The Community We All Need

I once read that the Russian instinct, when under pressure, was to gather with other people, while the American instinct was to flee. Thus, the Russian landscape was marked by villages, while America was marked with isolated homesteads. My Russian knowledge is just hearsay, but I know that Americans like to homestead and to be alone. The American suburb is not a village, it is streets filled with little homesteads, islands of isolation, affectionately known as “my castle.” Americans are also frightfully lonely.

I have served for some thirty-seven years in ordained ministry at six different parishes, and worked in the establishment of a handful of others. Everywhere I have ever served, the topic of “community” has been popular. The very popularity of the topic points to the poignancy of its absence. My thoughts are that community is simply too shameful for most to bear.

The Russian vs. American description (whether accurate or not) will serve to point to the problem. The Russian experience for many centuries was marked not only by the dangers of wolves and the like, but the much more fearful danger of marauding Tartars. Villages and cities were frequently terrorized by an enemy who could occasionally be placated with ransom payments, but very rarely defeated. This pattern continued for around 250 years and had profound effects on the shaping of culture. The American experience, similarly faced with a vast open land for settlements, was that of conquering rather than being conquered. They vanquished their foes (native Americans) and took their lands. The so-called “pioneer spirit” was exalted as a virtue, with stories of brave individuals rather than fearful villages.

Communities are not built by pioneers. They are rooted in mutual need and brokenness. Stanley Hauerwas has observed:

My hunch is that you don’t just make a community up. You discover that you need one another because you’re in danger.

The need, created by various forms of weakness, must be acknowledged and accepted. The “shame” associated with it must be borne by the community as a whole. Without that acceptance, there can never be sufficient safety for a community to form. And this, I think, is the largest obstacle to “community” in our American landscape. We need each other but are both afraid to acknowledge how and in what manner as well as being fearful of our own inadequacy in the face of others’ need. It is much easier to talk (and write) about community.

At two points in my life I have been hospitalized with depression-related symptoms. The details are of no public interest, but both experiences were profound. The first was a bust: the treatment was improper and I was far from ready to be there. The second was a complete reverse. I was more than ready to be there, and found myself within a community of treatment that was simply the safest place I had ever known in my life. It was incredibly diverse in every possible way, including the nature of the various diagnoses. We shared only occasional elements of religious belief. However, the need was extremely clear and vulnerability became a hallmark of most interactions. Its community was profound.

Part of the lore surrounding the American military is that our men do not die for their country. Instead, they die for the guy next to them in the foxhole. The real stories of real wars and real heroes are rarely shared outside of that circle of experience. They are both too shameful and too wonderful.

My parents were extremely nostalgic about both the Great Depression and World War II. They were born in 1924 and were shaped by those great events. When you questioned them, or listened to their stories, there were an abundance of “needy” tales. The poverty of the Great Depression as well as the shared inventiveness of its management sounded like adventures when I heard them. The war put an entire nation on an equal footing of shared sacrifice and need. There were shortages borne by all.

I was in England a few years back when a news story broke about a pub riot in Scotland regarding England’s national soccer team. An Englishman was killed, as I recall. It became a topic of conversation with the cabby who was of my father’s generation. “I can’t understand it!” he said. “We were in the war together!”

It was not the first time I have heard nostalgic comments about that wartime. Of course, it is about a kind of community, enforced by the magnitude of the need.

Our needs are no less great, even though the war is so much less obvious. Privately, even secretly, we are all running short of something, and have just come from one emotional bombardment or another. I see the British war memes almost everywhere: “Keep Calm and Carry On.” They still speak to the soul.

The Church is, first and foremost, a community. It is, indeed, the primary community, the communion of God and humanity in Christ. We often think about it as a community of “faith,” imagining that it is our shared beliefs that bind us together. And, of course, having failed at any number of points to keep calm and carry on, our faith wanes, or falters, and we feel isolated and excluded. We fear to speak of the alienation.

A careful study of St. Paul’s letters makes it clear that we are saved not by our strength (or even our common faith): we are saved by our weakness. Grace is only truly complete and in its fullness in our weakness (2 Cor. 12:9). Strangely, we fear that our weakness (in its various manifestations) will drive others away. In truth, if others are not with you in your weakness, they are not truly with you. We gladly celebrate our strengths, and place great store by our perceived talents. Those things bring us awards and congratulatory attention. But we do not enter into communion through such things – they do not reside in that faculty of the heart where communion can be found. The communion we have with Christ is, strikingly, through His shed blood and His broken body. In a similar fashion, our capacity for communion lines up most closely with that which is most vulnerable – and hence – always very close to the places of our own wounds.

I think that the lived reality of God’s-grace-in-our-weakness is largely absent in contemporary Christianity (of every sort). It is, I think, one reason why we are all given over to such boasting. I will easily be misunderstood when I say that Orthodoxy is the worst of all Christian groups. I mean by this, that we carry the burden of 2,000 years. An honest study of those years should remove any temptation to triumphalism. Someone might ask, “Then why be Orthodox?” I can only answer that I need it and that I have chosen to enter communion with the weakness of the Church through the ages.

