Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Alison 6 of 9


6. The importunate widow

Before returning to our Matthew text, let me give a couple of further examples of the pattern of desire the Gospel texts on prayer point to, for they fit well into this larder or pantry where we find ourselves dwelling in the interface between our desires and our internal “voices” – the voices of the social other which we have internalised. Here is the model who Jesus puts before us for prayer in Luke’s Gospel: an importunate widow. [7]

Then Jesus told them a parable about their need to pray always and not to lose heart.

OK, hold that thought. At first blush this sounds as though Jesus is giving advice about not becoming discouraged. I want to suggest that it is rather more than that. It is about how, through becoming insistent desirers, we will actually be given a heart, be given to be. If we do not desire, we will not have a heart.

He said, “In a certain city there was a judge who neither feared God nor had respect for people.”

Please notice that this judge is a perfectly non-mimetic person. In fact he is more like a concrete block than like a person, since he is able to be moved neither by the social other, nor the Other other.

“In that city there was a widow who kept coming to him and saying, 'Grant me justice against my opponent.'”

Now we have an inconvenient person, the sort of person who has no one to stand up for her, who is not held in high regard, and whose satisfaction is of no importance to those living in the city. She is the equivalent of a smelly desire. But she is persistent, and just keeps on with her demand.

“For a while he refused; but later he said to himself, 'Though I have no fear of God and no respect for anyone, yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will grant her justice, so that she may not wear me out by continually coming.'”

The judge has an enviable degree of self-knowledge, for he understands perfectly well that he is a concrete block, hermetically sealed from mimetic influence. Even so, he eventually concedes, anxious to avoid a drubbing at the hands of this redoubtable widow. I say “drubbing”, for the word υπωπιαζη, which we translate as “wear out”, was apparently the language of the wrestling arena or the boxing ring.

And the Lord said, “Listen to what the unjust judge says. And will not God grant justice to his chosen ones who cry to him day and night?”

Does Jesus really think that God is like an unjust judge? Indeed not. But he knows how all of us are inclined to have an unjust judge well-installed into our consciousness. In fact as part of our socialization we acquire a voice or set of voices which seem to be completely impervious to anything. This voice or voices, should we be so bold as to want something, will quickly send down little messages to us: “Shouldn’t want that if I were you - better not to want much, so as not to be disappointed” or “Getting above our station are we?” or, as in the famous Oliver Twist scene “More?!!”. And the point of these messages is to shut down our desire – to get us to mask our discontent with remaining mere puppets of our group. Our unjust judge is internal to each one of us, a glowering “no” in the face of our potential happiness.

Yet what Jesus recommends is a long-running, persistent refusal to have our smelly little desires put down. Instead to engage in a constant guerrilla warfare of desiring, so that eventually even the block in our head starts to yield, and what is right for us starts to become imaginable and obtainable. God is not like the judge, a hermetic block, he is like the irritating desire which gets stronger and stronger. It is only through our wanting something that God is able to give it to us.

“Will he delay long in helping them? I tell you, he will quickly grant justice to them. And yet, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?”

Curiously, at the end of this teaching Our Lord shows a certain ambivalence about us: imagination and desire feed each other positively, and this is a vital element of faith: becoming able to imagine something good, and so to want it, and then as one wants it more, finding it more possible to imagine it more fully. Here he seems aware that despite what he is attempting to implode in our midst, we are frighteningly likely to be content with far too little, to go along with our internalised unjust judges, and so not to dare to imagine a goodness which could be ours, and thus not dare to want it, let alone become crazed single-minded athletes of system-shattering desire. He wonders whether we will really allow ourselves to be given heart.

Before moving along from this image, I’d like to point out an important part of the way the new “self” of desire is brought into being. That is by saying “I want”. Please notice that this simple act of saying something, and in fact saying it frequently is much more important psychologically than it seems. For it is not that there is an “I” that has such and such a desire, which it is now expressing. Rather, among the patterns of desire which are running this body, this body is having the humility to recognise that it needs to be brought into being by being directed in a certain way, and so is, as it were, making an act of commitment to a certain sort of becoming. “I want such and such” is an act of commitment to be found in a certain becoming, an act of alignment. “I” am agreeing that in my malleability, the desire according to the other, which precedes me, and which I’m agreeing to take on board, will bring me into being. Language makes this public, which is why it can be such a relief finally to be able to say “I want such and such”, even “privately”, because saying it has involved me in getting over the shame of being found to be the sort of person who wants such a thing.

A couple of final examples of the Gospel teaching the same pattern of desire as regards prayer. In Luke 6,28 we read:

“Bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you.”

I hope it now makes much more sense why this is emphatically not a way of saying “Jesus wants me as a doormat”. On the contrary. Jesus knows very well how we become intimately involved with that subsection of the social other which are our enemies in just the same way as we become intimately involved with those whose approval we seek. He knows how susceptible we are to taking our enemies on board, and becoming just like them by acting out reciprocally towards them. So he offers us this recipe for freedom: do not allow yourselves to be run by those who do you evil. This involves a refusal of negative reciprocity and a learning to move from the heart towards them in a way which has nothing to do with what they have done to you. In fact he is saying “step out of the pattern of desire in which you are enthralled by, and in thrall to, your enemies, and step arduously instead into a pattern of desire such that you are not over against them at all, but are able to be, as God is, for them, towards them, without being their rival”.

In case you think I’m making this up, Matthew’s version of the same saying is perfectly instructive:

But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous. [8] (Italics mine)

The rationale for praying for those who persecute you is set out clearly: it is so as to become part of the pattern of desire of the Other other, who is not part of the reciprocity, the tit-for-tat, the good and evil of the social other, but is entirely outside it, not in rivalry with it, and perfectly generous towards it.

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