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.

Celebrating the Saints in our Lives

GuestsoutsideAll Saints is a feast for all of us. Does this mean we are all sanctified in the sense of perfected in Christ? No, but it is a feast that celebrates the true glimpses of Christ that others have given us. What does Christ look like in the actions and bearing of those people who have had an effect on us?

The Beatitudes in Matthew give us a sense of direction and a daunting one at that. Hungering and thirsting for righteousness, being merciful and making peace are clear signs of sanctity in the sense of imaging Christ who was and is all of the above. But what about meekness? What is so holy about that? In this context, meekness seems not to be about obsequiousness, which is not holy, but about being out of the loop of the power brokers. Being poor goes with meekness in this respect. Being poor and meek does not guarantee that one will image Christ and it is important not to trash the movers and shakers out of resentment. Jesus did not resent the young rich man’s wealth; he felt sorry for the guy because that wealth prevented him from becoming a follower. By adding the phrase “in spirit” to being poor, Matthew gives us a loophole that Luke’s version doesn’t. A rich and powerful person can be a saint if that person is willing to be a peace maker and merciful and to thirst after righteousness.

Being pure of heart so as to see God is an inner virtue. In his Epistle, John says that “what we will be has not yet been revealed” but when it is revealed, “we will be like [God], because we will see him as he really is.” (1 Jn. 3: 2) One of the fundamental things that purity of heart means is being empty of self so as to give room for God. This is a big part of what being “poor in spirit” is all about. The more we see God, the more visible God will be to others who see us.

Being persecuted and hated and reviled on Jesus’ account is not something that we normally think of as a blessing, but if we thirst for righteousness, we will prefer to be vilified than to be praised for betraying our principles. Making peace, or trying to, is a good way to make enemies. The poor and meek are targets for persecution because they are vulnerable. In Revelation, John the Divine assures us that when we come through such ordeals, we will be given white robes and will be among the pure in heart celebrating before the Lamb who was slain. (Rev. 7: 14)

Many have suffered badly at the hands of people in the Church. Many of those who came through “the ordeal” suffered it not from pagans but from fellow Christians. Such suffering that amounts to scandal can make some of us think there are no saints in the church. Elijah thought he was the only faithful person left in Israel until God told him of seven thousand prophets who had not bent their knee before Baal. Likewise, the uncountable multitude of people from all tribes, languages and nations shows us that there have been and are many saints than we sometimes think.

In my own life, four such come to mind most prominently. During my college years, my parents transferred to an Episcopal Church they thought would be more responsive to our pastoral needs than the one we left. It was. I visited the rector of this church every time I came home for vacation. He listened generously to everything I said although much of what I said was outrageous. His kind listening made it easier for me to see through my silliness than if he had called me out on it. Meanwhile, at college, I had a religion professor who not only taught me how to think theologically, but was a model of gentle listening and gentle prodding to nudge me in better directions of thinking. At the abbey, I was nurtured by a novice master who was one of the most self-effacing people I have ever known, self-effacing to a fault that some people take advantage of. He gently provided the space for me to grow as a monk. During a tough time at the abbey, we had an oblate who was like a grandmother to many of us. She couldn’t solve any of our problems but she could listen and encourage us and strengthen us to seek constructive solutions. None of these people cared about making waves in the world; they were content to be themselves. Let us celebrate this feast by remembering the saints that the “world” may not know about but we do.