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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Liturgical Animals (2)

eucharist1In his first letter to the Corinthians, St. Paul brings us to the heart of Christian worship that Jesus inspired at what we call his Last Supper. His followers were doing what he told them to do: Do this in memory of me. While both the myths and rituals obscured the sacrificial stories on which they were based, the Eucharist clearly tells the story on which it is based:  the betrayal of Jesus, his subsequent crucifixion, and his rising from the dead.  This earliest account of the Eucharist, predating all of the Gospels, enshrines the Words of Institution that are repeated in celebrations of the Eucharist two thousand years later. The Eucharist teaches us through its story but it also teaches us at a deeper, more substantial level through actually feeding us with the Word of God so tangibly that we chew on it and swallow it. Celebrating the Eucharist places our desires into Jesus’ Desire for us to gather with him and the other Persons of the Trinity.

The meal is probably the oldest of rituals performed by liturgical animals. Eating is the first activity that immerses us into mimetic desire as we imitate the desires of our caregivers to desire food and, by the time we are old enough to be conscious of what we are eating, to desire certain foods because those around us desire them. However, as much as meals have to do with providing necessary bodily nourishment, they are always more than that. An intrinsic part of learning to eat is learning how to eat in the company of others. It may be culturally arbitrary whether we use eating utensils and plates or large leaves and fingers, but in every culture I have ever heard of, there is always a way of eating that is learned. The shared desire for food extends to a shared desire for the way of eating it. By rooting liturgy in a meal, the Eucharist roots worship in the sensuous act of eating; of tasting food and drink on our tongues.

In this same letter, Paul brings up the manner of table manners in regards to the Eucharist. He berates the richer members of the congregation for their insensitive treatment of those who are more economically challenged. To flaunt their superior food in front of those who cannot afford it without offering them anything was a serious violation of everything the Eucharist stands for. This desire shared by one group in the congregation to demonstrate their superiority over others, to put them in their places, breaks the unity the feast is supposed to create and strengthen. Paul makes it clear that there is much more to worship than saying or singing words together while celebrating a sacrifice. If people are not treated well, worship is diminished if not rendered nonexistent.

John’s version of the feeding in the wilderness brings all of these themes together. The event is explicitly brought into the context of Yahweh’s feeding the Jews in the wilderness after their escape from Egypt. Raymond Brown pointed out that rabbinic teaching interpreted the manna as symbolizing the Torah, thus uniting food and teaching, something the Eucharist also does. While Matthew and Mark recount two feedings in the wilderness, one for the Jews and one for the Gentiles, John has one story of feeding for all people. Jesus’ blessing of the bread and fishes has ritual overtones although the feeding is taking place in the open air, away from temples, synagogues and churches. The social unity that Paul enjoins is embodied in John’s vision where it gains a deep universality. Unfortunately, the people then unite in trying to make Jesus king, which destroys the social vision as surely as the Corinthians did.

The Eucharist teaches us that we don’t outgrow our earliest lessons: table manners. Without them, we don’t grow up.

Liturgical Animals (1)

monksinChoir1The reality of mimetic desire guarantees that we will engage in liturgical activity. What kind of liturgical activity and for what end leads to many possibilities. However, since we instinctively react to the desires and intentions of others, we also instinctively move and sing with each other and act together. Since we are mimetic animals, we are also liturgical animals. Much liturgy takes place in churches and temples but liturgy can be done anywhere at any time and it is indeed done all over the place. René Girard’s theory of scapegoating violence places the origins of ritual and liturgy in the spontaneous mob violence against a victim that “solves” a massive social crisis. At first thought, one would think there is nothing liturgical about collective violence; it just happens. But actually collective violence is a very predictable phenomenon that consistently works in a certain way once it gets started. We all know that once the persecutory ball gets rolling it is almost impossible to stop until blood has been spilled. The relatively few instances where the persecutory wave is stopped short of bloodshed also follow a predictable pattern. In essence, the mimetic contagion of a mob has to be redirected into another direction, one less destructive. This is what Jesus did when the Jewish elders were gathered around the woman caught in adultery. This is what Christians do to this day when celebrating the Holy Eucharist. Although I think it likely that sacrificial rituals have their origins in collective violence as Girard suggests, I think that ritual in itself is rooted more deeply in human nature. Since we humans are imitative creatures, we would instinctively coordinate our bodily movements with those of others. This sort of mirroring is instinctive to mothers especially in their interactions with their babies. It is this coordination of movement that would unify a family and then a clan and then a tribe. These coordinated movements would naturally turn into communal dancing and singing. Such coordinated action would naturally move into reenactments of primal collective violence once that occurred, but there is nothing in this instinct for coordinated movement that requires that it move in that direction. This is to say that collective violence and its continuations in sacrifice and institutionalized violence are not of the essence of humanity. There is nothing necessary about it; it’s just something that happens most of the time. What is necessary in the sense of being of the essence of humanity is coordinated movement. Our built-in mimetic desire guarantees that it will happen. There are practical reasons for this trait, among them coordinating movements during hunting expeditions, the way soldiers do military drills to facilitate coordination in battle, and the way football teams synchronize their actions, not to speak of the rituals performed by their fans. Singing together over common work such as gathering fruits and preparing meals might not be as necessary for success as the coordinated movement of hunting parties, but perhaps are as necessary at another level. Maybe nobody dies of boredom but we often feel that we can, and maybe we do in the sense that lack of interest in life isn’t conducive to living a long life. It is singing and dancing together and moving together in other ways that would have given our earliest ancestors an interest in living and it is these activities that spark our interest in life today. Many people today may think they are dismissive of liturgy because they think of stuffy church services or masonic rituals. But the ways we greet people, especially when introducing people to strangers or meeting them, are little rituals that we take so much for granted that we don’t think of them as rituals. When I was young, many people who never darkened the door of a church linked arms in the streets and sang the hymn “We Shall Overcome.” All this is to say that humans are liturgical animals. Gathering with others always has some liturgical overtones in the sense of repeating actions we are used to doing together. Drinking parties tend to follow the same patterns for those groups in the habit of gathering for that purpose. Given this human trait to gather through ritual, it is inevitable that any who wish to gather with others in memory of Jesus would gather liturgically. Liturgy is discussed at length in my book Tools for Peace.

