The Directional Language of Interior Movement
A new series on the Discernment of Spirits using Girardian insights
Note: The community conversation with Byrne Hobart on “Manias and Mimesis” (from June 10) is now available to all subscribers. Both an audio version of the Zoom call and a full text transcript can be found here. I hope you enjoy it as much as I did.
Desire Is Movement
I’ve been reading a lot of Augustine recently, partly as research for a (potential) new book project.
I was struck to find that, in his Confessions, Augustine describes the period just prior to his conversion experience as one in which mimetic models of desire were the main catalyst.
Augustine was studying in Carthage at the time, and he was increasingly anxious and unsettled. It seemed to him that he was wasting his life away following his egotistical desires—including his “burning passions”—at every step of the way.
All the while, he longed for an interior peace which eluded him.
He lived in the unbearable tension between desiring something intellectually—a new way of life—and his revelation that his will was too weak to pursue it. A nightmare.
“The will does what it wants,” a wise mentor once told me after I flung myself at his feet lamenting my inability to stop doing something I told him I didn’t ‘want’ to do.
One can ‘see’ the good and know the good but not be capable of doing the good.
Of course, this is an age-old spiritual reality—one dealt with extensively in many different spiritual traditions—and I won’t address it directly here. But these are the pangs Augustine was feeling. The same that any addict has felt.
Back to our story.
One day, Augustine speaks with an official in the emperor’s court named Ponticianus. He shares with Augustine, amused and perplexed at the same time, that two of his friends had recently stumbled into the home of a Christian and found within it a copy of the book Life of St. Anthony, by Athanasius.
They took and read the book. They learned how Anthony, after hearing the words of Jesus to the rich young man (“If you would be perfect, go and sell what you have, give it to the poor…and come, follow me….”), followed them immediately: Anthony, after hearing this story, left everything behind and dedicated his life to this pursuit.
(Today, Anthony is known as the first ‘desert father’, one of the first to flee the cities of Egypt and live a hermetic life in the deserts outside the cities, so as to better be able to dedicate himself wholly to the pursuit without the influences of the city assaulting him daily.)
After reading this story, Ponticianus’s two friends—both minor officials in the Roman empire—were shaken to their core. They made the decision to follow the heroic model of Anthony and do as he did. They left their posts and dedicated themselves fully to a Christian way of life.1
Now Ponticianus tells this story thinking nothing of it. One can picture him knocking back some wine, tossing some garum-soaked turnips into his mouth like a handful of nuts, laughing—snorting—and smirking his way through the tale of these foolish kids.
But when he left Ponticianus’s house, Augustine found himself in a state of profound anguish.
“How could these two Roman officials respond in such a radical manner, as I would like to but seem unable to?”
He was in awe of their total dedication—of their choice—which revealed to him his own indecision, his pathetic justifications for not taking action, and convicted him in his conscience.
He had been given a model of desire by Ponticianus without Ponticianus even knowing it. (In fact, there was a cascade of mimetic desire: Anthony was acted upon by the story of the rich young man in the gospels; Anthony’s story affected the two roman officials that Augustine heard in the story; and their actions haunted Augustine and seemed to call him to action….)
This model of desire pierced his heart and increased his tension, revealing to him the truth of his own thin desires.
He describes the interior wrestling he did after hearing the story, at which point he lays down under a fig tree to weep for his miserable life.
(Notice the bold phrases below—emphasis mine. Pay attention to this language):
“I was held back by mere trifles, the most paltry inanities, all my old attachments. They plucked at my garment of flesh and whispered, ‘Are you going to dismiss us? From this moment we shall never be with you again, forever and ever. From this moment you will never be allowed to do this thing or that, for evermore….’ These voices…no longer barred my way, blatantly contradictory, but their mutterings seemed to reach me from behind, as though they were stealthily plucking at my back, trying to make me turn my head when I wanted to go forward. Yet in my state of indecision, they kept me from tearing myself away, from shaking myself free of them and leaping across the barrier to the other side, where you were calling me.”
As Timothy Gallagher has pointed out, this kind of directional language is the key to understanding what’s happening inside of Augustine.
Held back…from behind….go forward…tearing myself away…to the other side….
The language paints a picture of two directions that Augustine is caught in the tension between: forwards, and backwards.
