The deepest and most primitive emotion of the human being is that of shame. It is the feeling that something is wrong with us. This should be distinguished from the feeling that we have done something wrong (that is called guilt). Shame is the feeling that we are something wrong. It is the first emotion ascribed to Adam and Eve as they hide in their shame. Shame makes us want to hide and cover ourselves for it reveals us in a wounded state and intensely vulnerable. It is the deep cry within us that says, “No! Don’t look at me!” It is also one of the major engines that drives the modern world. In a consumerist culture where emotions and passions are the primary tools of motivation, shame has taken a primary position.
“I wouldn’t be caught dead wearing that!” is the sound of shame translated into fashion sense. The embarrassment that accompanies “last year’s wardrobe” or “outdated” technology is a tool. The point is to get consumers to buy something. Of course, purchasing the stuff of life is a wholesome, normal activity: we must eat; we must clothe ourselves; we must have shelter. But in an economy whose basis is consumption, overconsumption is the normative rule. Simple need is insufficient to maintain a consumer economy. Deeper, more primal instincts are required in order to fuel the activities of consumption and debt.
Shame has become a source for the economic engines of our world. Most psychologists agree that shame is experienced as “unbearable.” We react quickly to rid ourselves of it. In most cases we inwardly change shame into another, more bearable emotion. On average, men turn shame into anger. If someone’s anger suddenly flashes at you, the most likely culprit involved is that you “shamed” them. This is what is meant (originally) by “giving offense.” Women, on average, translate shame into depression: they simply turn inward and feel unworthy, unloved, inadequate, ugly, fat, etc.
If shame is over-used, it only achieves anger and depression. The masters of shame (those who help drive the psychology of a consumer culture) are generally more subtle. The shaming involved in fashion dances along a tightrope that creates sufficient shame for shopping while stopping short of anger and depression. Shopping is self-medication for our culturally-induced shame.
The forces of politics in our modern culture are equally consumer-driven (far more than by political ideology). Political allegiance is most often reflective about how we feel about topics. Helping us to “feel” are the same sales and advertising engines that drive our purchases of consumer goods. We “consume” politics and shame our opponents. The politics of shame have become a dominating force in popular culture. More than disagreeing with other people, we label them: “racist,” “homophobic,” “misogynist,” “eco-terrorist,” badges intended to shame. We do not engage ideas – we engage our own shame. When we label someone we create a category of shame – one that defines them and ourselves – all of us the offspring of shame.
That a large number of people “feel good” about themselves in our modern culture is a testament to their ability to access the consumption used to assuage their shame. But for others, the shame is almost constant and inescapable. Those who are less than attractive, overweight, or otherwise unable to address their shame have little choice other than to slip into depression or other forms of self-loathing.
I have wonder if the culture of piercing among youth (not universally) is something of an angry response (and thus a shame response) to the consumer fashions of our culture. A girl’s face with multiple piercings seems an angry shout at the shame-filled cult of beauty. Of course, it has its own fashion sense – but it represents something of a camaraderie among those who hate the shame. More intense responses, deeply illustrative of self-loathing, can be found in activities such as cutting and various forms of anorexia and bulimia.
The life of the church directly confronts our shame. The language of the Baptismal rite is pointed directly at human shame. In its most classical form, candidates for Baptism are naked. Today this is only true of infants. But adults are often lightly clothed (shorts, t-shirt, etc.) in Orthodox practice. Our nakedness represents our shame. Originally, we were naked and unashamed (Gen. 2:25) – but we lost our original beauty (clothed in light) and now experience nakedness as shame.
I have often thought of the power involved in the liturgical experience of “public” nakedness. Men were not exposed to women nor women to men. But nakedness remained powerful and deeply shame-filled. Robbed of sexual content nakedness reveals our “inadequacy” and “weakness” as a human person.
In Baptism the naked candidates stand facing the West, Das Abendland, the “land of the evening,” or the Occident, the place of the fall or setting. Prayers of exorcism are said over them. They renounce Satan and all of his works, ultimately spitting on him, “despising the shame”.
Facing the East, the Orient, the “place of rising” – indeed the place of “Christ” (for “Orient is His Name” – Zech 6:12 LXX), the candidates profess faith in Christ and receive the Creed. Following a pre-baptismal anointing, the candidates are plunged three times into the blessed water.
The first action following the Baptism is the clothing. The priest says:
The servant of God, N., is clothed in the robe of righteousness, in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.
And a small hymn is sung:
Grant to me the robe of light, O Most Merciful Christ our God, Who clothe Yourself with light as with a garment.
The entrance into the Kingdom of God is an abandonment of the kingdom of shame. It is a land in which we are clothed with the righteousness of Christ Himself, with no need for shame or fear. We pray in every service that we may at last stand before Christ “without shame or fear.”
The admonition, “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind” (Rom. 12:2) could very easily be directed towards our shame. What power should the world’s shame have over those who have been clothed in Christ Himself?
