What We Should Fear

Statue_of_Dame_JulianMany of the words in today’s Gospel are fearsome but many events in the past couple of weeks have also been fearsome so they fit right in. We are rightly anxious about Terrorism although I personally find the hateful and fearmongering rhetoric of some politicians around the world, not least in the US much scarier.

I think it highly likely that Jesus is speaking about earth-shattering events in the sense that major terrorist attacks are earth-shattering. When such things happen, it feels like the sky is falling but it isn’t really. Since the prophets similar such language for horrific events, it makes sense to understand Jesus’ words in this way. This hardly takes the edge off the words or the events happening in our time. This point becomes all the stronger when we look at Jesus’ words earlier in the chapter. Jesus begins by warning that “not one stone will be left on stone” of the temple his disciples are admiring. For the Jews, the temple’s destruction in A.D. 70 was indeed earth-shaking, to put it mildly.  Jesus goes on to warn of wars and rumors of wars and people all over the place claiming to be the Messiah, just like what is happening all around us today. Jesus goes on with persecutions and refugees fleeing violence, again an up-to-date report on what is happening. So, there is much reason to be afraid.

And yet Jesus tells us to hold our heads high because redemption is near. He further assures us with the little parable of the fig tree that will bear fruit in due season. The fruit may not be visible now but it is latent in the tree and the fruit will come.

Veronica Mary Rolf, a leading scholar of Julian or Norwich, has posted a timely article on her blog about what Julian has to say about fear. Julian faced the same fears we do so her words are most apposite. We can be afraid of 1) sudden alarms, such as a terrorist attack; 2) physical or spiritual pain, such as fear of sickness or fear of Hell; 3) “doubtful dread,” the fear that God’s forgiveness may not be complete These fears can have their uses but they should be overridden by “rightful fear,” which can also be called “reverent dread” or “holy awe.” This is awe of God’s lordship and God’s gift of salvation. We should shun the first three fears in favor of the fourth. The more deeply we are rooted in “rightful fear,” the less we will experience the first three.

Clearly, it is “rightful fear” and “holy awe” that gives us the power to hold our heads high amid the swirl of violence around us. Fear-mongering that would have us close our hearts to refugees and other people in dire need is clearly rooted in the first three fears with not a trace of the fourth. But with “rightful fear,” what we fear most is to fall short of the love God has for us and for all others, especially those fleeing violence in the dead of night. This is the fear that bears fruit when the season for it comes. John says that perfect love drives out fear (1 Jn. 4:18.) The obverse is true: perfect fear of the first three types casts out love. What will be our choice of fears?

In Memorium: René Girard 1923-2015

GirardIt has been a couple of bittersweet days of memories since getting the news of René Girard’s death. I have the feeling that many of us are cybernetically sitting around the fire sharing memories. Here are some of mine.

For many years, pretty much ever since I became a Benedictine monk (Episcopalian, not Roman Catholic) in 1972, I fretted about the close proximity of religion and violence. Given the teachings of Buddha, Jesus, Lao Tze and others, it didn’t make sense. Thomas Merton’s polemics against violence written from his hermitage at Gethsemane Abbey in Kentucky inspired me and assured me I was fretting about something worth fretting about. This concern eventually led me to René Girard. It took a few years and the help of others such as James Williams to realize that Girard provides the most cogent hermeneutic for understanding scripture as the unveiling of a loving, nonviolent God. More important, his anthropological insights impressed me with their explanatory power as to why religion had been connected with violence from the start and why it still happens. As a sidelight, during the 80’s, I was searching for a sense of direction as to how I was to evaluate postmodern thought, especially deconstruction as a Benedictine. I talked to the abbot of St. John’s Collegeville about visiting to meet with some of the Benedictine professors in the college, but I dropped that when I grasped Girard enough to realize that he gave me the sense of direction I was looking for and that many companions on the way were at hand. A couple of times, I heard Girard put that sense of direction in a nutshell when he told deconstructionist type thinkers that the solid reality under the deconstructive flux is the reality of the victim.

I first met René close to the turn of the millennium in San Francisco at a meeting of the AAR/SBL when he read what has turned out to be one of his most important papers: “Are the Gospels Mythical?” I was in the process of writing a lead review essay on Girard for the Anglican Theological Review and I was hoping to meet René and ask him some questions. (See Violence and the Kingdom of God.) I got more than I expected. I was introduced to René after the lecture by James Williams, who had helped me with logistics for getting to the meeting, and I was invited to lunch along with several other people. I was placed across the table from René so that could discuss his ideas and get the clarifications I was looking for. When a question was outside his areas of expertise, he referred me to others who could help me. Over the years, as I managed to attend several meetings of COV&R while René was still at large, I had stimulating conversations with him, some short, some longer. There was a lot of friendly competition to get bits of time with René but he was amazingly approachable for a person who had become an intellectual leader for so many and one could talk to him in a relaxed way because that is how he talked.

