Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Whose Desire Are You?

What are we to make of Lent? There is a part of us, more or less strong, that is resistant to this season of self-examination and penitence. We suspect that it is designed to make us feel bad about ourselves. And I would be lying if I promised that such feelings would not be a byproduct of our Lenten observance, arising as we grow in self-awareness.

Feelings of sorrow and regret, however, are transient. We are not meant to remain stuck in them, for they are not the point of Lent. Lent is an opportunity to reorient ourselves toward freedom; freedom for the sake of giving ourselves over to our most passionate desire. Perhaps our real fear is not that we will feel bad, but rather that we will feel really, really good. It may be that what we really resist is being given our desire from God, discovering that there is so much more to life than we dared hope, forever preventing us from settling for anything less.

Lent is about getting in touch with our desires, and Jesus is teaching us something very important about desire in his discourse on almsgiving, prayer, and fasting in Matthew chapter six. Typically, we think of our desires as self-generated, something that we possess. We operate, as James Alison describes, as if

There is a blob located somewhere within each one of us and normally referred to as a “self.” This more or less bloated entity is pretty stable, and there come forth from it arrows which aim at objects. So, “I” desire a car, a mate, a house, a holiday, some particular clothes and so on and so forth. The desire for the object comes from the “I” which originates it, and thus the desire is truly and authentically “mine” . . . Since my desiring self, my “I”, is basically rational, it follows that my desires are basically rational, and thus that I am unlike those people who I observe to have a clearly pathological pattern of desire – constantly falling for an unsuitable type of potential mate and banging their head against the consequences, or hooked on substances or patterns of behaviour that do them no good. Those people are in some way sick, and their desires escape the possibilities of rational discourse. Unlike me and my desires. (James Alison, Prayer: a case study in mimetic anthropology, pp 1-2)

Now, this view of ourselves may seem reassuring, providing a sense of control, balance, and security. In truth, however, when it comes to desire we know that the difference between us and those people is much smaller than we’d like to admit. Our desires are far less rational, manageable, and serene than we assume. It is not that “I” generate and control my desires, so much it is that my desires make “me” into the person “I” am. But if “I” am not the source and arbiter of my desires, than who is?

Jesus provides us a clue when he warns, “Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them; for then you have no reward from your Father in heaven.” (Matthew 6:1) The danger here is that we allow our actions to be dictated by the social other. We are driven by the approval or disapproval of others in such a way as to constitute our identity as we internalize and imitate their desires. Again, to quote Alison,

“We desire according to the desire of the other”. It is the social other, the social world which surrounds us, which moves us to desire, to want, and to act . . . gesture, language, and memory are not only things which “we” learn, as though there were an “I” that was doing the learning. Rather it is the case that, through this body being imitatively drawn into the life of the social other, gesture, language and memory form the “I” that is in fact one of the symptoms, one of the epiphenomena, of that social other. This “I” is much more malleable than it is comfortable to admit. And even more difficult: it is not the “I” that has desires, it is desire that forms and sustains the “I”. The “I” is something like a snapshot in time of the relationships which preexist it and one of whose symptoms it is. (Alison, pp. 3-4.)

Something like this account of desire is implicit in Jesus’ teaching. He assumes that we are imitative creatures run by the desires of others, who are continually seeking approval in order to know who we are and what we should do. This is neither good nor bad in itself. It just is.

This description moves into judgment when the question arises: Whose desire are you imitating? For Jesus, the issue is whether or not you are seeking your reward from the social other, or from the One whom he calls “Father.” Jesus does not question the truth that we are given to our selves, that we discover our identity, as it is reflected back to us in the eyes of another.

Yes, but which other? We know there is a social other which gives us our desires and moves us this way and that. But is there Another Other, who is not part of the social other, and who has an entirely different pattern of desire into which it is seeking to induct us? That of course is the great Hebrew question, the discovery of God who is not-one-of-the-gods . . . (Alison, p. 4.)

Jesus reveals the pattern of desire of the social other, what is often referred to in the New Testament as “the world,” to be driven by fear, rivalry, greed, and violence. It gives rise to an identity, an “I”, that is defined “over-and-against” some other through a process of scapegoating. The crucifixion of Jesus is testament to the reality of the violent lie upon which the world – and the self – is founded.

This is what is meant by the Church’s teaching regarding original sin. Original sin is simply our complicity, willy-nilly, with the pattern of desire that we internalize from the social other. Original sin is lodged at the level of culture, rather than biology, and is transmitted through socialization rather than sexual reproduction per se, but St. Augustine’s basic insight is correct. This sinful pattern of desire is massively prior to our birth and is simply “the way of the world” into which we are born.

