Monday, February 18, 2013

Alison 8 of 9


8. Not leaving Las Vegas

Let us get back then, finally, to Matthew and the conclusion of Jesus’ remarks about prayer. I hope that they will read somewhat differently now:

When you are praying, do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do; for they think that they will be heard because of their many words. Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him. [10]

I remember standing on a hill overlooking Lake Titicaca and watching the local Yatiris, shamans or priests, plying their wares. You could go to them, and for an appropriate offering, they would then light candles around little portable shrines, burn incense, and say the requisite prayers or incantations, which were in an amazing mixture of Latin, Quechua, Aymara and Spanish. The prayers or incantations were for a fairly repetitive list of things: protection from a neighbour’s evil eye, quick riches, death of a troublesome mother-in-law, to get an unwilling prospective love-match to fall for me, various forms of vengeance.

The pattern seemed to be simple: God, or the gods, are a sort of celestial Las Vegas slot machine, full of amazing bounty, but inclined to be retentive. So prayer is the art of conjuring this capricious divinity, by exactly the right phrases, repeated exactly the right number of times, into parting with some of its treasure. As if the priest were a particularly expert puller of the slot machine handle, one who could ensure that three lemons, or five bars, line up and so manipulate the divinity into disgorging its riches.

What this presupposes is a pattern of desire where we are subjects who are in control, and God is an object who must be manipulated: we are back to the blob and arrow picture of desire. What Jesus is teaching is exactly the reverse of this. In Jesus’ picture it is God who is the subject, who has a desire, an intention, a longing, and who knows who we are and what is good for us and we who are capricious and somewhat inert slot machines who are always getting our handles pulled by the wrong players. In this picture it is precisely because our Father knows what we need before we ask him that we must learn to pray: our Father’s only access to us, the only way he can get to our slot-machine handle, is by our asking him into our pattern of desire.

You remember that with the blob and arrow understanding of desire, Jesus’ phrase about “your Father knows what you need before you ask him” works as a way of making prayer pointless. But with the mimetic understanding of desire which I hope to have shown to be at work throughout this passage, the same phrase works in exactly the opposite way. It becomes the urgent reason why we need to pray: so as to allow the One who knows what is good for us, unlike we ourselves, whose desire is for us and for our fruition, unlike the social other and its violent traps, to gain access to re-creating us from within, to giving us a “self”, an “I of desire” that is in fact a constant flow of treasure. We are asking, in fact to become a symptom of his pattern of desire, rather than that of the social other which ties us up into becoming so much less.

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