The Church in Jerusalem was founded in a shared, common weakness. Its first gatherings were behind locked doors. They had arguments (Thomas). They had failures (Ananias and Sapphira). The argued over doctrine (gentiles) and ministry (neglecting Greek widows). They were prone to factionalism (Corinth) and false teaching (Galatians). The dire warnings contained in the seven letters within Revelation were written to Orthodox communities. There is no historical evidence that the Church learned from its difficulties in the first century and outgrew its problems. It has never(!) been other than it was then.

I can only bear witness that cowering behind locked doors, I have encountered the risen Christ. The sooner we learn to speak the truth about ourselves to one another, and to confess our abject poverty before Christ, the sooner we will know the only community that will ever exist: founded in need, and filled with God.

60 comments:

  1. I believe, Father, that the isolation and lack of community in our culture is a major cause for our many of our social ills such as drug abuse. I also am convinced that the community we need the most is the Church. Your post has put many of my thoughts on the subject into a more cohesive order. Thank you.

  2. Ironically it is in church that many feel they have to “put on a brave face”.

    I am not good at it, but I have come to believe that I am safest when I am most vulnerable. God really does provide, if we allow Him to. I keep returning to Job as the example for the Christian man.

    One of the good things about getting old (almost 70): there is less expectation on my part and from others that I am able. It is definitely a blow to my pride and raises my vanity, but it is freeing as well.

  3. Fr. Stephen,
    What a wonderful article. One of your statements really caught my attention: “In truth, if others are not with you in your weakness, then they are not truly with you.” I know I’ve written lots about the oncology center lately. But talk about people in weakness and vulnerability! These poor folk are exposed to all who enter, hooked up as they are to various bags dripping drugs. Some, out of profound sickness just cover themselves with a blanket during treatment. Others may do so out of shame. However, among others there is a community of sorts established, though fleeting since patients receiving chemo come to differing rooms at different times. However, since all are suffering from cancer to varying degrees, a quick commaraderie is established. I was surprised at the laughter and good humoredness I often see among patients. And the loved ones and friends with the patients usually are at ease also. Food is shared, along with stories and experiences. Those with the patients are with them in their weakness. Love is shared. Such sharing occurs at profound levels through stories and experiences, and touch. …this love is many times seen with the nurses too. May I add this also…. I had a brother who suffered with Down’s Syndrome. He died at 24. After the funeral my father said, and they had suffered much with him through the years (blindness, epilepsy. etc.) , “I’m glad we had Ricky.” A simple, working man like your father, Fr. Stephen. Yet he and mom had truly been with my brother in his weakness. “Love never fails.”

  4. Thank you, Father Stephen for a most helpful piece. That we talk so much about community is indeed from a deep sense of absence and need. I wonder to what other elements of Life Together this rule applies?

    That we are needy is in many ways the truth from which we flee and seek to protect ourselves from, finally being utterly isolated with our Raw condition

  5. Michael,
    Saying you’re not able and others know this resonated. At a grandson’s ball game the other day, I was ascending the bleachers. I started to lose my balance. A teenage girl shot out her hand and I grabbed it! And to think that in h.s. I ran up and down stadium steps with my coach on my back. Yep, good lesson in humility and growing dependence.

  6. Dean, it is actually interdependence. The younger more physically able folks need us too. Just in a different way.
    That is part of learning to be vulnerable.

    Some things are easier to take than others but I keep working at it.

    I was talking to a 20 year old man we hired at my work. I have been in our business almost twice as long as he has been alive. He is smart, personable and vigorous but I do not envy the challenges he will face getting to my age.

    Lots of space for repentance.

  7. A lot of memory opened reading this article. What I don’t get yet is why there must always be shame attached to it. I understand the difference of the conquest or winner mentality of the American people, but I don’t understand why there is being conquered / looser label with shame attached to it. It is typical American and not European thinking. Maybe there are some who want to continually shame us for ever more for losing, driving the nails deeper or a form of guilt management because it is profitable , and Europe is losing its culture, home and whole communities to another people who are bend to destroy it. I came across this article and it resonated with me and I share it, because it shows the many ways we look at things and have in common and I also deeply respect our differences as well.
    https://www.christiancentury.org/article/2011-05/sunday-june-5-2011
    I want to note that this Minister did not feel or talk about his “shame” when being brought back from his sufferings. Shame is in wrong doing and not always the one being shamed is wrong. I feel this way too sometimes, so many false accusations and assumptions are being made. Nevertheless the brokenness is the same ….and he was being loved back into community. There is hope in Community, and indeed, when the survival of our way of life is threatened, we seek it. There is strength in numbers.
    Fr. Freeman, I enjoyed reading your essay with points to ponder and agree with. Thankful!

