Unavoidable Suffering and Salvation – The Way of Shame

0915-olsorrowAt the heart of the modern narrative is a concern to alleviate and even eliminate suffering. This understanding is rooted in the Christian virtue of compassion. In many ways, however, modern compassion has been detached from its original context and become a thing-in-itself. Modernity is an arena where compassion has run amok, and, ironically, promises to create new and unique miseries in its wake. The Christian gospel is deeply entwined with the problem of suffering (when it’s properly taught). But it represents an understanding that is at odds with the modern account. As ironic as it may seem, Christians need to teach the world how to suffer that the world might be healed.

It is jarring to hear that we “need to teach the world how to suffer.” It conjures up notions of flagellants beating themselves with cords or other bizarre notions. It sounds callous and cruel and utterly lacking in compassion. But, to a large extent, the art of living is found in the art of suffering well. And, strangely, the failure to suffer well is perhaps the greatest source of suffering itself.

I will gladly place suffering that involves extreme pain within a separate category. It deserves its own separate treatment. But the larger category that we describe as suffering, largely consists of shame. Shame is the unbearable emotion, according to psychologists. It is also the first recorded human emotion in Scripture. The Christian life, properly lived, voluntarily bears the shame within our existence, and even volunteers to bear the shame of others. It is at the heart of the life of salvation. In the words of the Elder Sophrony, “The way of shame is the way of the Lord.”

So, what does this look like?

Suffering takes many forms. It can describe physical pain. It can describe emotional and social pain. In general, we can say that it describes human situations that we want to end or escape in order to feel better. Much of the pain that we experience in life is unavoidable: pain is an inherent part of the world we live in, both for good and for ill. Some pain is indeed avoidable but difficult to escape for a variety of reasons. Some pain is self-inflicted. But what we can say without fear of contradiction is that there is no such thing in this world as a pain-free existence. Everybody suffers.

Christ is deeply compassionate in His teaching and ministry. He heals, forgives, restores, etc. But it would be inaccurate to describe His ministry as primarily focused on the alleviation of suffering. There were essentially just as many sick people in the world after the ministry of Christ as there were before. For every leper He cleansed, many were not. He Himself noted, “The poor you always have with you.” So what was Christ’s relationship to suffering, and how should we understand His actions with regard to those who were suffering?

I take the actions of Christ to be signs of the coming of the Kingdom of God. They represent fulfillments of the Messianic promise: He has come that we might live. But He is utterly clear when He speaks to those who would follow Him: “Whosoever would be my disciple, let him deny himself, take up his Cross and follow me.” The Christian life is, without exception, an agreement to share in the sufferings of Christ and the sufferings of others, and to bear our own Cross through His grace. This is the life of true compassion (com-passion=to suffer with).

Where I would draw our attention in this article is the interior act of bearing our suffering. For it is there that the soul is formed and shaped into the image of Christ Crucified. There is a suffering that comes from pain, a suffering that comes from sadness and loss, but the most difficult to bear is the suffering that comes from shame. Our shame is generated by how we feel about “who we are.” Guilt is about “what I have done.” We can acknowledge guilt, but easily find ourselves crushed by shame.

Shame is a primary cause of anger and depression. Something happens and we encounter loss. We feel unworthy, or detached, or dismissed, or denied, or denigrated, etc. Generally, we react with anger or with depression, depending on many things within us. Both of these reactions remove us from the true burden of our suffering and create inauthentic suffering. Much of this occurs on an unconscious level. Our shame clouds the heart and the mind and we fail to see ourselves and the world as they are.

The only path to the truth in these situations is to bear the shame. St. John Climacus says, “You cannot escape shame except by shame.” (4.62) It is worth noting that the Elder Sophrony advised, “Teach them to bear a little shame.” This is something we do along and along, as the soul is able to bear it.

The inner act of acknowledging our shame, and sitting in its presence without anger or sadness, is an act of self-emptying. When we are in such a place we pray, “O God, comfort me.” It is then that the Holy Spirit, the Comforter, can enter in and grant us the great comfort of the image of Christ being formed in us. It banishes anger and dissipates sadness.

The acknowledging of our shame (whether deserved or not) is not the occasion for promising to do better or be better. Those are simply efforts not to acknowledge it. Rather, we acknowledge it with patience and attention. The experience of shame (of any sort) is a deeply, profoundly vulnerable experience. In many respects, shame itself is a feeling of extreme vulnerability. We do not experience shame as “safe.” It feels extremely “unsafe.” Our willingness to acknowledge it to ourselves and to God is a sacrifice of vulnerability.

