The custom of imposing ashes on our foreheads as a sign of our mortality on Ash Wednesday, the beginning of the penitential season of Lent, has the potential to encourage us to think that mortality is something we should repent of. The opposite is the case. We are not asked to repent of our mortality, we are asked to remember our mortality. Remembering our mortality is an important way to repent and to amend our lives. Since God made us mortal, mortality is not the problem. The problem, a huge problem, is the tendency to deny our mortality, to think that death should not apply to us. Clinical studies inspired by Ernest Becker show that denial of mortality leads to violent and insensitive behavior while some measure of acceptance leads to a much more humane way of relating to others, of connecting to others. I can’t help but reflect that in a great many fantasy novels, the villain tries to gain immortality which can only be achieved by stealing the life substance of others; an extreme example of how denial of mortality inevitably leads to victimization of other people. Such villains are always so deeply isolated as to be living deaths, no matter how many years they survive in this world. But if we accept our mortality, we put our trust in the crucified and Risen Lord, the true giver of life. When we accept our mortality, the time we have to repent becomes precious and we are ready to spend this precious gift wisely in the way we live so that others, too, may live.
Jesus’ teachings on the right and wrong ways of fasting are true and important but I would rather talk about treasure and our hearts. Treasure is a much brighter and exciting thing to think about then renunciation and fasting. What child doesn’t like a treasure hunt? Why else is Treasure Island such an archetypal novel?
What is the treasure we should seek? A treasure is whatever we set are hearts on. If we desire diamonds, then diamonds are our treasure. But even if we find a diamond mine in our back yards, we won’t have the treasure Jesus is talking about. Jesus’ admonition to “store up treasures in heaven” sounds like we store them for an after-life. But let us remember that this verse comes roughly in the middle of the Sermon on the Mount which outlines the real treasure we should seek: “Do not resist an evil doer” (Mt. 6: 39) and “Love your enemies.” (Mt. 5: 44)
We call these treasures? If we set our hearts on these teachings, they do indeed become treasures, treasures we have in the here-and-now, treasures that “neither moth nor rust consumes.” (Mt. 6: 20) These are treasures that remain safe as long as we set our hearts upon them. How about that as a challenge for Lent and on into Eternity?
The asceticism of self-denial, especially that of fasting gives us an important of the interaction between mimetic realism. There is a paradoxical effect of self-denial that we can fall victim to if we are not careful. It is possible for self-denial to focus us upon ourselves in an unhealthy way. It is I who am fasting. I am giving up pleasures I normally indulge in. If we become so fixated on ourselves, we are puffing ourselves up rather than denying ourselves. Isaiah shows how such self-centered fasting leads to quarreling and fighting and striking others with their fists. (Isaiah 58:4) If self-denial has made us so grouchy that we have to make up for what we are giving up by giving ourselves the alternate pleasure of striking out at other people and putting them down, then it is grouchiness and lashing out at others that we must fast from.
Likewise, Jesus warns us against putting on long faces so that others will admire our fasting or blowing trumpets to call attention to our almsgiving (Mt. 6: 1-2). Once again, our self-denial is being compensated for by self-indulgence in other ways. When the admiration of others is filling our egos, then we need to fast from seeking such admiration. We may well find that this renunciation is harder than renouncing food and other pleasures. As we deepen renunciation, we become aware of deeper levels of our desires that need to be turned into a more positive direction.
Given this pitfall, I suggest that we emphasize the needs of other people and renounce ourselves by thinking of them rather than about ourselves. Isaiah suggests that a better fast would be to let the oppressed go free and loosen every yoke. (Is. 58: 6). Jesus echoes Isaiah’s sentiments at the beginning of his teaching ministry by proclaiming a Year of Jubilee that would free all people of their imprisonment to debt so as to give all a new start in life. (Luke 4: 16-20 Instead of puffing ourselves up, we should build up other people. Perhaps we will find this to be a greater renunciation that cutting back on our eating habits. In any case, renunciations of food and other pleasures will help us grow spiritually only if they are the basis for reaching out to other people. When we really think of others, we have less room in our hearts to think about ourselves.
The Book of Common Prayer gives us an important focus for Lent by starting the collect for the Ash Wednesday Eucharist with “Almighty and everlasting God, you hate nothing you have made and forgive the sins of those who are penitent.” So often, we blame the material world for our sins and then hate what God has made which God also loves. In a sense, the material world becomes a scapegoat for our own disordered desires. If we eat too much, it isn’t really the fault of the food, though we quickly blame it for our own lack of self-control. Women, of course, have been blamed for being “tempting” as if it is their responsibility to control the desires of men while men need take no responsibility for themselves.
To complicate the picture, René Girard has demonstrated many times in his books that our desires are intertwined with the desires of others in a dense network of mutual imitation. If we become ensnared in desires for certain things or certain people because others desire them, we are in a frustrating situation and, again, it becomes convenient to blame the other people and other things for the pickle we are in.
We need to remember that God is our model for perfect love for all that God has made. That means that, unlike Zeus and many other mythological deities, God does not lust after humans but loves all humans with perfect respect. The more we respect other people and all things in the world, the more restraint we have in relation to them. So it is that when we repent and turn to God, we also turn to all things and to all people that God has made with new respect and love.
As we begin the season of penitence on Ash Wednesday, we do well to put penance in a context beyond our individual selves. René Girard’s concept of mimetic desire tells us that our “individual selves” are merely an illusion; our desires are unavoidably caught up in the desires of other people. (see Human See, Human Want) With that being the case, cleaning up our “own” desires simply does not do the job. Instead, we must clean up the desires we share with others, and that means relating to others.
Early in his great poem “As Wednesday,” T.S. Eliot zeroes in on healing shared desire by following the first lines about hoping to turn his life: “Desiring this man’s gift and that man’s scope/I no longer strive to strive towards such things.” That is, the tenth commandment about coveting includes coveting the God-given gifts of others and their insights. If we turn from our entanglements with the desires of others, we will affirm and rejoice in their gifts and insights and in doing so, will awaken to the gifts and insights that we have within us to give to others.
In Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus follows his teaching on renouncing mimetic rivalry (turn the other cheek, etc.) with a solemn caution against using “good” actions such as repenting, fasting, almsgiving, and praying as occasions for competing with others so as to desire gifts and insights of others. If we practice piety “in order to be seen by others,” then our piety is locked in our competition with others and not on God. That is why God cannot reward such piety which isn’t piety at all. The Desert Monastics also found themselves falling into the trap of competitive asceticism. On of the reasons Benedict, in his Rule, asks his monastics to tell the abbot about their Lenten disciplines is to put the practice of each into the context of building community. All this is compiling treasure on earth just as much as fattening our bank accounts.
The alternative to “praying in secret” may seem to be individualistic but it is really a matter of being an individual before God, which is a different thing. (An individualist flaunts his or her individuality over/against others—another thrust in a life of fencing.) Rather, “praying in secret” grounds each of us in God so that we can rejoice in God’s giftedness of others and ourselves. More important, it is precisely in the midst of these admonitions against flaunting our piety that Jesus teaches us the Our Father which reaches its climax with the petition that God forgive us as we forgive others.
As we turn again back to God, let us look at the turnings we must do in our relationships, realizing that unhealthiness in our relationships is not the same thing as the unhealthiness we may see in ourselves as individuals, although there is a relationship between the two. With T.S. Eliot, let us not even try to want the gifts of others but instead turn to the gifts we have to give to others.
For more about Lent in the Rule of St. Benedict in dialogue with Girard, read Tools for Peace