A Deadly Communion

 

Habits are hard things to break. I quit smoking almost 30 years ago (cold turkey). It was more than difficult and came only after many failed attempts. But, in many ways, such a habit is among the easier to deal with. Far more difficult, and far more deadly, are the habitual patterns of human interaction that mark our lives. They are the single most important source of anxiety, depression and despair as well as anger and violence. These habits are so common that we think of them as normal and unchangeable. Many aspects of these habits are by-products of modern culture and its assumptions. For the most part, these habits constitute the truly sinful patterns in our lives, though most of them will never be rightly acknowledged or confessed.

The most significant of these patterns of interaction involve shame, a topic to which I have been giving special attention. It plays a fundamental role within the personality and holds a key place in the Orthodox spiritual tradition. Shame, in psychological terms, has to do with “global” feelings regarding the self. It answers the question: “Who or what am I?” There can be shame about particular things we have done (guilt), often termed “moral shame.” Whenever I am speaking with someone (or even about someone) and make a global assertion (“you are an idiot,” “you are a racist,” etc.), I have shamed them. I am not here saying that all such statements are wrong. There are occasions in which moral shame is important in helping someone understand that their behavior is having terrible consequences. But there is a hidden cost in every assertion of shame. That cost is found in the communal character of shame itself.

Whenever we encounter shame in someone else, we ourselves experience shame. It is a collective experience. The person who forgets their line in a play is not only embarrassed and ashamed, the entire audience experiences some shared sense of shame. It is odd, perhaps, but we are simply wired that way. Thus, when we induce shame in another (even theoretically), we are never immune. We grab them and jump off the cliff with them.

Think about political judgments. No one could have come through this past year in America without substantial political opinions. Regardless of who you might think is wrong, evil, incompetent, crude, criminal, dangerous, etc., the very thought carries with it some share of the shame. For the very thought itself is a shaming event. If we express the thought, perhaps posting a comment or article on Facebook, we ourselves experience shame, though primarily as anger or sadness (shame is, most often, morphed into these emotions instantaneously). The depths of anger and depression that engulfed the nation (mostly anger) this past year are simply the aggregate of our public shame. It offers no joy. What little “joy” most experience is, in fact, schadenfreude, the perverse pleasure we experience over someone else’s shame.

And this represents a cycle of sorts, a habitual behavior. Shame begets shame. If I make a negative global statement regarding you, your ideas or opinions, the result is shame (yours and mine). Generally, that will provoke an angry or depressed response, which will engender shame in me, followed by my angry or depressed response. And so the cycle goes. It is a downward spiral in which no one wins. It is a communion of death.

Such cycles often govern huge segments of our lives, with people slowly building lifestyles of avoidance. Shame is painful (as is its accompanying anger and sadness). Spiritually, this cycle of shaming is a fulfillment of the warning that those who judge will themselves be judged, only in a very short-term and intense manner. Those who shame are automatically drawn into the experience of shame themselves. The judgment of shaming is always mutual.

Breaking the Cycle

It is common in the spiritual life to look for peace of mind or ways to engage in the work of salvation. One of the key admonitions of the Fathers is to “guard your heart.” Technically called “nepsis” or “sobriety,” this guarding of the heart refers to paying attention to the character of our thoughts and actions. Few things can be as central to the spiritual life as taking care to break the habit and cycle of shame.

Modern public life is often grounded in the forces of shame and its conflicts. Our self-conception as democratic individuals leads us to assume that we are responsible for the outcome of history and that our voices and opinions shape the world. The corollary, of course, is that the cacophony of other voices competes with ours to do the same. Our neighbor becomes our competitor, often our enemy, numbered among those who bear the shame of ruining the world. The thought that we could ignore this demand of history’s outcome sounds like surrender and capitulation.

Christianity is not a blueprint for fixing the world or correcting the outcome of history. It does not consist of the project of building the kingdom of God in this world. Were such a thing the case, Christ would have been a Mohammed-like character. Instead, He is the Crucified God. Only the Cross addresses the cycle of shame and breaks it. It does this by “bearing” shame rather than creating it.

This is the very heart of the gospel, and the deep scandal of Christianity (and the primary reason it is so rarely practiced). In general, we do not believe in the Cross as a way of life. Instead, we remove the Cross into a parenthetical historical event where God does something to save us. We can refer to the event as a historical moment, and even depict it in art and hang it on the wall or around our necks. But to see the Cross as the road map of the Christian life is not only unthinkable, it is something against which most Christians will argue with vehemence.

What we put in place of the Cross is a moral project, the reconstruction of the world – done in the name of the Cross. And though this moral reconstruction has many salutary points (if it ever actually worked), it is nevertheless ultimately the product of violence and shame. That is the nature of the political life of the secular world. “This practice is good. Those who do it are good, those who don’t are bad.” And we muster all of the various forces of persuasion (including shame) to bring it about. We see ourselves as the agents of a better world, in the name of the Cross.

However, the Cross has nothing in common with this project. The Elder Sophrony correctly described the Cross with the words, “The way of shame is the way of the Lord.” The “way of shame” is Christ’s path of bearing shame rather than creating shame. It is the breaking of the cycle by willingly and voluntarily accepting an unjust shame, even the shame of the other.

