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.”