Living by the Breath of God:
A spirituality of Godís Desire
Andrew Marr, OSB
St. Gregory's Abbey,
Three Rivers, Michigan, USA
Paper was given at the
Theology and Peace Conference, Chicago, 26-28 May 2009
Reprinted with Permission
Genesis states the truth from the beginning when it says that God created the world and that it was Good. God did not say that the material world is a reality lower than an immaterial ďspiritualĒ world that we should set our sights on at the expense of the material world. Godís desire from the beginning is that all of creation should Be, and each and every one of us should Be. In willing us to be, God wills us all to have life and have it abundantly. God wants me, myself, to have abundant life, but God does not want just me, myself, and I to have abundant life. God wills abundant life for all. If some lack Godís abundant life, we all lack the abundance God wills for us.
When God shares Godís Being with us in creating us, God also shares Godís desire both for our own being and for the being of all that is in the world. This is mimetic desire as God intended it, the mimetic desire God built into creation. There is no rivalry whatever in the mimetic desire God invites us to share. The Incarnation of the Word seals Godís affirmation of the created world. Far from competing with the world, God entered the world as a specific human being. If the material world is good enough for God, it should be good enough for us.
In spite of these truths, ďspiritualityĒ is often presented as a discipline that puts us in competition with the material world, an attempt to overcome the world and the flesh along with the devil (who thereby tends to be equated with the flesh). This attitude plunges spirituality into mimetic rivalry with the world God created. That is not Godís desire. Girardís understanding of mimetic desire suggests that genuine spirituality involves participating in Godís desire for creation. The Spirit of God who breathed over the waters at the dawn of creation breathes Godís desire through us. Letting God breathe Godís spirit through our embodied minds and wills is what spirituality is all about. Since Girardís strong words about mimetic rivalry leave many with the impression that mimetic desire itself is the root of all evil, it is all the more important to affirm the role of mimetic desire in creation.
When mimetic desire is grounded in imitating Godís desire for each of us and for all creation, then mimetic desire is a positive force between humans, a desire to share Godís creation with others. When Jesus fed the four and five thousand people, he demonstrated his desire that all should have abundance. Ideally, we should enculturate the young by initiating them into our desires grounded in Godís desire. We share our desire for spaghetti and meat sauce, for hot dogs at the ball park, for the beauty of music and the other arts, and for the beauty of sunsets, the greatest light show on earth.
But all too easily, mimetic desire falls into rivalry and becomes a series of distortions of the world as created and desired by God. Eve and Adam fell for the serpentís lie that God was competing with human beings. Cain and Abel fought because they thought only one sacrifice could be accepted. And so it has gone ever since. God planted the vineyard with the desire that its grapes grow rightly and gladden the hearts of all people. Rivalrous mimetic desire causes wild grapes to grow in the vineyard and choke out the rest so that most people do without.
Mimetic desire should not be confused with biological desires, neither does it nullify or trump biological desire. We have a biological need for food and drink, a biological urge for sex, and we each have a mysterious and unique bundle of various likes and dislikes, talents, and a lacks of talent. I would add that the urge for sex is much broader than genital sexual activity, that it is an urge to reach out to other people with affection. Inborn talents like musical ability and inborn lacks such as the inability to draw a straight line also seem to be grounded in our bodies with their unique genetic makeups. The immense variety of creatures in creation make it clear that God desires variety. The amazing variety of marine species in the Aquarium of the Americas is enough to make one dizzy. Godís desire for variety applies to people as well. If we all should start to live by Godís desire, we would not all be marching to the same tune, we would all be dancing to different tunes that, together, make up an incredible tapestry of sound and motion. Just think of the incredible variety of people who are listed among the saints!
Mimetic desire makes it impossible for human desire to be merely biological. A meal is an expression of human fellowship, sharing Godís desire for the food God has provided for with others, or, a meal is a means of excluding others from fellowship. Or, more often, a combination of both. Sexual desire is not merely biological. It is about reaching out to other people, and in certain relationships, sharing oneís body with another, or it is a thrust for power over others. Or, a combination of both. When mimetic desire falls into mimetic rivalry, the distortions of biological and less tangible unique desires become seriously distorted. That we still have the natural resources to feed everybody in the world and yet millions of people are starving is a sure indication of this distortion. The packaging of good-looking people as sexual commodities inflates our natural sexual drive, as if the biological drive wasnít strong enough without it! The problem of power plays in sexual activity has become a big issue in sexual ethics involving two or more people with an uneven power deferential, such as that between a professional helper and a patient or client.
