In my previous article, I described the origins of the “self-talk” (logismoi) that haunt our minds with negative chatter. They lie very deep within us, even having something of a signature within the deeper parts of the brain itself. It is very “old” and yet very “young.” It is old in that its foundations were formed as early as infancy. It is young in that it is much more akin to an injured child than to an adult. Its chatter is not rational, nor is it subject to rationality. It does not come as a result of process – rather, it comes as reaction – often being triggered by things of which we are not aware. It comes unbidden, and shakes the ground beneath us. Most often, our responses to it are the stuff of sin.
I also identified this deep voice as primarily a matter of shame. It is a wound, an injury to the soul and body that feels like abandonment, alienation and pain. In emotional terms, it tends to make us feel worthless. That, in turn, is frequently expressed in anxiety, anger or sadness. This noise can run for days on end, depending on circumstances.
A number of commenters on the last article asked questions about what can be done with this voice. How do we answer it? This article is a small effort in that direction.
Several years ago I had an opportunity to spend time with Fr. Zacharias of Essex and to ask questions about the nature of shame. Shame has been an area of interest for me as the needs of my own soul took me there. Fr. Zacharias, relating the teachings of Elder Sophrony, and St. Silouan of Athos, had said more on the topic of shame than I had seen written elsewhere. I found his words to be extremely helpful – and something of a guide as I’ve continued my study. Interestingly, the Elder Sophrony had his own nickname for our dark thoughts, “My assassins are here,” he would say.
Fr. Zacharias’ offered one small “word,” which at the time seemed almost insignificant. However, it has come to mean much to me. He said that when we “bear a little shame,” we should simply sit with it, without reaction, and pray, “O God, comfort me!” At the time I thought that the word seemed too simple. He did not elaborate. Time has done the elaboration. For one, I have practiced the word he gave me – and found comfort. But I offer another insight that couples this with what we “do” with the voice.
Psalm 131 has this:
But I have calmed and quieted my soul, like a child quieted at its mother’s breast; like a child that is quieted is my soul. (Ps. 131:2)
The voice is the sound of a disquieted child, though its words can be as dark and fearsome as the worst adult imagining. It is not the voice of maturity, nor reason. It is hurt and wounded, doubtful of everything good and too certain of its own worthlessness. We hear its noise, and quite often allow it to run along, unattended. Its very words increase our sense of shame, which is like throwing oil on a fire. On occasion, we melt down, in what psychology calls a “shame storm.” We begin to resemble outwardly the child who cries out inwardly.
And so the words of the Elder teach us to pay attention. Attention does not ignore or run away (this is likely only to increase the volume). Instead, attention “bears a little shame.” And sitting patiently with the brokenness we say to God, “Comfort me, comfort me.” This is the sound of the mother who draws the disquieted child back to her breast. She doesn’t judge. She doesn’t rebuke. She quiets the child by herself being its comfort, its assurance, the affirmation that all is well.
I was out and about recently, chasing errands, dashing through stores. I was in our Oak Ridge Walmart, often an assembly that is a slice of Appalachia. I saw someone who was a “trigger.” The voice of judgment and disdain started to darken my mind. It’s a very old wound, a shame of my own Appalachian childhood. I remembered the Elder’s words. I didn’t argue, or rebuke. “The anger of man does not produce the righteousness of God” (James 1:20). Instead, I spoke peace. “It’s ok. All is well. You are not alone. You are not abandoned. All is well,” and I quieted my soul. Then I was able to take up the prayer again, “Lord, Jesus Christ, have mercy on us…”
It was a version of “Comfort me.” It is good to make the sign of the Cross. But this battle is no place for anger. Anger is useless against shame. The dark thoughts are the sound of Adam talking to himself in the bushes. God comes to comfort him. “Where are you?”
“Here I am. Comfort me.”
Thank you, Fr. Stephen, for sharing this “word” from Fr. Zacharias and your meditations since you heard these words. I plan to put these words to practice in my life immediately as they appear to be the way Our Lord has been leading
Thank you Father. These words are very helpful.
Thank you Fr. This is absolutely on point.
YEA VERILY. . . . AMEN !! (even).
(may I share it on my blog?)
Thank you Father. These are healing words.
Father, for me and my journey, these last two articles are the most human and blessed of all your many insightful previous articles. It’s your humble candor regarding your weakness and struggles which have made God’s healing more transparent to me. I am your age, and so many of your assassins have also known my address.
It has taken me many years to finally be able to read some of the pre-communion prayers without them hooking my shame-based logismoi. These two articles will help move me to trust God’s unconditional and lavish love for ALL mankind. The evil one is a liar and murderer, and has been slain by the life-creating Paschal suffering of our Lord, ” the only true friend of mankind. Thank you, thank you, thank you.
Indeed. Please share.
Im trying to understand all of this so bear with me.