As a sheep led to the slaughter or a blameless lamb before his shearer is mute, so He opened not His mouth. (Isaiah 53:7)

Christ recognizes Himself in us when we bear our shame in His presence. He does not abandon us to death but comforts us. This is a deeply healing experience for the soul. It can and should be an essential part of confession and repentance, but can also be a part of prayer at any time.

This practice also goes to the heart of a proper Christian orientation to life in this world. Most people refuse to take up this Cross of shame. Instead they engage in anger and sadness, darkening their hearts and finally giving themselves over to violence and every form of pleasurable escape. But they do not escape. They become ever more deeply entrapped in the cycle of shame and death.

It is always possible for leaders and others to arouse the public by manipulating their anger and sadness, energized by the shame they cannot bear. Those leaders are able to direct that energy to violence and oppression, revolution and counter-revolution.

In the story of our first sin, Adam and Eve encounter shame. Their shame is not over their sin, but over their nakedness. Their shame causes them to hide from God and to blame others for their fall. The first victim is the unity of man and woman, then the destruction of unity with creation itself. God covers that primal shame with the “garments of skin.” He is not the cause of our shame. Ultimately He fulfills what is prefigured in those garments by giving us the garment of His own righteousness to cover our shame. It is within the righteous covering of Christ that we find the courage to bear the shame that has been ours from the beginning and to enter the comfort of God and the freedom that comes from Him alone.

61 comments:

  1. Father, it is very true that we have lost the true meaning of compassion for others. The Latin base for the word and of course the Greek is to suffer with. Christ suffers with us and we with each other. We have turned it into sympathy and desire to “help” when it means more than that. All of man’s attempts to create Utopia on the Earth have always led to the creation of oppressive, totalitarian systems. I think what we are witnessing around us today is the latest recreation of the miserable utopia man seeks to attain. Thank you for this reminder.

  2. *Sorry, I posted my previous comment before finishing my thoughts (a technological faux pas, if you will). I just wanted to thank you not only for your wonderful articles, that always force me to reach beyond myself, but this time for addressing the subjects of suffering and shame. Neither are a topic en vogue nowadays. Thank you for reminding me of the freedom that comes with bearing one’s own shame and asking for repentance.
    Father, bless.

  3. How very true all this is! In fact, there is no greater, more authentic consolation than bearing our shame at the feet of the all-loving Lord. And despite the irony of it, fleeing this [continuous] awareness that “I am nothing and Thou art everything”, even briefly, opens the door to true tragedy. How sad then that modernity – having commenced from Christian foundations- has built this godless culture of ‘solution-ism’ in place of the life-giving transcendence of suffering.

  4. Glory to God in the Highest!

    Fasting from judgment of others means embracing my own shame.

    Thank you Father Stephen for this encouragement on the Way.

  5. “Listen! God, Himself says, ‘Call upon Me in the time of trouble so that I will hear thee and thou will praise Me’. Afflictions confirm us in our faith, and teach us to set worldly glory at naught. Believe firmly that no suffering or sorrow can visit us — not a hair of our heads can fall — with out God intending it. Although we are always inclined to put down our misfortunes to the ill will or stupidity of other men, these are in reality, only tools in the hand of God; tools used to fashion our salvation. Therefore take heart and pray to our Lord Who is always at work for our salvation, using to this end both what we call happiness and what we call sorrow.”

    St. Macarius of Optina

  6. Thank you, Father. I recognize much of this from your San Francisco talk. I just wanted to let you know I’ve listened to that talk three times now, and will listen again, I’m sure. I am learning so much from it.

  7. Fr. Could you post a link to your talk you are speaking of in SF. We tried to come see and meet you but were ill and unfortunately missed you.
    🍀🌹😇

  8. Thank you for the post and video in the comments thread. “The way down is the way up.” There are so many ways to say this. It’s the same thing Jesus meant when He said that whoever wishes to save his life, must lose it, and whoever loses his life for Christ’s sake will gain eternal life. I’m so grateful to be able to move the meaning of such verses from the external (where we think only of the more literal sense of physical martyrdom, perhaps) to the interior landscape of the soul where it can truly bear fruit with the help of God’s grace.

    I love the connection of the Cross with Zacchaeus’ tree, and the Good Thief. It’s helpful to have these concrete examples of what bearing a little shame looks like.

