SATURDAY READING: Transformative Contemplation by William A. Clark

Teaching Prayer in the Shadow of the "Violent Sacred"

Transformative Contemplation by William A. Clark

From Violence, Transformation, and the Sacred: They Shall Be Called Children of God

An Encounter With Sacred Violence

On May 1, 2011, while most of their professors were at home preparing for bed or already asleep, students at the small Catholic college where I teach participated in a dramatic demonstration of what must be called, “sacred violence.”  That night, al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden, for ten years the embodiment of “The Enemy” in the War on Terror, had been killed by U. S. commandos in Pakistan.  Many students had just heard President Barack Obama declare to the nation: “We will be relentless in defense of our citizens and our friends and allies.  We will be true to the values that make us who we are.  And on nights like this one, we can say to those families who have lost loved ones to al-Qaeda’s terror: Justice has been done.”

As word of the event spread, two groups gathered on a broad brick plaza to offer their reactions to the campus community.  The location, a quadrangle surrounded on three sides by ivy-covered academic buildings – the newest of which was dedicated only days after September 11, 2001 – is called Memorial Plaza and it is graced by two plaques invoking the memory and providing the short roll of alumni/ae killed in the 9/11 attacks.  The first group of students to arrive there on May 1 stood in silence with signs that read, “Is This Justice?”  Their quiet vigil was soon interrupted by the arrival of another group spilling over from the nearby library, where a spontaneous and raucous celebration of bin Laden’s death had erupted earlier.  Many of the celebrants carried, or wore, American flags and – accompanied by at least one bullhorn and a number of emergent cheerleaders – laughed, cheered, pumped their fists, recited the Pledge of Allegiance, and chanted, “Hey, hey, hey, goodbye!”

Before long, their unfavorable notice of the peace protestors took on belligerent tones, and they voiced objections about what they perceived as the peace protestors’ disrespect for the victims of terror who are honored by the plaza on which the demonstrators were assembled.  As reported by students at a later campus forum, the protestors were barraged with a string of vulgar epithets, among which “Faggots!” and “Communists!” were two of the more publishable.  Eventually, at least some of the “Is This Justice?” signs were wrested away from their creators and torn to shreds.

At the beginning of my class session for Religious Studies 219, “Christian Prayer in Theory and Practice,” three days later, I began my usual brief demonstration of some particular Christian prayer style by reading from the Sermon on the Mount and praying ad libitum (“free style,” without a script) for the nation, for ourselves in the midst of a very emotional time, for the healing of all those whose deep hurt had inspired vengeful hatred, and for the soul of Osama bin Laden.  I varied my ordinary practice by offering no time for reactions, and continued on with the planned class on the contributions of non-European cultures to the Christian prayer tradition.  I knew the students’ reactions would come, after a bit of time for fathering their thoughts, via the course’s online discussion forum.

And come they did, in comments running the full gamut from indignant patriotism, through confusion and doubt, to awe at newly discovered depths of Christian faith, from the bluntest prose to soaring poetry.  Analysis of the comments could easily fill the remainder of this brief article, and probably an entire book on the uneasy relationship between students’ patriotism and their faith.  Let me share a small sample:

I believe what those Navy SEALS did was the right thing to do and I am honored to live in a country that is served by such brave men and women.

I mean this with the utmost respect for everything holy – but Osama bin Laden deserves to rest in hell for all eternity.

The “prayer” today was an eye-opening experience for me.  I felt like I was being ridiculed.

I do not believe that I am less of a Catholic based on the fact that I have not prayed for Osama, but I do believe that I am more of a human.

And then, just when I might have begun to despair of my action having any of its intended effect:

I suppose today I’ve learned how faith can be both comforting and challenging.

Part of the process is learning to know when God is telling us “no” to something that we so strongly, and often so sincerely, want.  We have to learn to bow our will and accept that perhaps the one who created us knows better the tune and melody our life should sing.

Here is a really shocking statement.  Jesus loved Osama and continues to love him wherever he is.