There are several instances in my life where my anger was unleashed on my children and husband in ways that were hurtful and possibly caused some deep scarring within them. I personally dont recognize this anger as feeling like instances of shame, but rather instances of self-love and pride. It is when I become aware of the fact that this pride in myself has no substantial foundation in reality, and that my outburst were merely the irrational tantrums of a child who is feeling particularly self-seeking at the moment that I begin to feel overwhelmingly ashamed of myself. Scarring one’s own child out of self-centeredness is a shame that definitely feels unbearable, and without divine comfort would only lead to spiraling despair (I’ll get back to this in a moment). For the initial pride and self-centeredness, though, I do not feel the need to be comforted, but, rather, when I accept the fact that my pride has no bearing and thus feel my ‘nothingness,’ coupled with the grisly sight of those whom Ive “slayed” in my drunken, swollen puffed-upness. And I dont really feel like the pride itself is an attempt to cover my nothingness, but rather simply a state of being completely lost to a grossly disproportionate and delusional sense of self-importance and self-love, utterly unaware of its falsehood until my eyes are forced open by the damage done in its wake. The suggestion of pride from the devil tickles our senses, causing pleasurable sensations that coats our eyes and blinds us to reality. But once reality finds its way in and our true state revealed, then our shame is made known to us, and we become desperately in need of damage control or we will surely die of despair.
And now back to the idea of wounding and scarring our children. The first thought I had after reading your previous article was that the dark, negative voice that is surely forming itself within my children’s brains is none other than the damaging blows of shame that I have dealt them. If children gain this voice in infancy then who else could be the perpetrators than their own mothers and fathers. And for this I am ashamed. What if the blows Ive dealt lead them away from the path of salvation unto their own personal eternal hell? Can divine comfort save me from despair if ive become the eternal demise of my own children? I dont know how I could survive it.
Im not sure I would want to survive it.
I anxiously await your response to Michelle’s questions; I’m in a similar boat.
I am reminded here of Fr. Sophrony’s words:
“In pride is the essence of hell.”
“Repentance alone can deliver us from this hell.”
“And I gave myself over to desperate weeping, to bitter, scalding tears, as I realised the horror of my fall. The Lord granted me blessed despair. And when I wept over myself with profound weeping, not daring to lift my thoughts to Him, the Light appeared to me. Thus did He lay the foundation of my new life, having begotten in me tears of repentance.”
–But getting to that first, moist tear is sometimes…hell?
And at other times, it just comes like a huge sneaker wave taking me weary of being attentive.
“The first thought I had after reading your previous article was that the dark, negative voice that is surely forming itself within my children’s brains is none other than the damaging blows of shame that I have dealt them…. And for this I am ashamed. What if the blows I’ve dealt lead them away from the path of salvation…?”
Thank you for sharing this Michelle. I labor under the same burden. Worse I continue to shame my little ones pretty much daily, or so it seems to me.
And for this, for me too, an agony of helpless shame. Please Lord, have mercy. Please please please.
Michelle (and Randy),
Well, “there’s the rub,” as they say. Life in this world never(!) comes without some damage and injury. We cannot expect to live without sin, nor that our children will be protected from our sin. You have given a very good description of the very darkness we have to repent from. Pride, in its root, is shame. The ultimate shame (I wrote a long while back about this) is, in fact, the very nakedness of our creaturely being in the presence of God. That same shame can be healthy, however, and give rise to humility and recognition of the Holy. So, the healing of shame is not so much an erasure of injury as its transformation.
The salvation of our children is a frightening thing to contemplate. My youngest is 25 with siblings in their 30’s. I reconciled myself a while back that I will not truly see their salvation in this lifetime. It’s not given to me to know such a thing. I will say that the agonizing love that you expressed is only a weak icon of the infinite love of God towards your children. We must lay hold of God and His infinite love and mercy or we would, of course, despair.
First, God is “working all things together for good.” We are not the cause of our children’s salvation, or their lack of it. I think it is perhaps most helpful to think of them, in some manner, as continued extensions of our own selves. Their wounds are very much like our own. Oddly, my own children (watching them), have taught me a compassion for my self, and a patience with my wounds that I would have lacked without them. I watched my son grow up with ADD, and how wonderfully well that he bore it and adapted to it. When I was given a similar diagnosis in my late 50’s, I was sort of staggered. My children all laughed at me and said, “You didn’t know that?” They had seen it for years. I could multiply the example. It’s as if we are all struggling with similar things and as they are mature adults, we share a lot and learn from each other.
We’re learning as well to speak of shame and to forgive.
I recall a night in my college years. I was suffering terribly from an anxiety/panic disorder that was crippling me. I was yet again without sleep and simply in a pain and torment of mind that I hate to remember. My father sat by my bed, quite helpless. I don’t doubt he prayed. He was a long way from getting out of his own hell at the time. I think now that it must have been harder for him than it was for me. And I didn’t know at the time that my own hell was so very like his.
But, thanks be to God, we got out. Slowly, with decades of small steps and stumbles and falling. I came to know that he not only loved me but understood me. I don’t know that he realized how well I understood him. But he found God and the Orthodox Church. He died in peace.
I am not a universalist, but I have a universalist hope in every specific instance (if I can say that without causing scandal). I have seen many, many deaths (in the hundreds). I do not think that I’ve ever seen anyone die whom I thought was “lost.” I’ve seen many whose lives were still very much in the agony of salvation – groaning in travail. Thus, I have buried them in hope and in confidence of God’s goodness.
