Thursday, August 7, 2014

Abundance Is a Spiritual Matter

On Sunday I wove together contemplative prayer, an MT account of the dualism of abundance and scarcity, and the current crisis at our southern border involving unaccompanied children. Here is a link to that sermon:

http://girardianlectionary.net/year_a/proper13a_2014_ser.htm

Monday, June 23, 2014

Respect and Humility and the Paschal Mystery

Again, it has been quite a while since I posted an update on my blog "Imaginary Visions of True Peace," so there is much to update.

During Holy Week, I posted Escape from the Denial of Death where my mediation on the Cross interacted with Richard Beck's book on Ernest Becker's thesis on how the denial of death tends to make people more violent.

For Easter, I posted The Earthquake that Saves which I have to admit presupposes some understanding of Girard's thought to work as a standalone post.

After Easter, I embarked on a series of posts on Respect and Humility as two fundamental abiding attitudes that build "good" mimesis and relieve competitive mimesis. There are three posts on Respect, a humble virtue but an important one. The first post should lead to the the other two. Speaking of humility, there is a post on Vainglory which is a vice noted by early Eastern writers such as John Cassian followed by two posts on Humility.

There is the post Stumbling over Stumbling Stones that points to issues of ecclesiology, what it means to be church.

Freud's Illusion and the Paschal Mystery is a reflection on yet another book by Richard Beck, namely one on Freud and William James.

The Power of the Ascended Lord is, as one might guess, another meditation on the Ascension of Christ.

Accepting the Cross is the latest posting which discusses the Gospel for the second Sunday after Pentecost, particularly Jesus' words about taking up his cross.

The picture is what our cemetery looked like after some small tornadoes ripped through the abbey property two years ago. Fallen trees missed the cross by inches. Fortunately, none of the abbey buildings took a direct hit.

Monday, June 16, 2014

Oneness and Contemplation

There is a story about Mahatma Gandhi that fits my experience the past several weeks. A mother brought her young son to Gandhi because she knew he was a loving, helpful man, and because her son looked up to him. "I've tried to tell my son," she told Gandhi, "that he eats too much sugar. It's not good for him. Can you please tell him not to eat so much sugar?" He thought for a moment and told her, "Bring him back in two weeks, and I will have an answer for him." The mother was a bit surprised. Why would waiting a couple weeks make a difference for something so simple. But she did what he asked, and brought him back. Gandhi's response was the same: "Bring him back in two weeks, and I will have an answer for him." Again, she brought him back, and again he asked for two more weeks. Finally, on the fourth try, Gandhi stooped down to address the boy. "You should stop eating so much sugar. It's not good for you." What?! Now the mother was a bit angry. "Why couldn't you have told him that the first time we came to you?!" "Because," said Gandhi, "I needed time myself to stop eating so much sugar. It was harder than I thought. I couldn't ask your son to do something I'm not willing to do myself."

The last couple weeks I've spoken to you about the importance to the Christian life of a certain form of prayer. In popular parlances, it's most often called "meditation." Today, it's increasingly referred to as "Mindfulness." In Christian circles, I've most often heard it talked about as "Contemplation." Whatever we call it, it's a form of prayer that uses silence and attempts to calm the mind by stemming the normal flow of thinking. And I think it's become a lost art in the Christian tradition that we very much need to retrieve.

But I feel a bit like Gandhi with that boy. Because even though I've been becoming more convinced of its necessity for a healthy Christian life, I've struggled a to fall into a regular practice myself. I was not raised with contemplative practice at all. It was never taught to me in Sunday School or Confirmation. We didn't even have anything on it in seminary. It's been absent to my life of faith, until about three years ago, when I first started reading Franciscan priest and teacher Richard Rohr. Here's his most recent book, in fact, titled Silent Compassion: Finding God in Contemplation. Finding God in contemplation. Through Rohr -- and also Sr. Nancy Brousseau, who leads our synod's education center, and who led our Church Council on an experience of this type of prayer -- I've been learning about the great mystics who listened to God in prayer and became great leaders and saints. But an important part of the message has been that it's not just for mystics and saints. It's for everyone. (We'll follow up on this point next week, in fact, as we read in the Pentecost story about God's Spirit being poured out on all people.)