The mocking shame of the Cross can be heard on the lips of those who crucified Him: “If you are the Christ, come down from the Cross!” To “come down” is to engage in the violence of reaction and the forceful correction of the world. It is to vanquish those who shame Him and force them (and the world) to behave. We ourselves have engaged in the same mockery ever since: “Why doesn’t God do something about this? Why does God allow such evil?”

“Allowing such evil” belongs to the very character of the Cross and God’s way with the world. Allowing such evil is of a piece with allowing my own freedom. Christ’s healing of my evil is accomplished by His acceptance of my evil within the burden of shame that He is willing to bear. In in the very evil that He allows, I find that He has united Himself to me. He enters my shame and transforms me at that very point – and nowhere else!

This is the content of the Cross. And we are invited to be participants in that very same work:

Let this mind be in you which was also in Christ Jesus, who, being in the form of God, did not consider it robbery to be equal with God, but made Himself of no reputation, taking the form of a bondservant, and coming in the likeness of men. And being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself and became obedient to death, even the death of the cross. (Phi 2:5-8)

“Let this mind be in you…” St. Paul’s description of Christ’s self-emptying embrace of our shame (“even the death of the Cross”) is also given as the prescription of the Christian life. Others may run the world and manage the outcome of history. For us, Christ Crucified is the true outcome of history and the end of all things. His resurrection stands as witness to this and invitation to follow Him. And, make no mistake, it is into the shame of the Cross that we are invited to walk.

Whosoever would be my disciple, let him deny himself, take up his cross and follow me.

In our voluntary union with Christ and His Cross, we bear a little shame, and bring the cycle of shame and violence into the silence and healing of paradise.

53 comments:

  1. Father,
    Years ago I remember reading an account by the late Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen of Concentration Camp inmates at Auschwitz being forced to walk past the body of a hanged inmate who had attempted to escape. One of the prisoners said in a low voice, but loud enough for others to hear, “Where is God?!”. Another inmate answered, “He is hanging before us!”. I never completely understood Sheen’s point until reading your post today. Thank you.

  2. Thank you father! Just what I needed to read… I would like to ask you if this process is at all related to porn and masturbation, as an act of shaming ourselves and enjoying the shame of the others involved in it. There is a very big debate among young generations that can be found here: https://www.reddit.com/r/NoFap/
    very often their considerations entail some religious realization, I would very much like to know your take on this.
    I myself am overpowered by this sin, and it’s resisting to it only casts me in a barren desert of emptiness. Sometimes God comes to the rescue and gives me strength, but when I feel left to my own devices, I yield.

    Many thanks

  3. Whosoever would be my disciple, let him deny himself, take up his cross and follow me.

    I have not heard this “preached” in many years. Thank you, Father Freeman, for your wisdom!

  4. Father doesn’t shame come from realizing that you’ve done something wrong? If people cannot come to the knowledge of their wrong doing because the knowledge they received is false, how can they possibly feel shame? If they have embraced the lie that the evil is external to them, how can they ever see themselves as being the worst sinner? If we see our brother heading unknowingly in a spiritually unhealthy direction, do we let them pass without a word? If so, how can we be Christ’s disciples? I know you are right about baring our brother’s shame, but if he doesn’t have it what do we bare then? There are some things I wasn’t totally aware of before the election. Now that I clearly see them, I am frightened for the future of this country. Trump winning the election means nothing to me, but the way that people have responded has been horrific, and that is what I find so disturbing. Feel like I’m watching everything fall completely apart right in front of my eyes. I am frightened and devastated.

  5. Quote:
    But to see the Cross as the road map of the Christian life is not only unthinkable, it is something against which most Christians will argue with vehemence.
    End Quote

    Yes yes yes yes yes yes – since becoming Orthodox it seems as though none of my Protestant friends understand just how much the Cross should mean to our lives. Even I don’t understand it.

    Heck, I don’t understand one-fourth of Orthodox teachings. However, there is one thing I do know about Orthodoxy. God called me to Orthodoxy and so here I am.

    I don’t know why or for what reason God called me to Orthodoxy, but then I don’t need to understand or know why or for what reason because God did it and God is Good so anything He does is good and that’s enough. God is worthy of Trust; it’s harder to do than to say but it’s still the truth that God is worthy of Trust and that’s that.

  6. Cliff,
    If I listen to the logismoi (distracting thoughts) in my head, I get anxious too. I need to rather listen to Paul’s exhortation;
    “Have no anxiety about anything, but in everything by prayer and thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which passes all understanding, will keep your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.” Phil.4:6,7

  7. “Christianity is not a blueprint for fixing the world or correcting the outcome of history.”
    Great quote and very thought-provoking essay, particularly on a day when Americans commemorate a man who worked to fix the world, while attempting to adhere to Christian principles.
    I think a lot of the hostility and chaos in the recent Presidential election comes because many of us place being liberal or conservative (or Democrat or Republican) ahead of being a follower of Jesus Christ.

  8. Michael,
    Placing the political conversation (of any sort or flavor) before Christ is inevitable if we come to think we are responsible for correcting the outcome of history. And, worse still, we will claim that our work is in the name of Christ.

  9. Father, This hits hard. I was not even able to read it all.

    By the grace of God I was recently given insight into the source of my shame. Still all of the destruction and pain I caused by reacting out of that shame is largely hidden from me ( also by God’s grace). Though I have been assured that somehow that is being healed and reordered too.

    Still, this article brought to mind/heart a very particular, close and ongoing consequence of my covering of shame. A consequence that I will have to engage for the good of those I love.

    I am not looking forward to it.

