Mimetic spirituality in practice

A couple of quick thoughts following up on that last post.

First, René Girard goes on to make the point that mimetic desire is not inherently wrong, even if in practice it leads to rivalry and violence between human beings. The question is how to prevent mimetic desire from leading to such violent rivalry.

One answer is that of law: prohibit both the expression of that violent rivalry, and the things which lead to it. That is the approach taken by the Ten Commandments, which first prohibit murder, adultery, theft and perjury, and then prohibit the covetousness – the desire stirred up in us by our neighbour’s desire – that leads to them.

A second answer is to identify desire itself as the cause of human violence and suffering, and thus to seek to extinguish desire. This is the approach taken by religions such as Buddhism.

But, as Girard points out, Jesus proposes a new approach to handling mimetic desire. Instead of issuing new laws or telling us to cease desire or imitation, he provides a new model for our desires to imitate: namely, himself. Girard writes:

Far from arising in a universe exempt from imitation, the commandment to imitate Jesus addresses us as beings penetrated by mimesis. Non-Christians imagine that, in order to become Christians, they must renounce an autonomy that all human beings possess by nature, an autonomy of which Jesus wants to deprive them. In fact, as soon as we imitate Jesus, we discover that we have always been imitators.

The difference is that, while previously our imitation has led us into rivalry with one another, to imitate Jesus frees us from that rivalry with our neighbours.

So, this means that the Christian life is inherently mimetic, and in multiple layers of imitation. As St Paul tells the Corinthians, “Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ”. This is also why the church has always venerated the saints: by reminding ourselves of their example, we remind ourselves of their desires, and learn to imitate them.

Dominique Irigaray observed in a recent series of tweets that Marian devotion is a key example of “mimetic spirituality”. To say the Angelus, for example, is not to “worship Mary”, but to immerse ourselves in Mary’s desire to obey God’s call, the desire and obedience through which the incarnation of Christ was brought about. It is a “triangular prayer” with us, Mary and God at its vertices. The Hodigitria icon (as shown at the start of this post) is another example: Mary as “she who shows the way”, who invites us to imitate her desire in honouring her Son.

It occurred to me the other day that another example of mimetic spirituality – perhaps more palatable to many Protestants! – is the singing of the psalms. Sometimes it can seem odd that, when we sing or recite the psalms, we are taking upon ourselves the words of another, often in circumstances that seem far removed from our own. However, by singing the psalms, we learn to “desire after the desire of the other”, in this case the psalmist. Hence to sing the psalms is to be shaped by an alternative model of desire.

I’d be interested in any other examples that people can provide of how a positive and healthy, Christ-centred mimetic desire operates in Christian life and spirituality.


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