Shame is not entirely negative. It’s primal power is a key component in the grace of compunction (tears of repentance). “A broken and contrite heart, O God, You will not despise” (Ps. 51:17). That capacity for shame to open the depths of the heart can, in the hands of a skilled confessor or spiritual father, be a key to transformation. Thus we do not try to hide our shame or evade it – but embrace it, like the nakedness of Baptism. In the liturgy of confession our shame is transformed into the righteousness of Christ in the tears the fathers call a “Second Baptism.”
Christ Himself entered our world and “on His shoulders bore our shame.” The culture of shame is a demonic construction, reveling in human weakness and manipulating our vulnerabilities. In Holy Baptism, Christ tramples down shame by shame and clothes us in the shining garment of His own Light.
Thank you for writing day after day and thank God for the wisdom He has gifted you to impart. Your blog is shared with many who report being deeply blessed by it.
I’m glad you added this reflection towards the end: <> There is a sense in which we live in a “shameless culture” surrounded by a brazenness that bespeaks a great cover-up. Isn’t shame at its initial phase the conscience, the voice of the Holy Spirit within, inviting us to repent, to turn to Christ God and to be reclothed and restored? Aren’t the anger and depression simply the initial stages of the deadly cover up–which frequently is followed by lies, excuses and passing the buck? Instead of the clothing of light, we get darkness and hardness of heart and callousness towards others and even to ourselves.
Besides compunction and confession and the pronouncement of absolution, I believe much good would come from the giving of constructive penances designed to overcome the occasions of shame (and guilt) past by the going of good deeds designed to transform what have been vices (disordered passions) into virtues (habits of godly, sober and spiritual living). Let your light so shine before men that they may see your good works and glorify your Father Who is in Heaven. Not only they, but we; for to know that the along with the shame its cause has been removed we need to see, in a tangible way, that we are being progressively and genuinely conformed to the image of Him Who loves us and made us to be like Himself.
Christ is risen.
Thank you for this, Fr. Stephen.
I think you may have forgotten to include the quote. Nonetheless.
Our culture, perhaps because we are shame-driven consumers, has deeply distorted the inner life. I wonder if we’re not the most distorted people who have ever lived. That said, it puts a very, very difficult task in front of priest-confessors, certainly one that almost no one could be trained for. Because of that, I generally do not “try” to do too much of anything. I hear confessions, offer some comfort and some small observation if it seems helpful. But the larger picture of the transformation of a soul is far beyond the scope of my gifts. And so a confessor places his trust in God and the work of the sacraments.
I have seen penance, well-intentioned and canonically correct, often do more damage than good. Thus I am like the Hippocratic admonition, “First, do no harm.” Our culture is so thoroughly enmeshed in various forms of Calvinist/Jansenist heresies and the dominant legal metaphor, that it is very, very difficult for someone coming to confession to remember that a penance is for healing and not for punishment or earning something. I take courage in remembering that though we live in a very dark time, the darkness does not overcome the Light. Just getting people to confession regularly is itself invaluable.
Abraham Joshua Heschel said that shame is the only sting that the soul can not bear.
The marketing of consumerism has come a long way from the shame of ‘ring around the collar ‘ and ‘ halitosis’ to a sophisticated knowledge-based strategy to make us buy,buy,buy. Research has pointed out that political allegiances are mostly unconscious and emotional, and so are the deep “needs’ which are temporarily soothed by shopping.
Only God can heal our shame for real, and make us the whole people we are meant to be. Thanks for your thoughtful posts, Father!
I come to the conclusion long time ago to keep life as simple as possible without buying things that are not necessary. So far it has worked because I´ve seen so many garage and yard sales along with estate sales of stuff that people have bought so enrich their lives go to waste after it has been used. Especially after when the person has died it seems nobody cares or wants it. One of my favorite tv programs are those auction sales from large storage places and this gives you an idea what I mean.
Just the movie trailer bless father and prayer for me
I’m actually very intrigued by your observation on piercings. I know a young woman who, when she’s feeling depressed or anxious, has been known to go and get a new piercing to alleviate those feelings. I think you might very well be on to something there. The whole article was wonderful father! Pray for me a sinner.
Of course, I would not want to say that may linking of shame and piercing is at all universal. Indeed, for some, it is just general “fashion,” the desire to look cool. But it is a fashion that has an element of “disfiguring” that is much more vulnerable to shame issues than say, a new suit of clothes.
Plenty of people go shopping to alleviate depression – this is indeed symptomatic of shame-based behavior. When I was a child, the “big 3” automakers changed body styles rather radically each year. It was a really big deal. It also created more cultural shame in the owning of an old car. My two cars (mine and my wife’s) are current 7 years old and 13 years old. They last longer these days than in the 50’s and 60’s but they both look “new.” The bodystyles no longer change very much. The expense of retooling every year, as well as the wind-tunnel driven uniformity between cars has turned back the older pattern.
But it’s hard not to feel the same way about the latest Apple products. More than once I’ve seen someone apologize for not carrying a smart phone.
I’m not looking to elicit testimony from readers about how they’ve bucked the system, gone off the grid or become blind to fashion.