    By your prayers, I will manage probably with weeping and gnashing of teeth.

    Lord have mercy.

  10. Lorenzo,
    The shame associated with this sin is far worse than the sin itself. A wise monk that I know counsels men to rise up as quickly as possible and do prayers (like a prayer rope of Jesus Prayer). Do not hesitate. Do not let the devil or your conscience tell you that you are unworthy to pray. Do not hide from God in this (He always sees us). But rise up immediately and He will protect you. He fights for you always and in everything. Do not despair. Rise up and pray.

  11. Cliff, you said, I “Feel like I’m watching everything fall completely apart right in front of my eyes. I am frightened and devastated.”

    The answer is in Father Stephen’s article:

    ““Let this mind be in you…” St. Paul’s description of Christ’s self-emptying embrace of our shame (“even the death of the Cross”) is also given as the prescription of the Christian life. Others may run the world and manage the outcome of history. For us, Christ Crucified is the true outcome of history and the end of all things. His resurrection stands as witness to this and invitation to follow Him. And, make no mistake, it is into the shame of the Cross that we are invited to walk.

    Whosoever would be my disciple, let him deny himself, take up his cross and follow me.”

    I bad-mouthed Hillary, expressed doubts about Trump, and feel the same way that you feel except for the frightened and devastated part because I know that Christ is in charge and my responsibility lies in picking up my cross, bearing the shame and following Jesus Christ.

    Father Stephen also says:

    “Allowing such evil” belongs to the very character of the Cross and God’s way with the world. Allowing such evil is of a piece (sic) with allowing my own freedom. Christ’s healing of my evil is accomplished by His acceptance of my evil within the burden of shame that He is willing to bear. In in the very evil that He allows, I find that He has united Himself to me. He enters my shame and transforms me at that very point – and nowhere else!

    This is the content of the Cross. And we are invited to be participants in that very same work:”

    As I contemplated this article, for some reason, I began to think about Cain killing Abel in Genesis. Going back and forth between the Septuagint (LXX) and the King James renditions, I ran into some differences (Gen. 4:4-8). I tend to go with the Septuagint when they differ. Both Cain and Abel brought a sacrifice to God with Abel’s being acceptable, but Cain’s not so. In verse 5, Cain seems to be depressed (shame). and in verse And God said to Cain (verse 7, LXX paraphrased) , ‘you sinned, Cain when you brought the offering correctly, but failed to divide it correctly’; then the text says, “be still, to thee shall be his submission, and you shall rule over him.” The question is, who is God saying will submit to Cain? My guess is Abel, the younger of the two.

    The King James differs here and attributes submission and rule for Cain over sin: verse 7, “If thou doest well, shalt thou not be accepted? and if thou doest not well, sin liest at the door”; another text says sin is crouching at the door. Sin seems to have personhood at this point and, freedom gives Cain the ability to choose rightly or wrongly.

    And, the result of Cain’s shame is that he rules over his brother (who submits) and takes Abel out into the desert and kills him. In this case, shame produces murder.

  12. Thank you, Father for such an extraordinary article! And i thank God for pouring such light in your heart and words to open our minds and hopefully the eyes of our hearts to see and understand the true essence of the Christian life!

  13. Lorenzo,

    The relapse to these enslavements of porn which are basically “romanticizing and glamorizing one’s shamelessness in shamefulness” is clearly soul-torturing, but it is also humbling – which is not without some value. Key here is for us to not languish in self-preoccupied guilt at our obvious weakness, but to accept it without, however, giving up the fight.
    We are climbing up the mountain to reach the summit of freedom from enslavement despite having several stumbles on the way up.
    As St Nikodemus explains in Spiritual Warfare, one must accept that ‘this is not a shock to me that I fell again, this is who I really am, but that does not mean God won’t free me in time’.
    Another vital thing is that patience and forbearance of one’s passion/addiction of this type in particular [and in the above outlined frame of mind of St Nikodemus, is a cross we must bear –one which has the function of an ‘ascetic practice’.
    God sees this and, in combination with our rushing to beseech his assistance all the more frequently, and will crown those who endure.
    There’s a well-known story in the ‘Sayings of the Desert Fathers’ (perhaps my all time favourite) about a monk who was addicted to this sexual passion and would fall daily yet also repent daily! After years of this he had made no apparent progress, just that same pattern kept being repeated… One day as he rushed into Church crying his eyes out and repenting about the usual issue, Satan appeared to him bodily, by the icon of our Lord, trying to thwart him [we can see this as proof the monk was doing something right despite his continuing enslavement], Satan said to him that he shouldn’t be coming to Christ covered in his freshly committed sinfulness etc etc… However, the fascinating thing is that then Christ appeared immediately after, rebuking the devil in front of the eyes of his, not-yet-liberated but somewhat-deeply-devoted sinful son, He said to the devil that ‘just as you accept him every time he comes to you to sin after having promised me this will never be repeated, so will I accept him when he does the opposite, and to prove to you that I honour his patience and struggle with his passion, I will take him from this life now that I have found him in repentance and place him with the martyrs…(!)

    Lorenzo, it will take a while but eventually you will be victorious with our Lord’s help, it is His victory and not ours!