In order to remain committed to Christ, I must realize that ultimately I must view this event as an opportunity to promote peace and love as the solution to end the cycle of violence that only begets more violence in the world and leads us all further away from God’s will for us.

Recognizing Sacred Violence: The Theory of René Girard

The discomfort and amazement of these students arose from their being forced, as one of them put it, to choose “between my country and my faith.”  That is to say, both patriotism and religion were making claims to the same ground, so that if the claims proved incompatible one or the other might have to yield.  The students, then, were being forced to recognize their own participation in a national phenomenon: the violent death of one particular individual, Osama bin Laden, which, although occurring under rather obscure circumstances and on the other side of the globe, had been almost instantly interpreted as an event not only beneficial but in a certain way sacred.  “For God and country,” began the message that announced bin Laden’s death, and one reveler at New York’s Ground Zero summed up his reaction with just one word – “redemption!”

“Healing” and “hope” were other words used again and again in response to the news – the language of spirituality and ultimate meaning being applied freely and unselfconsciously to connect a single death, resulting from a military and policy decision, with the honor and remembrance due the 9/11 dead, with the bonds of family and friendship, with love of country, and even with trust in the divine.   It was bound, then, to be jarring at best for some of my students to encounter evidence that the Christian tradition – still the primary cultural arbiter of the sacred in the understanding of nearly all of them – might not necessarily and unambiguously endorse such interpretations.

None of this, however, could have been much of a surprise for those acquainted with the work of French social theorist René Girard or of his avid student, British theologian James Alison.  Now a defining presence in the study of the relationship between religion and violence, Girard’s theory arises from his initial work in literary analysis and is, as one interpreter, Michael Kirwan, has described it, “tripartite” (both logically and, as it turns out, more or less chronologically in terms of Girard’s writing career).  It deals in turn with themes that could be abbreviated as “mimetic desire,” “the scapegoat mechanism,” and “redemption through revelation.”

In the first theme, Girard demonstrates that human desire (and so also subsequent values and ethical judgments based on that desire) is mimetic.  That is to say, we learn what to consider good and desirable by observing and imitating others.  Unlike instinctual appetites, more or less dictated by biology, desire is seen by Girard as a specifically human, social reality for which the notion of an “autonomous self” is insufficient to account.  Its imitative character means that with great frequency the very models from whom we learn desire (whether its object is a commodity, a person, a status, or something more subtle) will quickly become our rivals for fulfilling that desire.  The resulting conflict can be seen in perhaps its simplest form in the familiar vignette of two children fighting over the same toy in a room filled with other playthings.  Girard’s work, however, explores striking patterns of adult desire, rivalry, and conflict, through literature, psychology, anthropology, and the whole range of human studies.

Girard ultimately comes to the conclusion that virtually all of human cultural production is in some manner shaped by the forces of mimetic rivalry, and our attempts to avoid its potentially disastrous consequences.  In particular, his second theme presents the notion that human societies create internal scapegoats – usually marginal persons or groups who are used as symbols for all social ills and are treated accordingly.  External enemies, real or imagined, fulfill a similar purpose.  By making use of the mimetic impulse itself to focus a society’s own violence on a common victim, this mechanism functions to relieve the internal tensions associated with mimetic rivalry.

So long as its underlying meaning is kept hidden form view, the attention given to the choice and destruction (either symbolic or actual) of the victim replaces fractious rivalry with a social cohesion that had been entirely elusive before.  The transformation is so remarkable that the victims themselves inspire a kind of awe and take on a certain sacred quality.  Girard’s cultural critique now brings him to the realization that constant mundane examples of this behavior are summarized and embodied ritually in the sacrificial cults of religions throughout history and around the world, which come to be understood as vital to the identity and the very survival of the society.  Thus Girard can declare, “Violence is the heart and secret soul of the sacred.”