It is rather for us to look more deeply into our social relations and to see how shame might play a part in our own thought and actions. This evening earlier I found myself in a position of “shame.” I had done something that elicited accurate criticism. I felt my anger and defensiveness rise. I was not totally successful in all of this, but with the topic on my mind, I paid attention to the shame. I let it lie there, open. I even said out loud one aspect of it (it felt embarrassing). But I resisted the urge to get angry, etc. Instead I simply sat with the shame, bore it, and offered it up to God. And it passed. And I learned something and probably became a better man for a few minutes.
Many good points to reflect on here, Fr. Stephen, and I appreciate the personal sharing in your comment above.
However, I am wondering about your statement that “shame is not entirely negative”. To paraphrase your earlier definition, guilt is “I did something bad” whereas shame is “I am something bad”. The latter is seldom, if ever, a helpful way to perceive things, in my experience.
I realize that in my profession (psychologist), I am likely exposed to shame in some of its most toxic forms. However, it seems to me that believing that “I am bad” often keeps people from feeling that they could be loved or forgiven – even by God. If “badness” is part of my identity, it may keep me from approaching God – I have known many who have found this to be a serious stumbling block and it often not based on anything rational.
Guilt, on the other hand, can be a most uncomfortable experience (and feels “shameful”) but attaches itself to behavior and only transiently to identity, in an otherwise emotionally healthy person. If I do something bad, I may feel ashamed and feel, for a while, like I am a “bad” person. However, my self-perception is more readily corrected when I confess, make amends, etc. Guilt is good motivation to repent and to avoid bad behavior in the future. Therefore, guilt is not all negative.
I am certainly not trying to suggest that God cannot heal the person afflicted with deep shame – only that it is a great obstacle to overcome, as I’m sure you know.
I also might question your assertion that,
Shame as a false perception of one’s identity (“I am bad”) is not as strongly related to these traits as one might expect. Certainly our culture tries to cultivate shame over imperfect appearance – so that we will buy products and services to “correct” imperfections. However, the real shame problem lies in the thoughts/beliefs (or emotional wounds) one has much more than in physical appearance or body habitus per se. Overweight people are not doomed to depression nor are attractive people free of it – not by a long shot.
Forgive me, if it seems like I am picking with you – not my intent, for I fully agree with your overall article. I am hoping to clarify what might be sensitive points for some. Please correct me if I have misunderstood.
Please forgive me for zeroing in on a minor example, but it’s a part of parish life that seems to cause much unnecessary stress and strife. Modesty. I’ve always perceived it as a shield from shame (and from the consumerist culture). Others, I know, find the expectation of modesty to be inherently shame inducing.
In saying that shame is not completely negative, I do not mean to call it good, only to note that it has a proper use in the human condition. I am very familiar with the toxic forms of shame and they can be crippling. In my experience they are deeply crippling primarily because of their unbearable quality, thus creating very strong energies behind other emotions and life-strategies that are destructive. Some personality disorders (OCD for example) leave individuals far more prone to shame than normal.
I suspect my experience differs from yours as a therapist. There are many things that I hear as a confessor that would not be perceived in a pathological sense. An example being how people confess regarding weight issues. It may not rise to the level of therapeutic conversation but is still perceived as “sin” in the minds of most. Our culture nurtures a deep sense of failure on the part of most people. Even the very successful carry an inner sense of inadequacy (or something like that). The social/economic myths of individualism ultimately leave each of us feeling responsible for pretty much everything in our lives. And with the myth of progress, no matter how good things are, we feel they could/should be better.
I haven’t made any suggestion of “doom.” Frankly, very attractive people are often just as critical of their appearance as those who are not. We are insane.
I think it’s an important point. Though shame is very pervasive, there are traditional behaviors that clearly were helpful. Of course, in our broken culture, it’s hard for these things to be done in their proper way. Modesty in dress and head-coverings, for example, are certainly traditional and even to be preferred. But because of the cultural context we live in, they present struggles. Culture is like the water fish live in. In a shame-based culture, it will be inescapable. Thank God that Christ has borne our shame.
Robert, you are right. For many women, it’s intensely shaming to have expectations of extraordinary modesty radiated at them by others, especially men who have no business looking that close, anyway.
By “extraordinary modesty” I mean, more than is expected of men.
Such expectations imply that the desirious masculine conception of a woman’s body is the default, the normative, the defining reality. Of course, extraordinary IMmodesty says the same thing! Mere nakedness is not the same thing as provocative dressing. Provocative dressing is a mating call, more or less.
So, I know it’s hard for fathers and husbands to walk that knife-edge sometimes. They must avoid shaming their daughters and wives with the unnecessary implication that the female body is first and foremost a penis target and must therefore be disguised as much as posisble. On the other hand they will naturally feel discomfort when they see female family members dressing provocatively – for such attire implies the same idea!
Not only that, but women who have committed to a higher standard of modesty than other women around them often become the enforcers and judges of those other women. The reactions caused by this in the less strict women is not necessarily shame (as it is when men are the judges) but certainly causes strife!
What I primarily feel about all this is that modesty should not be defined primarily by reference to sexual attraction. Surely there are reasons for modesty having to do with human dignity and humility, which guide both sexes equivalantly!
