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.

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The Blind Man Who Could See

Bartimaeus

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.

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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.