The Soul Is a Mirror

There are meditations and insights that simply change your life. I recall walking across the campus at Duke some 30 or so years ago. I had been plowing through a book of Orthodox theology (very thick reading). I would read a page and think, and read it again. But I recall very plainly a moment of insight – it regarded some paragraphs surrounding a statement of St. Basil’s. The “coin dropped” as they say. When I got back to my apartment I was silent. My wife asked me what was going on – I tried to explain – but told her that if what I was understanding was true – I would have to rethink everything I ever believed. That’s an insight.

The articles I have offered over the past few years that touch on the topic of shame belong to another such insight. It has been a matter that, when once seen, cannot be unseen, leaving nothing the same. Shame (both healthy and toxic) lies at the very core of our soul and is written even into the fabric of our bodies. In the Scriptures, it is the oldest recorded human experience.

It winds its way throughout the writings of the fathers often unnoticed since it lies within the meaning of other words: humility, envy, jealousy, guilt, awe, wonder, worship (and many others). It also presents itself to me throughout the day as I interact with other people. I hear it in confessions, even casual conversations. It drives our passions far more than any desire. It is called the “master emotion” by some, so it has an almost ubiquitous presence.

However, we live in a culture that has something of a taboo surrounding the subject. Our shame is far too painful most of the time to be revealed and discussed. Every article I write on the topic becomes the occasion for any number of private emails and phone calls. And this is right and appropriate. Safety is essential in the healing of shame.

It does not surprise me, upon reflection, to note that Scripture and the liturgical tradition describe Christ’s suffering primarily in terms of shame. Many would rather discuss them in terms of violence, transaction and punishment – such topics are ever so much safer. We may never have hit another person, but who has not engaged in mocking, or been its victim? And the story of such a thing is deeply painful, regardless of whether we did it or had it done to us.

Shame is alienation, the rupture of communion and relationship. It is abandonment of a peculiar sort – suggesting that we are alone because we deserve to be. The loneliness, particularly within our modern age, is driven largely from the alienation of ruptured communion. On some level, everyone experiences not just loneliness, but a slight sense of danger in public settings. It may be described rather benignly as “social anxiety,” but it could just as well be described as public shame. We are anxious because we feel vulnerable and that feeling of vulnerability is a symptom of shame.

The exposure suffered in the state of shame is unbearable and demands a covering. Human beings as social creatures seek to clothe themselves. We look in the mirror and measure our appearance as though seeing ourselves through another’s eyes. Only that which feels safe and comfortable will do in public. Of course, some outfits can be provocative, even outrageous. Strangely, these are born of a deeper shame – “shamelessness” is itself an offensive version of a defensive strategy. In such a guise the guise itself so predominates that the shame it hides is almost completely obscured. Of course, I now seem to no longer see an outfit, only the public proclamation of the shame within. And, I have found that my entire personhood can be hidden beneath the folds of a cassock. Many do not see “me,” only “priest.” It is a danger.

For the young (and increasingly for the old), tattooing has become a popular form of clothing. We write our secret identities on our arms and legs, backs and torsos, sometimes on the face. Our identities become indelible so that we cannot deny them if we wanted. Of course, such branding may be as innocent as the latest fashion, but the inner drive remains the same.

There are other clothes that serve the same purpose. We dress ourselves in our opinions, or in the ideologies that mark our lives (both secular and religious). The labels and slogans, shibboleths and mantras of our mental tribes serve not only to hide our shame from others, but also from ourselves. The religion and politics of identity are the politics of shame, though it never speaks its true name.

Shame is particularly problematic in the modern world where many natural “identities” have been disappearing. The extended family has often been reduced to mere biology, maintained only by strained vacation visits. Immediate families are often unstable, yielding “blended” families. Sexual thoughts and desires have rather recently been pressed into a category of “identity,” leaving many adolescents feeling confused and tortured with uncertainty, and unsafe, regardless of what they do. We do not know where we belong (and feel shamed). We have to invent new identities for ourselves.

Our shame binds us into groups (where others “like us” can feel protected). Identity is frequently “tribal” in character and it seems that almost any tribe will do. Those who analyze social media note that one of the strongest tendencies is to associate with those with whom we agree. The tribal behaviors in these new settings often rival scenes from The Lord of the Flies. Social media are at least equally Anti-Social media.

All of this is the world we live in, and the world into which Christ was born. There is nothing we see that was not seen then. We have invented nothing new in our shame. Our creativity is largely confined to how we hide from our own shame and how we harness the shame of others to control and manage them.

