When Words Fail – The End of Morality

EYXH

I can think of two experiences where words fail: before the presence of God and in the presence of deep shame. The first is too great and too wondrous for words, the second too bitter and painful. Both are essential for our humanity if it is to be lived to the fullest. They represent not only the boundary of our vocabulary, but also the boundary of our existence. I have stood by the bedside of hundreds of persons at the time of death (particularly in two years as a hospice chaplain). It is generally a quiet place. There are words of parting, but finally – silence. I have also heard the confessions over long years of priesthood. Sometimes silence enfolds the tears that are the only voice that shame can offer.

Words interpret. Words express and communicate. But words fail when the experience transcends interpretation and when any expression or effort to communicate would only distort and reduce what has come to be.

We say with joy, “It’s too wonderful for words!” But this, I think, falls short of what I am describing. St. Thomas Aquinas had an experience of God in his last days, after which he refused to return to his task of writing. “I cannot. All that I have written seems like straw to me,” was his only explanation.

Orthodoxy holds that the highest and most fundamental form of prayer is found in “hesychia,” “silence,” or “stillness.” But quiet is not at all the same thing as hesychia as prayer. For the silence of hesychia is a silence-in-communion. This communion is deeply related to both of the wordless experiences described earlier. The silence of shame is brought about by the experience of the broken self. True silence in the presence of God is brought about by an encounter with God Himself. The former may very well be a prerequisite for the latter.

In The Ladder of Divine Ascent (Step 4), by St. John Climacus, we hear:

Terrible indeed was the judgment of a good judge and shepherd which I once saw in a monastery. For while I was there, it happened that a robber applied for admission to the monastic life. And that most excellent pastor and physician ordered him to take seven days of complete rest, just to see the kind of life in the place. When the week had passed, the pastor called him and asked him privately: ‘Would you like to live with us?’ And when he saw that he agreed to this with all sincerity, he then asked him what evil he had done in the world. And when he saw that he readily confessed everything, he tried him still further, and said: ‘I want you to tell this in the presence of all the brethren.’ But he really did hate his sin, and, scorning all shame, without the least hesitation he promised to do it. ‘And if you like,’ he said, ‘I will tell it in the middle of the city of Alexandria.’

And so, the shepherd gathered all his sheep in the church, to the number of 230, and during Divine Service (for it was Sunday), after the reading of the Gospel, he introduced this irreproachable convict. He was dragged by several of the brethren, who gave him moderate blows. His hands were tied behind his back, he was dressed in a hair shirt, his head was sprinkled with ashes. All were astonished at the sight. And immediately a woeful cry rang out, for no one knew what was happening.

Then, when the robber appeared at the doors of the church, that holy superior who had such love for souls, said to him in a loud voice: ‘Stop! You are not worthy to enter here.’ Dumbfounded by the voice of the shepherd coming from the sanctuary (for he thought, as he afterwards assured us with oaths, that he had heard not a human voice, but thunder), he instantly fell on his face, trembling and shaking all over with fear.

As he lay on the ground and moistened the floor with his tears, this wonderful physician, using all means for his salvation, and wishing to give to all an example of saving and effectual humility, again exhorted him, in the presence of all, to tell in detail what he had done. And with terror he confessed one after another all his sins, which revolted every ear, not only sins of the flesh, natural and unnatural, with rational beings and with animals, but even poisoning, murder and many other things which it is indecent to hear or commit to writing.

And when he had finished his confession, the shepherd at once allowed him to be given the habit and numbered among the brethren.  Amazed by the wisdom of that holy man, I asked him when we were alone: ‘Why did you make such an extraordinary show?’

That true physician replied: ‘For two reasons: firstly, in order to deliver the penitent himself from future shame by present shame; and it really did that, Brother John. For he did not rise from the floor until he was granted remission of all his sins. And do not doubt this, for one of the brethren who was there confided to me, saying: “I saw someone terrible holding a pen and writing-tablet, and as the prostrate man told each sin, he crossed it out with a pen.” And this is likely, for it says: I said, I will confess against myself my sin to the Lord; and Thou hast forgiven the wickedness of my heart. Secondly, because there are others in the brotherhood who have unconfessed sins, and I want to induce them to confess too, for without this no one will obtain forgiveness.’

