Gil Bailie – an introduction


Educational Background:

Doctor of Jurisprudence, the University of Tennessee Law School, 1968.


  • Violence Unveiled: Humanity at the Crossroad, (New York: Crossroad, 1995).
  • “Culture, Spiritual Direction, and a Crossroads: An Interview with Gil Bailie,” Presence: The Journal of Spiritual Directors International, Vol. 3, Number 1, January 1997.
  • “The Vine and Branches Discourse: The Gospel’s Psychological Apocalypse,” Contagion: The Journal of Violence, Mimesis, and Culture, Vol. 4, Spring, 1997.
  • “Cinema and Crisis: The Elusive Quest for Catharsis,” Image: A Journal of Arts and Religion, Number 20, Fall 1998.
  • “René Girard’s Contribution to the Church of the 21st Century,” Communio, Spring 1999.
  • “The Scapegoat and the Cross,” an interview, Forefront, Fall 2000.
  • “Interview: Gil Bailie,” Image: A Journal of Arts and Religion, Winter 2003-4, No. 41.
  • “The Imitative Self,” The Self: Beyond the Postmodern Crisis, ed: Paul C. Vitz, Susan M. Felch, ISI Books, 2005
  • “Raising the Ante: Recovering an Alpha and Omega Christology”, Communio, Spring 2008.
  • “On Paper and in Person”, in For René Girard – Essays in Friendship and in Truth (East Lansing Michigan State University Press, 2009)
  • God’s Gamble: The Gravitational Power of Crucified Love, (Angelico Press, 2016)
  • “Making Peace through the Blood of His Cross”, Communio, Fall/Winter 2018.

International Colloquia:

  • The Call to Justice: The Legacy of Gaudium et Spes 40 Years Later, March 2005, Rome – contributed paper entitled “Changing the Subject: Gaudium et Spes and the Mystery of the Person”.
  • The Good Company: Catholic Social Thought and Corporate Social Responsibility in Dialogue, October 2006, Rome – contributed paper entitled “Keeping Good Company: The Leavening Influence of Morally Ordered Lives.

Professional Association:

  • Bailie is a founding member of the Colloquium on Violence and Religion, an international association of scholars concerned with religious anthropology and with the historical interrelationship between culture, violence, and religion.
  • Fellowship of Catholic Scholars
  • College of Fellows – Dominican School of Philosophy and Theology, Berkeley, CA

Gil Bailie grew up in Knoxville, Tennessee the only child of a loving and devoted mother. His father was among the 19,000 American soldiers who were killed in the Battle of the Bulge. Gil’s mother was pregnant with him when his father shipped out to Europe, so he never had the chance to know his father.

His mother, a devout and joy-filled Catholic, saw to it that her son was educated under the sharp and caring eyes of the Sisters of Mercy in their local parochial schools. He graduated from Knoxville Catholic High School in 1962 and matriculated at the University of Tennessee where he completed his studies at the UT College of Law earning a JD degree in 1968.

After graduation from law school, Gil moved to San Francisco where he worked for a few years before moving to Sonoma where he began what has been for the past forty some years his vocation. How does one describe this vocation? It is like a dance with the Holy Spirit always leading, pulling, spinning around – sometimes dizzy – where one often ends up where one began….but now seeing it, knowing it, for the first time. Let’s just say that around this time Gil returned to attendance at daily Eucharist that had been his habit until his college years but had been crowded out of his life during that turbulent period. He acknowledges now that whatever good has come into his life has proceeded from the Eucharist.

So he began, in Sonoma’s small town atmosphere, to gather people together to read and discuss philosophy, literature, poetry, mythology, religion. Mostly self-taught in these disciplines, (as all good lawyers know – the law teaches one how to approach a subject and begin to organize its facts and themes along lines conducive to the client), his approach was always from a spiritual base in the Judeo-Christian tradition. The earliest name for this enterprise was “Temenos”, the Greek word for a sacred place set apart from the profane world. Among those coming to Gil’s talks were some scholars and writers, including a Catholic biblical scholar, from whom Gil learned as he was challenged by their erudition. Being drawn back again into the life of the Catholic Church, Gil was recognized as a valuable teacher in his parish as well as in the surrounding communities.