  8. I need it and have chosen to enter into comunion with the weakness of it.

    Amen.

  9. I noticed the picture you used was of a tiny shed-sized house…with a TV antenna! The television has been the quintessential American invention because in our isolation we don’t want to be alone, but don’t want to be vulnerable either.

  10. Having grown up with a type an level of community that most people don’t experience now, I always think of this when people (in my case usually lonely mothers) complain about the loss of “the village.” The fact is that most of us would not choose to live in the village because the price is high. Community means being seen, and all too often evaluated and judged by others. It means having other people involved in your business and bearing the weight of their opinions. It means feeling pressure not to step out of line. Shame really is at the heart of it. But bearing that shame is the price of the love and support that come with it. I have also been thinking lately about all the people in my generation (I am around the same age as your children) who describe themselves as experiencing social anxiety. I don’t want to discount the reality of anxiety as a mental/emotional disorder. But it does seem to me that what many people are talking about is precisely the experience of shame and vulnerability. I think it ties in with what you are saying – we have the desire for connection, but don’t know how to handle the vulnerability that is its price.

  11. All so very true! Thank you for writing and posting this, Fr. Stephen! Glory to God for All Things!

  12. Maria,

    I believe Fr is using “shame” in a very nuanced here. His usage is not the common sense of shame you and I would think of. And even though he has explained it, I still haven’t been able to wrap my mind around Fr’s use of it. So, perhaps Fr. wouldn’t mind briefly re-explaining “shame” for us.

  13. David, Maria,
    David is right. I am using the word “shame” in a somewhat technical sense. It certainly includes the emotion of shame itself. However, shame is a very profound, instinctive reaction (present very likely even in the womb) to certain sorts of stimulations. Those include the sense of abandonment, of exposure (as in being naked and vulnerable), of disconnected. It can be very minor and respond easily to comfort from another, or it can be extremely toxic and leave near life-long wounds and emotional injuries. If there is a reaction within us that can best describe what it “feels” like to break communion, it is this reaction.

    It says nothing about whether the feeling is “deserved” or appropriate, or whether society thinks it or not. It is an experience we have that begins in infancy. It has a healthy use but is also quite painful and can be toxic.

    Very early on, a child may likely conclude in the face of toxic shame that there is something wrong with them. “I am bad. I am ugly. I am fat. I am boring.” And so on. It colors how we feel about ourselves.

    And so, someone can say something very minor, very innocuous, and sometimes trigger this response and we feel terrible. This feeling is often tied up in other reactions as well such as anger and sadness, rage and depression. It is at the root of most anxiety. It can be as vague as “something is wrong,” or as global as “there is something wrong with me.” It can be crippling.

    This is not guilt – how I feel about something I did. Although there is often an element of shame attached to guilt. I can do something wrong without feeling like I “am something wrong.” But if there is much toxic shame present, most guilt will trigger feelings of shame.

    Shame is irrational. It is a reaction, not a set of thoughts. It is not logical. It is a reaction that is itself so strong that it makes it hard to think. We usually feel confused. We often experience shame in the form of nagging thoughts (dark, angry, bitter, etc.). These thoughts are not about reason. They are the sound of a very deep wound.

  14. Thanks for this article, Father. I have a question.
    I’ve always been an introvert, enjoying time alone. Having a wife and kids has lessened this somewhat (since I’m hardly ever alone!), but I still enjoy time alone more than social interaction (this is not to deny that I don’t get lonely sometimes). Is introversion simply an expression of resistance to vulnerability (and thus community)? Is it something that should be overcome?

  15. I think the American sense of community has eroded over the last few decades. During the Vietnam war, I was stationed at an Air force Base in Texas. Families lived in adjoining homes, and the yards were separated by a cyclone fence. Neighbors readily chatted and shared things. Two decades later, we visited that base with our son to show him where he used to live. We talked about what a wonderful community it was where neighbors shared their lives and their things. When we drove up, we were appalled to see six foot wooden fences between adjoining yards.
    When I was growing up in the 1950s, the only fences were cyclone, wire fences you can plainly see through. Wooden fences are now the norm.

  16. Lewis,
    I agree. My family settled Goshen, CT in 1635. Yes, they were on the frontier and yet they built a community. They established a company of the Connecticut Militia that defended the homes in the area and they cooperated in farming and house raising. In the middle of the 19th Century the powers that be took most of their farm land to make a reservoir and many of my ancestors were forced to seek employment elsewhere. The Great Depression and the turmoil and aftermath of WW II seems to be a watershed, not only in my family but in many others as the extended family was scattered and the individuals were forced to fend for themselves as not only individuals but as couples. Is it any wonder that the divorce rate in the US sky rocketed starting in the 1950’s? The communities we grew up in in the 1950’s were further scattered and broken by the economic forces of the 60’s and beyond. We have truly become a society of individuals trying to survive in a very hostile environment

  17. Josh,
    Not necessarily. There’s a wide range in our personalities. No doubt, some of our traits may have their roots within the wounds of our lives. I suspect that some of those things we remain a bit of a mystery to us. Vulnerability and empathy are probably the two most important traits in dealing with shame and overcoming it. Vulnerability, at its heart, is the essence of humility. Empathy, being available and reaching out towards the other in a substantial manner, is an essential part of love. We all have to grow a bit along and along.