Inspired by Girard and my Benedictine tradition, I wrote a book called Tools for Peace: The Spiritual Craft of St. Benedict and René Girard. I sent an advanced draft in manuscript to him for comments. When I received a letter a month later, I thought it was an amazingly prompt response. Yet René apologized for the delay, explaining that he had just gotten home from Avignon and he read the MS. first thing. His comments were generous and helpful.

I came to see, not surprisingly, that there was nothing unique in the way he treated me; it’s the way I’ve seen him treat everybody. I have seen him encourage everybody who works with his ideas whether or not he is personally sympathetic to their direction. I get the feeling that he knew his theory was much greater than him and it wasn’t anything he “owned” by a long shot. Along the way, I realized that Girard does not have followers; he has colleagues. That’s how he treated people. And not only colleagues, but friends.

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 Blind Man Who Could See


The story of Jesus healing the blind man Bartimaeus is considered by many Bible scholars to be the closing bookend of what is called an inclusio. An inclusio is a literary device where two passages echo each other in such a way as to create bookends for the material in between them. In this portion of Mark, the two echoing stories involve the healing of a blind man. The material between these two stories is the journey to Jerusalem. The first healing (Mark 8: 22-26) takes place at Bethsaida. The second takes place as Jesus arrives at Jericho, the last stop before arriving in Jerusalem. In the intervening material the journey is punctuated by Jesus’ three predictions of his passion coupled with the incomprehension of his disciples. Each of these predictions is also accompanied by disputes among the disciples as to who is the greatest.

The blindness of the two men who need healing is often thought to represent the blindness of the disciples which also needs healing. With the man in Bethsaida, Jesus needs two tries to get the healing right, suggesting that the blindness of the disciples is difficult to heal. The much easier healing of the man in Jericho suggests hope that the disciples, though still blind, will also be healed.

I agree with this interpretation of the inclusio but there is something else that has caught my attention. This is the different ways the crowd acts in these two stories. At Bethsaida, the people in the crowd bring the blind man to Jesus and ask Jesus to touch him and give him back his sight. At Jericho it is a very different story. When Bartimaeus cries out, the people in the crowd rebuke him and tell him to be quiet. Far from helping Bartimaeus in getting a healing, they try to hinder him. In this, they act the apostles who just a short time ago had tried to keep the mothers from bringing their children to Jesus. Moreover, the crowd has shifted its focus from Jesus to Bartimaeus and in an adversarial way at that. Again, this matches the disciples who focused on each other in their altercations rather than on Jesus. If the crowd at this point is an extension of the disciples, then they badly need healing and yet, the more healing they need for their blindness, the more resistant they are to healing. Baratimaeus, in calling out to Jesus by his Messianic title shows that he sees more than those who theoretically have eyes.

Jesus’ calling out to Bartimaeus makes it clear that it us his desire to heal the blind man. The crowd is thus convicted of being contrary to Jesus’ desire. They might be surrounding him but they are not following him. We could say that the crowd at Bethsaida was a community in that they brought the blind man to Jesus. The crowd at Jericho is a—well—a crowd acting in the persecutory way that a crowd tends to act out. The contrast between these two echoing stories in the inclusio present us with the fundamental choice as to whether we will join a community of healing or fall back into a crowd that fights healing. Will we look at the blind person and at Jesus or will we fail to see either of them?

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.


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?

Love as Ultimate Respect

???????????????????????????????????????????We saw that the substance of faith and hope consists of actions on the part of God. (See Faith as Faithfulness and Hope as Inheritance.) The substance of faith is the Paschal Mystery of Jesus’ fidelity to the Heavenly Father and all humanity in dying on the cross and rising from the dead. The substance of hope moves further back in time, to the beginning of time, in that hope is grounded in God’s adopting all people as adopted sons and daughters to inherit the vineyard God laid out at the dawn of creation. Love goes further back past the beginning of time to Eternity. It is God’s love that was poured out at the Creation of the world. In God’s eyes, the “vast expanse of interstellar space,” as Eucharist Canon C in the Book of Common Prayer has it, is small in God’s eyes, “a little thing, the size of a hazel nut” as Julian of Norwich images it. But God loves that little thing and “in this way everything hath its being by the love of God.” Julian goes on to explain, based on her visions, that God loves “that little thing” so much that when that little thing in the form of a servant goes on a mission and falls into a ditch, God sends a second servant to get the fallen one back out of the ditch, an act that causes all of the dirt and grime of the pit to stain the clothes of the saving servant. So it is that Julian is convinced that it was love and pity that motivated the Father to send the servant to suffer for the fallen one and that there was no trace of wrath whatever in the process.

God’s love precedes and quickens God’s deeds. God’s love transcends time and will never end and will certainly never change, but the effects of God’s love in time can change. We see this with the actions of embracing the cross on Jesus’ part and in the process of inheritance. It is this abiding act of love that we are invited to participate in as the means of being clothed in God’s Desire.