On a visit to Berkeley in the early 1980’s Gil was looking through the used book stalls of a sidewalk book seller and drew out a title which caught his eye, “Violence and the Sacred” by René Girard. It was here that he began to sense the vertiginous power of Girard’s thought (this phenomenon is not uncommon among those exposed to Girard’s work for the first time). As he stood there reading the book he realized that his worldview would never be the same. From that moment on all of the old categories, he had used to understand human existence and experience came under the searching light of Girard’s thought. After further study of Girard’s work, it became clear that this light was not only the ‘genius’ of Girard but was also the reflected light of the Gospel as it exploded out of the cross on Golgotha.

(For a more detailed telling of Gil Bailie’s introduction and debt to René Girard see: “On Paper and In Person” below.)

Reflecting this changed perspective by the late 80’s Gil’s work proceeded under new auspices with a new name, “The Florilegia Institute” (florilegia is a Latin form of the Greek root of the word ‘anthology’), and was officially incorporated as a 501 c 3 non-profit. During this period he began a long-standing and continuing friendship with Professor Girard and regularly participated in the episodic Girard seminars held on the Stanford University campus where Girard taught. Out of this seminar grew the Colloquium on Violence and Religion (COV&R), the scholarly organization that explores Girard’s mimetic hypothesis. Gil was one of the founding members of COV&R. Also, from this seminar and his continuing work at the Florilegia Institute Gil produced the material that later would be published by Crossroad as the 1995 book, “Violence Unveiled”, winner of the 1996 Pax Christi USA Book Award.

Gil’s gift for metaphor and his freedom from academic structures allowed for his undertaking explorations of a wide spectrum of material using the Girardian lens as a hermeneutical framework. Much of the audio material recorded at weekly gatherings during this period included reflections on the works of Sophocles, Euripides, Virgil, Dante, Cervantes, Shakespeare, Herman Melville, Virginia Woolf, T S Eliot, W H Auden, Flannery O’Connor, William Golding and Arthur Miller. In his unique style, Gil wove the stories these authors told into a kind of tapestry that displays the one true story to which they are all in some way related – the story of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth. Often elements elucidating these stories would come from unexpected sources such as the songs of Leonard Cohen and Bob Dylan, or the antics of Monty Python.

The rich Catholic spiritual and intellectual tradition served Gil well as he deepened his faith and theological understanding through the study of the writings of Hans Urs von Balthasar, SJ, Henri de Lubac, SJ, St. John Paul II, and Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger/Benedict XVI. From these, he received a love of the Church and its teachings as well as an intellectual understanding of the Church’s doctrines that is greatly enhanced by Girard’s anthropological insights into human nature and culture. This has provided a solid grounding in the reality of human interdividuality – being made in the image and likeness of the triune God of self-donating love. Out of this Gil brings an emphasis on the dignity of the human person, and a concern for the catastrophic this-world consequence of the post-modern denial or subversion of basic truths of human being, such as sexuality and marriage, as well as the dangers facing western culture from resurgent pre-modern forms of sacralized violence.

Again, reflecting a deeper commitment to service to the Catholic Church specifically and Christians in general Gil and the Florilegia board in 2002 changed the name of the organization to the Cornerstone Forum. In the years since he has traveled widely as an invited speaker at retreats, workshops, and conferences including at the Vatican. Starting in 2005 at the suggestion of one of the Cornerstone Forum’s generous donors Gil began a monthly tour, from September to May, of a number of metropolitan centers around the country giving presentations in a series called the Emmaus Road Initiative. This peripatetic project ended in 2009 and was followed by a long term manuscript project that kept him at the writing desk. This culminated in the publication of God’s Gamble: The Gravitational Power of Crucified Love by Angelico Press in 2016. He currently lives in Sonoma, California with his wife Kathleen and near his 3 children and their families, and where he continues to write.

