The young hobbit, Frodo, bears the terrible burden of carrying an evil ring to its destruction in Tolkien’s classic Lord of the Rings. As he travels deeper into the darkness of Mordor, he is described as becoming “thinner” and is somehow “less visible.” The Ring itself has the power to make its wearer invisible – but only to those in the world of light. It makes the wearer dangerously more visible to those who dwell in darkness. It is an invisibility with consequences.
Invisibility has held a long fascination for human beings. Its mysterious possibilities are explored in everything from heroic tales of antiquity to modern science fiction. But Tolkien is one of the few writers to make visibility to be a metaphor for goodness itself. In his world, goodness is synonymous with light – the primordial first light of creation. To become invisible is to be less apparent to the light – and therefore more apparent to darkness. There is no middle ground in Middle Earth.
It is a metaphor that holds great richness for Christian thought – for there, light is equally synonymous with goodness. But what about invisibility?
The ability to disappear may not seem to be an issue on a practical level – but it is a deep instinct within our human experience. In the story of Adam and Eve, disappearing is the first reaction to the experience of sin. It is an instinct for darkness as old as sin itself.
We can never become truly invisible, but the desire to hide is often the same thing. And the desire to hide is fundamentally the experience of shame – it is shame’s most profound expression. It is also a revelation of shame’s essentially dark character.
I find it interesting that shame is not a prominent word in modern Western culture. The march of Progress has frequently trumpeted itself as a force for the abolition of shame. Various mores and cultural norms have been overthrown in the name of removing various stigmas and forms of shame. A young college co-ed who pays her tuition by working as a porn star proudly discloses her work and claims that she finds it liberating.
But it is not to be believed. None of it. Shame and the drive for invisibility abound. “Progress” is largely about the cosmetic arrangements of culture – but the depths of the human soul remain unchanged.
Our search for invisibility takes many forms. Conformity yields a common hiding place. No age in popular culture is more shame-driven than adolescence. Children leave the security and safety of innocence and begin to step outside of themselves. They feel naked and vulnerable – unsure of their identities, they sense the stares of all around them. To belong, particularly through outward forms of fashion and behavior, is probably the dominant drive of adolescence. But our present technology has removed even the hiding place of privacy as our selfies and constant flow of information advertise the union of our shame. It is the mistake of Adam and Eve – shared shame is imagined to somehow be safer.
Created and altered identities provide similar masks. Fashion, in its various forms, hides our nakedness (and thus our shame) in interesting ways. The fashions of the young often make no sense to the old (wearing your pants around your knees). And they indeed make no sense when taken as single, individual examples. It is their commonality that gives them their meaning. A Goth is known by his clothing, as is the Hipster and the myriad of other little sub-cultures that populate the world of youth. The wearer, I think, imagines that such fashion reveals something of who they are to the world (“I am hip”). But they in fact do just the opposite. Identity is unique. Personhood is unrepeatable. I am not a Goth, or a Hipster, or a Gansta-from-the-Hood, nor a Preppie member of the club, etc. Intimate, true knowledge, can never be revealed through our efforts to belong. Only nakedness reveals to truth of our identity.
But the nakedness which is all too common these days is an un-nakedness. It is the human body revealed as the object of sexual desire. Immodest fashions never share the true self – they reduce the true self to near non-existence.
The nakedness that reveals the true self is something we most want to be invisible. It is the body of our shame. And this is the strange turn in the nature of our shame.
For shame is always about “who” or “what we are,” not about “what we have done.” And who we are, our true self, is generally hidden, even from our own awareness. It is the self I am afraid to know. Some fear this self because they think there may be nothing there. The various inventions that we create to serve as placeholders of the self are complete ephemera. They are like a mist that dissipates with the dawn.
But the true self remains, feared, unknown, and shrouded with shame. It is as though at the very core of our being there was a private Hades, holding the true soul imprisoned and out of communication. Rumors of its existence reach the outer world and its groans and tremors can sometimes be felt. But it is the darkness of the pit that surrounds it that holds us at bay.
It would seem strange that shame surrounds the true self. Surely, we imagine, the true self would be a shining reality that we would long to embrace. But this is not the case. The nakedness of the true self reveals its nothingness. It is but dust whose essence is the nothingness from which all creation was brought forth. When perceived in the Light, the fragility and ephemeral character of its existence is revealed. We behold it in shame, realizing that it shimmers for but a moment and is gone. “All flesh is as grass.”
It is into this Hades that the crucified Christ descends. The Orient from on High, He is the Daystar that rises in the heart. And to the true self He gives life and existence and holds it in eternal being.
Receiving that precious gift, however, requires that we ourselves embrace the reality of our fragile existence – despite our shame. For the gift is given to the truth of ourselves and not to any of the myriad imaginings we create as substitutes.
This is true humility and repentance. Our shame is not about what we have done, but about what and who we are. Our imaginary selves, clothed in pretense and woven out of illusion, are the stuff of sin. The “wages of sin is death” because sin has no substance. It is our own empty effort at self-creation. We are not and can never be self-existent.
The Elder Sophrony describes our awareness of this empty state within as “mindfulness of death” and names it as a great grace. For it is finally when we acknowledge the complete futility of everything in creation that we see the truth of our existence and the truth of God. The unbearableness of this naked emptiness is the fundamental shame that hides the truth of our being from us.
The imagery of Christ bearing our shame (Psalm 69:7) is significant. This is not at all the same thing as declaring Him to have “borne our guilt.” We do not have a legal problem (though if we had a legal problem He would bear that, too). It is not the things we have done or not done that ultimately separate us from God. It is our refusal to acknowledge the emptiness of our existence and to embrace the gift of true being from God. We seek to make ourselves invisible from the Light that would reveal the truth of ourselves.
But Christ has borne our shame. He not only dies on the Cross, but enters into the depths of Hades. The Hades into which He enters includes the mystical Hades of the human heart where the true self resides. And there He bears our shame. He fully unites Himself to our creatureliness – the Uncreated becomes Created. The Self-Existent unites Himself to the Contingent. God becomes Nothing.
And the shame of our nothingness is clothed in true being. When we meet Christ there – we enter into true prayer and the restoration of all things. We see the True Light and are clothed in incorruption and immortality. Our shame is swallowed up in the fullness of Life and we stand “without shame or fear” before the great Judgment Seat of Christ – which rests eternally on Golgotha.