As far as head coverings, how can anyone ignore Troy W. Martin’s research into ancient Greek medicine and beliefs about physiology?
Thanks, Fr. Stephen, for you response.
We are in agreement. My comment was probably based on an overly literal reading of your words – forgive me.
People DO very often talk about weight in therapy – and many other issues where they perceive themselves to being failing to “control”. Individualism suggests to people that they should be able to control everything by themselves. To not do so is failure.
People come in crying – and apologize for not controlling their tears. People judge themselves harshly for being depressed or anxious – “I should be able to handle this”. “I should be able to control my feelings, thoughts, eating, sleeping, etc”, “I should be like normal people”, etc.
That modernism keeps people focused on their perceived failure, sadly, often makes it harder for people to see that we aren’t meant to be in control. Once we can accept our weakness and allow that God is in control, we find that we are unconditionally loved in our many imperfections. We are then open to true healing.
We also discover the loving community given us by God, in this life and eternity, to nourish and guide us – so that we don’t have to walk alone. I am so thankful for those God sends to guide me and walk with me. And am humbled when He uses me to help others in similar fashion.
Father Stephen, I’ve lost a comment.
I understand Jane’s questions were very personal and you probably addressed them offline, but I am interested in a general response you might have regarding the inner conflict between a desire to confess everything on the one hand and suspecting that this is would be immodest on the other hand.
Would you have any thoughts on how to win this struggle?
Concerning shame being all bad versus sometimes good, I had the same thoughts since I heard Brene Brown give a similar differentiation between shame and guilt.
Through some things Fr. Stephen said since then, I’ve come to understand that there is a basis for accepting some shame in our lives. Shame means “I am bad”, right? Well is it not true that I am not whole, perfect and unblemished?
While my core self is made by God and not bad, I am a broken and fallen being who’s in the middle of transformation. So there are parts of me that are “bad”. If they weren’t, there would be no need to repair or transform them. But there are, so therefore in those cases I need to respond to the shame with a broken and contrite heart in order to bring about the necessary tears of repentance.
I think this is hard to hear in our society because shame has been so abused and overused that our first impulse is to kick it to the curb and never look back.
Things like pain and shame do not exist in Heaven, but here in this fallen world God uses them (in the right places and in the right way) to effect our salvation.
hope this helps, drewster
I’m not entirely sure at all about “modesty” in confession. Better to be honest and expose ourselves. A good confessor may have certain rules governing certain topics. For example, he may suggest that on sexual matters someone be general where being general is sufficient. Sometimes it is not sufficient. Confession is hard enough without “rules.” Exposing shame is extremely difficult emotionally, as I’ve described. Fr. Zacharias Zacharou, of St. John’s Monastery in Essex, the disciple of Elder Sophrony says this about shame (from a conversation with a group of priests):
Our culture is so confused that it is very difficult to have discussions of modesty, etc. Sexuality in ancient Greece was rather simple in comparison. Men and women should both dress “modestly” in Church. General Orthodox practice says no shorts in Church (male or female), most often long sleeved shirts for men (this is ignored in many places). And, though suits and ties are no common on men, extreme casual styles (t-shirts with advertising, etc.) would seem disrespectful. Again, many Americans ignore such things. Women should cover themselves in a manner that is generally modest (not showing breast cleavage or dressing in a manner to emphasize sexual attractiveness). God is the center of the service and none of us should seek to attract attention to themselves. Comfortable shoes, it almost goes without saying, are important. In Orthodox countries across the world, head-coverings on women are pretty universal and even required in many places. This has not been the case so much in America – but this has been an American innovation – driven originally by hair fashions – and later by a false-feminist critique.
In my parish head-coverings are treated as optional. Some do. Some don’t. I try not to be a fashion policeman. Sometimes I am amazed by what people wear to Church – but I am regularly scandalized in Walmart. I was born in the early 50’s. What I have seen over the course of my lifetime is from one extreme to another.
I thought that Martin’s research was curious, but probably that it had nothing to do with St. Paul. Whatever St. Paul meant – the tradition of the Church has been headcoverings on women in Church. It is not in the canons to my knowledge, but it was once universally practiced. It is also disappointing to see men blame women for their own lusts. But sex is “social” and never private. We won’t get this “right,” I think. We can only try to be respectful of each other and not try to fix our neighbor.
Thank you Fr. Stephen
“Try not to fix our neighbor” There is the rub. It is so much easier to complain about inappropriate attire in others than to 1. Attire oneself appropriately, and 2. Have a modest gaze.
AR: Agreed. I’d suggest that the extreme modesty enforcers you’re talking about (save old world grandmothers) are not modest at all. The kind of freeing modesty I had in mind is that which removes us from (or at least greatly downplays) the worldly sexual and economic pecking orders our dress, etc., normally signals.
I recall visiting a women’s monastery early in my Orthodoxy. Of course they are “covered.” But in Orthodox practice – their faces a fully visible and “framed” by their vestments. What I noticed was the sense of Person, which is so deeply associated with the face in Orthodox theology. It is also interesting to me how in the modern public, so much attention is paid to those things that are not the face, almost as distractions. And even that sometimes the attention paid to the face itself forms something of a “mask” that hides certain aspects of the Person.