The distortions caused by mimetic rivalry blind us to the truth. Partisan politics is a prime example where accusatory lies are a routine strategy for defeating an opponent. The same holds true in the partisan politics that play out in artistic circles where excluding the legitimacy of other styles of art is as important as what an artist accomplishes. Composers of one musical school who cannot hear the music of a composer of a different school try to prevent other people from hearing that music as well. Talk about having ears that cannot hear! When defeating an opponent in a debate is the most important thing, it becomes impossible to discern the right course of action that was ostensibly the matter of discussion. In such a scenario, we are preoccupied with our opponent. That means both the merits of all arguments and Godís desire underlying the arguments are forgotten. Increasing preoccupation with an opponent plunges mimetic rivalry down to a deeper level that Girard calls ďmetaphysical rivalry.Ē At this abysmal level, each person attempts to take over the being of the other person. This is the ultimate distortion of Godís desire for both persons. Metaphysical mimetic rivalry is a direct inversion of Godís desire to give being to each of us so that we can give of our being to others in imitation of Godís desire for them.
Wise thinkers from many cultures have shown enough awareness of the distortions of mimetic desire to provide counsels of restraint and denial to counteract the violence that ensues from the escalation of mimetic rivalry. Several philosophies of the Greco-Roman world feature such counsels, with Stoicism perhaps having the greatest influence on early Christian writing. These philosophies fostered a growing sense of personal responsibility, and their various attempts to curb desire have helped to keep society from drowning in mimetic crisis. But these philosophies tend to cause as many problems as they solve. Since desire is built into human nature by God, overly successful attempts at restraining desire are likely to suppress Godís desire working within us as much as they restrain distorted mimetic desires. The sense of personal responsibility fostered by these philosophies tends to make personal discipline individualistic to the extent that relationships with other people and the way other people are affected by our actions receive scant attention at best. Most seriously, the material world, and the human body in particular, are blamed for our distorted desires and the role of mimetic desire is seen dimly, or not at all. When spirituality is construed primarily as imposing mastery over the body, there is a tendency to conceive of our whole life as an exertion of mastery over every aspect of life. We seek to master the things and animals in Godís creation along with other human beings. When the material world, and the body in particular, are scapegoated, spirituality becomes punitive.
A spirituality that is individualistic and punitive is bound to fuel mimetic rivalry. Acting in ďmasteryĒ mode inevitably makes us judgmental of others and undermines any solidarity we might otherwise feel for them. When we follow such a spirituality, we tend to single out weaker individuals and social groups for censure while we conveniently create a smokescreen for the destruction our power struggles inflict on society. A judgmental attitude leads us into a contest with others to reform them. Self-discipline and disciplining others necessarily become adversarial contests of will. The interlocking desires of those caught in contests such as those between parents and children or between spouses obscure Godís desire for each parent and child, spouse, or any other friend or associate. Addictions kindle mimetic rivalry between the addict and his or her enabler. The more the enabler nags the addict to stop drinking or stop gambling, the more the addict drinks or gambles. This deadlock is hardly ever broken until at least one of the parties withdraws from the contest and seeks treatment. It is instructive that an addict or an enabler gains healing by turning away from an opponent, surrendering to a ďhigher power,Ē and joining a community such as AA or Al-anon that gives mutual support.
A punitive spirituality also internalizes our mimetic rivalry with others. The nagging parent who nags from without nags from within to fuel the dysfunctional behavior the nagging is supposedly trying to stop. Preoccupation with the fantasies of lust, anger, and the noble desire to reform other people are ways in which we are infected with the mimetic desires of others. Worse, they give us convenient targets for blaming other people and our own bodies for what the mimetic dynamics fuel and intensify. The fantasy altercations that we play out in our minds distort reality even further than it is already. The rivalrous thrust of these fantasies becomes quite apparent when we take the time to realize that it just so happens that we come out on top of every person caught inside these fantasies. If the fantasy is anger, we tear that person to shreds. If a fantasy of somebody else is caught up in our sexuality, that person complies with everything we dream about. If we fantasize about the way we are going reform another personís life, we come up with exactly the right words to turn that person to our way of thinking. Everybody in our fantasies becomes extensions of ourselves. How convenient! But how far from God!
