Setting Our Hearts on God’s Treasure

purpleFlower1Jesus’ 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?

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The Process of Forgiveness (2): Letting Go

purpleFlower1Owning the hurt of injury is the beginning of letting go of the hurt that strangles us. For some people some of the time, letting go and forgiving happen simultaneously so as to seem like one movement.(See The Process of Forgiveness 1)  For most of us most of the time, the two are distinct, though closely related. This is most clearly the case when a kind of reverse psychology allows a letting go that leads to forgiveness. I have already noted that pressuring somebody to forgive horrendous injury such as childhood molestation because it is the “Christian” thing to do intensifies the pain of the injury with guilt for not being able to forgive it. In such cases, absolving the victim of forgiving the hurt allows that person to let go of it. Letting go removes the hurt from the center of our lives where it has been a major, often the central organizing principle of our lives and gives us the freedom to move on. Letting go does not mean that the hurt doesn’t hurt, but letting go loosens the hold the hurt has on us.

The most important element in letting go is non-retaliation. Here is where the famous admonitions in the Sermon on the Mount come into play: turning the other cheek, walking a second mile etc. It is important to note that non-retaliation, in itself, is not forgiveness. Withholding a counter punch that one is capable of delivering does not necessarily mean that one has forgiven the injury to the cheek. What non-retaliation does is push the pause button on violence that keeps it from escalating out of control, a scenario that makes forgiveness harder for everybody.

Letting go, especially in its form of non-retaliation, is a renunciation of trying to “win” a situation and instead assumes the position of the “loser.” This also makes the renunciation of retaliation a renunciation of mimetic rivalry. Remember that seeking revenge is fundamentally an attempt to “win” a struggle against the other and thus it perpetuates mimetic rivalry. In the heat of battle, winning is everything. When the battle is over and we are scarred more than ever or worse, winning turns out to be nothing but the burden of holding on to the hurt. After all, we haven’t let go and so the hurt keeps us in its relentless grip.

This is where humility comes in. Humility is the willingness to be a “loser” in the hope that we might win the person injuring us. Humility is particularly important here because not retaliating tempts us to think we have taken the higher moral ground. The tricky thing is that we have taken the higher moral ground but if we pat ourselves on the back for that, we become obsessed with ourselves and so turn the situation back into a contest of wills, which is mimetic rivalry. This is a case where it is important that the right hand not know what the left hand is doing.

Proceed to The Process of Forgiveness (3)

The importance of non-retaliation is that it gives us a tangible means of letting go that tells us if and when we really have let go of the hurt. If we slug the person back or sincerely wish we had, we have not let go. If we refrain from slugging the person back and don’t wish we had done it, we have let go. Simple as that.

Non-retaliation has been extolled by some, most notably by Walter Wink, as a strategy for resistance to the Empire. Wink suggests, for example, that turning the other cheek puts the aggressor in the awkward position of having to strike back-handedly. This take is attractive to many and it may be right, but insofar as turning the other cheek is intended as a strategy to muck up bullying behavior, it is not forgiveness. On the other hand, insofar as imperial politics requires reciprocal violence, any act that opens the way to forgiveness is an act of resistance to any Empire.

The most important thing to realize about letting go is that we are not cutting the connection between us and those who injure us. Trying to do that is futile. Our mirror neurons see to that. What letting go does is loosen what had been a tight, strangling connection to the other. Letting go gives each of us room to maneuver and to change the situation. We can’t, of course, take responsibility for what the other person does with the room this loosening gives. We can only take responsibility for ourselves. That is all we can handle anyway. More important, non-retaliation provides room for God to enter into the broken relationship and fix it.

After letting go of the hurt, the next step is to make sure we don’t grab it back and that we leave ourselves open to the mystery of forgiveness itself.

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).

A Risen Life Full of Forgiveness and Love

crosswButterfliesHere is my favorite thought experiment: Imagine that everybody around you ganged up on you, leveled incredible accusations against you, and rained savage blows on your body. Your friends either joined in the persecution or slunk away, too afraid to defend you. Your attackers pressed on until they had put you to a most painful death. Imagine further that, miraculously, you found yourself alive three days later. Having already died, you could hardly die again. You have become invincible. What would you do to the people who had mistreated you? How would you approach your cowardly friends?

Perhaps this thought experiment can give us an inkling of how amazing it is that, when this very miracle happened to Jesus, he did not retaliate, but instead, invited everybody to a big whooping party that will never end. After rising from the dead, Jesus continued to do what he was doing before he was killed: gather God’s people in peace by peaceful means only. That is, after his Resurrection, Jesus practiced what he preached in the Sermon on the Mount: return evil with good, hatred with love. The fullness of Jesus ‘forgiving love can be as earth-shattering as an earthquake or as gentle as stepping through a wall.

If Jesus were dead and there was a body in the tomb for the women to anoint, chances are that Jesus’ disciples would either have remained in hiding or they would have reacted to the violent act of the crucifixion with violence. But in Luke the young men in white asked the women: “Why seek the living among the dead?” That is, God did not will the death of Jesus, God willed life for Jesus because that is what God wills for each one of us. As long as we stop at Jesus’ death, we also stop at the grief and anger and that leads to violence. If we move on to the life of Jesus, than there isn’t the same room for grief and anger because Jesus is alive and wants us to be alive in Him.

In short order, Peter passes on the same absence of revenge of Jesus’ persecutors and fullness of forgiving love for them when he tells the people in Jerusalem precisely what they had done, sticking to the bare facts and not adding irrelevant insults the way we usually do in such situations. When Peter’s listeners were “cut to the heart” and asked: “What should we do?” Peter extended the invitation that he and the disciples had received from the Risen Lord: “Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ so that your sins may be forgiven; and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.” This is a far cry from the response we get from most followers of a slain leader. Peter had heard the cock crow, repented and accepted Christ’s forgiveness and love. Peter was a weak human being like the rest of us. If Peter is like us, we can be like him.

See also Two Ways of Gathering and Violence and the Kingdom of God.

Turning on Ash Wednesday

altarDistance1As 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