  14. Thank you Father and thank you Dino! I will not despair and keep on going through this struggle, fully knowing that my power is limited but accepting my weakness and humbly seek for the support you mentioned. I will not ‘whip myself’ over this anymore, but won’t cave in to this spiral of darkness either.
    Again, thank you so much for your advice! God bless you

  15. Cliff, there is shame that comes from knowledge that you did something, or many things, wrong. That is not the only kind of shame however. There is a shame that results from the perception that I, my very existence, am wrong no matter what I do.

    The covering strategies, fear, anger, violence, substance abuse, porn, etc are what causes the real damage.

  16. Certainly romantic in style but a line from the musical Man of LaMancha seems in concert with Dino’s story:. ” What matter wounds to the body of a knight errant, for each time he falls he shall rise again and woe to the wicked!”

  17. Dear Father: I look forward to reading your blog every week–and I enjoyed your book—-en passant in process of selecting books for my library I stumbled upon this and thought of you [see description of book, for ex. in amazon]…I have no idea if it’s any good. It looks like it addresses themes you have delved into. So feel free to delete this FYI, it’s not specific to your post. Author appears to be a Roman Catholic theolgian? Thanks
    The Legitimacy of the Human -Hardcover – March 30, 2017
    by Rémi Brague (Author), Paul Seaton (Translator)

  18. Shame is far more powerful than sin itself. I think it not too much to say that Satan rather uses sin to ensnare us in shame than vice versa. It has been my observation that, if any sin becomes divested from shame, the sin practically sheds itself, dissipating without effort on the part of the person.
    Here’s how it works: Sin is like Cerberus. One only emerges from the gehenna of sin into the jaws of shame. The only reprieve from shame one can attain to is in the gehenna fires of the sin itself. (This is why Adam temporarily hid from shame by returning to the tree of his sin).
    This is what it looks like in practice: One begins to be tempted by a sin. Of course, the person is ashamed that they are even being tempted. Ashamed that they have fallen so many times. That they are having to put forth such a gargantuan effort to combat the sin. And the more the person resists, the greater the shame oppresses. Reminding oneself that the shame will be greater if one gives in is, of course, to no avail – the shame experienced will always outweigh the shame imagined. The shame becomes so great, that the person ultimately seeks temporary reprieve in the only shameless place available – the sin itself. And of course, the shame intensifies upon emerging – which only increases its effectiveness in the next round. And so the vicious cycle continues, deepening each time.
    Divest a sin of shame, and a man will forsake the sin without even realizing he has done so. Shame is the shackle that coerces the dog to repeatedly return to its own vomit.

  19. Justin,
    In Biblical terms, Adam hides because of his shame, not because of his sin. Very much as you suggest. I agree. There is, of course, a deeper level in all of this. Psychological shame is simply the surface of something far deeper – the shame that Adam knew and the shame from which Christ did not hide His face but bore on the Cross. That shame, I think, can be described as death itself – the threat of true non-existence.

  20. I wonder, Fr. Stephen, if that shame is an awareness that *I deserve death*.

    On a psychological level, people sometimes believe this if feeling deep shame. However, I would never suggest to anyone that they deserve death – for that would sound like I am accepting the tempter’s message that suicide is an reasonable response to shame – which of course it is not.

    What I am hypothesizing is that, on a deeper spiritual level, we all “deserve” death because our sin separates us from God, the Source of Life. And we would all experience that ultimate death were it not for Christ who bore our condemnation (shame) freely and out of love – as the one Person who had no cause to “deserve” it.

    I am wondering if our psychological experience of shame is a limited/distorted awareness of this deeper reality. In other words, in profound shame, we may *feel* that we deserve death but misunderstand what this actually means. Our adversary distorts our perception so that we attack ourselves – rather than humbly turn to Christ and accept His infinite mercy.

    Does this make sense?

  21. Mary,
    Makes sense. I agree that the “I deserve death” is a voice within shame. I do not, however, think it is theologically true (despite how often it is asserted by some). I’ll have to ponder it more. I’m probably revolting at the word “deserve.” Death is an enemy – not our deserved end. We were created for well-being and eternal being. I do not think our deviation from that path causes us to deserve something else.

  22. Fr. Stephen, I’m reading an interesting book right now called, “To Change the World: The Irony, Tragedy and Possibility of Christianity In a late Modern World.” The author is a Protestant Sociologist, James Hunter. He is critiquing the proclivity to view Christianity as only having a political response to the world. He of course outlines the ironies and tragedies in the Christian Left and the Right (the Constantinian Tragedy in particular), but he also identifies the Neo-Anabaptist response (one of cross-bearing, radical stance of the Church, ecclesial, communal, poverty, peace etc) as one that is also framed in political terms. Some even saying that a real cross is one that is speaking to a negative aspect of the culture, one you choose in order to be radical. Real crosses are not, the things of life like passions, the death of a loved one, personal hardship etc. He quotes Huerwas a lot when discussing the New-Anabaptist response and much of it sounds like your writing here and in other postings.

    I am wondering if you can highlight how the Orthodox position is apolitical, if it is, or how it stands in comparison to the Christian Right, Left and Neo-Anabaptist ways of being Christian in the world. It is easy for me to see the difference between the right and the left, but I’m a little confused about the Neo-Anabaptist response.

  23. This is honestly such a very very good series of articles and comments… and something I have also struggled with in life – having an appropriate shame.

    If Christ tramples down death by death, how can we deserve it?

    That is voice of the darkness of the void toxic shame – one bereft of hope – that seriously could lead one to suicide.