Proceed to Liturgical Animals (2)

Jerusalem, Jerusalem

Jerusalem“Jerusalem, Jerusalem´ was the outcry of Jeremiah in his Lamentations, and of Jesus when he was rejected by the leadership in in the holy city. James Carroll’s searingly excellent book of this title is an extension of this outcry with historical, theological and spiritual depth.

This book is not so much a history of Jerusalem as a history of the idea of Jerusalem, the Jerusalem of the imagination. The history of the city itself, of course is deeply affected by the ideas and imagination projected on it, almost always to its detriment. Jerusalem is an image of the ideal, the perfect city and yet this great ideal has shed more blood than could fill an ocean and at the present day the ideal threatens the survival of humanity and the planet we live on. How can this be?

Carroll finds the groundwork for an answer to this troubling question in the thought of René Girard. The anthropological insights into mimetic desire and the resulting rivalry often arising from it is most apt a framework for working through the troubled history of the city on the hill. Carroll’s introduction of Girard’s thought is concise, pointed, and highly insightful even for those familiar with Girard’s thought. (See Violence and the Kingdom of God.)

The sacrifice of Isaac, imagined to have been nearly committed on the rock where the temple was later built, is another underlying motif of the book and is a powerful illustration of how God’ revelation of peace and love gets twisted towards violence. A story that almost certainly was intended to reveal the wrongness of human sacrifice got twisted to praising the obedience of Abraham being willing to sacrifice his son which then lead humanity to be willing to sacrifice its children, not just “half the seed of Europe” but at least half the seed of the whole world, “one by one” in the words of Wilfred Owen’s powerful poem on this story. (See Abraham out on Highway 61.)

The Jerusalem of the imagination is narrated through the Jewish establishment of the city as the capital of Judah, a city that became loved when it was lost during the Babylonian exile. It is the city where Jesus ended his preaching ministry and died under the Roman authorities. It is the city the first Moslems wanted because of their share in the tradition of Abraham and the prophets. It is the city that swirled through the Christian imagination, spurring a virulent anti-Semitism that reached its climax in the Shoah. Jerusalem inspired the crusading ideal that lead millions of soldiers and civilians to their deaths. The Battle Hymn of the Republic powerfully sings this violent ideal of the crusade in its purple poetry and Hubert Parry’s noble hymn tune gives force to the ideal of conquering the holy city anew.

It is not possible to do justice to the scope and depth of this book. Anyone interested in religious studies, theology, history, human culture and almost anything else would do well to give the reading of this book a high priority and to read it slowly, carefully and thoughtfully. I do not agree with quite every detail in Carroll’s analysis. Some of his interpretations of the New Testament seem to confuse the content with its reception history, although his analyses of the reception history is fully accurate. The overall thrust is highly compelling and will give every reader, whether Jewish, Christian, Moslem, atheist, or anything else a stiff challenge to one’s thinking, imagination, and relationship to violence, most especially supposedly “noble,” “redemptive” violence.

Humility (2)

KatrinaCrossAbraham1[See Humility (1)[

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).