…Do not be deceived, son and obedient servant of the Lord, by the spirit of conceit, so that you confess your own sins to your master as if they were another person’s. You cannot escape shame except by shame. It is often the habit of the demons to persuade us either not to confess, or to do so as if we were confessing another person’s sins, or to lay the blame for our sin on others. Lay bare, lay bare your wound to the physician and, without being ashamed, say: ‘It is my wound, Father, it is my plague, caused by my own negligence, and not by anything else. No one is to blame for this, no man, no spirit, no body, nothing but my own carelessness.’

The stories in St. John’s Ladder are often extreme, but they make an unmistakable point. Repentance is the path to knowledge of God and salvation. But the extremes he points to make another point: repentance is far greater than mere moral effort. The promise to try harder, to work more, to be better can themselves be little more than an effort to avoid the shame of our failures. They “lessen the blows.” How can we say we will try harder? If we are honest with ourselves and with God we will admit that our efforts have failed before and will likely fail again. Our promises are words that stand between us and the silence of shame.

We can only go to that place of silence voluntarily. No one can take us there, nor should anyone force us (the extreme treatment in the Ladder is only done with the robber’s permission). But at the heart of our wordless shame is the good God who accepts us, embraces us, and clothes us with His own righteousness. He will not crush us nor use our shame against us.

Hesychia, true silence and stillness of heart, presses beneath the noise of the soul and its moral protests of promised improvement. I will not improve. I will not do better. I will be still. And know.

31 comments:

  1. Thank you father for your words are real words of hope. Each of bears something we cannot fix, like thorns in our sides that can only be defeated through confession and repentance. They may be removed in this life but if Saint Paul had to bear his then I can expect to bear mine until I depart this world. What helps is to know that these shortcoming, faults ans sins are really and truly forgiven.

  2. I’m reminded of the story of the Holy Liar with this piece. It’s beautiful. I think this is why I became Orthodox. No on else in the whole world says, with quite so much force: radical mercy for all. No qualifiers.

  3. I wonder about confession, Father. I feel only a dull numbness towards my past sins (I use the term “past sins” rather loosely, as they are not truly gone from my life). How does one move past this numbness to shame over something that seems so long ago?

  4. A lovely piece, Father. I tell my parishioners this all the time: Repentance is not moral uplift. Our job is not to forgive ourselves. Our job is not to marginally improve ourselves. Our job is not to earn anything from God. The first is unjust – we have no right to do so. The second is irrelevant – we are just pissing into the wind, building sand-castles on the beach at low tide. The third is impossible. We begin behind, and there is no catching up. It is our job to repent, to grieve for our sins, and beg for mercy. As one who grew up in Africa, I know: It is not words which make the deepest appeal from those in need. It is the look, the deep down heart-wrenching appeal of desperate eyes.

    Whether we are healed, to what degree, and when, is always up to God. None of us get out of here alive, and none of us leave with an unblemished record. In the end, it is God’s grace and love that saves us, or we will never be saved at all.

  5. Thank you , Father. Patience seems to be a theme I am stumbling upon quite a lot of late in my readings. I will simply pray and wait. Many thanks, again!

  6. Fr. Cassian,

    “Whether we are healed, to what degree, and when, is always up to God. None of us get out of here alive, and none of us leave with an unblemished record. In the end, it is God’s grace and love that saves us, or we will never be saved at all.”

    Thank you for these beautiful words….

    I will make a tiny contribution to this beautiful conversation by re-posting my favorite quote from Elder Epiphanios of Athens:

    “God has appointed the salvation of the world to His Son and not to us… We must first look at our soul, and, if we can, let’s help five or six people around us.”

    Thank you Fr. Stephen and all those who help here on this blog…

  7. First, thank you for this post. There is a great deal to mull over here.

    Second, and maybe more importantly, I do wonder if your reflection does not offer an unintentional excuse for the one-who-feels-shame to simply do nothing. And by “nothing” I don’t mean repent, for clearly that is at the heart of your reflection. What I mean is to actually make a conscious effort to move toward reform, to amend one’s way of life and sin no more (always with the cooperation of Grace).