Your thoughts should lead you to the path of healing both yourself and family. If your children are young its still quite hard to see how all things will work – and it’s frightening. Pray for them. My children’s salvation, when it is fulfilled, will be shown to have been especially the fruit of their mother’s prayer.
Don’t dwell on thoughts of things you would not want to survive. Think on God and His mercy.
At some point, I learned to make prostrations to my children and ask their forgiveness. It helped us both.
I have at different times told my 3 adult children that children do not fail parents and that parents do fail children. It is at times difficult to keep the dark thoughts of failure from consuming me. My own failures-I am pleased w/ the progress my own children have made and w/ my own progress as well. To continue w/ self-flagellation does more harm than good to my children and their mother as well. God grant me the strength to remember this and continue on rather than looking back at failures.
These words have helped and encouraged.
Yes, indeed, Father. Fr. Sophrony through Fr. Zecharias, through you speaks the right word the Lord has spoken also to my heart and to which I fail too often to pay attention, especially when the angry voices are not only inside, but also outside my head (as in those “little online dust ups hither and yon” to which you have once referred). There’s a reason that Psalm (131) is one of my very favorites–where our mothering Lord by His Holy Spirit has often drawn me by that sometimes extremely subtle “chauffing of the heart” sensation we get when He speaks to us that “word” as we are praying the Psalms and reading Scripture. That very comforting word that shows time and again He truly is the One who knows us fully. As Hagar discovered in the wilderness with Ishmael, the One who truly hears me. All of which is to say there is nothing we need He would ever hold back from us in His love!
Yes, this spiritual weapon will work.
“we should simply sit with it, without reaction, and pray, “O God, comfort me!”
I will obey and pray. Please, pray for me. It seems as if my whole being reacts against this short healing prayer. It stirs an agony difficult to express.
Thank you for all your words, father.
When it’s really painful, it’s a good idea to get help as well – for people dealing with toxic shame (which is very noisy indeed), therapy should not be shunned. It can help.
I can relate to your words so deeply. You are not alone.
My healing began when I gave up trying to control, understand, assign blame, fix… I truly gave up. It is not for me to know, administrate, or understand how God will love my children into wholeness and healing, how he will transform the wounds I have caused them (which might not even be the wounds I think I’ve caused them), or the wounds they have from elsewhere. He’s in charge of that. And just as I’ve now come to see some of my darkest times as a place where God met me–despite, at the time, feeling the opposite–I pray my children’s suffering could somehow, in some way, be transfigured in God’s hands for their salvation, too. I just don’t know and probably never will. “God can create great beauty out of complete desolation,” says the scroll held by Mtka. Olga on the icon in my prayer corner. For my part, I need to accept that he loves me and wants to heal my hurt as much as he loves my children and wants to heal theirs. My work now is to let his forgiveness unfold in my own heart. I am seeing that allowing his love in utterly changes the way I relate to my children. We love because he first loved us.
My confession this Lent was profoundly terrifying and profoundly healing, exposing myself and my secrets and finding that God did not reject me, but welcomed me with rejoicing. God is real and he is love.
You will be in my prayers.
I did ask for help. I was in therapy for more than five years (begining in 2009) when I was in my forties. Two people helped me: a doctor who specializes in trauma disorders and an elderly precious priest. They were both a blessing.
I had to interrupt the therapy for budget and family reasons. But I am doing much better although some days are specially hard. The most difficult thing to me is that this dear priest died four years ago. I understand he was elderly and ill but it was devastating. It had been very difficult to open up to someone and make a general confession. Some days I just was unable to tell him so I wrote the issues for him to read. He was the only person in the world knowing everything and he left. I know he is praying for me because it is a miracle to be able to cope. Now I do not know what to do. I have no strength right now to start again the whole process.
Your blog has also been crucial. I found it around 2008 and, although I do not usually comment, I am blessed by your ministry beyond words.
Please forgive this long relief.
God give you grace! No doubt your confessor prays for you. May God sustain you and comfort you!
“When the soul is mature, God will give it inner peace. The Lord watches over us, and He is pleased that you long for His peace. Until the soul is ready, He will only sometimes allow us to see that He is everywhere present and fills all things. At these moments the soul feels such joy! It feels as though it has everything! But then the Lord conceals Himself from us again, in order that we might long for Him and seek Him with our hearts.”
“Remembering a sin that we have committed does not mean that the sin has not been forgiven. This remembrance of our sins is only a warning to us lest we become proud and sin again. In fact, we–not God–are the ones who cannot forgive ourselves.”
–From: Our Thoughts Determine Our Lives: The Life and Teachings of Elder Thaddeus of Vitovnica.
It is easy to take these elderly quips as simplistic and naive, but it is in their simple form that we find depth and healing from which neurobiology (often unknowingly) takes its therapy. How is it that so many made pilgrimages to get help from this renowned elder while we post-Christian moderns tend to find his advice short of our more “progressed” cognative “synthesis?” Is the elder missing something here? Is it too pat and pretty in light of such deep and broken suffering?
No doubt we reason that our situation, because of our tremendous pain, will somehow be an unusual case and warrant a complex therapy. I wonder at the complexity of our solutions when trying to be all inclusive of what we know “now” as incorporated with what the elders knew “then.”