Since 2002 Gil Bailie has been assisted in his work by the Cornerstone Forum’s executive director Randy Coleman-Riese. The Cornerstone Forum’s corporate board consists of Gil Bailie, president; Randy Coleman-Riese, treasurer; and long time friend and fellow lawyer William Shea, secretary.

On Paper and in Person

by Gil Bailie

(This is a chapter from For René Girard: Essays in Friendship and in Truth)

“Nothing is so easy as to be religious on paper.”

John Henry Newman

Books that leave an impression on me are inevitably books on which I have scrawled considerable impressions of my own.  I am a librarian’s nightmare.  I seem unable to read a book that truly interests me without marking up the margins and underlining liberally.  Because this habit goes back many years, my library, though virtually useless to second-hand book dealers, is considerably useful to me, for it functions as a diary of sorts.  When I return to a favorite book to re-read it or to find a memorable passage, I experience a bit of the excitement that attended my first reading of it.  As often, of course, I am humbled by how rudimentary and naive my initial marginalia were. 

René Girard’s Violence and the Sacred is especially interesting in this regard, for it is inked with evidence of both the excitement and bewilderment with which I first read the book.  And what a strange and memorable experience it was.  Prior to opening the book, I had only seen Girard’s name in a footnote or two, but whatever these references had been, they had aroused some interest.  I might not have pursued that interest had I not seen a copy of Violence and the Sacred on a sale table at the University of California bookstore in Berkeley.  (Given how often I have used the metaphor of “the sale table” in introducing audiences to the idea of mimetic desire, it is all the more appropriate that my first encounter with that idea was indebted to just such a sale table.) 

If there was ever a time in my life for which the aphorism about the teacher arriving when the student is ready was apropos, it was when I happened upon René Girard’s Violence and the Sacred.  A word is perhaps in order about my readiness.  I was born in August 1944.  The following January my father was killed in Belgium in the Battle of the Bulge.  War and its impact on my life was a palpable presence in my childhood, a childhood that came to an end in the 1960s, just as the United States was being drawn into a long and divisive war in Vietnam.  During the 1960s, I was caught up, as were so many of my generation, in the social convolutions of the time.  The good Sisters of Mercy who had educated me prior to my university years could not have anticipated these upheavals, and I was unprepared for them.  By the mid-1970s, however, the confusion was such that I began to look for bedrock.  An old Quaker friend with whom I had worked for a while encouraged me to read Carl Jung, which I did for a few years with great interest, Jung being all the rage at the time.  I was insufficiently inoculated against the perennial Gnostic temptation to recognize even so blatant a manifestation of it, but fortunately for me I rather quickly began using the Jungian categories to interpret literature—Homer, Shakespeare, Dante, and so on—and in due course the poets became more interesting than the procrustean interpretive categories to which I was trying to make them conform.  This was especially the case with Dante.  In the presence of the Commedia, my Catholicism began to revive slowly and my interest in Jung fell off precipitously.  Gradually, an interest in biblical literature developed, and I began reading biblical scholarship in a rather haphazard and undisciplined way. 

To justify my increasing preoccupation with these things, and to bring in a meager income, I began what soon became a small adult education institute for the exploration of cultural, literary, and religious themes.  I was able to eke out an existence holding a few classes a week.  I was living in Northern California at the time, the seeming epicenter of cultural confusions, where the political opposition to the Vietnam War and the moral and political revolution closely associated with it was in full swing.  Everywhere one looked, the problems of violence, culture and religion loomed large, and the way these issues were intertwined in my own personal history made me even more keenly aware of their pertinence.  So much for the student being prepared. 