  18. The world system that we inherit is plagued by corruption: A tendency towards dis-integration and alienation. The image of God in us and the grace of God without compels the formation of communities, but those communities are susceptible to corruption. This will inevitably create alienation in individuals. White Anglo-Saxon Protestants have merely attempted to transform that alienation into a virtue: Rugged individualism. We are now reaping the results of that misdirection. Our youth are unapologetically narcissistic and we as a society could not be more easily divided. In addition to all that, if a person experiences childhood abuse, that will make real vulnerability difficult and will result in an exacerbated inner alienation. It’s like there is a 70’s soundtrack to ones life constantly playing in the background “You’re no good, you’re no good, you’re no good, baby, you’re no good.”

  19. David, I think that you answered your own question on shame. That feeling that I am no good. It comes from two places: our separation from God and our existential experiences.

    The “good” shame Fr. Stephen mentioned is the recognition of our separation from God. It is “good” if it leads to repentance. The toxic shame drives the centifigal forces against vulnerablity and community. Father has said it is the breeding ground of our sins.

    In my case, I lived with a self-created shame for 65 years. God’s grace allowed me to truly offer it to Him through Jesus Christ. A great healing occurred. It is still working out but change is initiated by God’s grace. It took a long time to get to the point where I was able to offer the whole package to God as my shame had led to a multitude of sins. But the moment of God’s initial healing occurred over a weekend. I am not at all sure what happened. I just know I was different.

    Repentance is still necessary for me of course.

  20. Father could you address the connection between repentance and forgiveness? I ask because it seems to me that much of what passes for forgiveness is veiled judgement and a rememberance of wrongs. “You hurt me, but I forgive you”.

    It seems to me that we can arrive at real forgiveness only through repentance. Am I right?

  21. Josh I score high on introversion, my wife is the opposite. Introversion can be an attempt to escape and become an anti-social troglodyte. With empathy however it can become a movement toward prayer and repentance and a door into greater community.

    An excellent book on a related topic is “Where the Roots Reach for Water” by Jeffrey Smith.

  22. I’ve begun reading Dostoevsky’s Notes from the Underground and in the introduction the translator says that “Shame relates broadly to human identity, guilt more narrowly to human action. Shame arises from negative self-assessment, which arouses feelings of inferiority or inadequacy.” So, Fr. has done a good job in saying what shame, in his nuanced use of shame, is not. But, what does healthy shame feel like?? That is still not resonating.

    Michael B, you say that “The “good” shame Fr. Stephen mentioned is the recognition of our separation from God.” Again, I know that this is intended to communicate something, but I’m not sure what it is. What does that feel like? Because I don’t have any experience in my life that I can point to and say “That is what a healthy shame that stems from an awareness of my separation from God feels like.” I’m aware that there is a perceptible “distance” between myself and God, but I am also keenly aware that God is immanent to all his creation “higher than my highest and more inward than my innermost self.” As the scripture says “And He has made from one blood every nation of men to dwell on all the face of the earth, and has determined their preappointed times and the boundaries of their dwellings, so that they should seek the Lord, in the hope that they might grope for Him and find Him, though He is not far from each one of us; for in Him we live and move and have our being, as also some of your own poets have said, ‘For we are also His offspring.'”

    So, God is closer to our innermost self than we are, yet we are separated from God. It seems to me that whatever this separation is that it doesn’t reach our metaphysical core. Keeping with the “core” as a metaphor for our innermost self, perhaps the separation is internal. Perhaps it is an internal dis-integration between the “rind” and the “core.” If man is a microcosm, then perhaps alienation/separation isn’t from God without, but from God within. Which might imply that the scripture which says “that in the dispensation of the fullness of the times He might gather together in one all things in Christ, both which are in heaven and which are on earth—in Him.” The believer as a “new creation” is a microcosm of a whole new created order.

  23. Fr. Stephen,

    The topic of community has been a lifelong love for me, an unfulfilled desire. Your observations are spot-on. It is a mystery to me why we must need each other before we will be in communion. Well, it is and it isn’t. I understand how it works on the one hand, but on the other hand we never cease to have deep needs; all that happens is that some of us get to the place where we can fake it or hide it well.

    An older man was telling me about how he grew up in the Dirty Thirties where wind stripped the topsoil of the surrounding farm land and everyone was experiencing the Great Depression. All the families in that area would get together every Saturday night, bring what food and instruments they had and eat and dance together. Those were some of his happiest memories. Toward the end of the 30’s people started finding sources of income again and one by one drifted away. As you say, the need was no longer there – and therefore neither was the community.