What we desperately need is to be known “face to face.” Women rightly criticize some men for not looking them in the face. It depersonalizes. The eye is the light of the body – the window of the soul.
Robert, I think you’re right on. But why do mean meddling old ladies get a pass? I certainly never let them get away with anything! The very existence of a few sweet understanding compassionate non-meddling old ladies debunks the “baba knows best” myth as far as I’m concerned. Not to mention all the traumatized people who tell horror stories about them from their childhood.
Can you tell I’m in the adolescence of my conversion? LOL
Fr. Stephen, I think your spiritual point is the most important one.
But I really, really appreciate Martin’s research. He uses sufficient references, and doesn’t draw many ideological conclusions – it’s workmanlike. And it offers the only reading of the text that has ever explained every part – down to the part where Paul says, “but even if you disagree, we have this church tradition anyway.” In other words, to Paul this was a matter of church order and not worth fighting about, even if his arguments turned out to be incorrect. Based on the Levi-in-the-loins-of-Abraham argument in Hebrews, I guess that Jewish physiological theory was different so Paul must have been aware of this possible basis of disagreement or “contention.”
So yes, the tradition was there in the Church regardless of the physiological argument. But the physiological argument must be understood if the passage is to be understood. It lets us know that the culture saw women’s hair as sexualized. Without this explanation you’re doing linguistic gymnastics with the text. Believe me, I know – I’ve been reading and studying this text for so long that it’s become a sore spot, a wound.
And I’m glad, glad, glad, that Americans don’t enforce the head-covering thing any more. It’s better to de-sexualize more of the female body as far as I’m concerned. I did cover in Church for a while and it was so humiliating. And, even male monastics cover most of the time, while I am informed by a priest that Greek ladies never accepted the tradition in the first place. So it appears that Paul has never been taken as the final word on this subject.
I don’t mind if other ladies cover. It’s pretty, and it looks kind of like the icons, and it means something to them. I think you are right that we will never “get it right” entirely and that we should be respectful and not try to fix our neighbor. For me, this research gives me freedom from a deep and old wound. It even explains, I think, Paul’s language about the man being the “head” of the woman.
It’s that Martin’s work presumes a lot about St. Paul that I think is incorrect or highly speculative.
But, St. Paul’s statement viz. man as the “head” of woman is rather simple, but often missed. It’s a “play on words.” Man is the “head” as in the “head of a river,” i.e. the “source” of woman – woman was taken “out of man” – it never had anything to do with boss. It doesn’t even make sense as “boss.” That whole reading – a Protestant and late one – is flawed.
I know the topic of shame has been important to you in the past, cautioning against it based on your experience. Mine is exactly as Father Zacharias and Elder Sophrony states it though…
It has been an axiomatic kind of law : The greater the shame felt and exposed in confession to a truly Christ-like confessor, the greater the grace that visits a person.
I appreciate comments about shame, Drewster, Dino & others.
I know that Fr. Stephen understands toxic shame but I want to elaborate just a bit in the event that anyone reading is suffering from this.
In toxic shame, the “I am bad” essentially means “I am totally unlovable”. People sometimes say to me, “if you knew who I really am inside, you would want nothing more to do with me.” Yet often as not they cannot bring up any reason for this. (It is not that the shame is too strong to say it, it is that they truly do not have a memory or event to justify the belief.) Sometimes people feel that to know the reason would require death, so horrifying the “reality” is believed to be, even though it is unknown.
When the basis for toxic shame is consciously known, it is often tied to early sexual abuse or some other tragedy for which a child has incorrectly assumed culpability. When it is not known, one of these things may have happened pre-verbally. Extensive verbal and physical abuse can also result in this type of psychological damage.
This is what I meant by shame being part of one’s identity, rather than a transient experience related to a particular wrong-doing.
None of this is to argue that exposure to a Christ-like confessor would not bring great grace and healing. (With the help of God, it may also happen in exposure to a good psychologist.)
Rather, it is important that we understand the depths to which shame can go – so that we might pray with compassion for those who may never approach confession (or therapy), believing they cannot be loved or do not deserve to be healed.
May God have mercy on our world for allowing His children to be so deeply wounded in our midst.
AR, If you are interested in ancient (and current) Eastern culture and how it probably relates to the New Testament, or how one might better understand it, you might investigate some of The Reverend Kenneth E. Bailey’s books. His Paul Through Mediterranean Eyes walks you through 1 Corinthians line by line.
that is a very difficult situation indeed. However, I think that the grace of confession that utterly transforms even such cases beyond what one can conceive is 99.9% only available through confession and true “metanoia”. That miracle of miracles in that particular sense is not something that is channeled through agents that are not consciously (to some degree) “Christs”.
My thoughts are that even the most challenging cases are completely healed through God’s grace because of (on man’s part) the trusting surrender, the utterly hopeless hope, the singularly focused opening to God and his servant, and nothing else, especially nothing of “me”. It is utter Christ centeredness…
In fact, I think that, the more one has been raped and has raped, even as a young child, the more astounding the miracle is – BUT – this has to be a wholly ecclesiastical act, an act of God’s grace, a dipole of complete grace-filled despair and grace-filled hope, there must be nothing of this world to it for such a miracle to occur.