    But what about from a healthy version of shame, can saying “I deserve death” be similar to saying “wretch that I am” in one of our hymns, “Open to me the Doors of Repentance”

    “When I think of the many evil things I have done, “wretch that I am”,
    I tremble at the fearful day of judgement.
    But trusting in Thy living kindness, like David I cry to Thee:
    Have mercy on me, O God, according to Thy great mercy.”

    Maybe?

  24. Barbara, the folks I have interacted with over the years in the tradition you mention do not have a real understanding of the sacramental reality of life. Thus they tend to a two storey approach. But with a twist. God is in charge, but directing things from afar.

    I also think the difference between political and ideological needs to be made. Politics in its most basic sense is simply acting in consort with others to order a group and achieve a goal. Thus all of us are political.

    Ideology is far different. It has come to dominate and distort the political process over the last 160 years or so but has always been with us. Ideology is always destructive. It is always about achieving power and “purifying”.

    The historical outbreaks of ideological ferver are too numerous to mention, but now all politics and social interaction has become ideological.

    It is shame based and always against God. Worshipping the created thing instead of the creator. It’s real aim is to control by fear and force. Thus Mao’s dictum that “all political power grows out of the barrel of a gun”

    It ignores and villifies the person at the expense of the “greater good” while at the same time elevating the individual will and passions over the comnunity and God. Solzhenitsyn warned against all ideology. He was right.

    The Orthodox Church is inherently non-ideological because we are about communion with the living God. We still have our troubles with it.

    Western expressions of Christianity tend toward the ideological, especially those who have abandoned sacrament and sacramental living.

    But it is in full blown heresies that ideology has fertile soil. Unfortunately many social movements and …isims embody Christian heresies or share many characteristics of such lies.

    Thus the Orthodox Church and we in it can and do act politically, but we must eschew ideology, even in our soteriology.

    That is my take. Open for debate and corrections.

  25. Barbara,
    Significant questions. I hear echoes of Hauerwas in my work – I was his student. The neo-Anabaptists (such as John Howard Yoder) actually present the gospel in a “political” form, but it’s a very nuanced meaning to the word political. And it is that nuanced meaning that Hauerwas uses. Their meaning of “political” would be something like “the social order.” Yoder contends that following the commandments of Christ has inevitable consequences to the social order if for no other reason than it refuses to be guided by it. Rather, the gospel assumes that history has its ending and fulfillment in the death and resurrection of Christ. When that is the sole purpose of our existence, then it is like we are magnetic indicators, pointing to a direction other than the one dictated by the worldly political order. I agree with that.

    I think the “Constantinian Tragedy” is deeply overblown, and written with assumptions about Church history that are simply incorrect. There is a Constantinian Tragedy Narrative that has Protestant fingerprints (with Anabaptist gloves) all over it. I struggled with this at a certain point and concluded that it was a false analysis. First, the Church was often persecuted by the very same empire it is accused of serving. Having a Christian Emperor or Tsar has been a very difficult thing for the Church, repeatedly. Second, all of that analysis of the “Tragedy” ignores the central place and importance of monasticism within Orthodoxy. It is a constant and abiding critique of the Empire (and all the Kingdoms of this world). These critiques are written by the non-Orthodox who are, frankly, pretty clueless about us. I love Hauerwas, but he has never really quite “gotten” Orthodoxy.

    Orthodoxy proper, is “apolitical” in the sense that it does not serve the established order as though that order was an essential part of life. Rightly practiced, the life of the Church is always an abiding judgment on this world and its politics. Our members, however, are also citizens and are often not immune to the siren-song of worldly politics. Politics as we know it, is a purely modern phenomenon, and depends completely on the assumptions of modern philosophies. Part of my continuing critique of modernity addresses that. The assumptions of democracies, in which everyone is “drafted” into complicity with the ruling order, as if by birth, is one of many fallacies. That fallacy constantly makes us feel that we must be political, in the worldly sense. And it’s just not true.

  26. Victoria,
    Yes, I think so. There is in the language of devotion, the excess of poetic ecstasy. That excess gets taken in a very dark direction, for example, in the hands of a serious Calvinist-type. That dark assessment of human nature and its deserts are contrary to Orthodoxy. The heart rightly says certain things, but they are said as a lover in a dialog with the Beloved. We say, “Wretch that I am,” and the Beloved says, “Forgive them. They know not what they do.” We say, “Open to me the Doors of Repentance!” and the doors open and His Body and Blood are brought forth for us to feast. The language and life of paradox only make sense as love.

  27. Just a bit of clarification regarding my use of the word “deserve”…

    I put it in quotes when I first used it for a reason – it is hard to identify the proper word for what I mean. I will use a simple analogy:

    I am sitting in a room that is light because there is a lamp on. If I unplug the lamp, I will be in darkness. In a sense, I “deserve” the darkness – or perhaps, more properly I should say my *action* warrants or merits my experience of darkness.

    If God is the source of Life, if I “unplug” myself from Him, my action warrants death. If I disconnect myself from the source of Life, how can I not be dead?

    Analogies are limited, of course. In one sense, God doesn’t allow us to totally separate ourselves from Him – for He knew before He created us that there we would sin and He knew before we sinned that He would come to us to save us from the death that would otherwise be our fate. (I don’t know, of course, that these were precisely God’s thoughts but this is my understanding of Christian teaching.)

    Hence, I am affirming that God made us for Life and union with Him. He became flesh in Christ and gave Himself up to keep us from death. He could trample down death because His was an act of pure love – because He entered it voluntarily for us when He had never done anything to merit it, i.e. to separate Himself from the Father.

