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20 November 2015


Among the immortals

IT IS not often that an Immortal dies. I awoke on 5 November with a long list of things to do, and a vague feeling of dread as I contemplated how our excitable young dog would cope with our neighbour’s planned firework display. Going to my desk, I cleared a space for my teacup among the mounds of paperwork, and fired up the computer. It has reached a venerable old age, and, like me, takes a while to warm up in the mornings.

Eventually, I was able to open my email folder, and there I found a message from Michael Hardin (the American theologian) sharing the news that his friend and mentor René Girard, an Immortal of the French Academy, had died.

Members of the Academy are known as “Immortals” in reference to the motto “To Immortality”, which is on the official seal of the original Charter granted by Cardinal Richelieu in 1635.


A philosopher’s insights

I DO not intend to write an obituary for Girard — others far more qualified and learned than I will have done that — but I do want to express my admiration of his wisdom and insight. In a broad sense, his writing explored the causes of human conflict and violence, and the part played by mimetic desire in human development and behaviour.

I realise that not all who read this column will agree with the Girardian revelation that the violent death of Jesus on the cross had nothing to do with a wrathful God demanding reparation, and everything to do with our human penchant for scapegoating.

I hope, however, that it will resonate with those who share his understanding of God as non-violent and full of love, as illustrated in this extract from Girard’s book Things Hidden Since the Foundation of the World:

“The following is the basic text, in my opinion, that shows us a God who is alien to all violence, and who wishes in consequence to see humanity abandon violence: ‘You have heard that it was said, “You shall love your neighbour and hate your enemy.” But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father who is in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and the unjust’” (Matthew 5.43-45).

René Girard was 91 years old when he died, and, as Michael wrote in his email, “It is not sad; not because René’s death was inevitable, but precisely because the one who raised Jesus from the dead will also raise René.”

Michael and his wife, Lorri, are another reason my husband Robin and I have to be grateful to Girard: it was through our interest in Girardian anthropology and mimetic theory that we came across their website www.preachingpeace.org, and developed a friendship that has made them regular and much loved transatlantic visitors to our home. They usually arrive, like wild geese, in the autumn, but could not come this year.


Wish I was there

OTHER guests have blown in on the breeze, though, including an old friend who arrived like a human Tigger, full of bounce and enthusiasm. She left parish ministry several years ago, having endured a prolonged, tough, painful, and spiritually draining time. She is now living on an island in the Indian Ocean, writing children’s books, working as a volunteer spiritual director, and contemplating becoming a life coach.

It was wonderful to see her so transformed and radiating such joy, although I did feel rather drab and boring in comparison; writing in a hammock as the Indian Ocean lulls you and the warm breeze gently swings you sounds infinitely more glamorous than sitting at a cluttered desk in Yorkshire, wrapped in layers of clothing while the phone rings and the wind wails down the chimney.


Care for the four-legged

THE wind has been rapacious here of late, and the trees have now, mostly, been stripped of their leaves, which lie strewn in colourful heaps around our garden. Every so often, we clear away the heaps and add them to our leaf-mould pile.

Last week, while doing just that, we came across a hedgehog who had obviously thought he’d found a safe place for the winter. At first, we wondered if he was dead, but, after watching for a while, we realised that he was breathing.

Not having the heart to move him, we built a hedgehog house around him — stones on three sides to shelter him from the wind, a pile of leaves for insulation, and a piece of plastic for rain cover — leaving a south-facing hedgehog-sized hole for escape when necessary.

Our young dog watched us with a puzzled air. Having recently seen us bury our dear 15-year-old hound (who seemed to have hung on to life just long enough for our youngest son to be off to university), I did wonder what impression she was forming of human behaviour — perhaps that is why she’s constantly in motion. “Got to keep moving, or they’ll bury me, too!”

I need not have worried about her reaction to the fireworks: she was confused by the fusillade which echoed down our chimney while she lay by the fire that evening, but not distressed. She was, however, perplexed by the fireworks’ whistling, rushing over to me as if to say, “Yes, here I am!” If only she would be so obedient while out on our walks.


Elizabeth Figg is a former contributor to The Sign. She is married to the Vicar of Kildwick, near Keighley.

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