    I have sat in AA meetings before and experienced people who are deeply ashamed of what they have done; express repentance (at least to the extent that forum allows); and would never once defend their past decisions or even make excuses. And yet they return to those same actions which filled them with shame in the first place, in an almost hopeless cycle of degradation and error which they seem to believe is inescapable.

    Moreover, what is repentance without a commitment to reform, that is, without a conscious desire — to use a time-honored expression — “to avoid the occasions of sin”? My concern here is that people will read take reflections like this to mean, “I am who I am; I can do nothing about it and if I commit to trying to reform, I am just denying who I truly am…,” etc.

  8. Gabriel,
    I understand your concern. I think the shame you describe is, in fact, short-circuited and ill-pastored. None of this works on your own or by yourself. It requires (as in the account from St. John) a wise spiritual pastor or friend. I think that what you are actually describing is self-loathing, which is, in fact, not actually the bearing of shame. Self-loathing is, paradoxically, a form of pride. It loathes the shame and refuses to bear it properly, and then repeats it again and again and refuses to be healed.

    “To admit we were powerless,” last time I checked, doesn’t mean “I’ll try harder.” The real heart of AA is that only a power greater than ourselves is able to heal us. If you’ve successfully sat in those meetings, then you know the equal futility of those who think they can do this alone. There are many, many paradoxes in our healing.

  9. My concern here is that people will read take reflections like this to mean, “I am who I am; I can do nothing about it and if I commit to trying to reform, I am just denying who I truly am…,” etc.

    I think that it is good to remember that we are only “who we truly are” in full communion with God. Lacking the fullness of that communion, we are never truly “us”. We just need to be thankful, remembering that it is God’s grace, not our own efforts, that is allowing us to turn to Him.

  10. Gabriel,
    Firstly, I cannot help but think that such phenomenally transformative shame-bearing as is recounted here by St John is the ultimate ‘magnet’ of God’s great Grace. This is affirmed by the fact that the abbot straight away gave the monastic habit to the penitent. However, what is also noteworthy here is that such a repentance is invariably complemented with a permanent renunciation (as is the case in the change of context of a monastic life) of the external causes of the penitent’s falls. He has escaped the old life context that makes his sins possible and asked to make this blessed ‘escape’ permanent, thus manifesting the strongest willingness to be transformed.

  11. Ah yes, patience…a virtue one should never pray to acquire…check out the scriptural methodology for its acquisition (James 1:2-3) or just do a biblegateway search for the word, check out the contexts and you’ll get the irony.
    Just like the subject of the popular meme, patience also ‘happens’…

  12. Moral doing as you have described it is a danger.

    What of the danger of some form of “passivity” — sitting on our hands as an interpretation of what it means to “wait” — as the form that powerlessness to do anything good or make progress?

    Jesus’ exhortations admit no “passivity” but, as you say, neither do they do not admit “moral doing” on our part.

    This speaks of an “effort” of some type that is not “effort” in the moral sense. The effort that is non-effort?

    The word “manifestation” and “participation” come to mind. Synergistic? I and yet not I? Without separation and without confusion?

    Once again, I submit this for your clarification.

  13. Fr. Thomas,
    Indeed it is not passivity. Rather it is true synergy. This, however, is often greatly misunderstood. It does not mean “I’ll do a little, and God will do a lot.” Our doing and God’s doing are not at all the same kind of doing. First off, theosis (union with God), is not a goal that belongs to the realm of morality. A perfectly moral human being who does nothing wrong is no closer to divinization or theosis than the worst sinner. A lump of coal and a lump of gold are neither closer nor further from being a bird.

    So, what do we contribute to our salvation (theosis)? We contribute or willingness to be transformed and our abandonment to God. The primary acts are repentance, prayer and the giving of alms. Of the three, interestingly, many of the fathers say that the giving of alms is the greatest.

    In repentance, we are not promising or trying to do better. We are, instead, surrendering ourselves to God and learning to “bear a little shame.” In prayer, we seek to unite ourselves to God by simply be present to Him. In the giving of alms, we offer thanksgiving for all that we have.