We have a probing illustration of the way mimetic rivalry clouds reality at all levels in the movie ďDoubt.Ē Sister Aloysius falls into mimetic rivalry with Fr. Flynn, the pastor of the parish she and her fellow nuns serve, when she convinces herself that Fr. Flynn is acting ďimproperlyĒ with Donald Miller, the one Afro-American child in the school. She draws the young and idealistic Sister James into this mimetic rivalry, although Sister James struggles against it as much as she is tempted by it. In a key line, Sister James articulates the spiritual damage caused by this mimetic rivalry when she says: ďIt is unsettling to look at people with suspicion. I feel less close to God.Ē Sister Aloysius acknowledges the problem, but accepts what she believes is a self-sacrifice when she replies: ďWhen you take a step to address wrongdoing, you are taking a step away from God, but in his service.Ē Perhaps in her mind, Sister Aloysius is acting out of concern for the boy she thought was being abused, but at no time in the movie does she show any direct concern for Donald Miller. Neither does Sister James. They both fail to see the boy caught in the middle. The look on the Donaldís face when Fr. Flynn tells the congregation that he is leaving makes it clear that he is a victim, regardless of what really did or did not happen. The movie purposely does not resolve the question of the truth of Sister Aloysiusí suspicions. The mimetic rivalry between the characters has blocked access to the truth.
The Gospels, the Passion and Resurrection narratives in particular, give us a powerful sense of direction for where the Spirit desires to breathe through us. They show Jesus, both in his actions and his teachings, centered on the heavenly Father in the midst of the swirl of the mimetic tensions surrounding him. Girard has demonstrated how the Passion narratives reveal the truth of collective violence rooted in the primitive sacred. They bring to light the end result of a societal mimetic crisis such as the one that erupted at Passover time when Jesus came to Jerusalem. Jesus could have asked for legions of angels to protect him from Caiaphas and Pontius Pilate, but he did not do that because that was not Godís desire. Neither was it Godís desire that Jesusí persecutors be persecuted by the Risen Christ. What God desired was that Jesus breathe the Holy Spirit into all who would allow Him to, so that they, too, could breathe Godís desire into yet more people. Unfortunately, not even this supreme revelation of Godís desire has been able to prevent serious intensifications of individualistic and punitive spirituality in the name of Christ.
In an important lecture given at Ghost Ranch, Michel Serres argued that St. Paul discovered the human self by responding to the question of the Risen Christ: ďSaul, why are you persecuting me?Ē What is important here is that Paulís discovery (not invention!) of the self stems from penitence, a turning away from the punitive spirituality that had motivated him to persecute followers of a newfangled religion. This is in contrast to the individualism I talked about in connection with ascetical disciplines that tend to be punitive. Paulís individualism was so strong that he took pride in his ďblamelessĒ observance of Torah. A true individual in the Pauline sense, then, is not an individualist, but a person open to Godís desire. It has been suggested in mimetic theory that the first differentiation among humans is the singling out of the victim in collective violence. The Gospels and St. Paul demonstrate that one becomes an individual by making a decision based on the revealed truth of the victim. One becomes an individual through concern for someone other than ourselves. As Matthew 25 tells us, whatever we do for the least of the worldís victims, we do for Christ himself. Individualism is a distortion rooted in mimetic rivalry of the Gospelís revelation of the human individual. It is this distortion that has led to the self-assertive individualism that runs Western Civilization today.
The Gospelsí unveiling of the truth about the victimage mechanism caused by mimetic crises has brought about an increased sympathy for victims over the past two thousand years. Much Christian devotion centered on the Passion expresses sympathy for Christ as victim and also for Mary as a secondary victim as sung in the famous Stabat Mater. Many Christmas carols express sympathy for suffering of the Christ Child as a foreshadowing the suffering of the Passion. Thanks to the power of Matthew 25, many people also see Christ in the poor, the sick, and the social outcasts. Hospitals, it so happens, are a Christian invention motivated by this awareness of Godís desire for the healing of people. But the vengefulness that mimetic rivalry has made habitual makes it all too easy for us to turn this sympathy into rage against those who inflicted the injury, as we can see in the virulent anti-Semitism on the part of many Christians. This vengeful sympathy for victims also warps many moral crusades that otherwise do much good, as the example of Sister Aloysius warns us. It is understandable when victims have difficulty reaching a point where they can forgive those who have wronged them, but when their advocates are just as implacably unforgiving, they obstruct healing for everybody concerned.
