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.

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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)

Mimetic Laughter

outsideSupper1Laughter is one of the more pleasant things in life, but is it just a frill? In his book The Phantom of the Ego,” Nidesh Lawtoo discusses the importance Georges Bataille attached to laughter for the emerging consciousness of a newborn child. Laughter is one of the first things a baby learns in imitation of a mother, father, or other caregiver. So it is that laughter comprises the first bond a newborn child makes. Interactions with babies may seem silly, something to be transcended with intellectual maturity and so we don’t value laughing with babies.

At its best, laughter is spontaneous and infectious. How many times do we laugh without knowing why, just because other people are laughing? When children are laughing helplessly as part of playing, happiness spreads to everyone around them. We don’t want to be left out of the joke, even if we don’t know what it is. Just think of some of our best times when we laughed with family and friends with no other reason than we were together and we got caught up in laughter.

There is a darker side to laughter, however. Actually it is a darker side of us and our mimetic desires, rather than a darker side of laughter. Often laughter is used to wound others, to score points against others, to put others down to lift ourselves up. Almost as soon as they learn how to speak, small children use laughter in this way. School playgrounds are filled with this sort of thing. Children learn all this from their elders, of course. Just as they imitated the spontaneous laughter of those around them as infants, they imitate the cruel humor that surrounds them as they grow older. Unfortunately, children usually learn this mode of laughter through being shamed by adults who think ridicule is a good way to train children for the hard knocks of life. Laughter continues to be a bond between people, but it is a bonding at the expense of someone, a butt of jokes, a victim.

When he discourages laughter as a sign of pride, St. Benedict certainly had this darker side of laughter in mind, although it is possible that he had a blind spot for the value of spontaneous, bonding laughter. Certainly, when laughter is a put-on act to gain attention, it is the opposite of spontaneous and it is a prideful act, an act seeking to dominate by drawing attention to oneself at the expense of others. I discuss this at length in my book Tools for Peace.

We get so habituated to using laughter as a weapon instead of a bond of love that we hardly know what the latter is. One way back is to use the wit we acquire to learn to laugh at ourselves and help others laugh at themselves. At its best, a comedy does just that. In Mozart’s “The Marriage of Figaro,” discussed in an earlier post, laughter is used as a means to overcome mimetic triangles and tensions and bring reconciliation. Shakespeare does this sort of thing masterly in comedies such as “Twelfth Night” and “As You like It.” In “The Merchant of Venice,” Shakespeare sets a trap for the unwary, leading us into joining the persecution of Shylock before unmasking this derisory laughter for what it is.

Life is too serious and awesome a thing to be left to sourpusses who always want to be on top of somebody else. We all need heavy doses of spontaneous, selfless laughter shared with others.

 

The Communal Good Shepherd

goodShepherdThe parable of the lost sheep crystallizes the Gospel as only a few others do.  It reverses our usual outlook that naturally tends to think along utilitarian lines where, as Caiaphas suggested, it is better for one person to die than the whole nation should perish. From the dawn of time, sacrificial logic has worked the same way: one person dies so that the community can be at peace, at least for a time. Jesus coyly asks the question: “which of you, having a hundred sheep, wouldn’t leave the ninety-nine to look after the lost one?” The honest answer would be: Nobody. A lone shepherd couldn’t leave the ninety-nine without losing them and probably failing finding the lost one as well. And yet Jesus asks the question in such a way as to ridicule our normal way of thinking and then goes on to rhapsodize about the extravagant joy and celebration at finding the one lost sheep. It’s the same with the woman finding her lost coin. She throws a party that probably cost all ten of her coins.

This rejoicing over the lost sheep and the lost coin and the lost sinner shakes us up into realizing that it is not enough to renounce the sacrificial logic of Caiaphas. If we stop sacrificing people we think are expendable that is something but much more is asked of us. We are to actively and sacrificially care for the ones who are lost, who are considered expendable by society. In his Rule, Benedict writes powerfully about this parable in the context of a community dealing with a delinquent member. As I say in my book Tools for Peace, “Benedict captures the inner spirit of the Gospel by picturing the abbot throwing off any sense of abbatial dignity in much the same way the father of the prodigal son throws off his dignity by running out to greet the son he sees from afar.”

One might think that the good shepherd is sacrificing the ninety-nine sheep for the sake of the one. Maybe. But what really needs to happen is for the shepherd plus the ninety-nine to go after the lost sheep. In his chapters on dealing with a delinquent member of the community, Benedict turns the whole community into shepherds. Paradoxically, one of the ways (and a problematic one) is excommunication where all members must cooperate. It is important to realize this is intended as a means to reconciliation; sort of like a time out in a family which gives a trouble child an opportunity to reflect on his or her behavior. Moreover, the whole community shares the pain of the alienation. Benedict doesn’t leave it at that. He suggests that the abbot send wise monastics to comfort the excommunicated member and reason with him. Benedict then encourages the best remedy of all: prayer. This is a communal effort with the whole community praying for the one who is temporarily lost in the hope that this member will soon be found again. Reconciliation takes place in the monastic church, making this also a communal event.