    I often find the prospect of bearing my shame in Confession so daunting, I keep procrastinating and procrastinating with the result I seldom go. It becomes easier for me if I start with the contemplation of Christ in His beautiful, kenotic love, working up the courage to trust Him to fill my emptiness. Standing before another witness in my nakedness is terrifying to me, though, and I am always afraid Christ will not rush in soon enough to cover me through His Priest. When I actually make it to Confession, it is never as awful as I fear it might be (not awful at all, actually–though I never enjoy naming my failings, absolution is wonderfully freeing), but it is still a daunting struggle. In a way, I envy the one who has fallen so hard into sin and hit such a merciless “bottom” of public shame that he cannot avoid it and forced to flee so completely to Christ that he discovers and lives in the fullness of Christ’s mercy all the time. In Wounded by Love, St. Porphyrios recounts his joyful and trusting anticipation of forgiveness and freedom that gave him such a love and eagerness for Confession throughout his life. I truly envy his faith-filled attitude and the grace of his early Orthodox formation and the culture that made that possible for him. May God grant me such a boldness to come and dwell before His Throne of grace!

  9. If you spent the rest of your time on this earth on this subject Father it would be a real service, as this gets to the heart of the matter I think. It even goes to the very beginning of our “metaphysical” situation if I might put it that way, and how the Kingdom is really “at hand” – and yet can not usually be seen. However, the subject is deep deep and thus the relative lack of comments.

    I have ran across otherwise well meaning Orthodox persons who hold to a very modern notion of our condition and thus chastise those who affirm shame as the road to salvation (they don’t seem to have a clue about how unChristian there philosophy is). This rejection/misunderstanding of shame lies behind the modern and false “theraputic self” and the drive within and outside the Church to re-imagine our relationship to our sexuality and the normative moral Tradition.

    This brings me to a point of “shame” for me – one that perhaps is best described with the word you used, detachment. I am “detached” from those within the Church (to say nothing of those outside) who are so obviously “detached” from the Tradition which they express with their false doctrine mostly around anthropology/sexuality, but there are other distractions as well (adminstrative/institutional incompetency that makes the federal agencies I regularly deal with seem like paragons of competency, a “green” anxiety that leads to a fellowship with those who kill their children by the millions , and of course the recent re-rediscovery that we are universalists after all, the Church of the Last Judgementless). What does it look like to bear this detachment? It is in no way safe. I want to protect myself and my loved ones from this madness…

  10. Christopher,
    I think it is born by being faithful, on the one hand, but trusting that all things are in God’s hands on the other. BTW, I think you exaggerate the universalist thing. I know a couple of people who write about it. They in no way dismiss the Judgment, or even Hell. They’re not namby-pamby about any of it. They simply, like St. Isaac, think that God finally redeems everything –

    That does not minimize hell or judgment. It simply says something that they (and St. Isaac as well as a number of others) a persuaded is true about the unrelenting character of the love of God.

    I continue to maintain that I cannot (and do not) teach universalism because it has not been given to me in the Tradition. But I can certainly talk about it with others and hear what they’re thinking and why. I recently was told by someone when I was a visiting speaker somewhere that I was a universalist. I told them that I am not and challenged them to find anywhere that I have ever said that I was.

    I hope that St. Isaac is right. But that’s between him and God. I’ll have to wait a little while before I know the sum total of what he thought and why.

    I think it is possible to create a narrative in which all of the stuff you mentioned is one big dangerous thing. Actually, it’s many things. The universalism is as I’ve described it, I think. The abortionists better hope very hard that St. Isaac is right in that they’re going to need a way out of hell.

    The incompetence is not only true and present, I think it is pretty much endemic to the human situation. It certainly has been in the history of the Church. Orthodoxy is not anti-institutional, but I think the truth of Orthodoxy is in-spite-of-institutional. The one thing for which I’m grateful about the massive incompetence of the Church, is that it has also been too incompetent to actually bring about heretical changes when they were going on everywhere else.

    I was pondering to myself this morning about the question of women in the priesthood. Back in the 70’s, someone told me that the Orthodox would finally cave in like everyone else. That frightened me. Now, frankly I don’t worry about it. Those who advocate such nonsense (and they are very few), have no idea of how such a thing could be brought about. Heck, we can’t even get male deacons for parishes! when we desperately need them.

    So, I think we pray and work to be faithful and trust God, without whom nothing is safe or protected. What other protection could we want?

  11. Not to get side tracked on the universalism thing, but I think there is a philosophical “necessity” going in in it around the Love of God (one that turns “unrelenting” into a necessity that rises above Person – both Gods and man’s contingent personhood). I am trudging through some patristic stuff right now and this keeps coming up again and again – a philosophical/dialectical principle gets imputed unto God/Christ, and you end up in this or that heresy (in the early days, these were all mostly “platonic/neoplatonic” in character because that was the cultural/historical circumstances). Origen I think is also in the thick of it, because he so quickly and adroitly “intermixes” the two worlds it is about hard to tell when he is christianizing neoplatonism or platonizing christianity. He is as difficult to pin down as a greased snake (of course historically the most overt part of his neoplatonic side was anathematized). Origen is not namby-pamby about anything – but he was dead wrong about some things. Even if not recognized by some, these dialectical and origenistic links (to the modern stuff) are there and I don’t grant it is something else entirely that is new (or old) and a legitimate understanding of the Tradition.