A punitive doctrine of the Atonement causes still more subtle and serious problems. I donít think that Saint Anselmís atonement theology was punitive, or at least not meant to be, but much church teaching has pushed his thought in that direction. Such a theology presupposes that God positively desires punishment as a response to anyone acting wrongly. It suggests that Jesus was punished by God, not because Jesus deserved it, but because all human beings deserve to be punished, somebody has to be punished in order to re-establish justice, it doesnít matter who is punished as long as somebody is punished, and Jesus graciously submitted to the punishment in our place. But that is not the case. God wants us to desire the created world as God desires it. The mimetic rivalry into which humanity has fallen causes much suffering and is its own punishment. There is much pain involved in withdrawing from mimetic rivalry and re-embracing Godís desire. But none of this means that punishment is an intrinsic good. Unfortunately, a punitive doctrine of the Atonement does embrace punishment as an intrinsic good, with the result that many people are punished in many ways. The ďlogicĒ is that if God punished Jesus for what we did, then we all deserve as much punishment as we can possibly inflict on ourselves and others. Spirituality is redirected, actually, misdirected to make sure that happens.
But if we turn to an Atonement theology that denies that God positively willed Jesusí suffering as a punishment, and only accepted it as a human necessity arising out of the mimetic crisis in Jesusí time, then we can see that a spirituality grounded in Godís desire will never seek suffering for its own sake. We must hold fast to the principle that if God did not positively wish for Jesus to be tortured and killed for the purpose of redeeming humanity, then God does not wish that for us either. The outcome of Jesusís life lived in a world filled with mimetic contagion shows that loving creation and the people in it as God loves them can and does have painful, even terrible, consequences. Being faithful to Godís desire can lead us to similar suffering. In both cases, fidelity to the desire God wishes of us may make suffering inevitable in some cases.
A punitive spirituality teaches that spiritual growth begins with purgation. We purge ourselves of our sins and our attachments to everything in this world so as to be worthy of entering Godís presence. All temptations and distractions from God must be chopped away. Such a punitive spirituality re-enacts Goetheís famous story of the sorcererís apprentice. When the apprentice canít stop the broom he enchanted from bringing more water into the palace once the broom has brought in the amount of water he was supposed to bring in himself, he chops the broom in half. This leaves him with two brooms that bring in twice as much water! What an apt image for mimetic mirroring! In Disneyís cartoon version set to the famous tone poem by Paul Dukas, Mickey Mouse as the sorcererís apprentice chops broom after broom in half so that the brooms flood the sorcererís palace: a full-blown mimetic crisis! When we try to purge ourselves by chopping at temptations, we only multiply them until we are overwhelmed and we drown.
Mimetic theory teaches us that what we need to be purged of is rivalrous mimetic desire, and that it takes Godís desire within us to move us away from it. Since we cannot function at all without mimetic desire, we must be moved either by the desire of others or of the Other. This is why the sorcererís apprentice technique fails so badly. Fortunately, God does not wait for us to create an immaculate temple in our hearts before coming to us. If that were so, we would be left as orphans, bereft of mimetic desire. As Godís fills us with Godís desire, God withdraws us from mimetic contagion. In the process, we will suffer withdrawal symptoms as the props the contagion gave us are removed. This suffering is not punitive, but it is the natural result of letting go of the false self created by mimetic contagion so that it can be recreated by God. We enter what St. John of the Cross called ďthe night of the senses,Ē an inner space that feels like a no manís land because the self shaped by mimetic desire fades while Godís desire is only beginning to bear fruit within us. We must be patient and learn to trust that Godís desire truly is non-competitive, that the things in the world are not competitors with God. In one of the parables with which Anthony De Mello peppered his books, a concertgoer says to a friendĒ ďThe music filled the auditorium,Ē to which the friend asked ďthen was there no room for the musicians and the audience?Ē
A spirituality of Godís desire does not isolate us from the toxic collective of humans. Rather, it plunges us, with God, into this collective so that we can participate in Godís forming the Body of Christ, the Body of the forgiving victim, with us and with all of the people we fight against in our fantasies. Jesusí admonition to leave father, mother, brother and sister to follow him is coupled with the promise that we will have many mothers, fathers, brothers, and sisters, along with persecutions. Sometimes it is necessary to withdraw from the mimetic dynamics within a family and that familyís relationships, but surely we hope to find our families and friends once again in Christís Body as we come to participate in Godís desire for them.