This startling conclusion leads by way of a surprising paradox to the third and perhaps most controversial theme of Girard.  In contrast to other cults, says Girard, Christian revelation and the sacrificial language it contains represent a distinct departure from these violent social mechanisms and a potentially transformative moment in human history.  Girard finds that while the kind of sacred story to which he reserves the term myth strives to hide the truth of the scapegoat mechanism and to uphold the righteousness of the victimizers, what he refers to as the gospel perspective does the reverse.  Taken as a whole, across both the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament (but particularly in the prophetic tradition within which the teaching of Jesus stands), the Biblical approach unmasks sacred violence, condemns it as hypocrisy, and takes the part of the victim rather than the dominant group.  As Kirwan puts it, “Biblical history is the history of one true, loving God urging us to cast aside false idols and live in the truth – and the most important of the untruths which must be rejected is the false transcendence which issues from our conflictive desires and our negotiation of them through sacred violence.”  Understood in this way, the story of the sacrificial death of Jesus, who otherwise might seem the very paradigm of the “sacred victim,” can be seen as the undoing of the violent sacred.

Teaching Prayer in the Shadow of the Violent Sacred

Much can and has been said by way of complicating and critiquing the Girardian approach.  To many, it has seemed unduly pessimistic, and its appreciation of the Biblical tradition suspect in the historical shadow of so much “Christian” violence.  It is not my purpose here to give a full exposition and defense of the theory.  However, considering Girard’s ideas in the context of my recent teaching experiences, it is impossible to ignore the very helpful light his thinking and its theological implications cast upon the tradition with integrity.  The tensions arise in ways both overt and hidden, and they deal not only with international politics and great historical events, but also with the subtleties of pedagogical motivation and the banal workings of institutional bureaucracy.

I taught my first iteration of “Christian Prayer in Theory and Practice” as the war in Iraq – which not infrequently nor coincidentally invited the use of both the terms “crusade” and “jihad” – was being prepared and launched.  Although in these circumstances the surrounding presence of the violent sacred seemed to grow stronger with each passing year, its effect on the course itself has never been as clearly visible as it was at the beginning of May 2011.  Returning for a moment to those events, it is easy to recognize that the Girardian themes and their corollaries were all on display: the scapegoat mechanism itself (as one student put it, “Since I was nine, bin Laden has been the boogeyman, and now he’s dead.”); the vindication of righteous anger (which James Alison describes as, “The need for there to be bad guys by battling with whom I become good.”); the greater meaning and purpose given to very personal tragedies and wounds (in light of which some students sensed “disrespect” toward them in my prayer for their enemy); the social unanimity expected in the wake of the sacrifice of a sacred victim (and the outrage when unanimity is denied); even, for some, the realization that Christ’s life and teaching and the manner of his death break the cycle and invite us to see the world in a profoundly different way.

Clearly, there was already a deep connection between the students’ orientation toward the place and significance of Christian prayer, and their understanding of the world around them (and its violence).  It was unavoidably necessary to account for this mutual influence within the course itself, never more so than at that crucial moment following the death of bin Laden.  As I stood before the class with my Bible open to Matthew 5, feeling a bit the way I had as a child just before diving into a deep swimming pool for the first time, I could see that I could approach this accounting in one of three ways.  I could accept the sacred reinterpretation of violence and use the Christian prayer tradition to reinforce it.  I could remain silent about what we all knew had just happened in the world, thus tacitly accepting the prevailing interpretation while also allowing Christian prayer to appear aloof from, perhaps even irrelevant to, some of the most charged moments of my students’ lives.  Finally, instead of either of those choices, I could run the risks of polarization, reject the sacralizing of violence, and provide a forceful reminder that Christian prayer, whatever else it might be, is at least an invitation to radical transformation.  My choice of this third option was not at all a foregone conclusion, but having actually taken it I now see nothing so clearly as the incompatibility of the other two choices with my deepest desires for my students.