    Even atheists engage in moral action (most atheists that I know are highly moralistic, in fact). Is this a useful description?

  14. There is a big paradox here that is difficult to apprehend much less truly understand. The pride of feeling so terrible that not even God can help is part of it. Likewise the pride of feeling so uniquely terrible in a manner that tears at the fabric of human relationship and creates a sense of isolation so that the actual shame is never even examined.

    Self-loathing is a demonic temptation, a parasitic worm that seems to enter one’s heart for no real reason initially and becomes a self-replicating infection. It is a corollary of the demonic promise that we will not die but be as gods.

    Worldly achievement and “spiritual progress” as well as chronic failure or under performance can all be masks the real shame that lies underneath. Not to mention all sorts of self-destructive behavior and perverted behavior that is more obvious.

    I think that all of us bear the marks of succumbing to that temptation to one degree or another.

    Glory to God for His mercy which is always at hand.

  15. “I think that what you are actually describing is self-loathing, which is, in fact, not actually the bearing of shame. Self-loathing is, paradoxically, a form of pride. It loathes the shame and refuses to bear it properly, and then repeats it again and again and refuses to be healed.”

    I used to have a problem with partying and drinking, committing the same sin over and over again. And like Gabriel’s example I repeatedly felt miserable and guilty, over and over again, asking God for forgiveness, but never even coming close to quitting. I barely tried. I barely tried to try. But I did want to want to try. And I would much rather be in this state of “self-loathing” then not feeling any remorse at all over my sin, because it kept God in my thoughts, almost at all times. If I didn’t have this remorse it would have meant I had forgotten God entirely. That would be much worse, to lose God entirely. I did eventually quit, but not through repentance. I got married, got pregnant, and found out I have a chronic, life threatening disease, of which requires I take a medication that while on it I cannot safely drink. I count all of these circumstances as grace from God to finely help me to quit, because I don’t know that I ever would have actually repented this repetitive sin of mine.

    Maybe I didn’t properly bear the shame, but i don’t think it was because I pridefully refused to be healed. I do think I wanted to be healed. But I also wanted to get drunk. I must have wanted to be healed, or I don’t think I would be thankful for my life threatening disease helping me to quit. Maybe Im wrong though, because this accusation really irks me. But maybe i am only feeling defensive because of pride, not wanting to bear the shame of what I’ve been accused of.

    Anyhow, I think I sinned repetitively simply because I loved the high of drunkenness and partying more than I loved God. Not to say that I did not love my Husband at all, just not enough to keep me from infidelity. I lustfully desired the high more than God, and though I wanted to love my Husband, my desire and lust made me weak, and my eyes and my heart wondered. Maybe Gabriel’s alcoholic suffers from the same infidelity? I don’t see how this can be said to be a prideful loathing of the shame? Its more like a craving that pushes the shame aside momentarily in order to satisfy a strong desire, and then later the shame revisits in a painful way. I must admit, though, much of the pain is already knowing that when the craving arises again, the shame will be swept aside in preference of fulfilling the desire. Is this somehow the “pride that loathes the shame” that you are speaking of? Are pride and a strong lustful craving the same?

    Anyway, luckily God graced me with a family and a disease, knowing that I would love my children, and staying alive, more than getting high. Hopefully someday I will love God as much, then maybe I will be able to repent of these other sins I keep of committing over and over again. I mean, my goodness, I even love food more than God. I know this is true because I don’t think I ever once truly fasted, with an actual heart of fasting, even when i have succeeded in refraining from a little meat and dairy. Chances are, though, in the end it will take another outside circumstance, probably advanced physical sickness and looming death, to finally cut my hand off and pluck my eye out. Hopefully death and the looming threat of finally losing my Husband forever in hell will lead me to once and for all love Him and cling to Him, and be ever-faithful to Him.

    This reminds me of the Holy Fool referenced in the last blog post. He sinned greatly, but only came to repentance at the threat hell for his deceased beloved one. Without the change of circumstance, in which she died as an unrepentant, would he have ever repented? Maybe Gabriel’s alcoholic truly wants to be healed, but the circumstances that will be the catalyst for that healing have not yet come about. Maybe he will be thankful for whatever death or pain greets him, gracing him with relief from his sin.