Now that I have outlined the basic thrust of a spirituality grounded in Godís desire, the question is: What should we do?
To begin with, we must practice humility. Humility is a fundamental virtue that is often distorted by the mimetic distortions that encourage us equate humility with being a ďloser.Ē But being ground into dust is not what humility is about. St. Benedict says that the first stage of humility is ďto keep the fear of God before our eyes and never forget it.Ē Fear does not mean quaking in our boots because weíve messed up. Benedict is talking about fear in the sense of respect and awe. God is truly and totally awesome, and Godís love is awesome beyond our imagining! This step of humility means that we must live mindfully in Godís presence so that we can open ourselves to Godís desire. This habit of remembering God allows God to be the mediator between ourselves and everything and everybody in creation. This habit delivers us from being overwhelmed by the multiple brooms that flood our consciousness. Just as only the returning sorcerer, acting as a deus ex machina, could put an end to the spell recklessly cast by the errant apprentice, so only God can redirect the mimetic desires that enchant us back to Godís desire. Living in Godís presence leads us to the discipline of vigilance. Vigilance is an alert state of being consciously aware of what we are actually doing with our lives. Vigilance would have us note when we are in danger of falling into mimetic rivalry so that we can turn back to the remembrance of God. This is not a matter of driving away any thought of people and things that tempt us to rivalrous desire. Rather, it is a discipline of living with the people and things that infect us in the presence of God so that Godís desire of the relationship between us and other people and things can grow.
We should prayerfully read together the Word of God given to us in scripture and reflect on it deeply in our hearts. Even when we read the scriptures alone, we can read them and pray them in connection with others in Christís Body. Scripture can only guide us in the ways of Godís desire for both ourselves and other people if we read it with other people. The question we need to constantly ask as we ponder Godís Word is: What is Godís desire that is being revealed to us? We must constantly keep this question before us as the scriptures also show us how human desires are alienated from Godís desire by the contagion of mimetic rivalry.
Praying together in word and song is a powerful mimetic act by which God builds up the Body of Christ. We can only pray and sing together effectively if we are open to one another to the extent that we have an organic sense that allows us to keep together in our words and in our song. It is important, however, to be guided by the scriptural content of liturgy so that this mimetic process moves us in the right direction. After all, the Ku Klux Klan has its liturgy just as much as the Church does, as the movie Brother, Where art Thou? illustrates. The Psalter is of great importance in worship because it is so comprehensive in its scope. When we pray the psalms, we pray with and for those who are rejoicing as well as with those who are in despair, and most importantly, we are praying with those who are persecuted. St. Augustine, in his sermons on the psalms, argued that the psalms are the prayer of Christ spoken through the Body of Christ. The psalms of persecution, then, give voice both to the persecuted Christ and to the members of Christís Body who are also persecuted. In this way, we are united with Christ and to all others Christ is gathering into His Body.
The Eucharist is an act of worship where God specifically and literally shares Godís Being with us in the bread and wine. Sadly, in what is called the sacrament of unity, there has been much mimetic rivalry over how the presence and activity of Christ is to be understood in the Eucharist. It came as a bit of a shock when I realized that most theologies of the Eucharist, in spite of their substantive differences, seek to point to the mystery that when we receive the bread and wine, God shares both the life Jesus gave up on the cross and the life of the Risen Christ. In mimetic terms, God allows us to absorb Godís being when we consume the bread and wine while the body absorbs the same bread and wine. It is the essence of the Eucharist that Christís Body is given and received in Christís Body, the Church. An altar, the instrument of bloody sacrifice is used with the conspicuous absence of blood as a reminder of the real blood that was shed when Jesus went to Jerusalem and as a reminder of the blood that is still shed today. The assembly that gathered to kill the victim now gathers to bring all victims into Christís Body. It is also worth noting that Quakers, who do not accept the sacraments at all, have a strong belief in Godís transforming power experienced in waiting on God in a silent assembly.