The morning after purchasing Violence and the Sacred, I sat down to begin reading it.  Within a few minutes, I had the most extraordinary experience, one that marked a decisive turn in my life.  Almost from the first page, I sensed I was in the presence of a truly original thinker, and I struggled to follow the train of his thought.  The predictable moral posturing with which violence was then typically discussed was nowhere in evidence, and the question was being taken to a new depth.  Someone—I think it was the American poet Robert Bly—has written about “leaping poetry,” suggesting that the poetic experience is analogous to the feeling one has when an elevator quickly moves between floors.  Such was my experience when first reading René Girard.  Having lived my life and reckoned with my world in terms of politics, economics, psychology, and so on, I was now getting my first glimpse of that world from an anthropological angle.  “Religion shelters us from violence,” I underlined, “just as violence seeks shelter in religion.” 

Flipping through the early pages of Violence and the Sacred today is as humbling an experience as it is an occasion for reverie, my marginal notes indicating how tenuously I grasped the scope of Girard’s analysis.  Nevertheless, the memory of how stunned I was easily returns, and it fascinates me to think how unaware I was at the time—as I underscored passage after passage—of how much my thinking and my life was about to change.  I began avidly reading as much of Girard’s work as I could lay my hands on, each book I read adding to my conviction that Girard was getting to the heart of the human predicament. 

As I said, during the years just prior to my first encounter with Girard’s work, I had been reading biblical scholarship, and in the course of doing so I had happened upon the Westar Institute, a group of biblical scholars of a liberal and decidedly skeptical bent who were using what I later learned were some rather shopworn methodologies to a purpose: namely, wresting the Gospel from the theologians and the Church, dismembering it according to this or that taxonomy, and studying the entrails for hints of its usefulness in vindicating an assortment of modernist or postmodernist prejudices.  I was too inexperienced in these matters to realize at the time how quaint and sterile that project was.  Eager to get a more satisfying understanding of the Bible, I attended a couple of Westar Institute conferences.  Within a very few months of my encounter with Girard’s work, I received a telephone call from Bob Funk, who was the founder of the Westar Institute and the inspiration behind what would become, infamously, “the Jesus Seminar.”  The pedantic name, the Jesus Seminar, should have been enough to alert even the inattentive to the intellectual banality and spiritual vacuity of the project, but, alas, in my case, it was only when fortified with Girard’s far superior tool for reckoning with the biblical texts that I was able to recognize this.

Bob Funk told me that a dozen or so of the biblical scholars who were coming to my hometown for a Westar Institute conference had persuaded René Girard to join them for a day to discuss the implications of his work for biblical studies.  Bob said that he did not have a place to hold this meeting and, knowing of my interest in Girard’s work, he wondered if my office might be available.  I was flabbergasted.  To this day, I marvel at how providential that phone call was.  At the time, I was completely out of the loop.  I was not an academic.  I did not move in such circles.  I don’t think I knew whether Girard lived in this country or in France, or even whether he was dead or alive.  All I knew was that if someone had asked me for the name of the individual I would most like to meet and from whom I would like to learn, I would have instantly said René Girard.  Literally out of the blue, he was coming to my office to spend the day in conversation with biblical scholars about his work.

There were two moments during the day of our meeting that I have often shared in order to give those who are new to Girard’s work some sense of René Girard himself.  The first incident came early in the day of the meeting with the biblical scholars.  René began the day with an informal presentation that lasted, as I recall, about an hour.  Though most of those in the room had some familiarity with his work, most were hearing René himself for the first time.  His presentation was a typically marvelous combination of personal humility, intellectual audacity, and a healthy disregard for the ideological pieties afflicting the academy.  After his remarks, the dialogue began, and the first question—as accurately as I can recall it—went something like the following: “Professor Girard, what you’ve been saying is quite extraordinary.  It almost appears, however, that you are suggesting that the revelatory power of biblical literature is categorically superior to that of all other literature.  You are, after all, a Stanford professor; you’re not saying that are you?”  René’s one-word response was all the more striking for the momentary pause that preceded it: “Categorically,” he replied.  The impression one had was that Girard was the only person in this room full of biblical scholars willing to say such a thing.