    When incidents like 911 happen and all the wonderful stories of people risking their lives for one another come out, they devastate my original idea of what a tragedy. If something bad brings about so much good, is it really bad? No we would never stage a 911 event, but when it comes along and we find love and communion through it, should we really look heavenward and ask how God could let such a thing happen?

  24. Drewster2000, the scripture that God’s grace is made perfect in weakness. I sometimes wonder if the same isn’t true of evil and depravity.

  25. David, it is an internal separation because He is always with us, certainly after Chrismation. I am not always with Him. I still remember Chrismation 30 years ago. The joy.

    Not always am I able to express that joy and thanksgiving. When I am not I am both ashamed of myself and sorrowful. Other times I am prideful and arrogant and angry. Interestingly enough both act to drive me to confession and repentance. As does events in my life that are clearly His grace. It becomes clear to me that I am not worthy of that grace. Or as Shakespeare put it..”In the course of justice, none of us should see salvation.”

    It is a bit like marriage. On our wedding day the union is declared and sealed but not yet perfected. It takes time, dedication, tears and repentance to both realize the union and allow God to perfect it.

  26. Drewster, yes how indeed. We are a stiff-necked people are we not.

    Lord have mercy.

  27. We are a stiff necked people.
    But, we are also capable of courage, honesty, beauty, compassion, mercy, and self-sacrifice.

  28. the scripture that God’s grace is made perfect in weakness. I sometimes wonder if the same isn’t true of evil and depravity.

    I think there is a danger in saying God’s grace is made perfect in anything evil or depraved. I think the workings of God’s grace are found in our repentance and that is brought about in fullness by our weakness. Weakness doesn’t necessitate wounding, which is the typical result of “evil and depravity”, rather it is a method of recognition of ourselves and God and our need for Him. Communion, as so many have stated above, is born of this need.

    The actions of evil and depravity wound us. They bring about distraction from repentance via the hatred, pain, pridefulness, frustration, shame, etc. that they engender. In these cases, healing is required in order help us too full repentance. The Church is the hospital in which we heal; in which we draw closer to God in our need. Just my thoughts. If I have mis-stated anything, please forgive and correct.

  29. Byron,

    Our weakness entails the potential to be wounded, which I would think is the potential for evil. I think that it’s interesting that the verse says that it is God’s grace that is made perfect in weakness. I would imagine that this refers to our weakness, not His. On the one hand, God does not wound us. On the bother hand, it is in our capacity to be wounded that God’s grace is made perfect.

  30. David, I’m not so sure that “our potential to be wounded” is the focus of the weakness that is being discussed. Our weakness is a recognition of our need for God. It is not so much a vulnerability before evil; the humility of the Saints is often sited as the Glory of God that denies temptation and evil in their lives.

  31. Byron,

    I don’t know what an unwoundable person who is still in need of God’s grace would look like.

  32. Fr. Stephen,
    Some of the monasteries here in the States have communities of families /couples living in close proximity. Is this because they recognize more their brokenness, dependence on one another? I would think some are there simply to draw closer to Christ, because of the holiness one feels in a monastery. For others it may mean a place to safely raise children (most are home schooled ). My wife and I live 30 miles away from the monastery. Because of our age and family we are settled in between. Thanks for any reflections.

  33. David and Nicholas, forgive me but I never meant to imply that anyone is “unwoundable”. I only wanted to separate “woundable” from “weakness”. As I mentioned, the humility of the Saints is often cited as a powerful force for denial of temptation and evil in their lives. But humility is not the same as “potential to be wounded”. It brings one close to God, the Healer of wounds. I do not think that, when we discuss weakness, we are discussing humility.

  34. Thank you everyone, I loved reading every comment, you were all so real to me.
    Maybe shame is something I do not understand. I felt ashamed of my parent, because they were divorced, I felt ashamed of my husband, because he was an Alcoholic, dishonest and I never thought he could do some of the things he did, I was ashamed seeing the poverty and neglect of people here in the US, and no one in Europe would believe me, not even my family, of all I saw and what life was really like here. In addition I was always being reminded by someone, TV, Movie, or people, of Germany losing the war and asked if I was a Nazi, (called names too) as though I was supposed to feel ashamed for this too. (Born much later) I can say it is a shame all this happened, but am I to bear shame for it? I think I had enough shame poured on me just by connection, but none are personally mine and committed.. I am unwilling to bear or allow others to shame me for something I did not do, because they are not willing to deal with their own perception of what is shameful.
    We all have different standards, my successes are not yours. Should I feel ashamed, because I had less opportunity, ashamed because I have limits or value different aspects of life, ashamed of my heritage. America always divides, rich and poor, winners and losers, the have and the have not’s, the sinners and saints, it is awful. America sets standards that are grotesque with CEO-pays etc.
    I grew up after the war and we were all just happy to be alive.. These divisions did not exist, but community was being build.
    I just can not deal with shame-dumping. I was just a 5 year old when I gave my life to Christ in a Tent-Revival for kids before the big event. It is still so vivid to me. To me God was a God who Loves, Forgives and makes the old New Again. I knew then that I was to forgive others all that he had forgiven me. And I did, but what does a 5 year old know. I think I have so much more to forgive and I just don’t know how. Maybe in this I am shameful, I lost my ability to forgive (America) and it hurts.

