The Scriptures record that Adam was ashamed and hid. It’s a primal response. Shame is experienced as a burning sense of exposure and vulnerability. It begs to be clothed upon and hidden. It is possible to say that human beings have been playing “dress-up” ever since. This can be understood in a literal manner as we wrap ourselves in fashion statements or tattoo identities on our skin. It can also be seen in an extended manner as we borrow identities from the various “tribes” with which we identify ourselves. In a very personal way, it is a thought that enters our head as we prepare to meet strangers, and even those whom we know, as we think about how we want to be seen and evaluated. It can be a minor distraction, or threaten to shut us down completely.
Many of our modern behaviors cluster around this reality. The more common, natural elements with which human beings have traditionally clothed themselves have either been radically modified or completely swept away amid the sea of constant change that marks our culture. I am encountering a growing number of young people (Middle School and above) who have lost confidence in their own gender, unsure whether it should be accepted at face value or traded in for one of the newer ways of being. That something so fundamental should be so easily questioned makes it little wonder that almost nothing else holds a grounded value. Today’s cultural clothing could become tomorrow’s naked shame.
A common response to all of this is to find islands of safety. Despite all the contrary rhetoric, contemporary Americans are not highly individualized: we are tribal, in the extreme. It is the group, however constructed, that gives identity, for the identity that is sought is one that covers us, that hides our vulnerability and gives us the safety of those who agree. A tell-tale sign of this dynamic is found in our culture’s anger. Anger is largely driven by shame and we can affirm our tribal protection only by shouting at the outsider. Everything outside the group threatens to unmask us. To an increasing extent, the group to which we belong is that set of people who share our anger.
I think about this dynamic particularly in the context of religious conversion and belonging. The process of conversion strips us of many things. It can feel alien and alienating. That itself can bring on a variety of efforts to “clothe” ourselves in ways that are less than helpful. T-shirts, coffee mugs, buttons and lots of icons, announce our new affiliation in much the same manner as our loyalty to a football team. On the emotional side, it is possible to become argumentative and aggressive or overly concerned about the boundaries of the Church. These responses are driven largely by our own neuroses and reveal things that need healing rather than nurture. It is not just conversion that produces such coverings – the personality needs of any individual, when expressed in religious terms, tend to flow along similar lines.
The Scriptures do not treat “being clothed upon” as a neurotic problem. That which is merely neurotic reflects something far more profound that is true and necessary. The nakedness of the soul, as we experience it, is a true nakedness. We have lost something that was/is proper to our very being. St. Paul describes this as being “clothed with the righteousness of Christ.” Or, more succinctly, “clothed with Christ.”
As many as been baptized into Christ have put on Christ. (Gal. 3:27)
It is our right and proper craving for this true covering that becomes distorted in our neurotic substitutes. That same covering is generally slow in its manifestation and presents itself in a mature form only with patience and endurance. Learning to bear with ourselves in the meantime is a very difficult thing.
The Elder Sophrony taught that we should “learn to bear a little shame.” Each of us, in our growth, must learn to be a “fool for Christ” in some small measure. There is a saying attributed to St. Thérèse of Lisieux (Roman Catholic) that puts this as well as I’ve heard it:
If you can bear serenely the trial of being displeasing to yourself, then you will be for Jesus a place of refuge.
God, give me the grace to put up with my weakness. Hide me under the shelter of Your wings.
Very interesting post Father. I can see what you mean by us becoming Tribal. Perhaps that is the next stop on the road from individual because as we fragmented into a collection of individuals in our culture, we lost our meaning and place in the world and we have adopted a form of tribalism to reinsert meaning into our lives. I can see it clearly in professional sports and the behavior of fans. When Philadelphia won the Super Bowl, the fans in Philly acted like they won it when it was a football squad that actually won. I can also see the anger as a part of this.
I really love that quote from St. Thérèse of Lisieux. It’s perfect; humbling, but at the same time encouraging. Thank you for another enlightening post!