When one cannot afford a therapist and the often associated drugs that accompany their treatments, who does one turn to? The cost of drug-treating a raging child for instance I found to be in the thousands and way beyond our means. It was the Liturgy that calmed her and a simple and persistent treatment…the love and presence of her mother and a listening priest.
And yet…I cannot suggest such a “simplistic” path to anyone else. Why? Why isn’t the advice given above enough? We condemn the “modern project” but fall back on it when “holy oil and water” is not quite enough to heal our sufferings. When you have exhausted all “modern” solutions or do not even have the means to be part of it’s project, the Eucharist and the faith that Christ gives is all that I have left–coming full circle is often the honesty I so often resist.
This is post beautiful… and balm for my soul.
Also this from your last article “We are saving one another. I do not need to know whom to blame. It is useful, however, to know who I am saving along with myself.” Resonated very deeply with me.
I found the following quote very helpful in dealing with the shame of how I have treated others and especially my children and their mother.
Psalm 131 has this:
But I have calmed and quieted my soul, like a child quieted at its mother’s breast; like a child that is quieted is my soul. (Ps. 131:2)
This particular quote, and in fact the whole of Psalm 130 (LXX), is very important. And, there is more to dealing with shame in the whole of this Psalm than just the quote. As found in the LXX:
“O Lord, my heart is not exalted, nor are mine eyes become lofty.
Nor have I walked in things too great or to marvellous (sic) for me.
If I were not humble-minded but exalted my soul, as one weaned from his mother, so wouldst Thou requite my soul.
Let Israel hope in the Lord, from henceforth and for evermore.”
My problem has been in the context of verse 3, I can’t say that I have been humble-minded, but the opposite with the result being the the Lord would allow my lack of knowledge of my sin, my lack of repentance, and no confession regarding the sin to bring about the ‘requiting’ in the hereafter. I need to connect with my children and ask their forgiveness. This particular writing has been an eye opener for me. Thank you.
Father, I just want to thank you for your response, along with everyone else who responded. Whenever I comment or ask a question here I always pray to God that He would give you and any other reponders wisdom in their replys. So far I haver never been disappponted.
I am responding to Michelle on the subject of parenting shame. I have children ranging from 23 to 5 and lots of mistakes.
This was one ofvthe first issues I took to God after my conversion. I just want to offer what has been most helpful to me.
Don’t spend a minute listening to those thoughts if you can help it. Take them to Christ. Ask the Theotokos to help you with your mothering. Pray and meditate for each child as the need arises, you will not believe the guidance that comes. My experience is that mother’s prayers can be answered in powerful ways. I have seen miracles and redemption that have been so healing to the whole family.
If you find that temper and irtitation are temptations, take a look at where they are coming from but I don’t recommend too much naval gazing, look at the light. Read common sense articles and books on positive parenting and believe that God is more loving than the most loving parent. When your heart starts yo believe this your parenting will change.
Love and blessings from one mama to another.
Beautifully stated. I have a similar experience and I would add that a mother’s “love” covers a multitude of sins. My kids don’t blame me for my parenting mistakes nearly as much as I blame myself….
I have four children (grown). No doubt there were mistakes – no one lives who does not sin. The injuries children incur as the result of their parents are unavoidable on the one hand. Those injuries must be added to teachers, priests, other adults, other children, etc. It’s just life in a sinful world. On the whole, these things create problems such as shame – but only to a certain extent. It is the matter of abuse (which I know has its own “gray” boundaries) where real problems kick in.
My father and I were sitting in his auto shop one year during my college time. I was helping out in the shop. We were eating lunch and the topic of food we hated came up. Dad told me about something that he could eat, “It just rolls my stomach,” he said. I told him that I felt the same way about green peas (still do). And then I told him of a night at the table that he refused to let me leave until I ate my peas. I sat there until past 10 pm – well past bedtime, some several hours. He listened with tears running down his cheeks. He apologized so profoundly that my own heart was moved deeply. It was, by itself, not a big thing. It was one of many things, however, that came about as a result of a time in his life when stress and alcohol messed a lot of things up. I forgave him long ago (indeed, I never had a grudge about it). However, it has only been in the last few years that I came to understand the true character of my wounds from that time – and they were very different than I had imagined.
I have doubtless injured my children at times (no man lives who doesn’t sin). But they weren’t the sins of my father (or mother), nor did they rise to the level of abuse. But, as I noted earlier, we are all in this together. Their wounds are mine and mine are theirs and we are all working to heal one another in union with Christ, who bore it all.
What I can see clearly now, however, as illustrated in that small story, both of my parents were truly cooperating in my healing and their own as their lives went on. It is possible to leave behind the wounding and begin the work of healing…that is never too late.
I believe this same healing can begin even when one or both of parents are departed. The process looks different – but is truly possible.
What about in the case of a parent who never feels remorse for extraordinary abuse – which continues to the present- even when the subject is peaceably brought up (and dropped at a negative reaction).
In my case one parent (dad) was an alcoholic and my mom grew up in a war torn country amidst famine and burning buildings and bombs. .. and then she was in a family with an abusive alcoholic to boot. She lives in like a constant state of PTSD.