* sorry for the syntactical lack of clarity, the above should have read something like this:
Fortunately, God in His goodness does not limit His miracles according to the Christ-likeness of His instruments in this world – or I could never dare to be a psychologist. May God have mercy on me.
I think that it is quite tricky to find the right words for a 100% ecclesiasiastical understanding of all ‘psychological matters’, that we see in someone like Saint Porphyrios (for instance). When the Elder (scandalously) calls every psychological complex, sadness, obsession, depression, worry, panic, illness by the same name!, namely “demonic temptation”, “based on our ego”, I think he is trying to emphasize exactly that God’s grace has the power to cure every coruuption, even when this is a totally physiological/hormonal issue.
I sometimes think that it is as if he truly knows of what scientists call/seek as the ‘God equation’ (…), and its true power, it is, pf course, God’s Grace.
I grew up in an environment in which if I mentioned anything about myself that was deemed negative, I was chastised for it. It was ‘shameful’ to view oneself as having any faults or apologize for anything.
Interesting….both my brother and I gravitated to the Orthodox Church (with a great deal of help along the way). The notion of confession, contrition and repentance being quite attractive.
I agree, Dino.
At one time, I would have found such words as those of St. Porphyrios offensive because, to my modern individualist mind, it would mean that it was “my fault” and I should be able to control whatever suffering or illness I had.
That is part of the disease in our thinking. To relinquish ego and surrender all to God renders the demonic powerless. St. Porphyrios himself was an inspiring example of living this out in the context of his many physical illnesses. (I just finished Wounded by Love – one of the best spiritual books I have ever read.)
St. Porphyrios is a shinning illustration of the zeal and joy that results from “relinquishing ego and surrendering all to God”.
May God grant us such aspirations and such a drive! It is genuine Christianity indeed! – it’s a ‘wordless’ sermon that has proved most effectual time and again. Has not the strongest evangelization always been this very example of fearless “ego-relinquishing”? Demonstrated through the effect of the lives of the apostles, the martyrs and the ascetics?
Such fervor takes no notice of ‘my headache’, ‘my worries’, ‘my ideas’, ‘my problems’, ‘my sin and shame’ even, all due to the absolute focus on God’s love which flames a joy that belongs to a different plane of being and that heals all aspects of our being.
What is also notable is that an Elder such as St Porphyrios, can transmit his unshakeable confidence in God’s power to transform even the most wretched of men into none other than glorious “repetitions” of Christ, (along with his enthusiasm for “relinquishing ego and surrendering all to God”), to such a degree, and in such a short discussion (to that man who is admitting his shame) that the resulting transformation passes all understanding…
Hello Father Stephen, thanks for addressing this topic. Having been formed in a low-church protestant denomination, espousing a thoroughly juridical/satisfaction view of the atonement, one of my most difficult struggles in embracing the wonderful theological Tradition of Holy Orthodoxy is how to understand so much of the language of the fathers, e.g. as in the preparation prayers for receiving the Eucharist. Many phrases, on the surface, seem to conceive of humans as being far worse than “totally depraved,” trash, thoroughly worthless, deserving to suffer eternally in the “fires of hell.”
One of the most helpful books in my journey has been “Healing the Shame that Binds You” by John Bradshaw. Much of course I don’t agree with, but his concept of “toxic shame,” which he says is the “fuel of all addictions,” is ontological – that somehow, for some inexplicable reason, we are fundamentally flawed in our being, we “ARE” a mistake.
The wonderful doctrine of our being “created in the image of God,” and that such image can never be destroyed in any human, seems, to me to be the true starting point for understanding the beauty and power of Christ’s salvation and healing of our damaged and weakened nature. God doesn’t make junk, and any language in any prayer or tradition which seems to imply such is, at best, not very helpful, at worst, implies that God really does secretly hate us because we are worthless ungrateful creatures. Thus only reinforcing – at least for many who share a similar background and formation as me – almost a “terrorist view of God” such as expressed in the heretical sermon “Sinners in the hands of an angry God.” Why is it that so much of the prayer and liturgical language seems to be begging, pleading, desperately hoping that God somehow, some way, will forgive us for all our offenses, even after one passes from this life – my paraphrase, “please, please, please God forgive my loved one – please please don’t banish him to hell.”
If you have any insights in to how to “read” or better understand many of these prayers in the full light of God’s love for us sinners, I would much appreciate to hear it.
Thank you for your many reflections and thoughts along this journey.
I admit that I do catch myself scandalized at the human-centeredness of modern western understanding of Orthodox Christianity – especially that example of penitential prayer demonstrated in the pre-communion prayers, that has been mentioned here a few times before…
From the point of view of Orthodox experience, there is actually nothing more healthy, yes, healthy than my understanding of my unworthiness, (that I deserve to be hated even). Of course this notion seems to be clearly, very easily misunderstood nowadays without certain further explanations, but, in the healthy context of the ‘giveness’ of God’s love and man’s ultimate value that reigned supreme in traditional Orthodox life, no explanation would have even been necessary!