    Since He had no need to do this to save Himself, His death became an act of perfect love, of perfect selflessness — which is the exact opposite of (and perfect weapon against) the original evil of pride that the tempter introduced into our world, resulting in our fall.

    “I deserve death” is a lie that people often believe when they feel deep shame. But many lies contain a kernel of truth – which is why we too often fall victim to them. Hence, the psychological symptom is derived from the kernel of truth, but been twisted by the enemy (making it a lie).

    I hope my hypothesis is a bit clearer, even though it is still very likely I am all wrong. 🙂

  28. Thank you, Fr. Stephen, for your very helpful comments. As I read Hunter’s description of the neo-anabaptist position, I also found myself resonating with much of what he was saying – I think because I have been reading your blog for so long. Where I got stuck was in his critique of their inability to be affirming of anything in the world, especially in more radical versions of it (for example, the new protestant monastics). I also found his discussion of their understanding of cross bearing hard because it seemed almost prideful to seek out a cross that is social/political and visible, rather than simply being a faithful presence, accepting the cross(es) of your context, becoming ontologically brilliant where you are (Evdokimov). I do see all three tendencies in orthodoxy – to think about being Christian in terms of the political left or right, but also a radical orthodoxy stance.

    I have not thought of orthodox monasticism or the orthodox church as a negation of the world for a policital purpose, but an affirmation of true life (a presence) that judges by its strength.

    I think it is easy to see the error of the political focus in both the left and the right, maybe not as easy to see the error/tragedy in the neo-anabaptist response. Radical orthodoxy can maybe also be a modern temptation.

  29. Thank you, Michael, I think you are right. Ideology is linked to all three types of policial stances, with an emphasis on purification/power. It is so difficult for us to act and be self-emptying at the same time, to not want to control the response to our actions.

  30. Barbara,
    I think the weakness of the Anabaptist (neo and otherwise) analysis, including Hauerwas, is that it is essentially nothing more than a moral position. It’s not really ontological. Orthodoxy would say (and has said) that the prayers of a single righteous person can sustain the whole world. One of the things I have sought to do in my writing is to ask the question, “If that is true, what must it say about the nature of things?” The only answer can be ontological.

    And, of course, the weakness of a merely moral position is that it doesn’t really need a God, just a set of ideas. And so, I could say to Hauerwas, “What if Christ never actually rose from the dead. How would that change your position?” The answer would be that the basis for the “politics of Jesus” would be undermined – in that our faith tells us that in Christ God has already determined the outcome of history.”

    But the mechanism of that political/moral approach would not be changed. It’s simply that it would be built on false assumptions.

    The ontological approach, however, can only be true and ever work, only, and if only, there really is a God and what He did in Christ Jesus is real and true.

    The moral/political implications of the ontological victory of Christ may frequently look similar to those of the Anabaptists, etc., but are not bound by that nor do they share the same assumptions. For me, this means that the way of failure, weakness, shame, etc., that are united with Christ’s death on the Cross, are ontologically effective regardless of the political recognition accorded to them.

    Interestingly, I’ve never seen Hauerwas give a serious account of prayer. All that is to say that I like what I can borrow and find useful within those positions, but have to ground them in the reality of an ontological approach. The neo-Anabaptist critique is very useful – but there are limitations that can only be overcome in Orthodoxy. Or so I believe.

  31. Father a friend and fellow parishoner made the statement last night that “We don’t believe in heaven, but the Ressurection.”.

    Seemed to me that neatly sums up what you are describing. Heaven is a moral, even ideological proposition that does not require God. The Resurrection is entirely different.

    Shoot I may get a bumper sticker with that on it.

  32. Dear Fr Stephen

    I stumbled upon this verse this morning and immediately thought of this thread of shame and all the comments.

    It is from Baruch 5:1-2 and about the Jewish community in Babylonian exile as they finally begin to soften their hearts and return to the Lord.

    ” O Jerusalem take off the garment of your sorrow and your oppression, and put on the beauty from the God of glory forever. Put around you the double robe of righteousness from God; set upon your head the diadem of the glory of the Eternal One.”

    What struck me most is the footnote:

    “Double robe of righteousness – God’s righteousness comes to those living in shame”

    It it a long shot to see a parallel with the double robe of righteousness adorned on this community and the finest robe the Father gives the Prodigal? It’s as if the Lord is rushing out to embrace this Prodigal community as he did the Prodigal Son.

    Also Elder Sophrony’s words of “bearing a little shame” in terms of healing.

    Is it that “bearing our shame” is part of returning to our senses – to open healing and the embrace of the Lord?

  33. Father a friend and fellow parishoner made the statement last night that “We don’t believe in heaven, but the Ressurection.”.

    Seemed to me that neatly sums up what you are describing. Heaven is a moral, even ideological proposition that does not require God. The Resurrection is entirely different.

    Shoot I may get a bumper sticker with that on it.

    We should order a box of them, Michael! I want one!

    It it a long shot to see a parallel with the double robe of righteousness adorned on this community and the finest robe the Father gives the Prodigal? It’s as if the Lord is rushing out to embrace this Prodigal community as he did the Prodigal Son.

    Wonderful, Victoria! Sounds spot-on to me.