Transformative Contemplation

James Alison, whose distinctive position as a gay man and former Dominican priest lends a deep poignancy to his theology, dwells lovingly on the profound difference between the violence of the world and the invitation of Christ.  He describes that invitation as “being called into being.”  In keeping with Girard’s mimetic theory, he takes it as a universal phenomenon that human beings learn their desires by imitating others, and believes that so it is with Christians who, as he puts it, “Learn to desire according to the eyes” of Christ.

Unlike any other model upon whom one might fix, however, Jesus “although he was in the form of God, did not deem equality with God something to be grasped,” (Philippians 2:6).  Unlike any other mimetic model, Jesus “empties himself,” (2:8).  In him, says Alison, we find “a human heart and eyes so utterly held by the Creator that they speak the Creator’s heart about this world.”  There is no righteous anger, no resentment here; rather, by becoming the willing victim of just such resentment, Jesus breaks the cycle of imitation, rivalry, and violence.  To see the world with the eyes of Christ, says Alison, is to find oneself “being in on the center of things without being the center,” that is, without having to fight one’s way into and lay claim to what is most desired by a violent act of possession.

Paradoxically, Alison continues, this experience leads also to “a sense of being on the periphery,” in that one may “relax into being loved” and “discover one’s being in being known by God.”  This permission to lose the anxiety of endlessly striving to please God – by knowing and fulfilling (and inevitably resenting) all the “right formulas” – is what Alison refers to in the title of one of his books, On Being Liked.  In this way, he builds on Girard’s foundation by showing us what “faith beyond resentment” (another Alison book title) might actually look like in practice.

Alison’s aspiration “to see as Christ sees” – to desire, indeed to love, as Christ loves – is surely a valid description of a basic goal in Christian prayer.  The possibility of transformation that Alison attributes to it is, then, near the heart of the many things that a teacher of the prayer tradition could hope for students to encounter.  The difficulty, of course, is that the teacher, the teacher’s colleagues, and the institution within which the teaching takes place, are as fully enmeshed in the mimetic system as the students are.

In my own case, to whatever extent these ideas might have been vaguely in my mind at the time, my original inspiration for designing a course on prayer was ambiguous enough.  I had discovered, by the end of my first year of teaching introductory theology to undergraduates, how foreign the idea (not to mention the experience) of a “relationship with Christ” was to many of my students – a perceived lack that seemed greatly to affect their understanding of the doctrine and practice of the church that I was trying to convey to them.

It was quite a while later that I began to reflect on the ambiguity of relying on this lacuna as a motivation for the course on prayer.  It seems to me now that this one notion actually provided several rather incompatible motivations.  On the one hand, there was a simple pedagogical problem and a proposed solution: a concept was missing; I needed to supply it.  Yet there was also a measure of fear of the future – of my own loss of familiarity, identity, and control, at the hands of a generation bereft of knowledge that I, obviously (as I thought at the time), possessed.  On still another level dwelt the motivation that I now see as more worthy of Alison’s insight: the desire to share “relationship with Christ,” not as an attempt at indoctrination, but rather as a potential spiritual seedbed for the intellectual openness, courage, passion, and com-passion that I value and seek both personally and as an integral aspect of the Catholic and Jesuit educational tradition.

The negation of these values could easily have developed into the major agent in my design of the course, had the “fear of the future” motive prevailed (which is, in the sense I have described it, a variety of the “us-against-them” thinking that Alison rejects).  The need to stress religious identity over against others, which leads quickly to an emphasis on correctness of doctrine and practice at all costs, in my experience also brings a sense of distance, formality, and “foreignness” for many students – which would, of course, have been an ironic end to my concern for a “relationship with Christ.”  Further, if the course were then centered on a survey of the historical development of approaches to prayer, or on the orthodox doctrine expressed in various traditional prayer forms, or even on formation in a particular prayer practice and its expected results, the question, “Whose history, whose orthodoxy, whose practice?” would remain.  Fortunately, both my own “mixed motives” and the expectations of my colleagues allowed me to see the necessity of a far more contextual and practical approach, which has broadened further with each iteration of the course and has allowed my own experience and understanding of Christian prayer to grow along with that of my students.

