroes in on healing shared desire by following the first lines about hoping to turn his life: “Desiring this man’s gift and that man’s scope/I no longer strive to strive towards such things.” That is, the tenth commandment about coveting includes coveting the God-given gifts of others and their insights. If we turn from our entanglements with the desires of others, we will affirm and rejoice in their gifts and insights and in doing so, will awaken to the gifts and insights that we have within us to give to others.
In Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus follows his teaching on renouncing mimetic rivalry (turn the other cheek, etc.) with a solemn caution against using “good” actions such as repenting, fasting, almsgiving, and praying as occasions for competing with others so as to desire gifts and insights of others. If we practice piety “in order to be seen by others,” then our piety is locked in our competition with others and not on God. That is why God cannot reward such piety which isn’t piety at all. The Desert Monastics also found themselves falling into the trap of competitive asceticism. On of the reasons Benedict, in his Rule, asks his monastics to tell the abbot about their Lenten disciplines is to put the practice of each into the context of building community. All this is compiling treasure on earth just as much as fattening our bank accounts.
The alternative to “praying in secret” may seem to be individualistic but it is really a matter of being an individual before God, which is a different thing. (An individualist flaunts his or her individuality over/against others—another thrust in a life of fencing.) Rather, “praying in secret” grounds each of us in God so that we can rejoice in God’s giftedness of others and ourselves. More important, it is precisely in the midst of these admonitions against flaunting our piety that Jesus teaches us the Our Father which reaches its climax with the petition that God forgive us as we forgive others.
As we turn again back to God, let us look at the turnings we must do in our relationships, realizing that unhealthiness in our relationships is not the same thing as the unhealthiness we may see in ourselves as individuals, although there is a relationship between the two. With T.S. Eliot, let us not even try to want the gifts of others but instead turn to the gifts we have to give to others.
For more about Lent in the Rule of St. Benedict in dialogue with Girard, read Tools for Peace