    Be that as it may, the temptation for me is to throw my hands up (after in anger yelling/chastising and of course failing for “they” are as foolish and stubborn as I am) and turn “Orthodoxy in spite of the institutional” and human situation into a “mystical” Orthodox church, something related to a very modern (mis)understanding of Church. This “detaches” me from what I believe to be these landmines in the very heart of the Church, because I do not know how “to bear” my shame of this and of my fellow communicants who I know believe that these deadly landmines are in fact the very Love of God “exploding” into some new (or old) imagining of this or that aspect of the Tradition.

    Externally, it does not matter much because I have an over developed sense of loyalty and will no doubt go down with the ship and all the spiritual refugees (myself being “chief”) she holds – I just don’t “want” to go down cursing, but rather with joy…

  12. I wonder how much of the Universalist bent in the Church is simply a product of our modern times and societies. So much of Christianity in the West is all about “just be nice and you’ll go to heaven”; it is universalist in its scope, actually. Given that, if it is true, it’s not surprising that this would (again) pop up in the Church.

  13. Byron,
    Well, again not to get off into a topic that is not mine…but the few Orthodox whom I know who treat Universalism with respect and seriousness (and positively), are as far removed from “just be nice and you’ll go to heaven” as anyone I know. It’s just not what is going on. Indeed, those whom I know cannot be described as “liberals” or “innovationists.” or such.

    As I’ve mentioned, every Orthodox treatment of a universal hope still has hell, and even has hell for a very long time –

    There is, for them, a philosophical/theological problem within the concept of an eternal hell. And their problems are not without merit.

    Christopher,
    I do get it – the tendency to ever create a sort of philosophical necessity.

  14. I don’t know if I have posted this before, but I found this information in the book “Inner Kingdom” by Bishop Kallistos Ware, P112-113.

    “What is a martyr? What is it that changes suffering from a destructive into a creative force, that transforms a violent death into an act of martyrdom, a miscarriage of justice into an atoning sacrifice?

    The answer is provided by a Russian Christian, Iulia de Beausobre. One day in Moscow during the late 1920s, with her husband interned by the GPU but not yet herself arrested, she was preparing his weekly food parcel to deliver at the prison. She felt engulfed by a sense of hopelessness; her husband’s suffering, her own and that of all those round her seemed so meaningless and futile. “To what end?” she asked herself. Suddenly, as she was moving from one room to another, she felt a blow on the back of her neck, and heard what she describes as “the unspoken words of Another.” They were words that marked a new dawn in her life;

    “Of course it’s no earthly use to any one of you (you who are suffering). It can only cripple your bodies and twist your soul. But I will share in every last one of your burdens as they (the GPU) cripple and twist you. In the blending heat of compassion I will know the weight of your load through carrying it alongside of you, but with an understanding greater than yours can be. I want to carry it. I need to know it. Because of My Incarnation and your Baptism there is no other way — ‘if you agree’.”

    There are two things here that are particularly significant: the value attached to voluntary acceptance, and the insistence upon participation and solidarity.”

    “IF I AGREE” AND YOU TOO, WHO READ THIS. This is something to think about. I like the term that she uses, “the unspoken words of Another.” I personally heard the unspoken words of Another one time in my life (about 35 years ago) and it started my turnaround from ignorance, and ignoring my sin, to a gradual realization of what a miserable sinner I was, and the love of our Lord that helps me to overcome all negatives in my life. The above statement to Iulia also helps me (and you, if you agree) to prepare for seems to be on the agenda here in America.

  15. Fr Freeman,
    Have you listened to any of Brene Brown’s talks on shame? If so, do you think any of it relates to what you’re saying in this post?

  16. Paul,
    Yes. I have. It is good and reliable psychological material. There are much deeper treatments than Brown’s, but she’s fine. She does not know, of course, about its place within the Christian tradition. Truth told, most Christians, including Orthodox priests, don’t know about the proper role of shame in the tradition. I’ve been surprised by this. The one place that I found it in contemporary Orthodoxy is in the work of the Elder Sophrony, and the development of his thought by Father Zacharias of Essex.

    It’s one of the reasons that I’ve taken up the topic. I hope to do a book (after the present book I’m struggling through). I’ve had conversations with Father Zacharias that were quite helpful. I’d like to have more before the book.