Thank you, Father. St. Thérèse of Lisieux is one of my favorite saints, God grant that I, too, may learn how to patiently endure my faults and sins peacefully, under God’s mercy (as Fr. Hopko says),
Father, how does this tie in with the communion of the Church? If I understand rightly, the communion of the Body of Christ is the proper communion for true humanity?…
Fr. Stephan, how right on are you! lol Laughing at myself when I think of the tee shirt; sweatshirt; totebag; apron – all bearing the Orthodox Women logo; and of course my wonderful collection of icons. I have them at home, in my car, and even on my desk at work. They are a constant reminder of the joy in my heart of finally being in the home I sought for over 60 yrs. My heart and my beliefs found where they belonged when I found the Orthodox faith. I knew Christ, and I knew Mary. It was not until I found the icons that I saw their real faces again and knew this was the right place. I know it is easy to want to be proud of being part of this “tribe”, and being overly enthusiastic is definitely a failing of mine. lol I simply want to share the joy and the love that we partake of so freely within our faith. As I told our priest – Fr. Paul – I did not “join the church” – as one does with so many churches. I became “Orthodox”. I was truly changed and transformed into a new me, and one I am very happy living with. While my earthly parents may not have loved or supported me as they could have, my heavenly parents have never failed me. I feel as if I am going home to visit every time we go to church. What a wonderful gift of love and salvation we are given freely. I love your concept of us being clothed in Christ. Truly his love DOES cover us in Christ. I cannot imagine a more beautiful clothing.
Byron, yes, it’s true. And the more comfortable we are with that reality, the less we feel driven to announce it in every way and form possible.
Merry – You said, “I did not ‘join the church’ – as one does with so many churches. I became ‘Orthodox’”
i am having a similar experience, which is difficult to explain to anyone outside the Church, especially Protestants.
I try to explain that I have not decided to join the Orthodox Church, in the same way that I left the Disciples of Christ to join the Episcopal Church. It is rather that I have discovered that, like it or not, I am Orthodox. I have therefore become a catechumen in the Orthodox Church to learn how to be more authentically me.
Some of my Catholic friends, especially my Eastern Catholic friends, understand that. My Protestant friends are, sadly, at a complete loss.
A really excellent article!!!
And the more comfortable we are with that reality, the less we feel driven to announce it in every way and form possible.
This is slowly happening within me. I no longer want to tell people “I am Orthodox”. I am finding a great comfort in silence and, more and more, prayer. Many thanks Father!
Dear Father Stephen,
Thank you for your writings here. I am not Orthodox, or at least not yet, but your words here speak to me strongly.
I thank you again.
– another Stephen
What strikes me is how true things never really change. You say, Despite all the contrary rhetoric, contemporary Americans are not highly individualized: we are tribal, in the extreme.
I have been wholeheartedly accepting the line that people in the Western culture are highly individualistic. While this is true in the sense that this particular cultural mantra is one of individualism, I had forgotten that the way God made us – and ALL people – is never ultimately trumped by anything else. Allow people to be who God naturally made them to be and they will more or less snap back into the image and likeness in which they were created. That process of snapping back may take a long time, but it will occur nonetheless.
And in this case it’s the fact that we are communal animals (to borrow a term) no matter how hard we might get sold on the Lone Ranger credo. God is communal and we are made in His image. The point of this article accords quite nicely with your other messages, like how we all sink or swim together – and therefore need to learn to take on the disposition of being just as guilty and sorrowful for my neighbor’s sin as he is (or should be).
When I watched Michael Moore’s Where to Attack Next, one thing that stayed with me was a comment from a lady he interviewed in Iceland: In the States it’s about “me”, whereas over here it’s about “we”. But as your article so elegantly puts it, we in North America are also made to be about “we” but first have to unlearn the cultural lesson of “me” – which is still quite possible because in our heart of hearts it is what we were made for in the first place.