But my thoughts say to me that we can only find Christ within our shame (both the toxic and the good). We find Him within the toxic because Christ has descended into hell and purposed to meet us there. That purposeful meeting is for our healing, our liberation and re-creation whenever we dare to go there. But He is also within the good shame as we behold His wonder and His glory and accept our own emptiness in their presence. And in that moment and place, what is empty is filled – what is naked is clothed upon. The soul becomes a mirror for His glory.

 

 

21 comments:

  1. Glory be to Him who bears our shame, clothes our nakedness and heals us. Without Him we and I would be lost.

  2. Father great piece again. I don’t know if you have read any of Flannery O’Connors short stories. She has one called Parkers Back that deals likewise with shame, identity, and tatoo’s.

  3. Hello Fr Stephen,
    Thank you for continuing to write about shame. It is truly an immense topic that is as significant and far-reaching as you indicate in this post. Several questions remain that I hope you will eventually get to.

    1. Are we to discern healthy shame from toxic shame, and if so, how?
    2. Do healthy and toxic shame have the same treatment or different?
    3. The many-headed dragon of toxic shame must have a multifaceted array of treatments already available to us in the Church and it would be greatly edifying to journey through them.
    4. To what extent did Jesus Christ experience healthy shame and/or toxic shame, and what did that look like? This may get into St Maximus’ delineations of the will and what is fallen and not fallen.
    5. A harmonious unifying theory uniting the contemporary practice of psychotherapy with the church’s understanding of shame would be quite helpful, please.
    6. How are we to be most helpful to the children we are raising as regards their shame?

    Plus more I’m sure.

    With your prayers,
    Baker

  4. I see this, Father, in my oldest, adult son, who is a “slow learner.” I am suspecting that many of his social difficulties and fears arise from a sense of shame and inferiority that has been reinforced in every school and workplace that he has attended. He also suffers from frustration for his inability to operate like other people. May God grant him healing from this.

  5. John,
    There are so many sources of shame in our culture. My son (now 30) was having some learning difficulties in school as he grappled with ADHD problems. Socially, it was becoming very problematic. We pulled him out and home-schooled him for 7th and 8th grade. He flourished and returned very confidently in the 9th grade (even going out for football). He’s become an outstanding man, I should note. One thing I noted at the time was that there is pretty much nothing good that one adolescent can teach another, much less 200. Adolescence is, in fact, noted by many authors as almost nothing but continuous, agonizing shame as children seek to discover who they are, how they fit, etc. And they can be terribly cruel, a product of shame. Bullying is almost nothing but a shame issue. If I were king of America (smile), I would abolish middle school and replace it with some sort of mentor/apprenticeship in which young people would be placed with an adult (in very small numbers) where they could model and learn what it means to be an adult. The only thing an adolescent can teach another adolescent is how to be an adolescent…which is why so many adults remain stuck in adolescence.

  6. I am so grateful for this, comments included! What you said, Father Stephen, about adolescents has really opened my grandparent eyes. And calmed my fears, which too are probably related to my own shame ( though I’m still trying to understand all the implications of that term). It is truly good to be here, if only through words.

  7. “But my thoughts say to me that we can only find Christ within our shame (both the toxic and the good). We find Him within the toxic because Christ has descended into hell and purposed to meet us there. That purposeful meeting is for our healing, our liberation and re-creation whenever we dare to go there. But He is also within the good shame as we behold His wonder and His glory and accept our own emptiness in their presence. And in that moment and place, what is empty is filled – what is naked is clothed upon. The soul becomes a mirror for His glory.”
    I love the analogy of the soul to a mirror for His glory, Father!
    Not long ago while parking my car in a dark parking deck, I was wondering if the car parked exactly across from mine forgot their lights on. Only when I turned my headlights off I realized their headlights were off, too. I played with my lights on and off, imagining how Christ shines His divine light on our darkness and emptiness, but readiness to receive the light, and when that happens, it can be even difficult to tell who’s light is who’s – you are one light!
    Uplifting post, Father! Thank you very much! Please pray for us!

  8. Albert,
    The topic has so many psychological facets that I cannot begin to do it justice on the blog – perhaps enough to encourage readers to pay attention. There are good books out there (nothing specifically Orthodox, so you have to sift occasionally). Quite comprehensive, I think, in his latest edition is Bradshaw’s Healing the Shame that Binds You. Much more complete than his first edition. I think, even though he wrote a best-seller on the topic, he kept learning more and more as time went on.