  17. Fr. Stephen,

    I’m a big fan of Brene Brown’s but I agree with your assessment. The “interesting” thing of course is that people are so drawn by her revelations. This indicates to me the level of ignorance of the modern-day person, Christian or otherwise. We have so trapped ourselves on the main floor of the false 2-storey universe that we are shocked and yet mysteriously drawn when some even hints at the truth of our deep and hidden shame and how to begin dealing with it.

    Brene’s work has its place. It gets the average person to consider looking at their life instead of medicating it. And I think there are a lot more people in that group than the one which would be willing to start reading your blog. This website is like the advanced class – welcome to all but only accessible by some. No offense meant. You can’t be all things to all, and you are extremely good/blessed/graced in your role here. I wouldn’t change a thing. Just pointing out the need for people like her as well.

  18. drewster,
    FWIW, my daughters really like Brown. She’s accessible. (I don’t think they read my stuff). I wish everybody would read her stuff and at least begin to get the concept of shame into their vocabulary. They could go deeper later.

    One weakness, however. It is possible reading psych lit to think that shame is bad. It’s not exactly bad – it’s unavoidable and it’s miserable. The more important question (since it’s unavoidable) is to ask: “What’s this for? What use is it?”

  19. Off-topic: going back through older posts, it appears that many of the comments have been lost (the comment section is now truncated). I find these conversations very valuable; is there a reason they are not saved? Is this just a feature of the blog? Just wondering.

  20. Thanks for your perspective on Brene. I often struggle with the difference between what your saying and the secular version. The secular version knows that the way up is the way down. That success or the good life means being vulnerable and able to deal with shame. However it lacks the peace found in Christ.

  21. Paul, I think the secular version’s method of “dealing with shame” is to eradicate it, as much as possible, with the goal of legitimizing and empowering the self (ego).

    I also don’t see vulnerability as one of the hallmarks or pillars of “the good life” (in secularism) as much as I see safety and control. But that may just be me.

  22. Byron,

    I believe the comments are still there once you open the particular post and scroll down, what is missing however (I don’t know why) is the indication of how many comments there are under the title on old entries…
    Indeed some of those comment threads are legendary and contain a great deal of ‘meat’ to chew on…

    Father Stephen,

    I really really wish that there was a way to search inside the entire past comments section while inputting key words on the side bar ‘search’ function. It would massively improve the blog’s helpfulness…! I often scroll through entry upon entry to find a little gem that I remember was hiding somewhere in there!

  23. “Paul, I think the secular version’s method of “dealing with shame” is to eradicate it, as much as possible, with the goal of legitimizing and empowering the self (ego).”

    Indeed.

    “Truth told, most Christians, including Orthodox priests, don’t know about the proper role of shame in the tradition.”

    I have even seen one well known priest (who also blogs here at Ancient Faith) taken to task on a blog/news/outreach site ran by the “Assembly of Canonical Orthodox Bishops of North and Central America” when he (rather briefly) affirmed the role of shame in the Christian life in one of his articles. The site then published what could probably be termed a “hit piece” by a Presbytera who also is a working psychologist (she made sure everyone was aware of her credentials) who explicitly took him to task for even using the word “shame”, let alone it’s place in our healing. Interestingly, her view was rejected by the majority of commentators (the majority of whom are lay people). However, that the site even published her very secular gobbleygook is a sign of the times.

    The subject of the priest article of course was human sexuality and the Christian understanding there of, and of course the Presbytera claims to be an expert in the area…

  24. Paul B
    What it also lacks is the complete transformation that can come in Christ on an ontological level. Vulnerability establishes a certain way of coping with shame. But Christ gives us the safety that makes it possible.

  25. Dino,

    I second the desire to do a search that would look for words within the articles AND the comments.

    Fr. Stephen,

    I agree again concerning psych lit’s wrong conclusions on shame. I first heard her talk on shame – and then probably a year later you gave the unintentionally corrected version:

    a) We need to bear a little shame. It is part of the work of humility. It helps restore us to our true selves and keep us there.

    b) shame is “I am bad” as she says, but that is actually true because we are fallen and flawed and need to be redeemed (or whatever wording you want to use). She would probably say that we aren’t bad and of course she is correct at the core, (and “bad” and “good” are such loaded terms these days) but there is much inside us that needs to be restored and corrected.

    To put it another way, parts of us are dead or dying (the source of shame) and these parts keep causing us to do things that lead to more death (the source of guilt). But she has a good heart and she’ll get there.

  26. Drewster,
    Got the guys working on the comments search.

    On shame. I have noted, in writing and speaking, that the most fundamental shame we have is deeply existential. In the face of God, our completely contingent being (coming into existence out of nothing) is shameful to us. That is, when we come face to face to God, it is an entirely appropriate response. But we hate this reality and want to run away from it instead of bearing it and being healed.