Benedict gives us one example of living out a difficult scenario. In each instance, we have to find different means to the same end although Benedict’s techniques give us a sense of direction. In the Body of Christ, all of us are called upon to act the part of the good shepherd.

Essay on spiritual renewal

buddingTree1I have just posted the text of a talked that I gave at a Theology & Peace conference in Chicago a few years ago called Living by the Breath of God: a Spirituality of God’s Desire. It collects many of the ideas of I have working with on my recent blog posts & it might help some of you get a more coherent view of the vision I continue to develop. You can read this essay here.

An Extraordinarily Ordinary Saint

BenedictChurchStatue1St. Benedict, as portrayed in the Dialogues of Pope St. Gregory I, is an imposing figure, performing miracles with the flick of the hand or the eyes. The St. Benedict we see in the Rule composed by him is rather ordinary, even boring. That’s okay with Benedict; he wasn’t trying to be anyone special. He was a man devoted to a life of prayer in community who was put into a position of leadership and the responsibilities that entails. He wrote a Rule for his community to give some spiritual teaching and practical guidelines. A lot of abbots had done the same. Benedict cribbed much of his own Rule from one of the monastic rules lying around. He probably didn’t expect it to be remembered for long except in the eyes of God. That’s all that really mattered to him.

The document Benedict drew from is an interesting contrast to Benedict’s Rule. It is called The Rule of the Master, authorship unknown. The Master seems to have thought that he was writing the ultimate rule to end all monastic rules. Everything in this ideal community was in place and nobody would need to write another rule. For every sort of delinquent behavior the Master could think of, he composed a perfect speech to remedy the problem so that no abbot would be at a loss for words no matter what happened. (Hah!) Benedict didn’t think so. He didn’t bother to write a critical review of the Rule of the Master; he just took material that he found useful, much of it actually cribbed from John Cassian, and left out the rest. The silences were deafening. No endless lectures on overcoming monastic vices for one thing. No pulleys lowering baskets at mealtimes to indicate that the bread came from heaven for another. There are loose ends everywhere so that any abbot using this rule can improvise according to the time and place and the weaknesses and strengths of the monastics in the community/

What we’re left with is a document so short that it makes for an ideal book report if shortness of book is the main issue.  There is spiritual teaching about listening to God in silence and in the Divine Office. There are verses urging us earnestly to run in the way of God’s commands and cautions about being humble by putting oneself constantly in God’s presence and never forgetting it. There is much about worshiping with care and doing humble chores with equal care, to the point of treating the tools of the monastery as if they were the vessels of the altar. There are also admonitions for treating the other members of the community and guests with care, perhaps suggesting that they, too, should be treated as the sacred vessels of the altar.

There’s nothing out of the ordinary. Anyone can do it. Benedict said it was a rule for beginners. There’s nothing about doing fabulous miracles like the disciples or attributed to Benedict in Gregory’s life. The monastic life isn’t about healing the sick, but it is about tending the sick to give them the best chance of being cured. It isn’t about casting our demons except to build up a community life that doesn’t give demons much room for maneuver. It isn’t about raising the dead except to give of oneself to improve the quality of life for others.

One thing Benedict does accomplish in his Rule that the disciples accomplished was the miracle receiving freely and giving freely. Benedict freely received the tradition of the Gospels, the Sayings of the Desert Monastics, the writing of John Cassian derived from the Desert Monastics, and the fussy Rule of the Master that would be forgotten if it weren’t for Benedict. All this, Benedict has freely given to us to guide us in ordinary lives of prayer in community.

Contemplative Prayer as a Pearl of Great Price

indwellingcover_tnBecoming conscious of mimetic desire, our inborn and pre-conscious tendency to copy the desires of other people (See Human See, Human Want) poses a large challenge to our daily living. When we bring in the tendency to fall into rivalry with other people and how that can lead to collective violence (see Two Ways of Gathering) then we need tools to live with this challenge.

I wrote Tools for Peace to suggest ways that the spiritual practices from the monastic tradition and the Rule of St. Benedict in particular can help us with this challenge. Contemplative Prayer, although important in monastic practice, has a small place in the Rule of St. Benedict and so there is not a detailed discussion of the practice in this book, although I have a few comments about it.

Many years ago, I wrote a pamphlet called “The Indwelling God” to introduce the practice of contemplative prayer and give practical suggestions for initiating and sustaining this practice. Last year, I wrote an article for our Abbey Letter called “Resting in God’s Desire” which discusses contemplative prayer specifically in connection to mimetic desire. The Divine Office is indeed the heart of Benedictine spirituality, but praying in silence, just being before and with God, allowing God to contemplate us, as Saint Gertrude and other writers have suggested, is a pearl of great price, a pearl worth some of our valuable time and worthy of much room in our hearts.

This pamphlet has been available in hard copy and is still available in that form, but I have just had a eBook made of it to make it available in that form since many readers are using that medium. I have coupled the pamphlet with the essay “Resting in God’s Desire” as they make good companion pieces.

“The Indwelling God” with its companion article can be purchased on the abbey’s website at http://www.saintgregorysthreerivers.org/digitalpubs.html   A hard copy version which has only “The Indwelling God” is available at http://www.saintgregorysthreerivers.org/orderpage.html

May we all give of ourselves to receive this pearl of great price.