  35. Byron
    Weakness and humility are deeply linked because in humility we do not rise to defend ourselves, which makes us weak in comparison. Weakness is truly a human condition, however. None of us can stand up to nature, or to the events of life. I would hazard that humility is that quality in a person that helps them cope with things they are too weak to change. Interestingly enough, the major difference between a pagan world view and a Judaeo-Christian world view is that pagans seek to overcome the world through gaining power over it. We, in humility, accept our weakness and depend on His mercy

  36. Byron, et al
    “Weakness” is exactly what the word says – and it is a capacity for vulnerability. It also is easily wounded. The wound isn’t evil. The person inflict a wound is doing evil, but the wound itself is not. The wounds in Christ’s Body remain, even after the resurrection, but are now marks of glory.

    St. Paul was “wounded” (tormented in some fashion) by a demon, according to his own testimony, and he references this as a “weakness.”

    Weakness can mean lack of strength to do something (weak muscles). But in St. Paul’s use, it’s closer to the meaning of “sickness” or “infirmity.” We would say that (physically) “there was a weakness in the muscle wall” – meaning, it could somehow break or be injured, etc. It is in this latter sense that weakness is vulnerability.

    I think we are saved through our weaknesses, not because of the weakness itself, but because it is the only place in which we are actually vulnerable to God and to others. It is the breakdown of our self-sufficiency. In our culture, we try to hide our weakness and magnify our strengths. But the culture wants us to excel as consumers and producers – it cares nothing about wholeness.

  37. Thank you for this article, Fr. Stephen.

    I personally find it helpful to think of shame as a cue. When I feel shame, I know: I have become involved in another’s separation-inducing words or deeds (i.e., sin), whether real or imagined.

    The sin I have become involved in might be the other’s sin of judging my errors with needless harshness—and I might, in fear, be projecting it on another person whose affirmation I crave. My involvement might also be primarily proximity—as when I feel shame if someone close to me misbehaves, and I feel ashamed by the separation-inducing words and deeds I sense (or project) unfolding around me. Regardless, whereas guilt is about my sin, I find it helpful to think of shame as about another’s sin.

    Understood this way, shame—felt and responded to as a cue—focuses my attention on (a) another’s separation-inducing words or deeds, (b) how I have become caught up in the fragmentation those words or deeds are causing, (c) the extent to which I may be imagining these words or deeds.

    With that focus, I can choose how to respond:
    a. Will I deny what I desire, in order to exonerate the other’s ignorance of or lack of attention to what matters to me?
    b. Will I behave worse (or give up), to justify the other’s negative judgments of me?
    c. Will I try to avoid scrutiny, in order to help cover over the other’s injurious behavior?
    d. Will might nurture a context in which forgiveness can be offered, relationship restored, and God glorified?
    (In such a context, I might well have to re-examine how I interpreted my own and others’ words or deeds. Regardless, I can carry forward hope, even when doing so entails risk—especially if I do so with the support of a community that believes in and lives out redemption, daily ministering reconciliation.)

    Again, thank you!

  38. Weakness and humility are deeply linked because in humility we do not rise to defend ourselves, which makes us weak in comparison.

    Nicholas, all, my apologies for confusing the discussion with the addition of “humility”. I do not see the refusal to defend oneself as “weak”. I was thinking of Anthony Bloom’s characterization of humility as the willingness to bear all things. I do not see that as “weak”; rather I equate it with Father’s oft-quoted need for us to “bear a little shame”.

    Father, while I understand that we are vulnerable in weakness, how are we (spiritually speaking) vulnerable to evil in humility? Does it not bring us closer to God, which would also be a movement towards Being? I am obviously confusing the terms in some way. I appreciate any clarification or, perhaps, this is a tangent that is better not explored in this conversation?

  39. Byron,
    There is no way to be invulnerable to evil – nothing protects us in the sense of preventing evil from doing us harm. In that sense, we share in Christ’s vulnerability to the Cross. But there are all kinds of harm. Evil can kill me, and yet not “harm” me (make me evil). It can always kill me – I’m mortal. But in union with Christ, I remain protected from evil making me evil.

    Our weakness does bring us closer to God – and – in that sense – protects us from the evil effects of evil.

    All of this has the strange paradox: when I am weak then I am strong, etc.

  40. Thank you, Father. This is what I was thinking of; that evil cannot make me evil. I was separating physical harm from spiritual. My apologies for the confusion.