My dad went into AA on the Feast of the Annunciation 30 years ago and never relapsed. I was 16 – at the end of myself – and had prayed for the whole situation just weeks before. It was on his 20th anniversary of sobriety that I connected the dots and realized it was Theotokos watching over us all those years.
But my mom never sought healing or counseling. She is incapable of remorse of any kind. She still acts out but lately not to me but other family members who after twenty years have had enough and are distancing themselves from her. I feel empathy for her. I have not abandoned her because I honestly am the only person she has. Also I do not feel that God wishes me to abandon her – but I am very distant.
I have prayed for her healing only to discover that I am deeply afraid that if she would ever be restored and fully healed – it is my wounds and what I perceive as a possible lack of love toward her in my own heart that would be revealed. A kind of I believe help my unbelief – and please heal me if You are going to heal her. It is a place in my own heart that deeply troubles me.
Two years ago, I took a pilgrimage with my youngest (her Christmas present) to venerate St John Maximovitch. I prayed for my mom while there. That night I talked to her on the phone and she says she “loves” me – which is a phrase that I can count on one hand – how many times she has ever said it to me. That is not an exaggeration. Clearly the intercessions of a Saint and Grace. I was speechless. Of. Purse I said it back. Hearing her say it is so foreign and unnatural to me and as terrible as it sounds to even let in to my heart because she is an extremely abusive woman even to this day. When she acts out it is deeply disturbing and hurtful.
I tell her I love her for her sake but not often.
Whenever I have let my guard down around her I or my family have usually ended up very very hurt.
It is a terrible state not to trust that you can let your guard down around your own mother. Like the dual soul that you have mentioned in a previous article but I don’t remember the word.
While I’ve not abandoned her – I deeply distanced myself from her after my brother ( and only sibling) died in a car accident three years ago. I just couldn’t bear her darkness after he died.
I remain hopeful in the Lord – all things are possible. The year before he died, she actually hung up an icon of Christ in her home which is a great comfort to know that Christ is silently working on her ( and on me). This happened after she behaved really badly and I left it at her door. It’s nothing I could explain in such a public forum.
I know this is a lot to spill on a blog comment but when you talk about shame I am acquainted with it. And everything you say deeply resonates with me.
As a point of Hope : I can not deny the glory of the wonders of the Lord in my life. my dad is probably a Saint after thirty years in AA. Every day is a Fast for him and he will never say that he is healed. He calls himself an alcoholic. He helps so many people through AA and has become wise but he would never say that he is. And I have learned and continue to learn so much from him.
I married into a big Greek family with a mother in law and father in law (of blessed memory)who are more my mom and dad than my own. Over the years (they have been very patient) they taught me to love and be a wife and daughter and also how to accept love and let my guard down. God was very generous to me in bringing me my husband and leading me into the Orthodox Faith .
And by the Grace of God my kids did not have the cycle of abuse I endured poured out on them. My husband and I are not perfect – and have made many mistakes but God has been willing to work with us.
This issue of shame and your openness about your experience is something I am so grateful you write about.
I have experience of this type too. I was in an abusive marriage for almost 17 years and this is where much of my oldest son’s wounding came from as well as my shame for allowing it.
My (now) husband was placed into foster care by two living parents that just did not want the responsibility for various reasons.
He has tried to have a relationship with both(his mother died two years ago) but as you say it is difficult when there are no admissions of any wrongdoing.
It is tough, and I continue to pray for healing.
Prayers for your continued healing as well.
I share the tip of an iceberg…I think there are people whose injury is so deep that, in this life, it is unlikely that healing will be manifest. That does not mean that nothing is taking place. There is, I believe, a deeply profound inner work that is largely hidden (maybe in most of us). We cannot see these things at all clearly. The distance within the depth of a soul. How far someone has journeyed, etc. It’s one reason we should judge – we simply have no clue.
But, I hold close a verse in the Scripture that I take to be a promise in this regard. It is Wisdom 3:6-7 “like gold in the furnace He tried them, and like a sacrificial burnt offering He accepted them. In the time of their visitation they will shine forth, and will run like sparks through the stubble.”
The verse refers to saints – but I think the process and promise is the same for all. There is the well-known story, I think it’s in Paisios, about a monk who was an alcoholic. His obedience wasn’t to get sober…(he had failed so many times)…but to drink less. And he did…a little at a time. But the saint who told the story extolled this monk as a great man of God.
We must be careful of the wounds of others. Pray for them. Those same wounds will one day be changed into marks of glory. Blessings!
Thank you for your open book. There is much to learn from all that you have so graciously shared. I am particularly attentive to your mother’s trauma and subsequent discharge of that hell into the present as you say. From my own personal experience with PTSD (as a medic), I am sure you are aware the images are permenant etchings that remain as sleeping and then raging monsters. While I realize the depth of your own sufferings from these discharges, my family did not reach out to me, nor did they try to “love” me through it to healing. What “saved” me was their reaching out to each other.
They determined to not let my ragings destroy their relationship(s) with each other. They refused to distance themselves from each other. I saw and yearned for the family that waited, but did not totally close themselves from me. Coming back has been a long and confessional struggle, but the healing in my case came from them reaching out to each other. No one could point to or resent a hero who stuck it out “for me.” Inversely, I could neither point to any one and blame for “hating me.” I hated myself. I hated the experiences and the trajedies that spelled out the traumas which it was my job to “fix.” And I could not “fix”…any of them!