Contemplation is a form of prayer that has been passed on in the Christian tradition for everyone to practice, even though often times it was only in the monasteries. Since the Reformation, it even went somewhat dormant in the monasteries. It's just been in the last fifty years or so that it's made a revival there, too. The best place to learn contemplative prayer, in fact, is generally at your local monastery. I took my first class on contemplative prayer at the Transformation Center at old Nazareth College on Gull Road.

But my practice has remained spotty. So, like Gandhi, I've been reluctant to ask you all to do something that I'm not willing to do myself. It's been in recent weeks that my own motivation to practice received a big boost to rededicate myself to faithful practice of contemplation. It came through an unexpected source -- the book I've plugged the last two weeks, titled 10% Happier, by ABC news anchor Dan Harris. It's basically his personal account of being ushered into the benefits of meditation pretty much kicking and screaming. He's unreligious himself and so resisted all the way, because meditation is usually connected with religious practice. But increasingly he relented because it did help him a great deal. It began when he had a horrifying moment of experiencing a panic attack while on the air for Good Morning America about ten years ago -- in front of 5 million viewers. He knew that if he wanted to keep his career, he needed to make sure that it never happened again. So he takes the reader through a fascinating story, both into the world of TV news and the personal benefits of meditation -- all with great humor and wit. His account of enduring a 10-day silent retreat is hilarious. He hated most of it, yet it was also one of the most profound experiences of his life.

What has helped me is to see the Christian practice of contemplation in light of a more general human practice of what we might consider mental or spiritual hygiene. Harris writes, for example:

On my travels to various Buddhist seminars, I had started to hear mentions of scientific research into meditation. It sounded promising, so I checked it out. What I found blew my mind. Meditation, once part of the counterculture, had now fully entered the scientific mainstream. It had been subjected to thousands of studies, suggesting an almost laughably long list of health benefits, including salutary effects on the following: major depression, drug addiction, binge eating, smoking cessation, stress among cancer patients, loneliness among senior citizens, ADHD, asthma, psoriasis, irritable bowel syndrome.
Studies also indicated that meditation reduced levels of stress hormones, boosted the immune system, made office workers more focused, and improved test scores on the GRE. Apparently mindfulness did everything short of making you able to talk to animals and bend spoons with your mind. (pp. 167-68)
A frustration, though, of this practice is that it's hard to put in a book. It's one of those practices that's best passed on person to person. As Dan Harris became interested in trying meditation, he was frustrated by not being able to find it in a book, which is partly why he was motivated to write his book. The appendix is worth the price for its basic instructions of how to practice meditation -- though he, too, admits that it is best to learn with someone who knows the practice. But here's just another brief snippet about why it's important:
Meditation is the best tool I know for neutralizing the voice in the head. As discussed, the ego is often a hatchery of judgments, desires, assumptions, and diabolical plans. The act of simply feeling the breath breaks the habits of a lifetime. For those short snatches of time when you're focused on the rise and fall of the abdomen or the cool air entering and exiting the nostrils, the ego is muzzled. You are not thinking, you are being mindful -- an innate but underused ability we all have, which allows us to be aware without judging.

When you repeatedly go through the cycle of feeling the breath, losing your focus, and hauling yourself back, you are building your mindfulness muscle the way dumbbell curls build your biceps. Once this muscle is just a little bit developed, you can start to see all the thoughts, emotions, and physical sensations that carom through your skull for what they really are: quantum squirts of energy without any concrete reality of their own.

Imagine how massively useful this can be. Normally, for example, when someone cuts you off in traffic or in line at Starbucks, you automatically think, I'm [mad]. Instantaneously, you actually become [mad]. Mindfulness allows you to slow that process down. Sometimes, of course, you're right to be [mad]. The question is whether you are going to react mindlessly to that anger or respond thoughtfully. Mindfulness provides space between impulse and action, so you're not a slave to whatever neurotic obsession pops into your head. (pp. 230-31)
Sound helpful? Let's finish up with at least a hint of why I think this is so important to our Christian practice. Richard Rohr has a chapter in this little book on contemplative prayer called "The Path to Non-Dual Thinking." What's dual thinking? Our normal thinking of judging everything in pairs, the basic one being good and bad, but also pairs like pain and pleasure, suffering and joy. The voice in our heads, as Harris calls it, is constantly judging everything along some line of good and bad. Non-dual thinking, as Rohr calls it, is not to think away good and bad but to be aware of it in less judgmental ways because you are aware of the oneness of everything.