  41. The incorruptible seed, the world can inflict all kinds of injustices and pain on you, even psychic pain, but as stated by Fr Freeman and Bryon, you will not return evil with evil. This makes you look like a fool to the world, but a tool in God’s hands to take away the sins of this world in small measures by each of us. The buck stops here so to speak. I just wished it wouldn’t hurt so much.

  42. Michael Bauman,
    I am far from understanding how shame is at the core of/or originates from/by me, other than I violate a known norm or command by me. Most of the shame I think we feel comes from our own judgements of others not meeting our/ or societies rules/norms,/laws, commandments/church etc. of conduct or behavior and we think it would be a reflection on who we are if we hang around them. I can think of my kids misbehaving and someone else criticizing me for not having taught them better. When ever I feel a deep sense of shame it is mostly because the outcome, lets say like the ideal or commitment of a marriage was not achieved and we may feel a sense of failure, regret and shame , either not given the opportunity to live up to it, or was left unfinished by another.. I ask myself though, is this perceived failure or shame realistic that we take on? We do not come or live in an ideal world where everything is hanky dory, peaceable, or controllable etc. It is marked with jealousy, envy, strife, competitive attitudes that we have to learn to deal with in community, or we work with a different set of standards, and often enough fail as pairs, family, neighbors, countries and so on. We are continually judged and have to live by someone else’s social established standard at work, at home, in schools etc. Seldom can we live by what seems natural or right in/ to us.. Who has set the standard of normal has always been the Church in the past, but her voice is diminishing. There are so many different sets of standards now, one does not even know anymore how to live without getting sued. I know I can not live in this world by the purest standards of the Church, I would have to join a convent I may succeed there. (I lived with nuns for 4 years) It is impossible not to become affected by the world (or the nuns) to some degree. But Jesus said he will forgive us and give us the strength. So I see NO REASON to continually wallow in shame when I messed up. And I have, mostly because I had no knowledge and was blind to the real world, and it hit me hard. I love, I work, I play, I engage with people, I won’t be able to do everything right and God knows and understands it. You can get stuck in shame always thinking about it, or beat yourselves up, and I don’t think it is healthy, but when we feel it we could ask ourselves, did I commit a shameful act, is someone judging me, and if I cant figure it out I leave at the foot of Jesus to tell me. I may cry not knowing why, because it hurts to be judged whether rightly or wrongly, and it will be ok. It is all OK when we know we’ve done our best in this world. Community is best where you have friends to talk to, judge you less, and can feel a sense of being among family. Can’t think of anything better, I have known it and lost it by coming to the US. The superficiality is sometimes unbearable here. (but not here on this blog, I sense kindness and something real here and I thank everyone, It is like allowing me to be a human being when the world wants me to be Super-woman and Super -mom, mother and father all in one and so on—-and I can’t be that , I will fail)

  43. Maria,
    If you haven’t already, I would encourage you to read Fr. Stephen’s earlier post in this thread on the nuanced sense of shame he is using. The reservations you’re expressing make complete sense IF Fr. was discussing shame in the unhealthy sense of negative self-awareness. The kind of shame associated with deep wpunds, which is what I think you’re referring to.

    I could always be wrong.

  44. Maria, shame entered the human condition when Adam and Eve did not want to be seen. Thus they hid from each other and from God.

    I say you are not far from understanding because you feel human here.

    Shame first entered my conscious life when I was four. I could not do something I really wanted to do because I was too young. For some reason I felt shame from that–lessened as a person. I began to withdraw from everyone around me and always felt lesser after that. A lifetime of sins began there. I started hiding.

    Took the grace of God 65 years,
    Reading Fr. Stephen for nine years, several intense confessions with good confessors and a crisis in my life before I realized what was going on. I had always been aware of that moment and the change it illicited in me but never what the change actually was. (BTW when I first started reading Fr. Stephen I would get really upset about what he was saying. HOW CAN THAT BE? I kept coming back though because of the truth and humanity here plus an inner longing for both).

    Still a lot of healing to come for me as old habits die hard and new moments arise to challenge me but God’s healing grace is still there to remind me I am human other people are human and to fear not. He is taking care of it. Glory to God.

    All the roles you are afraid of failing in– the fear is related to the type of shame we are talking about. For me it often resulted in perfectionism first for myself and then for others. I would shame others to avoid my own shame. Just as I saw my father do.

    It is a struggle to be human. The darkness of the world really wants to keep us from our humanity because there is where we encounter the Risen, Incarnate Lord who is man for our sake.
    The more we realize our humanity in Jesus Christ, the less the darkness has in us.

  45. I appreciate your reflection, Michael: “Shame entered the human condition when Adam and Eve did not want to be seen. Thus they hid from each other and from God.” I think it’s important that, simultaneously, primordial man and woman ascribed a false attitude to God. They feared that God’s disposition toward them would change, based on their actions—that instead of protecting them and providing for them in their new state, God would abandon them or respond to them with vengeance.