  34. Byron, Michael,
    The statement can easily be misunderstood to mean that we subscribe to “soul sleep” (there’s nothing at all between death and the final resurrection). We do not. The soul is “absent from the body” and “present with the Lord.” It enjoys the foretaste of paradise or the foretaste of torment. And when we’ve said such things, we are speaking a different language for which we have to struggle to know what the meanings might be. “The Souls of the Righteous are in the hands of God.”

  35. You are right Father, that was the way my wife took it. Still, I like it. Of course it is almost impossible to do anything with accuracy on a bumper sticker concerning the Church. That is a good thing.

    The Resurrection begins with our Baptism and it never stops. Or so it seems to me.

  36. I do not have a bumper sticker, but my back window has a small Orthodox Cross, and the saying, in 2 inch letters or so: “Let us call brothers even those that hate us and forgive all by the resurrection.” It has given nice opportunities for sharing the gospel in some parking lots.

  37. Father and Michael,

    I have a sticker with the Jesus Prayer in Georgian. It’s really beautiful. When people ask, I tell them that it is “a prayer in Georgian”. They smile and walk away…
    Another crazy lady… 🙂

  38. Fr. Stephen,
    You mentioned how in a parking lot the window sticker sometimes gives you opportunity to share the gospel. How do you do that succinctly or does it vary with each person?

  39. The statement can easily be misunderstood to mean that we subscribe to “soul sleep” (there’s nothing at all between death and the final resurrection). We do not.

    Well, rats. Another clever meme fails to present the fullness of Orthodoxy! Who would have thought? 🙂

    I do not have a bumper sticker, but my back window has a small Orthodox Cross, and the saying, in 2 inch letters or so: “Let us call brothers even those that hate us and forgive all by the resurrection.” It has given nice opportunities for sharing the gospel in some parking lots.

    Nice. I had a woman at the grocery store register comment on how much she liked my “necklace” last night. I explained it is the St. Andrews Cross of the Orthodox Church. I got the impression that she had no idea what I was talking about. We do what we can.

  40. The quote and footnote from Victoria may relate a bit to some thoughts on Sts. Joachim and Anna

    The holiness of the Theotokos seems in some way related to that of her parents. They faced scorn and ridicule for being childless for many years. The OCA.org feasts and saints page describes some of this in it documentation on the Nativity of the Theotokos
    https://oca.org/saints/lives/2017/09/08/102541-the-nativity-of-our-most-holy-lady-the-mother-of-god-and-ever-vi

    It seems that this type of shame is especially difficult, as it is shame that has no type of fault or guilt linked to it

    Sts. Joachim and Anna would have had to bear this shame for so long but did so with faith

    I think there is also a common experience of shame without guilt among parents who experience miscarriage of a child.

    In late 2011 I had that experience and it was so unexpected. Searching the phrase Glory to God for all things in my grief a few months later is how I found this blog

    There was shame in the sense of why was I not allowed to have this child with me. The intense grief of waiting to conceive that I have seen in many has the grief of why have I not been selected for parenthood. It did help me realize in a certain sense more of what ot means for life to be a gift. I really do not deserve children and I do not deserve my own life, it is a gift.

    For years I also had a type of shame of being a child.of divorced parents. Even through last year I kept thinking, this all could have been avoided so easily if my parents just hadn’t married.

    Fr. Stephen’s article ‘say yes’ helped me realize what a nihilistic temptation that was and that I was wrong
    https://blogs.ancientfaith.com/glory2godforallthings/2016/08/19/say-yes/

    I look at my children, Joshua and Natalie, and know God didn’t just want children for us, he wanted these specific children. God choose them and allows me to look forward to meeting the child I miscarried in the future.

    My life can’t be a mistake because I know my children’s lives are not mistakes. Yet I think so much heart break and drug use among teenagers is because they see themselves as the outcome of mistake. I think it is like Job for those young people. They are sitting among wreckage that is not something they are guilty for but there is shame associated with it that they must bear. The robe for them is to realize God chose them and knit them within a phenomenal mystery.

  41. Dear Nicole,

    I am back to thank you again for your comment, I have been thinking about it ever since I read it and, as many of the comments here lately, it’s helping me process and heal some past hurts of life…

    I’m especially going back to this part of your comment:

    “Yet I think so much heart break and drug use among teenagers is because they see themselves as the outcome of mistake.”

    As a mother of three nearly grown boys (21, 18 and 15 – I shared my experiences, difficulties and hopes related to them on this blog in the past, and have been greatly helped by Father Stephen’s advice and the comments of many others) I wanted to pause on your thought and say that I think you are so very right about this great wound and source of shame for so many of the children in the world today.

    When I was married to my now ex husband, we often visited his mother (in a distant state. His parents were divorced when he was around 8, his 2 sisters even younger, and his mom remarried two or three times, I don’t remember exactly, while the kids were little). One of the “funny” stories she would tell over the years (eventually even in the presence of her grandchildren, two older granddaughters and eventually my sons) was how each one of her three children of hers was a “contraceptive” mistake/accident. It was somewhat funny (one was a “rhythm baby”, one was a “pill baby”, and whatever was last), but even then I was bothered by that, and remember eventually telling my kids (when they were old enough to understand) that they were not “mistakes”, that each one of them was desired, anticipated and prayed for (and even suffered for, with each one I had some health issue that even put theirs and my life at risk)… I wanted them to know they were the most precious gift from God in my life… Hopefully that made some difference in how they think of/relate to themselves and their life.