If the Gospel readings from John in recent weeks have sound mystical to you, let me suggest it is because of our usual dual thinking. When we are on the path to non-dual thinking, these passages actually begin to make more sense. And the bottom line of it all comes in the closing words to today's reading. Jesus ends his farewell to the disciples praying to his Father that "they may be one, just as we are one." Oneness. That's the antidote to the dangers of dual thinking, our normal thinking. Our most immediate reaction to judging something bad is to expel it, often with any force we can muster. Through Contemplation, we learn the practice of responding instead of reacting. We learn to hold off our normal reaction of trying to violently expel the bad, and instead respond with love. That doesn't mean there aren't bad things that need to be resisted. There are! And we are called to resist them. But with a response of love, not a reaction of anger and force.

Why? Because, first of all, in love we are aware of our own badness, our own sin. As Luther taught at his most mystical moment, we are all saints and sinners at the same time. We learn to see the oneness of everything, the good and the bad together. And so, second, we learn that the only ultimate way for the bad to be healed is love. As Martin Luther King, Jr. said, You can't drive out darkness with darkness; only with light. You can't drive out hate with hate; only with love. Contemplative prayer is about interrupting the dual thinking and reacting, so that we might instead respond with love.

Spiritual Abiding and Contemplation

The timing of Brian Robinette's insightful presentation at the 2014 Annual Conference of Theology & Peace coincided with my my own growing interest in Contemplative Spirituality, which had been part of my preaching in the latter part of the Easter Season. What follows are two pieces on contemplation; the first a parish newsletter column on John 14 and the second a sermon on John 17.
 
Our Gospel readings from John at the end of the Easter season give a brilliant example of the older and newer reading of our Christian message. Let's begin with a beloved passage that gives much comfort at a time of loss, a passage that is often read at funerals. Jesus, on the eve of Good Friday, says to his disciples,
"Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me. In my Father's house there are many abiding places. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also." (John 14:1-3)
Even though "heaven" is not mentioned here, the older reading of this passage is that it's about Jesus taking us to heaven when we die -- a message of immense comfort when we face death, either our own or our loved ones. It is truly a "Blessed Assurance" that God holds us in life when our earthly bodies die.

The newer reading of this passage does not take away or diminish this assurance but extends it to this life -- not just to when we die. It is about the new possibility of "heaven" coming to us through the cross and resurrection, not us waiting to go to heaven someday in the future. The abiding places that Jesus prepares for us? First himself, and then you and me. The many abiding places of God's house become us!

This way of reading comes from the wider context of John's Gospel -- "my Father's house" and his specialized use of "abiding." "My Father's house" appears only one other time, in John 2. When Jesus is taking prophetic action in the Jerusalem Temple, he says, "Stop turning my Father's house into a marketplace" (2:16). Here "my Father's house" means the Temple, the traditional locus of God's presence in the world.

But Jesus is about to change the traditional thinking. When the temple leaders confront Jesus about his authority to cause such a stir in the holy place, Jesus responds with a baffling statement: "Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up" (2:19). No further explanation from Jesus. Only John the Gospel Writer tells us the reader, "But he was speaking of the temple of his body" (2:21). In other words, the three days of Good Friday to Easter worked the miracle of, among other things, changing the place of God's presence in the world from the temple to Jesus' body. That's what he means when he later says, "I go to prepare a place for you." The basic place of God's presence in the world is no longer to be sought out in a building. The place has shifted to a human body.