    Lastly, I want to share a few excerpts from the Canon of Repentance to our Lord Jesus Christ from a prayer book I have:

    “O woe is me, a sinner! Wretched am I above all men. There is no repentance in me. Give me, O Lord, tears, that I may weep bitterly over my deeds.”

    “Alas for for me, a great sinner, who have defiled myself by my deeds and thoughts. Not a teardrop do I have because of my hardheartedness. But now, rise from earth, my soul, and repent of my evil deeds.”

    “My members tremble, for with all of them I have done wrong: with my eyes in looking, with my ears in hearing, with my tongue in speaking evil, and by surrendering the whole of myself to Gehenna. O my sinful soul, is this what thou hast desired?”

    “I have lived my life wantonly on earth and have given my soul unto darkness. But now I implore Thee, O merciful Master, free me from this work of the enemy and give me knowledge to do Thy will.”

    I think sometimes we repeat sins without true repentance because hell seems far away or non-existent. But sometimes we get caught by circumstances in life that brings hell right to our feet, and we can no longer ignore it. Then we become freed from sins that enslave us, making way for us to then bear our shame.

    Forgive me

  16. Michelle,
    In AA circles, there is a talk of “hitting the bottom.” There are some who are said to have a “high bottom,” and some a “low bottom,” meaning how far down you have to go to finally be able and willing to surrender and get well. There is lots of unproductive self-loathing on the way to a low bottom. I say “unproductive,” though, as you note, you needed it before you got to where you needed to be. That, I think, is simply the great grace of God.

  17. Michelle,

    Thank you so much for sharing here. As Fr. Stephen said in his reply, we all hit bottom at different depths… Some never do…

    My story is similar to yours (although in different of areas of life), and in some areas the difficulties still continue (I love the description of your relationship to fasting, I can relate to it perfectly).

    I think the main point for people like us is to recognize that God has entered our life at some point (I know for me it was not because of some great faith I had, but because I ran out of options for help and finally turned to Him with my desperate request “help, do something!” [that is literally how I “prayed”, I am embarrassed about it in retrospect]), and transformed it.

    And then to be very grateful for it. The more grateful we are for the sufferings we experienced or experience, the deeper the transformation. According to Fr. Zacharias, being thankful for “anything and everything” is a way for us to fulfill the commandment (for our contemporary times) to “keep our mind in hell and despair not”…

    May the Lord give you strength and courage to turn to Him and may His abundant Grace heal all areas of your life that still need healing… Thank you again for your post.

  18. Father, bless.

    Thank you for this wonderful post. I have been reading your blog posts for some time now, and they are a great joy to me, but this one hit home in particular as I am giving my lifetime confession tomorrow evening before my chrismation at Vespers this weekend.

    I only hope that I can follow the path described by St. John Climacus to lay bare my wounds, caused by my own negligence and nothing else. Thank you so much for your unknowing nurturing of my soul this past year.

    Please keep me in your prayers, Father, as I prepare to finally come home to the Orthodox Church.

  19. Father, thank you for this article. To many of us who’ve been around here a while, this is a completely familiar article and we’ve seen many like it. That’s one of the things I so love about your blog: rather than trying to be innovative, you keep hitting on the same themes over and over. You keep hitting these because you know that so many of us desperately need to “get it”.

    I just wish to say that after reading your posts for so long, and really struggling with these issues of “morality” and “what i’m supposed to do”, I feel like Fr. Cassian’s comment (above) and your comment from 2/23 @ 11:35 AM were the basehits that finally drove me in. I feel like I’m finally starting to “get it”. Thanks be to God. Praise the all Holy Trinity!

  20. This post is timely. It is as if you were watching me as I sat in my car after work yesterday. When I got in my car a voice in my mind reminded me of all the things I hoped would be covered up and forgotten. I sat there and recalled my failures. The failures in my work I hope my superiors never find. The personal financial mess I have created for myself that I hope I can resolve so that no one ever knows about it. The ways I have not valued my marriage. The things I have failed to instill in my children. The mistakes I have made with friendships. My pride, arrogance, and vanity. It goes on and on.