So, everyone in my family waited together and it is that “together” that I so desperately wanted, but had to be given and entrusted back to me as I climb(ed) slowly back out of hell. They met me as “my” family, not as any one person. And the shocker was to realize that a “cloud of witnesses” bridged that gap as I learned to “see” them. They are the ones that protected my family (and is my family) from my ragings–the remembrances masked in flashes of terror and horror.
Holy St. Andrew…and so many others…still wait for me. And they wait and minister to your mother. Her abuses (like My own) are received by Christ’s heavenly family and in their waiting they love her as You learn to “see” them and love “the Saints.” It was never someone being a “saint” to me that pull(ed) me from hell. It is The Saints (in Christ) transfiguring, if you will, the sufferings of victims back to me (to your mother) as living and now joyous, empathizing images full of forgiveness and hope faithfully proven. I pray for and “know” your mother as I have come to “know” my self…and the saints. I watch with you for it is “the middle of the night” of this Holy Week.
What a glut of wonderful gifts God gives us in one another, even the deeply wounded loved/hated/feared other who wounds us! I am running around rejoicing gathering up the many gems of grace God has given to all as offered up for the reader’s contemplation in this post and comments thread! As in the story of Joseph and his brothers recently revisited during Great Lent, what our only true enemy meant for evil, God meant for our good and salvation. That salvation is still unfolding. Because of God’s grace, when the enemy spits his malicious contempt toward our face, it is as if he is spitting into the wind! He will only wound himself in the end. God grant us patience and faith to see that while we wait for the consummation.
I think it was about two years ago, that six months after my 84 year old mother’s very scary triple bypass open heart surgery (in which it took hours and several transfusions before doctors could stop the bleeding and close her up), my mother had a full cardiac arrest. Miraculously she was resuscitated and placed in a state of therapeutic hypothermia for 24 hours. The next day, not knowing whether my mother would live or die, I drove up from the Chicago suburbs to Grand Rapids to visit her in the hospital and to support my dad and sister who were with her. She was awake, but not all the sedatives had worn off yet, so her short term memory and executive functioning were not yet working. … I have to interrupt myself to explain here that my mother is one of the strongest people I know. Her critical thinking skills, the sometimes “wise as a serpent” quality of her skeptical wisdom about the motives and manipulation of others, and a vigilant perceptive foresight which predisposed her to a significant lifelong battle with anxiety when under siege, could sometimes give her character quite a skeptical critical judgmental, even passive aggressive edge under stressful circumstances (and she was never completely free from stressful circumstances). So I was prepared this visit if she was alive and fighting to see some of that skeptical criticism of the doctors reports, treatment plan, etc., and I was also prepared to see some significant anxiety about her prospects of recovery, though I was sure she would put on her bravest face for us. I was not quite prepared for what I did find. This was right at a time when Fr. Stephen was writing on the nature of “the heart” and the hidden quality of God’s workings there. (Pause. Smile.). When I walked into her hospital room, Mom was awake and as soon as she saw me she exclaimed (with the deepest humility, love and sincere gratitude) how wonderful it was that I should take all that trouble to come all that way by myself and how wonderful it was to see me! With the anxious thoughts and a capacity for critical thinking out of the way, it’s as if the curtain surrounding that hidden Holy of Holies that is the inner person and deep heart of my mother was drawn back for me to see. She simply radiated the profoundest love and humble gratitude! I was utterly caught by surprise and humbled by such love. I was deeply moved. It was a great gift. Nobody could ever convince me now that despite her many failings (which I have to say pale in the face of her many virtues), my mother is not one of the very greatest of Saints!
On the way home a day or two later, still anxiously wondering what the days ahead would bring (and remembering my always rather stoic father, who for once could not contain his tears, so convinced was he that he was losing his mate), I turned on the radio in the car and this is the song that was playing:
Thank you Father Stephen for giving space for these very real and necessary discussions. Thank you everyone here. Tonight is the healing unction service, prayers for healing for all.
Fr Stephen and Sbdn Andrew and Karen :: thank you for your words of encouragement and wisdom. It’s a blessing to read your words on Holy Wednesday.
When my brother died it was a very difficult mourning for me and it brought out many old wounds because I no longer had my brother to deflect all of the nonsense. My friend, who is the Abbess at our local monastery came to my brothers viewing. I’ll never ever forget my three daughters running up to me saying “mommy, mommy – the nuns are here!!!” Their bright shining faces were most welcome. The Abbess spent a lot of time with my mom that night. Later that night my mom wrote the Abbess an email – reaching out to her.
My mom is not a Christian and has always been very upset at my becoming Orthodox (which I am still becoming Orthodox, really). Very hostile to it, in fact. So for her to reach out to an extraordinary woman of Faith is nothing short of a miracle. The next night at my brothers funeral, I told one of my very dear friends (devoutly Orthodox) of twenty years, about my mom reaching out to the Abbess. Her response to me was “your brother is already doing his job.” It’s not exactly what you say to someone at their brothers funeral but my friend knows me well enough to know the sentiment was already on my heart and it brought me some peace to consider the intentional movements of God’s healing Hand. What seems chaos to me is actually being orchestrated by God – Whose mercy and love we can not even fathom.
