Benedict’s Easter

BenedictChurchStatue1An early Easter throws many things awry, not least the saints’ calendar. St. Benedict’s day is normally celebrated on March 21, but this year, it was transferred to Monday after Easter Week. Thinking about St. Benedict in terms of Easter reminds me of what he said about Lent in Chapter 49 of his Rule.

Why would we want to think about Lent when we have just survived it and are now celebrating Easter? Well, Benedict famously thinks we should practice lent all year round. That means we should practice lent during Easter too. And here we thought we had Lent over with for a year! So why would we want to go back to Lent? For one thing, Benedict thinks that we should “wash away the negligences of other times” during Lent. That’s really a good thing to do all the time, rather than waiting for Lent to do it. Benedict also says that we should “look forward to holy Easter with joy and spiritual longing.” If it’s Easter already, what do we need to look forward to it? But when we realize Benedict wasn’t thinking about looking forward to jelly beans and chocolate, it becomes clear that Benedict has an eschatological yearning in mind.

Longing for Easter, of course, is yearning to actually live the life of the Resurrection. Benedict expresses this Easter yearning at the end of the Prolog to his Rule when he says that we shall run with “our hearts overflowing with the inexpressible delight of love.” Sounds like a good thing to have all year round. It is this Easter Joy that Benedict says we should run toward, not walk and certainly not dawdle. Benedict’s admonition to long for Easter helps us understand why we should run towards Easter even though Easter is already here. It is one thing for Easter to arrive in the course of days. It is another thing for God to inspire us with the life of Jesus’ Resurrection all year round. It is yet another thing for us to be inspired by the Resurrected life of Jesus. Washing away our negligences and running rather than wasting any more time helps us to be inspired by the Resurrected life by opening our hearts to the “inexpressible delight of love.”

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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.

St. Benedict: a Personal Sketch

BenedictChurchStatue1In his Dialogues, Pope Gregory I said that Benedict could not “otherwise teach than he himself lived.” Taking Gregory at his word, I will celebrate our holy father Benedict by drawing out of the Rule what we can glean about the kind of man he was.

The way Benedict carefully outlined the way the Divine Office should be done, listing what psalms should be done when, shows an ordered man who appreciated discipline and having everything and everyone in place. We see the same care in the way Benedict outlined the daily schedule for a balanced life. However, Benedict showed flexibility when he said that one can rearrange the office psalms if that should be deemed expedient. Although he wanted his monastics to be on time for the office, he cut some slack by allowing them to come before the Venite (Psalm 95) is recited, for which reason it should be said as slowly as possible. Although Benedict disapproved of boisterous laughter, he had a dry wit.

Benedict was anxious about infractions of the Rule such as hording unauthorized possessions. He cut out loopholes by compulsively listing everything he could think of that a monastic might try to keep on the sly, understanding the favorite monastic evasion: “There’s nothing in the Rule against it.” The way he went on about disciplining a dean, a priest, or the prior of the monastery who got puffed up suggests that Benedict had deep fears about what power and responsibility could do to a person. The fearful admonitions to the abbot to remember how accountable he is to God for the misdeeds of his monastics suggests that he was anxious over his own weaknesses and potential for misusing power. For all his exasperation for delinquent monastics, the convoluted nature of his chapters on punishment show the problem to be one for agonizing rather than self-righteous smugness. Punishments should not be vindictive but remedial, ending in reconciliation to the community if at all possible. In quoting the parable of the Good Shepherd who leaves the ninety-nine sheep to after the stray he showed a deep solicitude for those who had fallen out of line.

Benedict had a flexible sense of fairness, believing that the abbot should treat each monastic appropriately, cajoling one, and scolding another, depending on the personality. In general, he really cared about the individuality of each person. He made a point of listening to what each member of the community had to say at a meeting, even the youngest person. He also wanted his monastics to share frankly their heavy burdens and ask for relief even if, under some circumstances, that might not be possible.

In general, Benedict had compassion and concern for the weaknesses of other people, surely out of an awareness of his own weaknesses. The weaknesses of the sick were of special care for Benedict and it was important to him that they were properly looked after. He felt the same way about guests who were also vulnerable, especially those who were poor. His concern that jobs be done competently was closely tied to his concern for the care of others, especially the weak. His worries over the abuse of power were motivated at least in part by the need to protect the vulnerable from the fallout of power plays in the monastery.