Thanks, Fr. Stephen, for this essential reminder and for all your work of translation and clarification.
“God is communal and we are made in His image.” Thank you for that, Drewster2000.
God is communal and we are made in His image.
What is always a bit surprising to me (it shouldn’t be, but it is) is that if you point out that we are communal, not individual, almost anyone I speak with will act quite offended and insist that they only commune as they choose to. The vanity of individuality and choice is very deeply rooted in our society. As a result, the unwillingness to be obedient is also deeply rooted.
Byron, so true! We are tribal in our actuality, but radically autonomous individuals in the delusional construct of our own minds! IOW we are a mass of contradictions. I’ve been encountering this a lot in the last year in the mindset of young relatives in my life, who seem like so many mind-controlled lemmings running off a cliff! Our disordered delusional cultural state is quite disturbing as it manifests in the tribalism (mostly “anti-Christian”) of our SJWs, advocacy of “human rights” with virtually no balancing consideration of the place of responsibilities, “freedom” as radical autonomy, notions of the right to virtually any expression of sexuality for “adults” (with only the quite dubious legal definition in mind), and so forth, etc.
Father, wonderful post. I love that quote—thanks for the reminder!
Just the other day I literally searched for articles on this blog using the term “neuroticism.”
This article is incredibly helpful and a game-changer… I will have to think more on how our desire to be “covered”is not neurotic and problematic in and of itself. This could be very helpful for me (and the middle schoolers that I work with).
He will cover you with his pinions,
And under his wings you will find refuge;
His faithfulness is a shield and buckler.
You will not fear the terror of the night,
Nor the arrow that flies by day,
Nor the pestilence that stalks in darkness,
Nor the destruction that wastes at noonday.
Because you have made the LORD your refuge,
The Most High your habitation,
No evil shall befall you,
No scourge come near your tent.
– Psalm 90 (91) 4 – 5, 8 – 9
Oops! Citation should be to Psalms 91 (90), not the other way around. Sorry,
Thank you for another article on this subject. The part where you describe how our need to cover ourselves springs from our neuroses is particularly illuminating.
If I might make a suggestion, please consider writing a book on how the Life of Repentance is distinguished from the Dream of Moral Progress.
Something in me keeps rebelling against trying to bear being displeasing to myself. I’m able to bear it for a short period, even a few days, but then the thought, “O! How many more dreary years or decades of bearing this shame do I have to endure?” comes crashing in and temptations to despair overwhelm me, and I am driven to self-numbing & avoidant behaviour in the nearest source of distraction, even if it is something “intrinsically innocent” as furiously reading through multiple news reports of the same event just to escape the pain of bearing the shame of being broken.
The most trying thing is the illusory tempting thought that keeps whispering to me, “You don’t need to bear all this shame for a seemingly endless period. All you need is to find the proper psychological hack to fine-tune your mind, and then, success and achievement are almost within your grasp. Just a little gritting of teeth, and you can be in a place where you’re pleased with your moral achievement.”
It’s mainly by reading the articles here and the books you’ve recommended here (by Elder Porphyrios, Elder Amilianos, Archimandrite Zacharias, etc..) that I manage to keep stumbling back wearily onto the track of repentance each time I find myself having been drawn into to the path of desire for moral achievement on my time-table!
God have mercy on me!
The book I’m working on will do some work with the topic of shame.
When I read what you’re describing, I wonder if some of what you’re dealing with isn’t what is known as “toxic shame.” There are wounds, primarily from our early years (when we are the most defenseless), that we experience as shame. They can be crippling for some. The wounds might not even be conscious any longer. But it can make the experience of later shaming events much more painful than normal and far more difficult to bear. We need help in finding and healing those early wounds.
Even when we “make a mess” of things in our adult lives – those messes are often just the playing out of those early wounds. Why do we do what we do? I rarely find the reason to be that someone is “bad” or “evil.” Actual evil in a human being is quite rare. There is, instead, a lot of brokenness out there.
God give you grace!