    Ultimately, there are theological elements in this that none of the writers out there treat. I am doing some of that and will continue to do more.

  9. Thank you for all of this, Fr. Stephen, and especially this from your article here: “Shame is alienation, the rupture of communion and relationship. It is abandonment of a peculiar sort – suggesting that we are alone because we deserve to be. The loneliness, particularly within our modern age, is driven largely from the alienation of ruptured communion. On some level, everyone experiences not just loneliness, but a slight sense of danger in public settings. It may be described rather benignly as “social anxiety,” but it could just as well be described as public shame. We are anxious because we feel vulnerable and that feeling of vulnerability is a symptom of shame.

    The exposure suffered in the state of shame is unbearable and demands a covering. Human beings as social creatures seek to clothe themselves. We look in the mirror and measure our appearance as though seeing ourselves through another’s eyes. Only that which feels safe and comfortable will do in public.”

    Thank you!
    And I also appreciate your comments about middle school — teaching in a middle school this year has verified my suspicions of what my own children have gone through. I agree with your thoughts on the age and the way to address it completely! (And I look forward to reading more of your writings on the topic of shame) God bless all you do and God bless your family in all ways!

  10. “On some level, everyone experiences not just loneliness, but a slight sense of danger in public settings. It may be described rather benignly as “social anxiety,” but it could just as well be described as public shame. We are anxious because we feel vulnerable and that feeling of vulnerability is a symptom of shame.”

    This

  11. Fr. Stephen,

    It’s interesting how with some topics we just can’t get enough. You joked once about having a blog called “All Hell All The Time!” because of a certain group’s take on Christianity, but it seems like right now you could rename this one: “In The Depths Of Shame – For As Long As It Takes!” Obviously you’ve hit the proverbial sweet spot on this one. It’s like a massage therapist hitting that place where it “hurts so good”. Thank you for your healing work, Father.

  12. Fr. Stephen, I truly appreciate your blogposts and find them to be very inspiring and challenging, and thoughtful. They tend to bring to fruition a quote from Metropolitan Kallistos that I always leave printed on the bottom of my Announcements for Sundays, “We see that it is not the task of Christianity to provide easy answers to every question, but to make us progressively aware of a mystery. God is not so much the object of our knowledge as the cause of our wonder.” ― Kallistos Ware, The Orthodox Way. At any rate, I have a thought occur to me today, and I wonder if there is something to be said for the purpose of edifying, the possibility that ‘shame’ (both toxic and especially healthy) are inconvenient. I say especially ‘healthy shame’ is inconvenient, because it seems to me that it is not contingent upon the ‘seen’ but upon the ‘unseen’. I’m thinking, maybe it comes from within, and is contingent upon the Kingdom within. Yet it comes as a response from us as we are being showered with grace from God. Your thoughts?

  13. I find I have to read your posts in a measured sort of way because they hit at something painful and true. It’s no easy thing to bear shame so old that you can no longer place where it came from or why it took root. All I know anymore is the consequences of that shame and how it has shaped me. And of course over the years, shame has begotten more shame like some sort of ancestral curse.

    I never know why I write these things. I’ll probably feel more shame afterwards for having written it.

  14. Joe,
    Shame can be triggered by even the whisper of its existence. When the pain comes – as much as you can – simply say out loud, “I feel pain. Jesus help me.” Repeat it quietly for a while and let the pain subside. With the energy of shame, the worst thing we can do is try to shove it back down and make it be quiet. It actually gains strength from that. Exposure (even exposure to our conscious self) is helpful. When you say this, don’t give it the energy of alarm or desperation. Simply the quiet energy of saying something that’s true.

    It can sometimes be helpful to speak “soothing” words. “It will be all right…etc.” This is the same things that you would speak to a child who is upset. In terms of what’s going on inside us – it’s more like a distraught child. Comforting words – are like the psalm “I quieted my soul like a mother does with a weaned child.”

  15. As a relatively new convert, and someone full of toxic shame and self-loathing, I find that after confession and absolution (and Communion) I generally feel not relief, but rather a “storm” of intense shame. I have learned in those situations to “soothe” my soul by repeating phrases like “Thank God your sins are forgiven… thank God your sins are forgiven!” and trying to smother the flames with gratitude as best I can. I keep this up until the feelings subside, a few minutes at most. Doing this has been very helpful. Thank you for your words Father, they are an enormous blessing!

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