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Of Good and Evil: IV – Contagious Desire

Sean O’Conaill  © Reality  Jun 2010

We are chronically unsure of our own value!

We may be so unsure of it that we mistakenly suppose that it is the better possessions of others that make them seemingly more important than we are. And that if we can acquire those possessions we will magically become just as worthy.

I distinctly remember throwing a shameful tantrum at the age of about ten. Five years earlier I had learned to read well and began to devour print. I became fascinated by my favourite authors and took a strong notion to become a writer myself. I was certain I absolutely needed what I supposed successful writers used: a particular brand of fountain pen. My parents were watching every penny back then – and sensibly refused my request. I sulked for weeks – instead of writing just as well with a pencil.

I was suffering from a complaint that afflicts all of us, contagious desire – desire we acquire from others whom we mistakenly suppose to have greater value and importance than ourselves.

A similar thing happened to St Augustine of Hippo when he was about sixteen. He and some friends became fascinated by the ripe pears visible over the walls of the garden of a wealthy man of their town – and conspired to raid the orchard. Augustine remembered vividly afterwards that once he had stolen the pears he had no real interest in eating them. This disturbed him greatly. He became convinced that his moral lapse was the result of an irrational or ‘disordered’ desire – it made no sense.

He was right, of course. But he never quite put his finger on the cause of this lapse.

It was probably contagious desire, resulting from his mistaken young man’s fantasy of possessing something that symbolised the higher status of the owner of the orchard.

The Financial Crash

In Ireland these days people argue endlessly over the cause of the present global financial and economic crisis, and especially over the Irish version of it. The temptation to point the finger at individuals is overpowering. But the root cause was something we are all afflicted by.

It was contagious desire. The bible calls it covetousness. It can also be called mimetic desire – desire that unconsciously mimics the desire of someone else.

“Do not covet your neighbour’s ox … or his wife … or anything your neighbour owns!” This emphatic warning in the Ten Commandments of the Bible is there because that library of ancient books is centred largely on the afflictions that result from ignoring this warning.

For example, the unjust treatment of Joseph by his brothers, because of their contagious desire for the object that signified his father’s greater favour – his ‘many coloured coat’. Or King David’s disgrace over his desire for Bathsheba, the wife of Uriah. Or Absalom’s sad end as a result of his desire for the power and status of his father, King David.

The Bible is not the only ancient religious text to warn of this problem. “Why do we desire what others desire?” asks the Tao Te Ching, the Chinese classic. The unknown author was lamenting the greatest evil to flow from this affliction. When rulers coveted the lands and cities of other rulers, and could deploy armies to acquire them, thousands could die in the wars that followed.

In 2001 there came an early warning of the financial collapse that hit us all in 2009. To maximise their own income from bonuses, executives of the huge US corporation ENRON had dishonestly concealed the increasingly weak position of the firm and published false accounts showing false profits. This led to the collapse of the firm and the ruin of many investors and employees.

Analysing the causes afterwards, the financial wizard Alan Greenspan, head of the US central bank, the ‘Fed’, noticed that individual executives in ENRON had felt compelled to keep pace with one another in claiming these bonuses. He called the phenomenon ‘contagious greed’ – because the word covetousness had long seemed to be old fashioned, and its meaning had been almost lost. At least he had noticed how we ‘catch’ desire from one another.

We saw, and marvelled at, another example of essentially the same thing in Baghdad in 2003 – the looting of most of the priceless treasures from the Iraqi national museum. If we supposed then that we westerners were immune to such behaviour, we now need to think again. Irish bankers who just had to follow risky international lending practices were convinced that if they did not do so they would be seen as incompetent. Contagious desire can lead to a manic rush for treasure out of fear of being left behind and made to look foolish by those leading the charge. Our own greatest national financial treasure – our reputation for integrity and good judgement – has been almost lost in this manic rush.

This fear of being made to look foolish also clearly originates in the fact that we are chronically unsure of our own value.

It is high time we recovered the meaning of the words ‘covet’ and ‘covetousness’. Words such as ‘materialism’ and ‘consumerism’ are weak and misleading by comparison. They merely describe our behaviour without getting to its root and its cause – a desire for the status of another person, who is apparently ‘better’ than ourselves. A multinational cosmetics empire has been built on the assurance that in buying something as trivial as a hair dye its customers can automatically become ‘worth it’.

The Environmental Crisis

It is critically important for us to understand contagious desire and its spiritual root for another reason. It is contagious desire that lies at the root of the world’s environmental crisis. This was proven by the sudden fall in the world price of oil when demand suddenly collapsed in the western economies. Demand is artificially inflated when we become convinced our desires – all of our desires – are needs that must be met. With everyone bidding to surpass everyone else in terms of status, we were on a race to disaster.

The French Jesuit scientist and philosopher Teilhard de Chardin, was convinced that the life of Jesus of Nazareth was a crucial part of the story of all life on planet earth. He felt sure that learning what Jesus had to teach was crucial to the survival and protection of all life on earth. He was correct – and we are just beginning to understand why.