Late in life, Benedict’s compassionate concern for weaknesses deepened. In the second chapter on the abbot at the end of the Rule, surely a later addition, he quotes Isaiah’s words that the bruised reed should not be crushed and Jacob’s words that he shouldn’t drive his flocks too hard in one day. He warns against rubbing the vessel too hard so that it breaks. While in his younger years Benedict seems to have wanted to be feared at least a little, in the later chapter, Benedict greatly prefers to be loved rather than feared.

In following the first step of humility—to be constantly mindful of living in God’s presence–Benedict lived a recollected life. In this recollection, he sought God’s presence in everything and everybody: the guests, the sick, the tools of the monastery. He believed that both tools and people should be treated as if they were the sacred vessels of the altar. In this practice, Benedict sought to arrive at that perfect love of God which casts out fear with his “heart overflowing with the inexpressible delight of love.”

Humility (2)

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The middle steps of Humility in Benedict’s Rule, the heart of his chapter, take us to the depths of the Paschal Mystery. They involve obedience “under difficult, unfavorable, or even unjust conditions” where  we “quietly embrace suffering,” being “content with the lowest and most menial treatment” and admitting in our hearts that we are “inferior to all and of less value.”

This looks a lot more like groveling before the King of Siam then does holding fast to the memory of God’s presence, but obeying under unjust conditions is what Jesus did during his earthly life, most of all during his last days. This step isn’t about bowing imperious rulers; it is about bowing to everybody, including those we consider the most despicable of human beings. Jesus did it. What about us? When we are being ill-treated, we console ourselves with the thought that at least we are better than those who mistreat us. But that is not what Jesus did. Jesus treated even Pontius Pilate and Caiaphas with respect, although the guards of the high priest didn’t see it that way.

This consideration adds a deeper perspective to the first step of humility that involves being ever mindful of being in God’s presence. There is a bit of a Big Brother is watching us about God’s perpetual mindfulness of everything we do and think, but the very God whose presence we should always remember is the God who accepted the meanest treatment at the hands of human beings like us. Doesn’t sound like Big Brother’s style of watching to me.

We are not easily content with “the lowest and most menial treatment.” We have a tendency to think that the world owes us the good things in life. If and when we don’t get them, we become highly resentful to everybody we hold responsible for what we don’t get. If and when we do get some of the good things in life, we think we only got what was coming to us. Of course, most of us find ourselves having to take the bad along with the good and we are resentful only most of the time. This is the case even if mathematically we get good things more often than not. Bad things always make stronger impressions on us. In short, we are the ones who act like the King of Siam, not God. When we stop expecting the world to give us nothing but the good things in life and become more concerned with those who don’t, and often they don’t have good things because of our inordinate greed, then we become more grateful for what we actually have. Gratitude has a lot to do with humility.

In these middle steps of humility, hard as they are to embrace, we come to grips with the incomprehensible love God has for us. Christ didn’t take time to dwell on how much more righteous he was than those who taunted him and nailed him on the cross. Jesus was too busy thinking about bringing even these people into his kingdom to have room in his heart for anything else.

So it is that at the bottom of humility, we find divine love. Benedict hints at the presence of God’s love that we experience within us when we let go of our pride when he says that, by following these steps, we “arrive at that perfect love of God which casts out fear.” At this level of humility, there is no dread of God because we have dropped our projections on God and have become free within the depths of God’s Desire.

I discuss the chapter on Humility in the Rule of Benedict at length in my book Tools for Peace.

Humility (1)

garden1Humility tends to evoke images of groveling before potentates, as when Anna was ordered to bow before the King of Siam. Such popular images project human images on God that have nothing to do with Jesus who was more interested in finding the lost sheep of Israel than having anybody bow down to him.

The first and most fundamental step of humility for St. Benedict is that we keep “the fear of God always before [our] eyes and never forget it.” That is, before humility is anything else, humility is living in the presence of God. This is indeed something very different from groveling in the dust. This step reminds us of our constant need for God and also of God’s sustained presence in our lives. It is precisely in our desires that our need for others shows itself. We often think of needing others to fulfill our desires but it is really more a case of needing others to desire at all as René Girard has demonstrated. (See Human See, human want) We tend to deny our need for the desires of others and to claim these desires for ourselves, which is an act of serious pride. Humility involves, then, accepting the interaction of our desires with the desires of others and accepting our mutual need of each other’s desires. But as this first step of humility teaches us, we most need to be in tune with our need for God’s Desire.