    In my San Francisco talk, I noted that we are created in the image of the Crucified. To live in true union with God, we must live a self-emptying existence. This is also eternal true of the persons of the Holy Trinity. We perceive something as shame that is the very gateway into salvation and theosis.

  27. A quick note on the comments issue: I went back and noticed that, at the bottom of the various comments threads, is a link: “newer comments” (or, should you be in the newer comments section, “older comments”). By simply clicking on them, the remainder of the comments appear. The link(s) are in very light type and I simply missed them earlier when I went back and looked.

    Please forgive me for stirring up an unnecessary concern. My apologies to all.

  28. Fr. Stephen,

    I want to continue this dialogue a bit longer, if you please. You say our most fundamental shame is deeply existential. Do you mean our fallen state? Or are you referring to the fact that we experience deep shame that we are not God, the sin of the Garden coming into play here?

    I’ve been studying humility and I find shame to be the natural agent which brings us to a humble state. I find that shame is brought on by simply stating the truth. For example, “I deserve nothing; all I am and all I have are pure gift.” Statements like this bring me closer to my true condition, but it does so through the vehicle of shame that things are not otherwise. In this case I have to endure the shame that I deserve nothing before I’m able to see that everything I am and have are gift.

    Any thoughts on this appreciated.

  29. “You say our most fundamental shame is deeply existential. Do you mean our fallen state? Or are you referring to the fact that we experience deep shame that we are not God, the sin of the Garden coming into play here?”

    Just to throw my 1.5 cent in, it seems to me the two questions have the same answer “yes”. Surely are existential situation is one of both realizing who we are (not God, everything is gifted, etc.) and our shameful rebellion against this truth (i.e “the fall”, ego distortions, etc.).

    I have only viewed a single TED talk by Brene (I did not know of her until this thread), but she in no way explicated a “theory” of shame or it’s ultimate “existential” or “theological” purpose. She noted its existence and the fact it is a deep part of our personality, which in of itself is revelation I suspect to most of her audience. However, she stayed on the “psychological” level (that is her training and project after all), so on the one hand she notes shame’s negative effects to a modern psychological notion of personal fulfillment (how it can stop one from “daring greatly”, etc.), and on the other she affirms that shame is somehow deeper (e.g. when she notes that only psychopaths seem incapable of feeling shame, her mention of a “moral imperative”, etc.) and thus only points to shame’s place in a deeper anthropology. However, a modern psychological worldview (which aims to be a “science” in the modern sense) is simply too limiting obviously as we are persons in a full theological sense. Perhaps she goes deeper than her training in her books.

  30. It occurs to me that shame is not easily grasped, or realized, in our society. That’s not to say that people don’t suffer from ills that bring shame upon them but rather that our society has sought to “fix” suffering to such an extent that people no longer recognize shame in their actions and desires. It is only tragedy that brings us to shame and we live in a safety bubble that prevents us from encountering the tragic most of the time.

    I personally have a great deal of trouble, not in recognizing my own inadequacy before God, but in grasping shame and humility in it. I recognize that I should be humble before God, but I cannot see God and thus be humbled. If I am not careful, I begin to ***look*** for a way to fail and, in doing so, become despondent. Sin upon sin; it is an odd cycle from which I sometimes cannot find escape. Eventually I collapse in my efforts and God is there to catch my emptiness.

  31. Drewster,
    Shame is about “who I am.” To say, “I am dust,” or “I came into existence out of nothing,” or, “Someday I will die and the world will forget that I ever lived,” is, in fact, to come face to face with shame. And if we see these things in the light of the pure and true existence of God, it becomes all the more poignant. It does become the point of humility.

  32. Byron,
    Here’s an interesting example. The Orthodox Church is filled with boundaries. You cannot enter the altar unless a priest blesses you. To be told “no,” is, in fact, shameful. “Am I not good enough?” “Who does that priest think he is?” All kinds of stuff comes into mind. Or even, just the awkwardness of “doing the wrong thing,” because you didn’t know what the right thing was.

    I think that for many people, their initial exposures to Orthodoxy can be marked with shame experiences. It’s so foreign and awkward. They feel tremendously self-conscious about kissing an icon for the first time (“will I do it wrong?”) or crossing themselves (“I felt like everybody was watching me”). For some, the shame becomes unresolved. The behavior of many converts is explained by shame. The “Hyperdox” experience is a way of hiding from shame. I’ll just be more Orthodox than everyone else!