    Adam and Eve thereby began to participate in God’s separation-inducing words or deeds (i.e., God’s sin)—which wound up, of course, being nothing of the sort. God provided them clothing. God protected them from eating from the tree of life in their current blaming, self-justifying state. God gave them struggles, too, which He knew would refine their characters. God continues to do them same for each of us, today.

    The more we conceive of our relationships with others as transactions, it seems to me, the more tempting it is to understand shame as primarily what we receive from others, or what we anticipate receiving from others. I think it’s important, whenever possible, to understand our relationships with others more as interactions, which shape our personal senses of self. Through a lens of interaction, shame can become an invitation to think of others—of others, caught up in separation-inducing words or deeds (whether real or products of our imagination)… of others, that is, in need of grace, which can take part in providing, as we nurture a space in which everyone present can feel safe and, again and again, grow together.

  46. Here is an anecdote of what shame can do: years ago I was corresponding with my older brother, an Orthodox priest, using e-mail. He said some very complimentary things about me which because of my shame and the fact that we were not face to face, I took as mocking me. I got very angry. When I actually talked to him on the phone I found out he really meant them. It was incomprehensible to me initially that my older, genius IQ, priest brother who I could never equal in accomplishment could possibly mean the things he said. Fortunately I did not vent my anger on him before I had the chance to at least hear his voice.

  47. Matthew yes I get that. Never would have said it but I really get it. That of course is the lie the devil wants us to believe. Thank you for your insight.

  48. What I’ve written, Michael, are some rather abstract principles. What you’ve given are some clear, concrete examples. Thank you, too.

  49. Thank you,
    David & Michael for trying to help me understand. I think there may be some experiential differences in the way male and female encounter shame, among other things. Though I hear and see what you are saying, my conscious experience of shame, or being shamed was when I expressed to someone I loved that I wanted children in my life if we were to get married. He thought that was an outlandish, outdated or ridiculous idea for a happy life. He spread it around to his family as though I came from another world. People can be happy without family and kids, he should be all I needed and nothing more. I can still feel the gasp, the stone and the rocks that were hurled at me. A heartfelt love was naked, exposed, shamed and it hurt. I did not meet his expectations of who he thought I was, so we departed. It took me along time to get rid of this feeling of being shamed I learned early in my life that the eyes of God are everywhere and that all is known to him before I even have done anything right or wrong , he knows the end of my life and every thought I think or will think in the future. Therefore the only shame I can feel is not having given enough room for God, love and trust to see me thru, because at the end of life’s rainbow, my love will return to his Love,

  50. Maria,
    There could easily be a difference in the way men and women experience shame. I don’t know what the difference is exactly. In reflecting on the shame my wife has experienced over the years, it was more directly at the hands of men she trusted– father, brother, husbands.

    Her healing of that shame comes, initially, directly from her experience of Jesus Christ and then in our marriage.

    My shame was largely self-induced through my over-reactions to people and events in my life.

    Unfortunately, men seem to want to ignore there own shame and degradation by abusing or betraying women. That started in the Garden too with Adam’s justification-“This woman you gave me…”

    Still the nature of shame seems to be the same: It distorts our view of who we are and our inter-relationship with Jesus Christ.

  51. For a twist in our somewhat distanced look at shame in community may I suggest Milton Mayer’s book: They Thought They Were Free: The Germans, 1933-45.

  52. Somewhere up in the comments I came across a statement that I feel cautioned to clarify concerning the misunderstanding that “we could never stage an event like 911.” I know this comes with a huge amount of risk in any sort of reply, but I must first say that while this comment was perhaps made in the spirit of good faith, the deeper implications of that “event” impale deeply into a communal shame that will take generations to recover from (if at all). All forms of war are “staged events.” All justifications for violence are “staged events.” The Fall was a “staged event” posed to embark death into our final equation to somehow become gods. And yes, modernity is more than capable of staging an event like 911–this is why it is so deeply shaming because it is surrounded by so much ambiguity and lies. Anything which succumbs us from life into death is staged for our supposed ransom to a God made diminished by the myth that He could be held to pay a ransom in the first place. In every instance where authority uses lies and deceit to accomplish it’s establishment, it dips deeper into schemes of fear and misinformation. Every time I pick up a smart phone or get on a computer to play a video game or watch a movie, I am partaking in a “staged event.” The shame in all of this is that I know I have been duped into believing that “this” event is real while everything beyond “this” is unreal. Here is life and there is death is in itself a “staged event” of monumental proportions. I think the above comment regarding our human event as believably unstaged is crucial in understanding the shame of what we want to believe made honest by what we repent to believe. Any “staged event” is believable until the reality of Christ frees us to see the unbelievable. Thank you to whoever brought this distinction to our attention, I am greatly healed and freed by it.

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