But not to just one body, Jesus' body, because Jesus, in being raised up on the cross and on Easter morning, is "ascending to my Father" (20:17). And so in John's 'Pentecost' scene, on Easter evening, this happens:
Jesus said to them again, "Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you." When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, "Receive the Holy Spirit." (John 20:21-22)
This is the Spirit of Truth, the Advocate, that Jesus promises to send us in John 14-16, the same passage where he also steps up all the talk about "abiding." Laced throughout these chapters are multiple ways of Jesus talking about spiritual abiding. Jesus is in the Father, and the Father in him. Using the image of the vine and branches, he tells us that he will abide in us and we in him. This is all topped off with a lot of talk about love. We are to abide in Jesus' love and his love in us. And the giving of the Spirit is involved in all of this abiding.

Do you see? Yes, when we die -- when our loved ones die -- we/they abide in God's power of life. This is true! It is certain! It is a great comfort! But it's also all true because the abiding in God, and God in us, has already begun since the first Easter. In going to the cross, Jesus went to prepare a place for us and in us. He makes it evident that God's abiding Spirit is not limited to a holy building. The place of God's abiding in the world is first and foremost in human beings. It's supposed to have been that way from the beginning, as we were made in God's image to be God's image bearers. Sin got in the way, and so Jesus was sent to go to the cross as the way to make happen what was always God's intention. God's abiding Spirit desires to abide in us that we may bear God's loving presence to others, and to the whole Creation. Even as the Father sent Jesus, so now he sends us -- with God's Spirit abiding in and among us, so that we do the same work as Jesus, and even greater work (14:12). God wants to help us come alive in new and fresh ways right here and now. God wants us to be part of God's work of making everything come alive.

Wow! But what does that mean on a practical, everyday level? This is where I think our older way of reading these passages has gotten in the way. It has put the focus of our hope on what happens after we die, such that our work in the present has been focused on believing certain things about Jesus as the key to getting to heaven someday. Yes, we are assured of life after death. But the really important message is that God calls us to come alive today. We are to follow in Jesus' work of battling the powers of sin and death in God's work of making everything come alive.

What does this look like? Since the newer readings are new, what this looks like is still in the process of coming into focus, of emerging. I think the new Pope is onto something in taking the name of one our Christian history's greatest saints, Francis of Assisi, as one benchmark in the past for understanding our task today. One of the most important guides for me in recent years has been the Franciscan priest and teacher, Fr. Richard Rohr. His Center for Action and Contemplation names for me the twin foci of what this will look like, naming, too, what we have seen in our Gospels from John 14-20. Action names the work Jesus talks about throughout John's Gospel, the work of loving one another as Jesus loves us, a work that heals us and makes us come alive in new ways. It is a work of God's Justice and Peace, of bearing God's presence to Creation as we were made to do from the beginning. Contemplation names the spiritual abiding in John's Gospel, the process of God's Spirit coming to abide in us that sends us out to do Jesus' work. Rohr often says that the most important word in the name of his Center is and. Action and Contemplation always accompany each other.

Finally, in recent sermons I promised to say more in my newsletter column about Dan Harris' recent book 10% Happier: How I Tamed the Voice in My Head, Reduced Stress Without Losing My Edge, and Found Self-Help That Actually Works -- A True Story. I chose to begin here with reading our Easter Gospel texts. Harris' book comes under what Rohr names as Contemplation. So I'll promise to say more in next month's newsletter column. For now, I leave you with suggestions for summer reading: Harris' book, and then two coming out this summer: Brian McLaren's We Make the Road by Walking: A Year-Long Quest for Spiritual Formation, Reorientation, and Activation, and Richard Rohr's Eager to Love: The Alternative Way of Francis of Assisi.

Have a great summer!

Monday, April 7, 2014

Learning to Read, Learning to See, Learning to Bless

Here is an update of posts on my blog Imaginary Visions of True Peace:

Human Weakness the Cornerstone reflects on our attitudes towards the handicapped in light of mimetic theory.

The Servant of the Servants of God is my sermon for St. Gregory's day this year. It notes the fighting among the disciples.

There follows two posts on how not to read and how to read based on what we learn from René Girard and St. Ignatius: Quixotic Reading and Reading Ignatiusly. (Pardon my clumsy neologism)

Seeing with More than the Eyes is my sermon for Lent IV about the man born blind.