Jesus asks us, “From whom are you seeking your reward – from the social other or from God?” The problem with seeking the social other’s reward is that we will receive it, and then cling to it. We will become evermore drawn into the pattern of desire established by the violent lie. We will seek the world’s approval and we will get it; or not, but either way we will be defined in relationship to it.

Jesus seeks to free us from bondage to the world’s pattern of desire, by giving us to learn God’s pattern of desire, and to be willing to have that desire shape our identity. This is what it means to receive our reward from the Father who sees in secret, the Creator who is not in any way in rivalry with us or defined over-and-against anything at all, but rather in relationship to Whom all things are meant to be an expression of life-giving love.

Jesus invites us to detach ourselves from the world’s reward system long enough to get a taste of the desire given to us by God; to practice justice, generosity, and self-denial authentically, in the service of others, and not as a religious veneer to the violent lie. Prayer is the key to realizing this freedom.

It is through prayer that we become aware of our desires and can begin to discern the internalized voices of the social other that drive us. This is a practice of radical vulnerability, in which we allow God to gently sift through this pattern of desire and become willing to have it transformed into a pattern that conforms to God’s intention for Creation. Rather than living in denial about our desires, or struggling to renounce them, the invitation is to simply share them with God.

Over time, such prayer reveals to us the source of the inner voices that drive us, and as we begin to discover the extent to which these sources are rooted in fear and violence, as we begin to acknowledge reality, their power drops away of their own accord. We don’t have to renounce or resist anything. They simply lose their appeal.

We can trust this process because at the same time we are being given to know that “Another Other,” God, is holding us in unending and unrestricted love and that what we really, really desire is to be given our identity by this Love. We discover a depth of passion we never knew we had, a passionate love for God and for all things in God in comparison to which the world’s pattern of desire seems pale indeed.

All this is the reward from the “Father” who sees in secret, operating surreptitiously to undermine from within the world’s pattern of desire. The instruction to go into our room and shut the door when we pray is Jesus’ way of saying, “Detach from the world’s reward system, give yourself some space to detox from the addictive and destructive pattern of desire into which you’ve been socialized. Share your desires openly with God so that they can be transformed, and receive a reward far greater than you could ask for or imagine.”

Lent is a time to detox from the world’s pattern of desire. It is painful to discover the extent to which we have been run by a reward system that is actually killing us, spiritually and even physically. But this realization is the first step in letting go of this old way of being; a way of being for which we already have been forgiven so that we can become free to receive the pattern of desire that only God can satisfy.

This is the “treasure in heaven” about which Jesus speaks, which, unlike the rewards of the world, is incorruptible. When we are passionately in love with God, completely given to the pattern of desire shaped by this love, then we will have found treasure indeed, and will no longer be willing to settle for anything less.

During this season of Lent, we are invited to courageously explore with God the question: “Whose desire am I? Am I an expression of God’s loving desire, or am I an expression of the world’s fear-based desire?”

Whose desire are you?

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Becoming Human Again: A Homily for the Sixth Sunday after Epiphany

For our meditation this morning we have two profoundly moving stories about the healing of leprosy: Naaman, the Syrian warrior who seeks out the Hebrew prophet Elisha, and the unnamed man who humbly implores Jesus to make him clean. In both these stories, the issue isn’t simply about a medical cure, but also about being made clean. Leprosy was much more than a skin condition. It carried a terrible social stigma, rendering one morally impure, dirty, literally untouchable.

To be a leper was to be beyond the pale of human community. It meant exile from even the most cursory human interchange. It was to be an outcast. For these men, then, healing meant so much more than curing a disease. It meant becoming human again.

This desire to become fully human, to be in communion with God and with one another, is our soul’s deepest longing. The stories of Naaman and of the unnamed leper are our stories, mirroring back to us our desire and our fear. There is something of the leper in all of us. We all want to be made clean.

Naaman immediately put me in mind of the Roy Cohn character in Tony Kushner’s Angels in America: Millenium Approaches. Roy Cohn was a real-life lawyer and power-broker in New York, a right-wing demagogue and closeted homosexual whose bread and butter was the demonization of other homosexuals for political gain. From Joe McCarthy to Ronald Reagan, Roy Cohn was a key Cold War anti-communist and anti-gay crusader.

There is a revealing scene in Kushner’s play, in which Roy is sitting in the office of Henry, his doctor. The year is 1985, and Henry has just diagnosed Roy with AIDS. For Roy, it is not the threat of death that disturbs him, but the threat of being identified with homosexuals and drug-addicts. It is the threat of social stigma and powerlessness that he most fears.