I am hopeful for my mom, that in her own way I am sure she is doing the very best she can.. She never followed through on visiting the monastery but it’s an encouragement in and of itself that she even reached out – kind of like moving a mountain.
But Father Stephen when you say that there are wounds that are so deep they might not be healed in this life I wonder what does that mean in the sense of Salvation. You have written before that heaven and hell are the same depending on ones ability to receive God’s Love.
It’s why I was so encouraged about my mom hanging up the icon of Christ that I left at her front door (it is the icon of Christ the Teacher) because in some measure she accepts His presence.
It is very same exact icon that I hung up in my kitchen one day while she was over and really lashing out at me about what a horrible human being I am. We had just moved in our house and I literally walked away while she was yelling, found the icon, put some poster putty on the back of it, came back to the kitchen – she had never stopped her tirade – and placed Him on the wall. Do you know what? HE silenced her. And she started to cry and told me “Victoria, I don’t want to be this way”. These are little glimmers of Hope that keep me going with her. It’s transformed my prayer from specifics concerning me and her – to just mercy and His Will. But I don’t claim to always have the peace to handle situations like that so well.
I know we don’t dare try to understand whether a person is saved but I do consider that I will be judged more than she – like Lazarus and the rich man.
This year our Church bookclub read “On the Providence of God” – Saint John Chrysostoms letters to his distraught flock over his exile and their persecution. It was a reminder to me that I don’t need all the answers because they really are “too great and too marvelous for me”. It is more than a blessing to get a glimpse of the blurred movement of the backside of just His Hand – just that once.
What seems at times like chaos to me is actually being ordered by Him. A lot of my life I spent playing both sides out against the middle – managing God instead of letting God- hoping that no one would figure out what a nightmare was my childhood and what my relationship with my mom is – but also knowing that no one who hasn’t been through it could ever really understand and might walk away from me. Often that was a frustration, to try to explain her darkness and problem and be met with a response like it “can’t be that bad”. What God has granted me to accept is that it’s ok if others can’t understand. He has sent me a few on earth who believe me and an even greater “cloud of witness” in the Theotokos and the Saints who know more about prayer, my mom and the truth, than I do.
What I’ve come to realize that its actually a very very very good thing that most people can’t understand.
Playing both sides out against the middle not only hurt me – but in its own way it hurt her too – because it’s kind of living a lie. It also delayed the inevitable that she would eventually be alone which would possibly give her time and space to reflect.
God has been very patient with that.
Something learned this Lent. Sin and shame not only have their direct effects. Perhaps their greatest hurt comes from artificially cutting us off from other people. Hiding my face in shame. At least that is what I do.
I am deeply blessed because I have two people with whom I am totally at ease, my wife and my brother who is also an Orthodox priest. Last night I had a two hour conversation with my brother about (among other things) the struggles of the Christian life.
He shared a story with me about an Orthodox woman whose priest found her weeping at an icon. He asked her if everything was all right. She told him yes everything was quite good but that was the problem. She had no.struggles, God had abandoned her.
My brother’s point being that our capacity and willingness to struggle with our sins means we are pointed in the right direction.
St. Paul admonishes us to run the race to the finish. When we fall get up but just finish the race in that is the victory.
Just the act of talking to my brother and revealing to him my struggles this Lent lifted a bit of my shame. God is good.
I have always been fascinated by the Russian Orthodox understanding of podvig-struggle as being central to the Christian life, indeed it’s crux. It seems to link to Jacob’s struggle with the angel.
So very different from “the American dream” of comfort and luxury and the myth of progress.
Thank you, all of you who participate here even those who do not comment.
Father, a quick note. In your comment at 8:04pm (April 11), you said, “It’s one reason we should judge – we simply have no clue.” Did you mis-type and mean “not judge”?
Blessings to all. May God grant us compassion and healing.
I think I said (or meant to say) that there are some wounds that are so deep that their healing might not be manifest in this life. There are so many things that are true of us, including our salvation, that will not be known until they are revealed. If we had the eyes to see them now (and some saints do) we would understand. Nothing is too deep or too terrible for God to heal.
Fr George Calciu said once that his spiritual wounds of imprisonment were still manifest at the stress / anxiety he felt – later in life – being pulled over for a traffic ticket. I guess that makes your point clear. He wasn’t fully healed – yet he radiated Christ. .
Thanks, everyone. I believe the song by Steven Curtis Chapman is the one he wrote after his five year old adopted daughter ran to see her brother who was backing the car out of the driveway, and got run over by him, from which injuries she died. It’s a tragedy of epic proportions of which the mere thought to me as a mother is devastatating every bit as much for the surviving child as for the one lost! Yet God continues to bring great good from that evil.