My instinctive guess is that the protestant-influenced world is –perhaps- somewhat unsure of God’s love and man’s value – at least it must not comprehend it in that same deep way that it is presumed in traditional Orthodoxy.
It is also alas, quite confusing that the term ‘toxic shame’ has been used to designate that particular heavy Cross that it does describe (in modern psychology), while that same word (‘shame’) is also the term we use in Christianity (particularly differently) to describe the penitential feeling of the sinner who comprehends that he is not in an impersonal relationship with some corporation; it is a person-to-person liaison in which he hurts the only One who loves him.
It is this inconceivably ineffable personal love of His – far more than my wretchedness – that causes me to feel so unworthy…
And it does not detract from joy in any way, in fact it produces the only truly unshakeable joy – this ‘shame’ can be healthy and joyous because of Who God is, as known to us in His grace.
One of the toughest realities for me to embrace as an Orthodox Christian is that God really does love me in an ineffable, deep and transcendent matter–no matter what! I don’t deserve that love because as Shakespeare so aptly noted: “in the course of justice, none of us should see salvation…”
It is difficult for me, who knows how often I offend my own being by my thoughts, words and actions, to really accept the fact of God’s love. The earthly love of my wife helps but the prayers themselves, over the years, have prepared me to accept it, at least a little bit.
I am motivated to more freely acknowledge the specifics of my unworthiness in private prayer, to others where appropriate, and in confession.
What is the relationship of shame to pride and envy? It seems that the desire to buy/consume is also driven by what I see the Jonses acquiring down the block. I realize that all are disordered passions that intertwine and interlock to varying degrees.
Note that shame is not a sin. It is an emotional response. It certainly gets disordered in various ways, but is not a sin. In its healthiest form it is a recognition of Beauty. Yep. Shame is a recognition of Beauty.
But when we first encounter Beauty (particular of the Divine sort – such as the Beauty of true Goodness) we easily and rightly feel shame because it reveals us to be so much less. But this shame is also connected to the fact that we want to be more – we want the Beauty and Goodness. And if we are able to let go of ourselves – to let go of the shame – and turn to the Beauty – and follow the true desire (eros) of the heart, then we move forward towards union with the Beautiful and the Good (and ultimately to the Truth).
This let go of self and moving towards the Good is the very heart of repentance. It is why Fr. Zacharias (and Dino) speak about shame’s importance in confession. It is the rejection of what is less in order to gain what is greater.
Pride and Envy are very “late-developed” passions. They are passions of the intellect – rather than very primal passions such as gluttony, lust, etc.
Interestingly, Orthodox spiritual teaching always starts with the more primary passions. We start with fasting (gluttony) and chastity (lust) and renouncing anger (which is closely related to shame). The forgetting and emptying of self is very hard when we focus on forgetting and emptying the self (i.e. focus on ridding ourselves of pride). In fact, we never can. It is only ever overcome by reaching towards Christ. We forget ourselves because we desire Him, His beauty, His goodness. That is the teaching of St. Maximus.
If I might comment on your question…I am not Orthodox but my thoughts on this question have been affected considerably by my reading here and elsewhere.
One might ask the same question about why I should keep saying the Jesus prayer? Why do I have to keep asking God for mercy? Do I think that He is not going to be merciful unless I say the prayer 10,000 times day?
Of course not. God is always merciful and ready for us to accept His mercy. The words of the prayer are to soften my heart, not His. I need the prayer (and all prayers) so that I am humbled before God – for I won’t really accept or be transformed by His mercy without deep humility.
Dino – is that what you are saying? Shame, when understood as an awareness of self as “a sinner, totally unworthy before God who has loved me unconditionally”, is healthy and leads to the fullness of joy because it brings me into a humility that enables me to accept the mercy I so desperately want and need. (I know that sentence was too long…)
that is certainly a crucial aspect of it – yes.
It’s importance in confession is also closely connected to joy in a somewhat different way:
standing before such a loving God, as pure sin, shameful and contrite on the one hand, exceedingly wondrous at His love on the other (this is the dominant feeling in one sense – or becomes the dominant feeling eventually, as His grace takes on the form of the Father’s embace), as well as clothed in an “unashamed-ness” that is pure gift – His.
I marvel at the perspicasiousness of St John Chrysostom’s words that the parable of the Prodigal son contains the entirety of Scripture in a condensed mystical form…
Having shared some of your heritage, I can tell you it might take a long time to shed this view. The next post, “Legal Problems”, addresses some of the issues. Here are some bullet points that helped me:
The Protestant tradition often doesn’t include or emphasize the unquestionable worth of the person. God made us and loves us. That is a given and is unchangeable. He is good and all-powerful and He loves us. All this tends toward the conclusion that He can and will overcome all barriers to your salvation.
The Trinity is 3 in 1. They are three different persons but they are in such close communion that we might as well think of them as one. This means that the Father and Jesus are on the same team. There is no angry father being appeased by a gentle son. The Son does what He sees the Father doing. Their will is one.