I learned two things at that moment which I was to learn again and again over the years in personal conversations with René.  First, there is a huge difference between attention to nuance and equivocation, and the explication of nuances begins in earnest only when the principle to be nuanced has been unequivocally affirmed.  Second, truth is transmitted through personal witness rather than rational discourse.  There was never any doubt that Girard’s “categorically” was intellectually well founded and that he was perfectly capable, if challenged, to give a rational account of it.  But it was not the implicit presence of a rational defense that made his statement both startling and convincing.  It was his personal conviction, made all the more impressive because of his indifference to how his expression of it might be construed by others.

The dialogue that followed gave Girard an opportunity to show the hermeneutic power of his anthropological theory.  And then at the end of the day, another memorable moment came, when someone asked a practical question.  Clearly, the panorama Girard had spread out before those assembled was astonishing, and against this backdrop, René’s sobering assessment of the contemporary historical and cultural predicament stood out in bold relief.  Given all that you have said, someone asked Girard, what is to be done?  In response, René was gracious and patient and humble.  His answer, as I recall, was something like this: “Well, it is of course an enormous problem, and it does not lend itself to being easily ‘fixed.’  We are each called to different tasks, so perhaps we should begin by striving for personal sanctity.”  I could hardly believe my ears.  Biblical scholars, whose discipline had been for decades currying favor with the secular academy by renouncing a priori any distinctively religious preconceptions, were being advised on the practical value of personal sanctity.

If it was the remark that Girard made in the first of these two moments that aroused my enthusiasm for his work in the 1980s, it was the remark he made in the latter one that was to become more salient over time.  My book, Violence Unveiled, was largely written to argue for the truth of René’s insistence on the uniqueness and universality of the biblical revelation and to try to demonstrate its unparalleled contemporary pertinence. After the publication of that book, as I began to respond to the speaking invitations it provoked, a gradual shift began to occur, one more in keeping with René’s personal sanctity remark. 

Perhaps the textual link between these two phases of my Girardian enthusiasm is a passage in Girard’s Things Hidden that I quoted in Violence Unveiled and which has grown even more meaningful to me over time:

In reality, no purely intellectual process and no experience of a purely philosophical nature can secure the individual the slightest victory over mimetic desire and its victimage delusions.  Intellection can achieve only displacement and substitution, though these may give individuals the sense of having achieved a victory.  For there to be even the slightest degree of progress, the victimage delusion must be vanquished on the most intimate level of experience.

I take this to be a fuller exposition of what René meant by personal sanctity, expressed here in terms of its effect on the sacrificial reflexes which remain impervious to mere intellectual (or even moral) subjugation. 

In a sermon he preached on January 22, 1832 at Oxford University, John Henry Newman circles the matter of personal sanctity—what he calls “unconscious holiness”—in a way that anticipates Girard’s mimetic analysis.  The sermon is about personal influence, and I can think of no better way to express my gratitude to René for his personal influence on me than to bring Newman’s insights to bear on René’s offhanded reference to personal sanctity made those many years ago. 

Newman begins by pondering the extraordinary success of Christianity in the early years of the Church, when by any objective calculation—made, say, in the year 50 A.D.—the chances of success would have seemed nil.  How to account for the fact that in a relative blink of the eye, Christianity spread throughout the Roman Empire?  Newman first notes the special difficulties which, he says, “beset the propagation of the Truth.”  Chief among these difficulties is that language, though it is the obvious instrument for the propagation of truth, is inadequate for the task.  Truth and human language, he argues, “are incommensurate.”  “Nothing is so easy as to be religious on paper,” he writes, and, as for the power of argumentation, it is hounded and hampered by a mimetic problematic which Newman intuits with perspicacity: “the warfare between Error and Truth is necessarily advantageous to the former.”

            Whatever the problems associated with the transmission of truth in general, they are compounded for the one called to propagate Christian truth, Newman argues.  For—again anticipating mimetic theory—he says:

it is not a mere set of opinions that he has to promulgate, which may lodge on the surface of the mind; but he is to be an instrument in changing (as Scripture speaks) the heart, and modeling all men after one exemplar; making them like himself, or rather like One above himself, who is the beginning of a new creation.