    There is, on one level within Orthodoxy, such an excellence that it judges us. It reveals how naked, broken and sinful that we are. So, some people need to attack that and whittle it down to size so that their shame will be relieved. The first number of times I “met” Fr. Thomas Hopko, I couldn’t speak. I was “awestruck,” but, more accurately, I was ashamed. Why? Because I wasn’t what I wanted to be and was embarrassed by it. Later, we became friends, but mostly because of his comfort, not mine. He heard me speak at a conference and came up to me and really engaged in a wonderful conversation. He treated me with a respect that just surprised me. In truth, he was just a very kind, generous man.

    I could go on with example after example. Shame is probably the single most explanatory way to approach human behavior. And it’s not even in most people’s vocabulary.

  33. Fr. Stephen,

    Your words are light and life. Orthodoxy seen through your eyes is so…..understandable and commendable, so life-giving and pure.

    You have explained the purpose of the doors on the iconostasis before and now you enlighten me as to the difficulty of being told no – at the altar or in any situation really. Thank you so much for your words and wisdom. Perfect, no. Blessed, absolutely.

  34. Thank you for that, Father! I do remember how difficult it was (and sometimes still is) to kiss and venerate icons. I try to do so slowly and while praying but it is still awkward. I’m not sure I ever want it to be comfortable, to be honest.

    There is, on one level within Orthodoxy, such an excellence that it judges us. It reveals how naked, broken and sinful that we are.

    I love worship in the Orthodox Church. It makes me mindful of so much and always does so with humility and love.

    This discussion reminds me of how much I would like to move close to my parish.

  35. Byron,
    indeed it’s better to not get ‘comfortable’.
    The importance of shame is a ‘continuous’ one – it should stay with us. The most healthy form of shame, is to be found in the saints. What they are ashamed about the most is that they canot thank and glorify God as He deserves it, they cannot reciprocate His unconditional love even if they were to spill every last drop of their blood. Sinfullness produces great shame, but God’s unwaranted forgiveness produces the most healthy and greatest shame – which is mixed with profound and ontological gratitude.

  36. This may have been already addressed, but years ago I received a copy of the book, “Healing the Shame that Binds You. ” I was studying for my degree in counseling and it was nothing like I had ever read before.

    What saddened me the most, was the part when the author says, that the most frequent abuse of shaming, is from parents to children and spouses to each other. It is because these relationships are the most intimate and we know each others weaknesses so well. Unfortunately, those that manipulate by shaming others are weak and cruel people (probably ashamed of themselves or having had experienced it from their own family).

    I have met people who are very experienced in identifying people’s shame and manipulating it to harm them. Their actions are subtle and destructive. I think this is why I struggled with this process of using my shame to help myself heal. Our shame seems to need protecting, not more exposure.

    Yet, to pray with this goal of seeing ‘who I am’ – which takes a lifetime – by going deeper and deeper into my heart, with courage and faith is liberating. We all carry the same shame. It just manifests in different ways with each person, like the Hyperdox. (What a wonderful, endearing term.) We just don’t have the right to wound each other with it.

    I can’t control the motives of others. What I can control is my personal, intimate, safe and loving relationship with Christ. He hung on a cross before the whole world. His shame was the greatest. He is very familiar with my shame and when I lay it before him he wipes it away and I am freed.

  37. Irini,
    Thank you for your comments. I think that to a large extent, everyone is going through the day negotiating with their shame. All of those awkward moments, etc., that happen. Even being cut off in traffic provokes shame (they didn’t think I was worth driving properly for) and its the shame that triggers the anger. Every relationship is sort of a dance of shame. Am I who they think I am? Are they who I think they are? Etc. And it does get toxic when abusers use shame to hurt others.

    But those who treat shame as inherently evil, fail to see that it’s also inherently present and won’t really go away. But God is so good that he uses it as a gateway into the Kingdom. He uses the worst thing that we have and gives us the best thing that He has.

  38. “…Unfortunately, those that manipulate by shaming others are weak and cruel people (probably ashamed of themselves or having had experienced it from their own family).”

    I am not sure you can shame shamers by labeling them weak and cruel. On one level, it is true – it is from weakness (shame IS either the deep understanding of our fundamental/ontological weakness, or a result of this understanding). I suppose it can be a kind of shorthand. On the other hand, it is everyone of us in that we ALL are weak (saints included) and cruel (I will grant a possible exception of true saints).

    “… We just don’t have the right to wound each other with it.”

    In a strange way (and possibly incorrect) I want to turn that around and say “well, what else is this fallen world for?”. It seems to me that one of the deep truths of Gods love for us is that He “allows” (if not quite granting us a “right”) for us to make mistakes, to fall and get up and fall again, even to hurt those we deeply love – showing us that Love overcomes, or death – whichever comes first.