There is no question of our worth, but we are broken. Therefore we have to die and be resurrected. This is writ large in the Gospel. We have to put ourselves in God’s hands, letting go of all we’ve come to think of as “me” and trust Him to raise us from the dead, little by little one day at a time. Doing this of course requires believing those things above about God.
Protestant traditions focus externally: the problem is between me and God or me and the world. Ancient Christianity on the other hand focuses on the internal work of healing and restoration: purification, illumination & union. That’s the purpose of everything God puts in our life – not paying a debt or fulfilling one of his ministry positions or balancing the good and evil in the world.
We are children. He is our Father. Christ is our brother. We’re all on the same team. The atmosphere is much more like “no one left behind” rather than winning the lottery of God’s favor.
hope this helps, drewster
I’m working on an article that will address these questions. Thanks for asking them.
There is so much to ponder concerning “Shame being a recognition of true Beauty”… (a strikingly insightful observation)!
I agree with Dino. This is a deep insight on shame.
Another deep insight:
It seems, if I understand correctly, that shame (of the non-toxic type) is helpful only in getting us to the door, so to speak. At the threshold, we see all that we are not (our shame) but fall in love with all that He is. To cross the threshold is to surrender all of self (both our pride AND our shame) to enter the fullness of love in Him.
May His grace and mercy bring us where we could never go on our own.
“That door”, ultimately, is death though…
Love (as bestowed by Christ) is the end, but humility is our safety and we need fine and watchful discernment too- especially as long as we walk this earth.
Even a great saint like St Porphyrios – a fully liberated, stabilized, sanctified, person – would be most aware (this very awareness is his true safety and stability in a sense) of himself being ‘clothed’ in Grace by Another.
Wasn’t it CS Lewis that correctly noted that the more humble one becomes, the more aware of his pride he becomes? (This is a type of ‘shame’…)
Clothes are always a covering for our nakedness, even Adam and Eve cloaked in Light were ‘clothed’ by Another. We will always remain creatures called to be gods.
As soon as I stop being aware of this, of Who is my Source and my Life and my Love, the minute I become deluded that the Light I am clothed in is me/mine, forgetting my creaturliness (and my shame) in my glory (which is God’s glory bestowed on me the wretched one), I repeat the luciferean fall, I stop being able to utter “Thine own of Thine own we offer Thee” and cease to live eucharistically, at the very least it means that I permit my ego to govern freely over my being once again.
“That door”, ultimately, is death however…
Love (bestowed by Christ) is the culmination, but humility is our security and we require fine and vigilant discernment too- particularly as long as we walk on this earth.
Even a saint St Porphyrios’ stature – a wholly liberated, stabilized, sanctified, person – would be most conscious (this very awareness is his true security and immovability) of himself being ‘clothed’ in Grace by Someone else.
Was it not CS Lewis that accurately noted that as one becomes more, he becomes all the more aware of his (despicable and all the more refined) pride? This is certainly a type of ‘shame’…!
*i am trying to break my post into smaller chunks as it does not seem to work otherwise*
As soon as I stop being conscious of this, of Who is my Cause, the minute I become deluded that the Light I am clothed in is me/mine, disregarding my creaturliness and shame in my overwhelming glory (which is God’s glory bestowed on me the wretched one), I simply reiterate the luciferean Fall, I stop being able to utter “Thine own of Thine own we offer Thee” and cease to live eucharistically, it means –at the very least – that I allow my ego to govern freely over my being once again.
Amen. 🙂 I appreciate your comments.
God blesses us with glimpses of total immersion in His love to draw us onward.
Then He blesses us with a loss of those glimpses lest we truly lose Him in our pride and think we have arrived on our own, without His grace and mercy (in which case we will have arrived in hell, not heaven).
God uses our weakness for our salvation. Thus, we can learn to give thanks for the times of spiritual dullness, temptation and distraction (while still praying for strength to not give in to them) because God is using them to humble and sanctify us as well.
(I am only at the very beginning stages of understanding this, having been inspired by His great saints. Glory to God for all things.)
Father Stephen bless…
You wrote that shame is a recognition of beauty, especially of true goodness, etc. When I have stood at the top of Niagara Falls and felt awestruck before its power, or have almost wept as I surveyed the wondrous beauty and seeming unending panorama of the Grand Canyon, were these emotions also in some way tied to shame?
Just read your post, “The Erotic Nature of Prayer.” In it you wonderfully answered my query above about beauty. Being an amateur artist I have from early childhood been drawn by beauty (a glimpse I stole of a flickering candle through the door of a darkened Catholic church, as its light illumined the altar, dancing over unknown images , stuck with this small pentecostal boy for many years, until again hit again by this mysterious beauty at almost 50 in an Orthodox church). That beauty is at the center of the gospel is compelling. I recall what Frederica Mathewes Green wrote about her conversion. She was in Ireland on vacation and had entered a Catholic church out of tourist curiosity. She idly drew near to a statue of Christ. As she looked up at it her heart was immediately softened as the living Christ, in the beauty of the statue, let her know in an instant of his great love for her. She fell on her knees. She had encountered Him who IS Beauty.