The first lesson in context, however, came with negotiating the course’s initial approval through the college’s standard curriculum procedures.  The school’s own history and culture are, as Girard and Alison would expect of any such institution, fraught with many embattled identities, “sacred spaces,” and associated scapegoats.  Perhaps the first and most obvious is an ingrained and not entirely unjustified fear of the very sort of indoctrination that I might have been proposing, and the specter of ecclesiastical control and limitation of academic freedom that is often assumed to be waiting in the wings.  For some of my colleagues, the danger is understood to be doctrine itself, and the challenge it seems to issue to a particular understanding of Reason (which, lest we forget, was also one given a sacred, quasi-divine status – in the shadow of the guillotine).  The heritage of several decades of negotiation for shared power in the college – sometimes friendly, sometimes less so – between lay faculty and Jesuits has also left many carefully guarding their spheres of influence (despite the fact that the steady diminishment of the active Jesuit presence on campus has significantly altered the political situation over the years).

Unfortunately, the mere mention of “prayer” seemed enough to set off one or more of these alarm bells for some colleagues.  At one point, after the appearance on the college website of a photo of my class in the midst of a few moments of centering meditation, I was asked what sort of “voodoo teaching” I was engaged in.  Most other critical questions were more substantive and ultimately more helpful: the word “Christian” in the course title drew some skepticism; didn’t I actually mean, “Catholic,” and wasn’t that too exclusive?  The practical component in the course was an obvious target; what was to prevent the whole project from becoming a catechetical, rather than an academic exercise?

It seemed ironic to me that such reactions would occur in a milieu in which the growing commoditization of education is frequently lamented, its increasingly brutal time-and-task demands on students decried, and interest in “contemplative practice” often professed as a response.  Undoubtedly, an understanding like Alison’s – of Christ as an opening toward a call “into being,” rather than into the confines of indoctrination – is still counterintuitive to many.  Yet, although the reactions were not always sympathetic nor fully understanding of my aims for the course, in the end learning to take collegial caution seriously proved very helpful for setting the course on a path that has increasingly allowed it to reflect the true breadth of the Christian prayer tradition.

As is surely evident enough even in this brief description, it has not always proven easy to resist entering the fray with my own colors flying – not easy to choose instead the “looking away” from resentful competition, to which Alison insists we are invited by Christ himself.  If not for the presence of the Giardian critique, the temptation to use the course as an instrument of my own ressentiment [bitter, unfulfilled desire for vengeance, turned toward self-hatred] would probably be utterly irresistible, primarily because I would not even recognize it as a temptation.  What could be wrong with acknowledging these colleagues as my opponents in the “culture wars,” and exposing the weaknesses of their position as I defend Christian practice at a Catholic institution?  How could one object if my most responsive students began to experience themselves as something of an embattled minority, struggling to keep an aspect of the truth from being completely overwhelmed by heedlessness of it?  And would it not be simply jealousy if others found it problematic for me to grow into the role of a sort of “spiritual master” to such students?  All that, of course, is the direct road not only to verifying the objections raised by my colleagues, but also to accepting a notion of Christian prayer that makes it dependent on an opposing force over which to triumph – dependent, that is to say, on implied (and even actual) sacred violence.

The students themselves, as we have seen amply demonstrated, are also accustomed to the “us-against-them” approach to life.  Consequently, despite the energy that they typically bring to the course, some of their attitudes and actions in the classroom – even apart from dramatic moments such as the death of bin Laden – constitute yet another challenge to the critique of sacred violence.  Students’ approaches to themselves, to authority, to tradition, frequently display this embattled view of the world.  They are dutifully and self-consciously “good” or gleefully “bad” in response to expectation; they defer to “whatever Father says” or they insist on their own inviolate opinion in the face of all argument; they stand defiantly with a fundamentalist chip on their shoulder, or they speak haltingly of faith while searching in desperation for some authoritative signal, or they turn away with studied indifference.  The common need to label themselves and others as “right” or “wrong” requires definite answers and clear procedures, leaving many students deeply uncomfortable with ambiguity or multi-valence in the study of the Christian tradition, even as they are steeped in a “pluralist” worldview.  Indeed, when they detect the presence of a standard by which to measure, it is possible for them to quickly achieve self-righteousness, and to become positively Corinthian in their enthusiasm for “amazing” or even “miraculous” spiritual experiences that assist them, subtly or otherwise, in establishing their own superiority.