    Forgive me Irini for no doubt twisting what you said. My wife sometimes says I am a “pessimist”, but I wonder if rather I simply refuse to accept that we get out of here “free” from our wounds. These wounds far from being the result of various “evils” we don’t deserve (though that does exist no doubt about it – I witness as is everyone else), are rather the result of our victory over our deepest “misunderstandings” of ourselves and God. Battle scars if you will, that we will one day wear with honor in a different age as soldiers of courage and honor wear their medals in this age. In any case, we don’t even get out of here alive, and while I have not put my finger on it yet this signifies something important in relation to our deepest wounds, our deepest shame…

  39. Father bless,
    From an Orthodox perspective what does it mean that Christ gives “us the garment of His own righteousness to cover our shame”?
    The only way for this neophyte to understand such language is in the legal, imputed righteousness of Christ model of atonement. Is that statement about an ontological reality?

  40. Attila,
    Yes, righteousness is not a legal state. It is ontological. In point of fact, it is the Divine Energies. He clothes us “with a garment of light.” Legal imagery is so weak. Righteousness can strike a man dead and raise him up again. Righteousness can turn water into wine, etc.

    I think the legal atonement would have simply had Jesus change the labels on the water pots at Cana.

  41. Irini, it is the human condition since we learned to know good and evil that we protect ourselves by hurting others.

    The Cross is the only way to heal.

    Bearing one another’s burden in empathy

  42. Michael, here are the distinctions I would make:

    Healthy shame = a sense of unworthiness; receives grace with gratitude and humble acceptance of her intrinsic creaturely need of God. Knows she has nothing to offer to God that was not first given as sheer gift by God

    Toxic shame = a sense of worthlessness; cannot accept grace because of unbelief/pride and a perverse compulsion to prefer her own self condemnation (a kind of perverse spiritual performance) to the freely bestowed forgiveness of God; tries to “earn” grace through this performance. If she perceives failure in this performance, she is prone to despair. If she perceives success in her performance, she will be prone to pride, manifesting in judgmentalism of others and a blind insensitivity to her own besetting sins.

    To entertain a sense of our own worthlessness is to deny the dignity and worth God bestows on us in our creation and redemption, regardless of the nature of our sins. We are unworthy of the grace of God, but because our very existence is the gift of God Himself, we are not worthless.

  43. Michael,
    They are indeed related. Though shame is generally (like anger) something of shorter duration. An abiding sense of worthlessness may be a depressive symptom that should be treated medically.

  44. Karen,
    Well said. It is worth noting that God Himself does not shame us nor seek to create shame in us. As we see the truth of God and True Being, we become aware of our own finitude and emptiness – and – rightly experience that as shame. But God has no desire to use that against us. He covers us and seeks to comfort us. If we come away from an experience with God with a lasting sense of shame and worthlessness – then we’re stuck – and it could well be toxic.

  45. Father, I have never come away from an experience with God with a lasting sense of shame or feelings of worthlessness–a deep sense of unworthiness, for sure, but intermingled with such a sense of wonder and joy in being fully known and loved, despite my nothingness, I would have to characterize it as utter self forgetfulness in beholding such Beauty in the face of Christ. I wish I could live in that awareness, but I am frequently distracted from it by my circumstances. Coming away from encounters with people is quite another story–I frequently come away from certain kinds of encounters with others with a sense of toxic shame . . . alas! (Happily not with you, though!)

  46. Fr Zacharias of Essex is fond of reminding us that the zenith of ‘good shame’ is shame at not being able to thank God befittingly. It’s sublime.

  47. Dino, this quote from Fr. Zacharias reminds me of the well-known (here in the U.S.) children’s story, The Littlest Angel. My mom used to read it to us when we were little at Christmas. We picked up the tradition again for a little while several years ago and began reading a children’s Christmas short story aloud as adults when we were together for the holiday. This somewhat antiquated and wordy unlikely classic (written in the 1940s I believe) somehow communicated the essence of grace in the gospel better than any more overtly biblical Christmas narrative or modern story more properly styled to be read to young children I have found. It undid us all and reduced us to copious tears every time. It seems to perfectly capture the shame of our human condition before God and God’s most wonderful response to that. Perhaps others will have read the story and had the same experience.

  48. Fr. Stephen,

    This is opening up an old thread, I realize, and maybe you have addressed my question elsewhere, but is there a difference between a healthy feeling of guilt and a toxic guilt as well? When we guilt ourselves and when others attempt to guilt us for xyz?

    Guilt, as I believe you defined it, is feeling badly about something you have (/not) done, whereas shame is feeling badly about who you are (/not).

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