    As for what effect the comments of his mother had on my ex-husband, only the Lord knows. Somehow I think it affected him very deeply… I think I remember reading in psychology books and articles that our self-worth and how we think of ourselves is deeply connected to the good or bad attachments to the closest care givers early in life. So your comment Nicole was so spot on. If a child thinks they were/are unwanted (a mistake), how terrible they must feel. [That also made me realize what wonderful parents I had!]. May God have mercy on all these children…

    Sorry to all who don’t find this relevant or important, but maybe just one person reading this some time in the future will benefit and be helped. That is my prayer.

  42. Fr. Stephen,

    You do not understand. Shame is evil. Christ defied shame. He bore it, but He did not feel it. He was innocent. There was no shame in Him whatsoever. Shame is evil. It is self hatred. “He who does not hate himself is not worthy of Me.” What this means is that only a sick man needs a physician. There is no shame whatsoever in Christ. That is the glory of the Cross. Absolute purity and justification. Absolute.

    “Who told you you were naked?” The devil.

  43. Hi Agata, I was with my mom at her visit to the doctor yesterday and had a few minutes to write what I had been hoping to share for a while now. I am so glad it touched your heart.

    I was glad to hear the story of your pregnancies and always am amazed by these stories.

    In college I asked my roommate how she forgave her dad. She said she realized how much pain he was in.

    The promise of a new name in Heaven is also so deeply encouraging to me.

    If knowing myself is simply what I know of myself and my family history then the pain is not worth it (says my younger self in the grief of my parents’ divorce). But if the pain I know must at a minimum speak to the amount of joy and blessing of ever tear wiped away then I have a reason to keep the faith.

    This is just one other small point of reflection I still hope to one day grasp better: I love St. John the Hut Dweller. I think he speaks of the mystery of how children can somehow, through Christ, bring salvation to their parents. I share that in reference to your former mother in law.

  44. Michael Scott,
    I have not said that Christ felt shame. But shame is not evil. We are hardwired for it, just as we are for pain, surprise, disgust, etc. The shame of self-hatred you describe is a very toxic emotion that is, in and of itself, a product of an abusive shaming. But normally, shame can be an entirely healthy response to something we have done wrong. Adam in the Garden felt shame, and it was not inappropriate. The sin was that he did not bear the shame and instead hid.

    Fear is not evil. It is, appropriately, life-saving. But it can be used to torment someone. Christ faced our shame (“He did not turn his face from the spitting and the shame”). He did not turn His face away (that would have been a defeat, not did He refuse the shame of the Cross). But the shame of the Cross is something He bore. That is not at all the same thing as saying that Christ was ashamed (felt shame) on the Cross.

    But I think Christ felt pain on the Cross. I think the mocking, etc., “stung” Him as surely as the nails hurt as well. But that shaming of Him did not cause Him to turn away. There is no sin in Him.

    I think you are confusing the issues with shame by not making enough of a distinction in what is going on.

  45. Thank you Fr. Stephen for the comment of seeing the Cross as the road map of the Christian life as this comment has given me a mental image that shall be most helpful in difficult situations and in many other walks of life. 🙂

  46. Hi Agata and Fr. Stephen,

    Agata, should you venture back to this page I have a few more reflections on the hearbreak I experienced related to my parents divorce. I share them in case they are relevant in the journey of your family life though I know they may not be

    The actor Jim Carrey once said that as a child he used to sleep in his tap shoes in case he heard his parents crying in the night. He would attempt to cheer them up with his dancing if he did.

    For years and years I tried so hard to make my mom happy. It was a mistake on my part. I should have trusted the Lord more. She and I have even struggled over the past years, her trying to make me happy by cleaning my house in my absence and me trying to make her happy in different ways and we both end up miserable. I try now to think of it is a possible source of valuable shame, knowing that I cannot help quite as I want to, but trusting God instead.

    You mentioned your deep, deep love for your sons. I just wanted to share with you that my mom very much loved me the same way all through those years but I still had grief related to my dad. It is such a mystery to me.

    Since my kids have been born it has been amazing to see them gradually become friends to a small extent.

    Years ago I said to my priest how glad I was that the Orthodox believe marriage continues in Heaven. He explained that a better description is that it is expanded and all people live in the amazing peace and fellowship and joy that a true marriage can have. My immediate thought was of the person I dated before my husband and the shocking thought that I may end up married to him anyway and that I have to want that and hope for that (and forgive, what a motivator to forgive and to want the best for someone) So God willing one day we will all rejoice at the Feast.

  47. Dear Nicole,

    Thank you for your note. I appreciate your sharing and advice. Our difficulties in life come from varied sources, for some it is their relationship with their parents, for others a failed marriage, and for some difficulty with their children. Your comments have helped me to decide to be more forgiving and compassionate towards my children, as they not only continue to deal with a broken home situation, but also are struggling to find their place and path in life (since they are high school and college ages)… That’s enough to be a difficulty all in itself…

    As I thought about this, I remembered that my parents gave me only support and encouragement, not nagging or policing at that time in life (although I was not rebellious, just the opposite, rather cowardly and shy towards trying things that were forbidden before 18). Maybe I should do that same for my children. Especially that since much of their suffering was a result of my mistakes and inadequacy. No wonder St. Paisios (or maybe it was in St. Porhphyrios’ book) said that children suffer for the sins of their parents.

    May God help us approach our children with the most open, loving and forgiving hearts!

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