Unless we can learn, really learn, that our value does not depend upon the possession of material symbols of status, the near future of the planet will be dominated by environmental decay, the extinction of many living species, internal social conflict, and brutal warfare over increasingly scarce resources.

“See the lilies of the field – they do not toil or spin – yet Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these!”

“Sell what you have and give to those in need. This will store up treasure for you in heaven! And the purses of heaven have no holes in them. Your treasure will be safe — no thief can steal it and no moth can destroy it. Wherever your treasure is, there your heart and thoughts will also be.”

“Impractical! Impossible!” we tend to cry. “If everyone is to become a pauper who will remain to support us?” We miss the point. Generosity removes the sense of inequality that status-seeking creates. The giver honours the recipient, restoring his sense of his own value and dignity. If everyone is generous everyone is also honoured. The root of all envy, covetousness and violence, is destroyed.

By ‘sell what you have’ Jesus meant ‘sell what you have over’. He made this clear in the instruction: “He that has two coats , let him give to him that has none; and he that has food, let him do likewise.”

At the height of the Irish boom, businessmen who possessed only a share in a helicopter felt inferior – not ‘worth it’ – in the presence of an acquaintance who owned a private jet. That was the craziness of the time. Yet all along both men were equally worthy, as were the mechanics who serviced these machines, and the begging homeless people they sometimes passed in central Dublin.

We can only return to reality when we realise that our value is something gifted us at birth, something that cannot be alienated from us by the entirely superficial differences we create among ourselves.

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Why the Show mustn’t go on

Sean O’Conaill © Doctrine and Life Sep 2008

I still vividly remember my first experience of live Shakespeare.  Sometime in the late 1950s Anew McMaster took note of the reappearance of Macbeth on the Irish Leaving Cert English Syllabus – and produced the Scottish play in the old Olympia theatre in Dublin, with himself in the title role.

Never can that renowned actor have been more challenged by a defiant refusal to suspend disbelief than on the day I attended.  Hungry for every histrionic slip, hundreds of us teenage Shakespeare detesters had been crammed by school decree into an already dingy theatre.  McMaster gave us early encouragement by pausing to remove wads of very heavy red beard that were impeding his vocal freedom.  Our joy became complete when, at a later stage, a youthful bearer of bad tidings rushed on a little too enthusiastically, slipped in coming to a necessary halt, and crashed to the floor in a perfect pratfall at the feet of the king.

Our sincere applause resounded far longer than the same baleful king thought warranted.  We wanted an encore, and were deeply disappointed when we didn’t get it.  Macbeth’s final ordeal at Birnam Wood was almost matched in its horror by our indifference to this honest actor’s unstinted efforts to re-create it. We thought, with all the savagery of adolescence, that he thoroughly deserved both his quietus and our cheers of relief when the whole performance was finally over.

I recall this theatrical debacle just now because I have a strong sense that I am observing another :  the collapse of the theatre of Catholic clericalism in Ireland.  Here we have another show that becomes far more embarrassing the longer it goes on.

I hope I am not being cruel here also.  I know humble men aplenty struggling to maintain the integrity of the church, and giving splendid Christian service in so doing.  But they too have a need for the truth to be spoken.  A way of being Church that has always had far too much too much to do with maintaining an illusion has been exposed as unsustainable, and needs to be given a decent and explicit burial.   So long as we were never fully conscious of its illusionary nature we could not strictly be accused of hypocrisy.  Made conscious of it recently, we are all now open to that charge.

I finally reached this conclusion when watching the recent documentary film ‘The Holy Show’.  This detailed the private life of the late Fr Michael Cleary.  While maintaining a public persona of exemplary rectitude, this nationally celebrated priest seduced a very vulnerable young woman who had come to him for spiritual support.  He then ‘married’ her in an entirely secret ceremony, and conceived a son by her whom he could never publicly acknowledge.

Meanwhile, with monumental irony, he had become a troubleshooter in great demand by the hierarchy to defend on national media the church’s sexual code – exemplified by the encyclical Humanae Vitae.  He climaxed this career by welcoming Pope John Paul II to a televised  outdoor spectacle in Galway in 1979.  (The fact that another of that day’s personalities, Bishop Eamon Casey, was exposed in 1992 for also having secretly fathered a son will always be remembered in connection with that day.)

The Holy Show  clearly identified Cleary’s central weakness:  his very celebrity was the greatest obstacle to his owning up to his own fallibility – and his wife and child suffered the worst of the consequences of that failure.  The more celebrated he became the more reputation he had to lose.  His greatest sin was therefore his vanity – his inability to lose public admiration by admitting his sexual indiscretion.

Inevitably I will be accused of generalising from these particular instances to indict clergy generally – but that is not in fact my drift.  Knowing clerics who live lives of exemplary humility I point only to the danger of the illusion of clericalism, which rests upon a myth.  This is the myth that ordination somehow magically confers virtue upon those who receive it.  That many, many Irish Catholics had bought heavily into that myth was proven by the shock of the truth, a shock that still reverberates and has still not been fully absorbed.