Waiting on God in silence gives God the opportunity to transform our entangled mimetic desires into Godís desire through an ineffable Gift of Godís Being, an experience witnessed to by the numerous mystics of the Church. Paul prays for all of us to receive what he has received from God when he prays that, with Christ dwelling in their hearts by faith and rooted in love, we ďmay have the power to comprehend, with all the saints, what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, so that [we] may be filled with all the fullness of God.Ē Far from being elitist, intended only for a few, mystical prayer is intended for everybody. Remember, the Ephesians Paul was writing to were ordinary people like us. We do not have to be spiritual acrobats to be mystics in this way. God does the acrobatics within us. This sharing in Godís being is the end result of placing ourselves in Godís presence day after day, hour by hour, minute after minute.
Christian mysticism tends to speak in terms of what is called ďthe negative way.Ē Since the intellect cannot possibly comprehend the terms we apply to God as they apply to God, we speak primarily of what God is not. We must remember, though, that negative theology does presuppose positive theology, and most importantly, the assertion that God is love. Negative theology is not really an intellectual matter, but a matter of spirituality, a matter of desire. Mimetic theory suggests that insofar as we are engulfed in the infections of mimetic rivalry, it is difficult and even impossible to comprehend what Godís desire really is. Perhaps the ďdark cloud of unknowingĒ between ourselves and God that an English medieval writer wrote about is the clouding of mimetic rivalry. As long as we are engulfed by this cloud, all we can do is beat upon it with the ďdarts of loveĒ until God clears the cloud for us and reveals the dazzling light of God.
St. Bernard of Clairvaux outlined four stages in loving God in his treatise On the Love of God. The first three stages are understandable enough: 1) I love myself for own sake; 2) I love God for my own sake; 3) I love God for Godís sake. But the fourth stage is: (brace yourself) 4) I love myself for Godís sake. Mimetic theory suggests to me that what Bernard understands is that, in this stage, we are consumed with Godís desire for us. This is what Saint Athanasius envisioned when he said the God became human, that humanity might become God. The second Epistle of Peter goes so far as to say that Godís promises are meant to help us ďescape the corruption that is in our world of lust and become participants in the divine nature.Ē In Johnís Gospel, Jesus promises us that when we ask anything of God in His name, it will be granted to us. We ask in Jesusí Name when the Son and the Spirit dwell within us as they dwell in the Father so that we desire what the Son and the Spirit desire as they desire what the Father desires.
Prayer and liturgy send our hearts out to the people around us who need our acts of service. Jesus said that anyone who gives a cup of cold water to the least of his little ones has given it to him. It is acts of service that focus our attention on other people and their needs, not what we think their needs are. Fundamentally, our acts of service must be grounded in the first step of humility; living constantly in the presence of God. Listening deeply to another person so that the truth of that person can be revealed is a way of overcoming mimetic rivalry with others. The trick here is to listen to another with Godís ears so that we participate in Godís listening to that person. It is acts of service grounded in listening to God as we listen to each other that builds up the Body of Christ. Girard has discussed at length the chain reaction of mimetic crises that lead to a meltdown of society where catastrophe is only averted by collective violence. What God desires is a mimetic chain reaction that moves in the opposite direction. This is a chain reaction of sharing Godís desire with each other that does not come to an end until there are no more victims because there are no more victimizers.
I conclude with a story: one evening, Jesus went up a mountain with Peter, James and John to pray. While he was praying, Jesus was transfigured with the light God has desired for all of us to see and bear within us since the dawn of creation. The disciples were blinded by this light and they fell asleep. Afterwards, when Jesus came down from mountain, he found the disciples arguing with the scribes when they should have been exorcizing a demon from a boy. Jesus exorcized the demon and told his disciples that this kind of demon can only be cast out with prayer. Next thing we know, the disciples are arguing about who is the greatest. No wonder they were blinded by the light of Jesusí transfiguration. We, too, live in the clouds of mimetic contagion while God continues to offer each of us the transfigured light that clears to way to Godís desire for all of us.
Copyright © 2009 by Andrew Marr, OSB