In all such ways, the students act out – in company, let me quickly add, with all their teachers – their very human resistance to both terms of some key Christian paradoxes: the self as loved by God, the self as surrendered to God; tradition as challenged, tradition as embraced; prayer as discipline, prayer as gift.  The possibility in such impossible pairs – as well as their explanatory power – becomes evident and compelling only in an experience of Christian prayer that moves beyond “sacred meanings” held as a kind of exclusive gnosis, and beyond “religious identity” wielded as a defensive weapon.  In such paradoxes can be found an expression of the transformative potential of Christian prayer, because in them mimetic acquisitiveness becomes openness to gift, embattled identity becomes dynamic engagement, and resentful subservience becomes radical love.

The pedagogical method that opens in the direction of this transformation is one that I must still say I “aspire” to perfect.  For now, between fits of pseudo-sacred imposition, I move with my students from practice to theory, rather than the reverse – we participate, we reflect, we study.  Our participation covers a broad range of practices, from the simple, contemplative “Jesus Prayer to exuberant Pentecostal services.  It includes some experiences that are outside of my own comfort zones, in the hope that students will observe some of my own ongoing struggle with growth in prayer (indeed, the prayer for bin Laden was one of these).  In both spoken and written forms, we offer reflections on these experiences that are broad and open and allow amply for enthusiasm about what seems positive, but also for puzzlement, complaint, and examination even of what might seem “failed experiments” on the students’ part or mine.  It is then possible to require serious intellectual consideration, through analysis of texts, history, and criticism, of very diverse corners of the tradition, with their interconnections, oppositions, accomplishments, and failures, without seeming to elicit a particular set of “approved” insights and conclusions.

The method thus moves, in imitation of some of the very prayer forms it considers, from the outside to the inside.  The inner stillness of Byzantine hesychasm (from the Greek for “silence”), for example, although prepared for by the repetition of the “Jesus Prayer” specifically as a means of the self-emptying, is in itself a gift of the Holy Spirit who comes in his own time.  The Suscipe (“Take and Receive”) at the end of the Spiritual Exercises of Saint Ignatius Loyola is indeed a prayer of self-offering, but it comes only in response to the recognition of the endlessly active love of God, unfolded throughout the whole four-week course of the exercises.  Even the far-from-silent Pentecostal and charismatic experience of glossolalia is invariably called “the gift of tongues,” and is frequently described, with reference to Romans 8:26, as “the Spirit groaning within us.”

The fundamental movement in all these forms of prayer is not from an internal choice toward an external action, but rather the reverse.  In this way, the tradition itself recommends to the student of prayer a receptive and transformative stillness, which is the negation of sacred violence.  “As we learn to desire through the eyes of another,” writes Alison, “so we are given the heart of another, and what we learn is the extraordinarily benign, peaceful power of one holding everything in being, liking, and delighting in us, without distinction.

In many ways, it is a frightening approach for both students and teacher.  At its most intense it does indeed eventually set aside, or at least radically relativize, the expected academic emphasis on a student’s “grasp” of material, and substitute instead the opportunity for the student to “be grasped.”  Ultimately, in work for which the course itself can only begin to prepare, it goes even further, pressing toward another outward move: the transformation of our action in their world that would come with the setting aside of sacred violence.  In prayer approached in this way, what was “other” does not remain perpetually external and alien, like the hated bin Laden consigned to “rest in hell forever.”  On the contrary, “it” comes to be seen through the eyes of the One who possesses us, and alters from the inside our way of seeing and our very way of being.

We may even find ourselves praying for the enemy.

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