The very architecture of Catholicism, focused upon a liturgical space designed for priestly ritual, facilitates myth and illusion in relation to clergy.  Andrew Madden recounts in his autobiography ‘Altar Boy’ the impression made on his young mind by the appearance of the priest in the sanctuary of a Dublin church:  “The people stood up because the priest was so holy and important…”. This explained Andrew’s own early desire to be a priest – the very desire that made him vulnerable to his priest abuser in a Dublin parish.  “Neighbours, friends and others got to see me with the priest up close.  I felt good.”

Historians interested in explaining extraordinary Mass attendance in Ireland as late as the 1970s, and our full seminaries then, should reflect upon the fact that most of Ireland was relatively starved of public spectacle before the coming of national TV in 1961.  The parish church filled this gap for many people, providing the stage for the man who was usually the most important local celebrity – the priest.

And what most differentiated the lifestyle of the priest was the fact that he was celibate.  And that he had an officially recognized role in identifying, decrying (and relieving the eternal consequences of) sexual sin.  Every adolescent learned that this was the sin most offensive to God, and the sin that the priest had somehow, apparently, overcome.  No one told us that the public role of the priest could be a temptation to another sin entirely:  the actor’s sin, the sin of vanity, the coveting of public admiration.  Needless to say, we were therefore unaware of its dangers for us also.

TV provided a far vaster national stage, and the story of Ireland since about 1961 is largely the story of how that electronic stage has replaced liturgical space as the dominant Irish theatre. It has also become the dominant temptation to our vanity.  That in turn explains how Eamon Casey and Michael Cleary became national celebrities.  From 1961 – entirely innocent of the dangers of the first of the deadly sins – the Irish church was sleepwalking towards the PR disasters that have traumatized it since 1992.

What happened to Andrew Madden well illustrates another of those PR disasters – the revelation not just of clerical child abuse but of the typical cover up of that abuse by bishops and other clergy.  (The most serious charge levelled against Michael Cleary is the allegation by Mary Raftery that he turned a blind eye to the brutal abuse by a fellow curate in Ballyfermot, Tony Walsh, of young boys.)

The papal visit to the US in April 2008 has made important progress in recognizing the seriousness of the evil of clerical sex abuse but has failed completely to grapple with the reason for the cover up:  the perceived need of bishops and other clergy to maintain the clerical myth – the myth of clerical immunity to sexual sin.  With this clericalist myth, vanity has become virtually institutionalized in our church – the reason it still cannot be named as the root cause of every scandal that has befallen us since 1992.

For scandal is not just the revelation of human sinfulness.  Sin itself is mundane. The archetypal religious scandal is the story of David, the divinely anointed Jewish national hero who covertly murdered Uriah, the husband of Bathsheba, the woman he had seduced – to prevent it becoming known that he, David, had impregnated her.  Scandal has always to do with a fall from grace by those in high places, and clericalism is essentially an unwarranted claim of entitlement to grace and social prestige.  Until that has been fully recognized and acknowledged by those who lead the church, we will not be able to learn from what has happened to us.   We will also remain troubled by periodic clerical scandal, especially if the mandatory celibacy rule for all priests is retained.

These days the Irish church is deeply divided between those who have lost the illusions of clericalism and those who believe that Catholic loyalty requires them to restore those illusions as rapidly as possible.  The latter make that mistake because our leadership has not yet clearly differentiated Catholicism and clericalism.  We will remain stuck in the ditch, spinning our wheels, until that changes.

In an earlier article here I pointed out that the ritual of the first Eucharist derived its solemnity and liturgical meaning only from the fact that it was followed by an actual self-sacrifice1.  We must never forget that all ritual is, to use a contemporary idiom, virtual reality – just like theatre.  The integrity of the ceremony rests upon the integrity of those who celebrate it – priests and people.  Clearly, ordination in itself cannot guarantee that integrity.  This too needs now to be fully acknowledged – as does the fact that the public role of the cleric can entangle him deeply in the sin of vanity, the greatest threat to all integrity.   On the credit side, the self-effacing and dutiful priest, and those married couples who fulfil all the obligations of a sexual partnership, restore the credibility of the church.

So, instead of lamenting the loss of an illusion we need to rejoice at it, and to notice that the vanity that led to it lies also at the root of the greatest evils that threaten everyone’s future.  Vanity arises out of an inability to value ourselves without validation from others.  That is why we seek attributed value through public admiration, and pursue the latter through exhibitionism, the cult of celebrity and ostentatious consumerism.  This latter source of the environmental crisis is also the root of competition and conflict – and lack of a secure self-esteem lies also at the root of addiction.

‘Hard’ secularism – the kind that thinks that suppressing all religion will create a perfect society – doesn’t understand any of this.  This is why it can’t explain the failure of untrammeled secularism (e.g, in the Soviet Union) to put an end to personality cults and to produce a perfect society.  Meeting the challenge of secularism requires us to recognize fully the deadliest of the sins as it tempts ourselves in our own time.  If we don’t do that now we will be guilty of something else – of choosing to learn nothing from the hardest and most helpful lessons we ourselves have recently received.

Notes:

  1. The Role of the Priest: Sacrifice or Self-Sacrifice?Doctrine and Life, Sep 2007

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