Shakespeare's Merchant of Venice has been on my mind lately and as I began to see it as a pretty complete illustration of Girard's thesis, I shared my thoughts in Proving Shylock Right---or Wrong.

Finally (for now) I have published two posts called "Mimetic Blessing through Abraham:" 1) Cain and Abel and 2) Abraham's Offspring.

Now for Passiontide and Easter!

Friday, April 4, 2014

From Noah to Easter

The following is a column I wrote for our Parish newsletter in April 2014:
...and the earth was filled with violence. -- Genesis 6:11
"I establish my covenant with you, that never again shall all flesh be cut off by the waters of a flood, and never again shall there be a flood to destroy the earth." -- Genesis 9:11
Jesus said [on Easter Evening], "Was it not necessary that the Messiah should suffer these things and then enter into his glory?" Then beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them the things about himself in all the scriptures. -- Luke 24:26-27
I'd like to connect the dots on these Bible passages, drawing a line from the story of Noah and the Flood to our Holy Week journey this month. (We will read the Flood story during our Easter Vigil worship April 19.) The Bible's Flood story (Genesis 6-9) is getting significant exposure in our culture right now because of the Hollywood version in the movie Noah, starring Russell Crowe. This exposure is an opportunity for today's outspoken atheists to make their claim that humanity no longer needs gods who perform genocides that include drowning babies.

Have you ever tried responding to such challenges among your friends, or family? Perhaps you've struggled with such questions yourself. How is it that the loving God we meet in Jesus Christ drowns basically everyone in trying to solve the problem of violence?

Let me be blunt: if we don't let Jesus himself teach us to read the Scriptures according to himself, then our Christian faith will be lost. The story of the Flood is a prime example. Christ came to show us who God truly is. So we should be able to understand that gods who command genocidal floods are the gods of old -- the gods who in every culture command a good and sacred violence to stop the flood of human violence. The God who places a rainbow covenant in the sky -- precisely as a promise to never try to solve the problem of violence by inflicting more violence -- is the God we meet in Christ. God on the cross suffers our violence.

So what do we say about all the parts of the Bible where "God" kills or commands killing? This, to me, is the most important question to get right in learning to read Scriptures according to Christ. During the Easter season, we will also read heavily from the Book of Acts, where the first half features five sermons from the Apostle Peter. Despite the varying situations and overall messages of these five sermons, each one of them contains the central point we need to see in undergoing the story of Christ's death and resurrection. In all five, Peter says, 'we kill, God raises.' It's human beings who have the problem with violence, not God.

And a huge part of our problem is that the only way we human beings have ever been able to fully trust in solving our problem with violence is to use a counter-violence -- just like God supposedly did with the Flood. What I'm saying, then, is this: if we don't learn to see the God who slaughters everyone in the Flood as the false gods of human cultures, then we are losing the revelation of God in Christ -- the God who is revealed in the rainbow promise at the end of the Flood story.

Which brings us again to the essential importance of anthropology to our faith. We must understand what the Bible, coming to fulfillment in Christ, is trying to show us about ourselves. The Flood story is an ideal example, because similar flood stories are present across the globe. It gives us the opportunity to see how the Bible's Flood story is different. The Bible's story is the same in seeing a god who uses violence to try to stop violence. But it's different in showing us a God who promises never to do this. God on the cross in Jesus teaches us how to understand this difference.

And it's growing more urgent that we do so, because we now possess the technology to destroy ourselves with our own violence. Actually, that's precisely why flood stories are so universal in human culture. Since our beginnings as a species, we've feared wiping ourselves out through our own contagious violence. A common image for this fear has been an all-engulfing flood. The Genesis story names this flat-out: "The earth was filled with violence." Just like the flood by which God supposedly uses in trying to stop it! But god using a flood belies that age-old human answer of trying to stop violence with violence.

Without going into all the details of the anthropology here, let's at least name God's startling alternative to our human answer of stopping violence by inflicting a counter-violence. God suffers our violence on the cross, shows it to be impotent compared to God's life-giving power of love on Easter, and enacts the healing power of forgiveness in the giving of the Spirit. The cross and resurrection is God saving us from the flood of our human violence that threatens to destroy us.