He seems to know what his telos is. He now sees an interior battle playing out that is either inclining his will toward that end or restraining it (or causing it to move in the other direction). In other words, he is able to use directional language in the first place because he has discerned something true, good, and beautiful toward which his life should move.
Hearing the story about the two Roman officials who walked away from everything is almost too much for Augustine to bear at this time. The story incites a positive mimetic desire in Augustine that makes him vacillate between envy and awe.
He has a choice to make: he could write off the story as two silly, star-crossed kids who forfeited their lucrative careers by seeking some illusory treasure. But he feels, in his heart of hearts, that there is something heroic about their actions.
He will always be haunted by the question: “What if?”
He then has a vision of Continence—embodied as a woman—who asks him: “Can you not do what these men and women do?” A direct appeal to mimetic desire.
Augustine, who has been talking himself out of taking any radical action, suddenly finds some consolation in the idea that maybe he can move “forward” and stop being paralyzed by fear. This is followed by the (now famous) moment when he hears the voice of a child saying “Tolle lege” (“Take and read”). Upon hearing these words, he picks up a bible and reads a passage from Paul that pushes him over the edge. (I am intentionally using directional language here…)
So why do I share this story?
Because of the prominent role of mimetic desire in Augustine’s story, and because it is one of the best examples of positive mimetic desire that I can find: but, more specifically, mimetic desire creating tension in a person who had psychological or spiritual defense mechanisms in place that prevented him from being fully infected by it.
You may not think that what Augustine was exposed to is a positive mimetic desire—but Augustine certainly saw it that way. However, he also saw in himself too much fear and anxiety to let that desire grow to the point that he could take action to pursue the desire.
I believe the connections between mimetic desire and Ignatian discernment are vastly underexplored, so I am going to undertake a bit of that exploration here in the Anti-Mimetic newsletter.
I situate mimetic desire—or desire in general—in the will, which is the faculty that causes movement toward or away from a particular thing in human life. That is why I find the directional language in Augustine so fascinating. It’s also why I pay so much attention to directional language in my own journaling and my own mentoring and counseling. On both the giving and receiving side.
I always ask myself:
What kinds of movement are people describing when they tell personal stories (usually without even knowing it)?
What are the objects they appear to be orbiting around?
What are the forces that seem to be pulling them toward or away from the things that they think they want?
Where did they get the ideas to want those things in the first place?
All this is basic discernment—from the Latin discernere, which means to separate things according to their unique qualities, or the ability to distinguish one thing from another.
We all know by now how important it is to be able to distinguish (and name) one emotion from another—this is therapy 101—or one psychological state from another.
But very little thought and effort has been put into distinguishing one spiritual or interior movement from another. Yet this is the most fundamental discernment to do.
For instance, the ability to recognize when I am interiorly moving toward some thing—what that feels and looks like and sounds like—is incredibly important for confronting and taking more intentional action in the mimetic milieu that I find myself in.
An example: I am often able to distinguish when pride or insecurity seems to be moving me toward taking some action. And if I can recognize it at the earliest possible stage, I can take steps to sanction it, and to respond differently—as opposed to letting that desire go unchecked.
It’s all interior. Most of this activity takes place in the silence of my own heart. Nobody on the outside observing me on a given day would ever know that a battle is playing out.
This basic work of recognizing and discerning these interior movements is what a silent retreat is made for. But the work is the work of every life.
The most fundamental premise of Ignatian discernment (a method devised by Ignatius of Loyola as a spiritual discipline) is the idea that our thoughts—as well as our desires—come from one of only four places:
Good Spirits (think of these as being positive spiritual influences in the world)
Evil spirits (think of these as being destructive spiritual influences in the world, like negative mimesis and scapegoating violence)
Self (yes, I do believe that thoughts/desires can come largely from ourselves, despite this seeming to contradict the idea of mimetic desire—not all desire need be mimetic, and some of our desires are largely the product of our own egos….).
Within this basic framework, we can discern which desires are what, and where they are coming from.
Without that basic discernment, we are simply hurtling toward a destination with no captain.
It’s about time we learn to sail.
Please sign-up to make sure you receive the next editions in this series. The next one will address some of the most basic rules of discernment, utilizing a framework of mimetic desire.
From Timothy M. Gallagher, The Discernment of Spirits: An Ignatian Guide for Everyday Living