Roy tells Henry, “Homosexuals are not men who sleep with other men. Homosexuals are men who in fifteen years of trying cannot get a pissant antidiscrimination bill through City Council. Homosexuals are men who know nobody and who nobody knows. Who have zero clout. Does this sound like me, Henry? . . . Roy Cohn is not a homosexual.”

Roy Cohn is representative of a certain class of closeted, affluent gay men, who in the early days of the AIDS pandemic were horrified to discover the ways in which AIDS stripped them of the cover that protected their privilege. Suddenly, they found themselves either in denial – Roy Cohn protested that he had liver cancer to the end – or else they found themselves in solidarity with drag queens and heroin addicts struggling to be made clean. In Kushner’s play, Roy is never made clean because he is never willing to accept the powerlessness revealed by his need. Ironically, it is a former drag queen, a black nurse, who cares for Roy as he is dying; irony, however, doesn’t lead to insight or healing for Cohn.

Naaman, like Roy Cohn, is a man of power and privilege who would never be seen with lepers. You can imagine his growing anxiety as the spots begin to appear on his skin, his mounting fear as he contemplates the loss of status that the progression of this disease portends. Unlike Roy, however, Naaman is willing to accept the reality of his condition, even to the extent of entrusting himself to the advice of a Hebrew slave-girl, who tells him of a prophet in Israel who can make him clean.

Naaman goes to Israel, but not without struggle. It is humiliating to go hat-in-hand to those whom he holds in contempt, people over-and-against whom he has defined his own superiority. He clings to his sense of privilege and is enraged when Elisha doesn’t just magically wave his hands and provide an immediate cure. But Elisha knows that real healing requires more. It requires a kind of baptism.

Naaman has to die to his self-image as one who is powerful and superior. He has to drown that image in the waters of his enemies, in the Jordan River, so that he can become simply human, no more and no less. Sure, there are purification rites and perfectly good rivers back home in Damascus, but only in the Jordan River can Naaman recognize the humanity of the Hebrews – the despised other – and see mirrored in them his own humanity.

The restoration of healthy skin, the outer change, is a sign of the deeper, interior transformation that Naaman undergoes. That deeper change is an acceptance of his own humanity, in all its vulnerability, and the humanity of those whom he formerly despised. Naaman recognizes his dependence upon the other, the enemy, the way in which healing is realized through acknowledging the intimate and inescapable interconnection of all things. He is restored to communion with God and with others.

We desire to be made clean. We want to experience this communion. But it means accepting our leprosy, our vulnerability, our need to accept those aspects of ourselves and of other people that we would rather deny or demonize – our imperfections, our weakness, our fear, our anger, our illusions – all those things which render us unclean, all those truths that would make us outcast if others only knew.

And it means being willing to simply ask for help. This is what is so affecting about the unnamed man who humbly kneels and begs Jesus, “If you choose, you can make me clean.” Perhaps this man had undergone another kind of death, dying to his self-image as a victim, as one who deserved and simply had to accept being an outcast. At any rate, he can no longer deny his desire to be made clean.

We have the power to make one another clean. How? By touching each other, by refusing to believe the lies we tell to stigmatize some people so that others can feel better about themselves, smug, superior, and secure. Jesus made the leper clean by touching him, by acknowledging their shared humanity and refusing to treat him as an outcast.

I’m reminded of a story I once heard about Jon Bruno, the Episcopal bishop of Los Angeles. Bishop Bruno is a former football player and L.A. police officer. He is a big, imposing guy, not somebody you want to mess around with. Even his name sounds tough! In the early days of the AIDS pandemic in Los Angeles, Jon was still a parish priest. Young men were getting sick and dying all around him, social pariahs often abandoned by their families, sometimes even by other gay men terrified of the disease. Here was a new class of lepers.

But Jon knew how to make people clean. He kept a rocking chair in the corner of his office. As these dying men came to him seeking healing, Jon would hold them on his lap with his big arms wrapped around them, and gently rock them for as long as they needed to be held. Immediately, the leprosy left them, and they were made clean.

Jon is a disciple of Jesus, and he understands what Jesus knew so well. We have the power to make people clean, if we choose. And we, who so passionately desire to be made clean, can be whole again if we are humble and have the willingness to ask for what we need. Do you not realize how much we need one another for our healing? Do you not hear Jesus saying to you today, “I do choose. Be made clean.” Together, we can become human again.

Bishop Ed Browning famously proclaimed, “In this Church, there will be no outcasts.” Let us stretch out our hands and touch one another and make it so. Amen.