Wonderful story about your mother. Mine had always been quite fastidious about her looks. In her fifties her hair was thinning, so she started using a wig. She would buy a couple a year so had quite a collection. In her 80’s she suffered some minor strokes. By 90 she had slowed down a lot and at that time suffered a major stroke. We were surprised, but after a few months she had recovered more than we thought possible. However, she needed care my two sisters couldn’t keep providing as they both had jobs. So we were forced to place her in a care facility. There she could not use a wig. The in- home hair dresser gave her a frizzy permanent…we were surprised by the hair she actually had remaining. But the stoke had done a marvelous thing for her. She never once mentioned her hair nor h er lack of makeup. Seems her vanity disappeared with the stroke. And the years she wore a wig saw her constantly touching it, adjusting it. But she had calmed, was accepting of her circumstances and really very easy to be with. She was lucid most of the time, but not always. About this time our daughter was nearing due for her baby girl. They were wanting to name her Ella. Her older brother was Sam. About two weeks before her birth our son in law was musing, and fortunately thought of introducing the 2 children to others. “So and so, I’d like you to meet our two children, Sam ‘n Ella.” Well…she became Alexandra Grace! I told this story to my mother in one of her lucid moments, about 2 weeks before her passing. I still remember quite fondly her laughing out loud at the almost faux pas.
When you have written about “toxic shame” in the past I understood you to mean experiencing unhealthy shame from others (abuse). Does it have anything to do with depression as well? I have recently (and finally-so it feels) left behind the last shadows of depression. The therapist said “mild depression.” If that’s mild depression, Heaven send extra help to those suffering from major depression.
I quickly realized that I had done something wrong (a majorly poor decision on my part, following from prideful thoughts) but was grasping for a long time to see where I had gone wrong. I was just flooded with shaming, angry, and despairing thoughts. Trying to shift through them for the authentic voice of repentance and mercy was like trying to find a needle in a haystack. And I sh/blamed myself for not being able to find it. Figuring out that this was not just normal confusion but depression (followed by taking better physical care of myself and starting therapy) started helping. Since then I often remembered a phrase you or another poster on this blog mentioned: “depression is a pathological reaction to shame.” It helped a little again when I finally tried to/started giving thanks for the whole ordeal.
Not knowing what to repent of and which way to go to restore the peace and balance was the most difficult part. I kept having doubts about my own ability to receive mercy, to take Communion, or to pray but didn’t let myself stop Communing or praying despite not feeling the repentant belief, though I wanted to. My own doubts shamed me even further at times for continuing to take Communion. I’ve had problems before clinging to mercy, so maybe I was trying to obey what I had been told previously. Before I was aware of the burgeoning depression, I spoke with the Abbess and spiritual father of a monastery. I was distressed and didn’t know what was happening in my own soul, though I didn’t vocalize this. They reminded me to keep taking Communion. So, rightfully or wrongfully, remembering that also kept me going back. My own feelings of shame mixed with pride, a potential misunderstanding, and isolation kept me from asking for guidance while this was all occurring. Was it right to keep taking Communion without feeling the inner peacefulness and assurance? I was trying to find repentance and clarity, but didn’t feel that way most of the time.
Reflecting on all this, I am thankful now for what tiny part of me was resisting the despair, the doubts, and the anger. I certainly felt like I had very little control over my inner world. You wrote: “This voice is not the product of reasoning. We have not weighed, measured, compared and reached a conclusion that ‘he deserves to suffer and die!'”
Thank you again, Fr., for your writing and especially writing on shame.
Absolutely right to continue with communion. It is for healing and forgiveness as much as anything. God give you grace as He heals you. I cannot write much tonight. I came home after service tonight with a fever…
I hope you get done some rest. feel better Fr Stephen.
It’s the end of Holy Week now, what you wrote is more than enough, Fr. Take care of yourself. Thank you.
Dean, love those funny family stories! 😄
ELB, you wrote: I kept having doubts about my own ability to receive mercy, to take Communion, or to pray but didn’t let myself stop Communing or praying despite not feeling the repentant belief, though I wanted to. My own doubts shamed me even further at times for continuing to take Communion.
I have had issues of late in recognizing God’s mercy for my life and feel very ashamed that it is something that I only rarely see. I do not know why I cannot see His mercy for my life but I do not. Just this last week I resolved to not take communion due to my sins but, as I prayed and sang in Liturgy, God’s mercy was again revealed to me and I went to the Cup. I don’t know why I am so unaware of the breadth of God’s mercy and it is a huge stumbling block in my life as it impedes my giving mercy to others as well. Perhaps it is a lesson in humility that I so badly need. Lord have mercy on us and heal us.
In Michelle’s initial comment she responded that when self-talk is speaking it’s often pride and that she’s not inclined to look for comfort. I think it’s important to mention that God is a good parent and gives what’s needed. As a father myself I know there are times when I want so badly to comfort my children but realize they actually need something else at the moment.
One key to coming to a place where we turn to God and ask for comfort is understanding that this self-talk is something other than ourselves and that we need God’s help with it. Pride is a liar and a thief and will leave us high and dry when it’s done using us. We need help to be saved from this path and anywhere else self-talk will attempt to lead us.
Just wondering if the inspiration to write this had anything to do with the blog I sent you? 🙂
It’s just the mix of Holy Week, I think. But, the thought began as I was thinking about very unkind things directed towards atheists and unbelievers that I see on social media (of course they return the favor). And all of it, everybody, seemed suddenly gathered together in the Cross. And then the piece flowed. I wrote it in about 10 minutes.