Where is that salvation? Why is the world still so filled with violence? Remember, God's way is not to use counter-force, so the transformation will not happen with the speed or methods we typically choose. It might look more like the movement Gandhi began in having faith in Jesus' Sermon on the Mount. That's why we emphasize faith in God's way, trying to understand the ways in which it's different from our ways.

Let me finish, then, by suggesting that the cross and resurrection can turn the Flood story into a different sort of parable. Learning to interpret the Scriptures according to Jesus might suggest the following kind of twist that Jewish philosopher Günther Anders offered under the shadow of nuclear proliferation. He pictures Noah as prophetically making a public show of mourning in advance of the Flood, and writes,
Soon a small crowd of curious people had gathered around him. They asked him questions. They asked if someone had died, and who the dead person was. Noah replied to them that many had died, and then, to the great amusement of his listeners, said that they themselves were the dead of whom he spoke. When he was asked when this catastrophe had taken place, he replied to them: "Tomorrow." Profiting from their attention and confusion, Noah drew himself up to his full height and said these words: "The day after tomorrow, the flood will be something that will have been. And when the flood will have been, everything that is will never have existed. When the flood will have carried off everything that is, everything that will have been, it will be too late to remember, for there will no longer be anyone alive. And so there will no longer be any difference between the dead and those who mourn them. If I have come before you, it is in order to reverse time, to mourn tomorrow's dead today. The day after tomorrow it will be too late." With this he went back whence he had come, took off the sackcloth [that he wore], cleaned his face of the ashes that covered it, and went to his workshop. That evening a carpenter knocked on his door and said to him: "Let me help you build the ark, so that it may become false." Later a roofer joined them, saying: "It is raining over the mountains, let me help you, so that it may become false." (1)
Brothers and Sisters in Christ, may our journey through the grief of Good Friday and the promise of Easter call us to work on the ark of God's salvation in Christ, the work of love and forgiveness, so that our way of violence may become false.

Peace,
Paul Nuechterlein


1. This version of Anders' parable is from Jean-Pierre Dupuy's The Mark of the Sacred (Stanford, 2013), p. 203, who makes the following citation (footnote 14): Quoted in Thierry Simonelli, Günther Anders: De la désuétude de l'homme (Paris: Editions du Jasmin, 2004), 84-85. The emphasis is mine. Simonelli very closely follows Anders's German text, found in the first chapter of Endzeit and Zeitenende (Munich: Beck, 1972), a work that has not yet been translated into either French or English. Anders told the story of the flood elsewhere and in other forms, particularly in Hiroshima ist überall (Munich: Beck, 1982).

Thursday, March 6, 2014

From Epiphany to Ash Wednesday

This is quite a journey of blog posts since I last summarized what I had published on Imaginary Visions of True Peace. I didn't realize it had been that long!

As week after Christmas, I posted some reflections for the Feast of the Holy Name (formerly the Circumcision of Jesus) The Name of Names.

The Class Comedian is a Girardian reflection of a bit of my childhood; an example of mimetic processes at a young age.

The phrase "Myth Become Fact" has stuck with me ever since I first read it in the writings of C.S. Lewis. The post of that title compares the insight of Lewis and the kindred insight of JRR Tolkien with René Girard's take on mythology.

Principalities and Powers is a brief look at the social matrix fueled by mimetic desire.

The Cross as a Crisis of Faith reflects on the faith journey of Rachel Held Evans narrated in her book Evolving in Monkey Town: How a Girl who Knew all the Answers Learned to Ask the Questions. On telling incident is the focus of this post.

Twin Killings is a brief look at the tendency of many early cultures to kill one or both twins, seeing in them images of mimetic doubles, something Girard has commented on.

Sacrificing the Aztecs is a brief examination of the Aztecs' sacrificial practice, noting their humanity and how it was caught in their system.

The Transfiguration comes up twice a year, and the last Sunday of Epiphany is one of them. The Transfigured Glory of God's Children comments on what kind of "glory" is being offered.

Ash Wednesday was only yesterday and my reflections focus on the collect for the day from the Episcopal Book of Common Prayer: Respecting all Things God Has Made.

I wish you all a blessed Lent that brings you closer to God.