Rebecca Adams, a feminist colleague of Girard, offers us a compelling articulation of what God’s love is all about. In an act of authorial generosity (more love in action) Vern Redekop created space in his fine book From Violence to Blessing for Adams to articulate her understanding of love at some length. It was Adams who, noting how Girard tends to stress the negative side of mimetic desire, prodded him in an interview to admit that there was such a thing as “positive mimesis” where mimetic desire works among humans for constructive and humane purposes.

Interestingly, Adams gained her inspiration from a Star Trek episode where the pivotal character is a metamorph from another planet. A metamorph is all mimetic desire to the extent that such a person is incapable of any subjectivity so as to be nothing but a perfect mirror of the other’s desires. Such a culture is mimetic desire gone mad. We can see that however mimetic desire works, it is not intended by God to be the destruction of the core of another’s personhood. This metamorph, a woman, is a pawn in an interplanetary marriage arrangement where she will be married to a callous corrupt official. Captain Picard of the Star Trek crew wants to save her from this fate but she can’t even imagine wanting any other alternative, let alone fight for it. Picard solves the problem by desiring that the metamorph have a subjectivity of her own. Because of her susceptibility, she is so engulfed in Picard’s desire that she does begin to desire a subjectivity for herself and thus achieves the beginning of independence. This is sort of like being the “tiny little thing” becoming a hazel nut with the potential to grow into something large (like the mustard seed becoming a large tree). Picard proves to be a fine model of willing the subjectivity of another person, something he must have been doing habitually with the people in his life all along.

Adams sees this Star Trek episode as providing a third alternative to attempting to be autonomous or having a subjectivity completely derived from another. This relational willing of the subjectivity between persons gives each “the capacity to participate fully in a loving dynamic of giving and receiving in relation to others.” This willing of the subjectivity of another is something that will spread so that if two people “start desiring not only their own and each other’s subjectivity,” they will also “desire the subjectivity of others as well.” p. 267) As opposed to the closed system of mimetic rivalry, we have an “open system of intersubjectivity with its own creative, generative dynamic which potentially could expand to include everyone and everything.” God, of course, already and always wills the subjectivity of all. This helps to explain why I insist that respect is the essential prerequisite to love. (See Respect.) Adams’ vision is a model of love is ultimate respect for the other, a respect that gives the other a self as a gift as we all receive a self from God as gift. When respect reaches this level, we can say that it has become love grounded in God’s Desire. It is also what Paul admonishes us to in Romans 12: 12: “love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honor.”

There is one thought that gives me pause. What if the subjectivity of another person is evil. Adams can’t possibly mean to embrace such an evil subjectivity. For one thing, the mutuality is lost because an abuser tries to destroy the subjectivity of another rather than will it to flourish. Besides, Adams says that she has suffered such abuse so clearly she does not affirm this kind of subjectivity. On the contrary, this experience has taught her the importance of respecting the other’s subjectivity as a mutual process. However, the question that poses itself is: does an abusive person have a subjectivity, or much of one? If all of us can truly be a self when that self is received as gift, then anyone who tries to take away the self of another inevitably takes away one’s own self at the same time. This mutual losing of selves is what happens in the dissolution of advanced mimetic rivalry.

The great author of fantasy, J.R.R. Tolkien can help us here. In The Lord of the Rings he powerfully portrays the emptiness of evil in the ringwraiths and Sauron whom they serve. The ringwraiths have enough substance to be covered with black cloaks, ride black horses, and try to seek out the ring bearer who happens to be the hobbit Frodo. But there is otherwise no substance to the ringwraiths just as there is no substance to Sauron who wishes to repossess the ring of ultimate power and bind everyone and everything to his own empty desire. We see the same destruction of hobbithood in Gollum who is just as consumed with desire for the ring as Sauron.

Can one possibly will the subjectivity of a ringwraith or Sauron or Gollum? Frodo does respect the subjectivity of Gollum to the extent that he feels enough pity that he will not kill the creature no matter how painful Gollum’s constant nagging presence is. It is this pity and not Frodo’s strength to destroy the ring, which in the end he does not have, that saves the day, for it is when Gollum grabs the ring from Frodo and falls into the volcano that the ring is destroyed. Gollum is pitiable, but can we try to will subjectivity for Sauron? I would answer “yes” with much trepidation for I can hardly imagine going up to a ringwraith to offer him a dose of subjectivity let alone Sauron. Even Captain Picard would be challenged to be this brave. But God does will that a person empty of a self receive a self as a gift so as to be a self. When God so offer the likes of Sauron a self, we can tiptoe into God’s offer to share in it in our own small ways. At this point, love as ultimate respect is forgiveness, another gift of God grounded in God’s love. Let us not speculate on whether or not Sauron ever consents to receive a self from God. Let us ask ourselves if we are willing to receive this ultimate respect ourselves from God and offer it to others.