    No matter what good I may seem to do, it is always followed by failure. If there is one thing I can count on myself, it is that I will continually miss the mark. Historically I have prayed to the Lord to help me be who he wants me to be . . . in other words to be better. But more than ever . . . I am learning to ask for mercy. Because I finally get it. I’m not getting better. I need mercy. Thank you for pointing the way.

  21. The clinical definition of shame differs from this and could be confusing to some people. Shame as it is commonly defined now is to see oneself in a distorted way, which is to identify with what others have told you about yourself (usually in the context of an abusive relationship) rather than to feel remorse for and take responsibility for your sins. In fact, my limited understanding of confession through twenty years of difficult practice motivates me to suggest that it is not about shame at all, but about humility and repentance, which is a bit different, but the very thing I think Fr. Stephen describes here. Guilt is also something different than shame; it is, like pain, a signal that should motivate us to realize there is something wrong and to identify it within us. we should do that without taking the second step, which is to say, “because I have done this thing, I am worthless.” That is shame, and it is destructive, and it does not lead to true repentance.

  22. Eric,
    I’ve read a lot in the psychological material on shame, and I do not find it defined as you describe. “How I feel about who I am” is pretty much its definition. Now, I easily agree that this can be distorted by any number of things, and yet, even then, it’s the element of the distortion that we know to be true that carries the bulk of the experience of shame.

    In psychological treatment, shame is primarily countered by the practice of vulnerability, in which the fear is met and conquered. Confession is also a form of vulnerability and has a similar psychological benefit.

    The difference is that, following the Fathers, I am saying that shame is not inherently bad and something to be avoided and destroyed. It is, instead, a gateway and a path towards union with Christ on the Cross. Indeed, Elder Sophrony says, “The way of shame is the way of the Lord.”

    I’ve written carefully, that this can only be voluntary. Shame that is given to us and which is involuntary is toxic. This, also, is very important.

    Read carefully what I’ve written.

  23. The stuff I have read on shame recently as a Psychology student makes the distinction between who one is and what one has done. Feeling shame for the latter might be defined as guilt from which one may repent. Feeling shame for the former, according to the literature, is toxic.

    As a former Calvinist (it has been twenty years since I repudiated Calvinism during my baptism), I found the doctrine of the Church to be liberating. I am not a beast, though I have behaved like one. I can repent from what I have done, but not of who I essentially am — or so goes the rationale. The gospel is liberating because not only has Jesus redeemed us from sin by becoming sin and satisfying death, which is the foundation of sin, but he has done so because we are essentially valuable to Him.

    Death through sin corrupts and distorts human personality, but it does not intrinsically change who we are essentially as made in God’s image, called to His likeness, as it does in Western anthropology. We do not adhere to the heresy of total depravity. My further explorations of the fathers, such as St. Gregory of Nyssa, St. Basil, and many others, affirms this.

    My guess is that in the terms of some psychological systems, as well as in the popular ethos, shame tends to be imposed from an external source, especially in churches that focus on abstract morality and emphasize social sins in order to convict the hearts of the sinner and motivate them to repentance. Understanding shame as merely seeing oneself realistically has been a bit obscured, and I would call that humility anyway, rather than shame.

    But I do not think we disagree. I am further clarifying my thoughts based upon your last few careful sentences in your response.

  24. Eric,
    Yes. Psychology tends to view all shame as toxic, and I think this is incorrect. The distinction I make is that toxic shame is imposed from without. But voluntary shame (perhaps unimaginable to psychology) is indeed liberating and something done in union with Christ. It must, however, be voluntary.

    God never says to us, “You are not worthy.” However, I can say, “I am not worthy,” and it be wholly beneficial. It is frequently problematic that many people see the printed prayers of the Church (written by saints) in which phrases like “I am not worthy,” etc. occur, and hear them telling them “you are not worthy.” And they then experience them as shaming. But such words can only be said voluntarily because we mean them ourselves. And this spares us from shame. But most people do not know how to voluntarily bear shame for the purposes of prayer, etc. It is why I am writing and speaking a great deal on the topic. It is misunderstood and too neglected.

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