We tend to forget not only God’s presence but, even more seriously, God’s Desire when we are immersed in the desires of other people. Our involvement with the desires of other people tends to become rivalrous, which draws us further from God’s Desire. The more we are grounded in God’s Desire and never forget it, the more constructive we are apt to be in the way we act in terms of the desires of others. For example, we are freer to treat others with respect and courtesy when we don’t need to “win” any human encounters because we are grounded in God’s Desire that has nothing to do with winning but has everything to do with providing for others.

The inner attitude of living in the memory of God’s presence is balanced in the twelfth and final step of humility with the external deportment that corresponds with the former. Humility should be noticeable whether one is “at the Work of God, in the oratory, the monastery or the garden, on a journey or in the field, or anywhere else.” In other words, at all times and all places. Once again we have outer action and inner attitude reinforcing one another just as they should during worship. The last thing Benedict would want would be for someone to put on an act. When we let our actions flow out from right inner attitudes, then these actions are natural with no sense of putting on airs. The more one is mindful of living in God’s presence, the more natural the deportment of humility will be. Moreover, paying attention to this outward deportment does tend to have a humbling effect that strengthens the right inner attitude.

(More about Humility can be read in Andrew Marr’s book Tools for Peace)

Vainglory – Enslavement to the Admiration of Others

garden1Although pride is usually posited as the opposite of humility, the early eastern monastics distinguished vainglory from pride. (Some translations use “boasting” or conceit.”) It is not always easy to see the distinction between the two but vainglory tends to be seeking glory from humans while pride is more directly related to our relationship with God; thinking, or acting as if we don’t need God. In terms of mimetic theory, vainglory is seeking to stir up the desire of other people for our own actions. Vainglory is acting like the hypocrites who make a public display of almsgiving “that they may be praised by others” (Mt. 6:2) or of their fasting for the same reason. Jesus says they have “received their reward,” which presumably is to be praised by other people. John Cassian says that vainglory “has many styles, forms, and “variations” as it can strike at everything we do since every action or even every inaction can be motivated by vainglory. (John Cassian, Monastic Institutes, p. 163)

This is a tough one because it is difficult not to want to be admired. Moreover, although it is vainglorious to want people to acclaim books we write or our other accomplishments, there is no sense and no edification in writing badly or doing bad work. When Benedict says that readers in church or at table should read well enough to edify the hearers, or that the guest quarters should be well prepared for visitors, he makes it clear that we should try to do every task assigned to us well, whether it is writing a book or vacuuming the hallway.

Some of the desert monastics were ruthless with themselves in their attempts to stifle vainglory. This was difficult because they were admired by many people who heard about their lifestyles. When a group of admirers came to see Abba Moses, they asked a monastic where he could be found. The monk told them to go away because Abba Moses was a fool and not worth seeing. They turned away, only to find out from some other monastics that it was Abba Moses himself who had driven them away. Some people take this reverse strategy to the extreme by assuming that if “men revile us and persecute us and utter all kinds of evil against us falsely on Jesus’ account than we are blessed. Maybe, but in a talk I heard Gil Bailie give, he said that we aren’t blessed if people revile us for being a clod. The problem is that we are still preoccupied with the opinions of others.

Jesus gives us a clue when he follows his admonition not to trumpet our almsgiving and other good deeds by adding: “do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your alms may be in secret” (Mt. 6:3-4). In his commentary on the Sermon on the Mount in Cost of Discipleship Dietrich Bonhoeffer notes the tension with the admonition: “Let your light so shine before others, that they may see your good works and give glory to your father who is in heaven” (Mt. 5:17) Bonhoeffer suggests that the trick is to hide our good works from ourselves. To do this, we must hide any admiration we get from them as well.

As John Cassian has pointed out, we can be haunted by vainglory when we write a book or vacuum the hallway or do anything else. The best we can do is concentrate not on ourselves or the admiration of others but upon the work itself. As an act of charity, we should try to write a good book that is helpful to others and vacuum the hallway to make the house nicer for those who live there. Benedict has the table reader pray the verse “Lord open my lips” before reading for the week to drive away pride (RB 38:3). Again he wants to reader to concentrate on reading well and not on how well one is reading. Perhaps the best advice Benedict has to offer is: “Do not aspire to be called holy before you really are, but first be holy that you may more truly be called so” (RB 4: 62).