            Perhaps one needs to discern better than Newman does here the difference between making others like oneself and encouraging them to be like “One above” oneself, for there is a great difference between internal and external mimesis, and Christianity’s explicit privileging of mimesis is based on a recognition of this difference.  When Paul urges others to imitate him, it is only because he is imitating Christ, the “one exemplar.”  Imitating Paul means becoming a disciple of the one whom Paul, as disciple, imitates.  Catholic hagiography is nothing more than a recognition of the role of mimesis—of the inevitable role of human mediation—in Christian experience, and Newman is reflecting upon the superiority of mimetic influence to moral pedagogy. 

How, he wonders, is truth—and specifically Christian truth—to enter into the world that remains so structurally annealed against it?  Truth, Newman argues, “has been upheld in the world not as a system, not by books, not by argument, nor by temporal power,” but by the personal influence of those “who are at once the teachers and the patterns of it.”  This is something that is corroborated by mimetic theory, and admirably exemplified by the originator of that theory.  Again Newman:

Men persuade themselves, with little difficulty, to scoff at principles, to ridicule books, to make sport of the names of good men; but they cannot bear their presence: it is holiness embodied in personal form, which they cannot steadily confront and bear down: so that the silent conduct of a conscientious man secures for him from beholders a feeling different in kind from any which is created by the mere versatile and garrulous Reason.

The proper aim of the Church’s sacramental life is to bring about in the believer the ontological alteration to which Saint Paul alluded when he said: “And it is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me,” (Gal. 2:20).  Each of us functions as a living sacrament for others, and mimetic theory gives us a tool for explicating this mystery of our interrelatedness.  It is difficult to estimate, says Cardinal Newman, “the moral power which a single individual, trained to practice what he teaches, may acquire in his own circle, in the course of years.”

One little deed, done against natural inclination for God’s sake, though in itself of a conceding or passive character, to brook an insult, to face a danger, or to resign an advantage, has in it a power outbalancing all the dust and chaff of mere profession.

Like the aspiration to humility, the aspiration to personal sanctity is paradoxical.  Reinhold Niebuhr once wrote that the self does not realize itself most fully when self-realization is its conscious aim.  The more one aspires to personal sanctity, and the longer one aspires for it, the greater seems to yawn the chasm separating the aspirant from the goal.  While the goal is obviously eschatological, its pursuit has concrete consequences here and now, in one’s own life and in one’s relationships.  We live and move and have our being as members of one another, blessing and cursing each other with every gesture, with every thought, with every word, and every sincerely held conviction.  The human world is a world of interwoven mimetic influences. 

A single individual “trained to practice what he preaches,” writes Newman:

will become the object of feelings different in kind from those which mere intellectual excellence excites. The men commonly held in popular estimation are greatest at a distance; they become small as they are approached; but the attraction, exerted by unconscious holiness . . . draws forth the affection and loyalty of all who are in a measure like-minded; and over the thoughtless or perverse multitude it exercises a sovereign compulsory sway.

René Girard is held in very high esteem by very many people who know him—via his scholarly work—only at a distance, but those of us who have had the privilege of knowing him as a friend, know a man who practices what he teaches.  Though René would wince at the term “unconscious holiness,” he is, nevertheless, an example of the kind of figure Cardinal Newman was describing.  Above and beyond the anthropological insights René Girard has bequeathed to the world, he has given us an example of how to live in the midst of the sacrificial crisis he has helped us recognize.  His insights lead not to a renunciation of mimesis, but rather to a recognition of its inevitability and an acceptance of the moral responsibility this inevitability entails.  No man is an island.

It is impossible for me to sum up what René Girard’s work has meant to me, and how it has changed my life and influenced my work.  His thought and his friendship have led me to a deeper understanding of the anthropological meaning of Christian sacramentality—especially as it informs the idea of the person as a living sacrament.  What John Henry Cardinal Newman says in his 1832 sermon applies to René Girard and his legacy: Truth can have its full impact, only when conveyed, not by discursive argumentation, but by the living exemplars “who are at once the teachers and the patterns of it.”

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