The Quiet Centrality of Healthy Shame

“For there is a shame that brings sin; and there is a shame which is glory and grace.” (Sirach 4:21)

I have written previously about shame (and will continue) and its importance in our life. Despite the crippling effects of shame in its toxic form, shame also has an important healthy aspect that is necessary for our lives. The toxic form tends to overwhelm us and to dominate the popular understanding. Healthy shame is far more subtle, and is easily overlooked. Learning about its nature and its place in our lives is essential in our movement towards God.

Strangely, of all the emotions, shame is probably the most social. For example, a child who stumbles in a piano recital, forgetting the song, coming to a complete stop, will not only experience shame themselves (blushing, eyes turned downwards), but trigger the same reaction in an entire room of adults. No one else in the room has done anything wrong. No one else in the room is even on stage. But everyone in the room, to one degree or another, finds that the emotion of shame has been triggered within them. They all stare at their feet, and quietly hope the moment will pass.

This is not a rational response. It is not a response triggered by a set of thoughts. Shame is, first and foremost, a physical response to certain situations, words, or ideas. The thoughts are secondary. It is a response that is “hard-wired” into our bodies themselves. And this important to understand. Just like the physical sensations of sight, hearing, touch, etc., shame is a bearer of information. What is it telling us?

At its deepest, non-emotional core, shame signals an interruption – in particular, an interruption in one of the two hard-wired pleasure signals: excitement and joy. In and of itself, such a thing seems innocent enough. However, the signal of shame is painful and unpleasant – we try to avoid it. Again, on a very primary level, shame serves as a signal of a boundary. If there were no boundaries to excitement and joy, any number of dangers would crash into our lives. Shame, in this primary level, sets important limits.

Many people might wonder whether “shame” is the right word to describe such a prosaic neurobiological response (don’t blame me, that’ s simply the term applied by science). This mechanism, however, remains the same mechanism whether it is the most harmless childhood experience of an innocuous boundary or the most toxic, crippling experience of an adult. The difference has to do with our life experiences and the layers of emotions that become attached to this fundamental physical response.

On an emotional level, shame often answers the question, “How do I feel about who I am?” This makes sense, in that our experience of boundaries forms one of the contours that describe who we are. However, the boundaries we encounter are often far from natural, and can represent the trauma of injuries and insults. The result is the burden of toxic shame, a burden of darkness that continues to whisper echoes of its originating event, driving us ever deeper into a place of self-loathing and relentless anger.

Such burdens make the topic of healthy shame difficult to consider. But there is such a thing, indeed, a “shame which is glory and grace.” Dr. Timothy Patitsas of Holy Cross Seminary has written very insightfully about healthy shame in his new book, The Ethics of Beauty. He describes healthy shame as utterly essential in the Orthodox life of salvation:

Proper shame is not easily defined, but we can begin by saying that it is the glow of a worshipping and healthy human soul. Secularism, on the other hand, is the attempt to strip the world of all religious meaning and to put man in God’s central place. Secularism trues to stop us from worshipping, and in order to do that it has to stop us from feeling healthy shame. Shame and secularism are mortal enemies. (pg. 200)

This healthy shame is the natural and appropriate response to theophany, the apprehension of God and the revelation of true beauty. Modern treatments of the term “Orthodox” have often nurtured a distortion of the term “Orthodoxy,” interpreting it solely as “right doctrine,” with the result of focusing our attention on ideas and formulations as if their mastery somehow makes us “Orthodox.” Thus, it is possible to meet many people who are “correct” about Orthodoxy, but who are actually strangers to its reality. When the Christian faith was preached to the Slavs, you can see the precise meaning of “Orthodoxia” in the word chosen by Sts. Cyril and Methodius in their translation: pravoslavie. [Pravo=Ortho (“correct” or “right”). Slava=doxia (“glory”)]. “Slava”does not carry the meaning of “doctrine” as does the more ambiguous “doxia” in Greek. Instead, it simply means “glory.” To be Orthodox is to give “right glory.” It is a matter of who and how we worship.

It is fascinating to follow the Slavic peoples in their history of Orthodoxy. Their Churches were not riven or torn by matters of doctrine. Instead, it was matters of worship that seemed of first and greatest import (cf. Old Believers). To the modern mind, arguing over whether you Cross yourself with two fingers or three is the height of foolishness. We do, however, see room for arguments over teaching. “Right glory” seems alien to the modern spirit.

Our inquirer classes are inevitably centered on doctrine and history, with, doubtless, a nod to practice. But the true heart of Orthodox salvation is the acquisition of healthy shame, an essential part of the right worship of God and the perception of His theophany in the world.

For most people, shame is not the word first associated with worship or beauty. It is, however, essential to both. The true encounter with God (not the idea of God) is also an encounter with the nakedness of the self. Our coverings (falsely created and falsely donned) disappear and we see ourselves as well as God. That naked (and thus “true”) perception of the self invokes shame, an awareness of the ultimate boundary: the creature before the Creator.

Isaiah, describing his own ecstatic vision of God (chapter 6), gives voice to this shame:

“Woe is me! For I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, the LORD of hosts!” (Isaiah 6:5)

There is another word, more easy to hear, that describes this shame: humility. The rules of politeness have, for a large part, co-opted it and rendered it into little more than an affable shyness. True humility is, however, the most profound awareness of the truth of the self and the perception of God. It “bears a little shame” and does so gladly that it might press further into the revelation of God.

Patitsas describes this process of theophany and healthy shame as “Beauty-first.” We are not saved by understanding and fixing the facts of our life (particularly the past). We are drawn by the revelation of God Himself, the wonder and worship of His theophany. It is as we move towards that Beauty, that we become willing to bear the burden and cost that might come from it (for love). It is in that love that we are transformed and united with the Crucified Christ, conformed to His image.

In Isaiah’s revelation, he does not stop with the vision of God. He hears the call that will become the truth of his existence: “Who will go for us?” Regardless of cost, Deep calls to deep, in his response, “Here I am! Send me!”

Patitsas says,

“Beauty-first approaches always strengthen healthy shame. Truth-first approaches [as in fixing the past or getting correct information] always seem to blunt healthy shame. And therefore the real goal of Orthodox Christian soul development is that the soul become…orthodox. The soul only develops through a correct and healthy response to God’s pure Theophany – that is, by feeling the right kind of shame in the face of God’s glory….The great hospital of the soul is liturgy because in liturgy we are invited to fall in love with what is most Beautiful.” (pg.201)

This was Isaiah’s therapy as well. It is his vision that is rehearsed in every Divine Liturgy when all earthly cares having been laid aside, we join our voices with the heavenly choir in praise of the Holy, life-creating Trinity, crying aloud and saying, “Holy, Holy, Holy!”

We move, both within the Liturgy, and without, from glory to glory, even though that glory requires the soft gentleness of heart that acknowledges its own shame (bearing a little). This is likely a very slow work, even the work of a lifetime. It is also a work that, over time, begins the healing of the toxic forces in our lives. For that, we pray that God gives us helpers.

62 comments:

  1. Dear Father Stephen,
    I can’t begin to tell you how timely this article is. Thank you and thank God for this ministry.

  2. Father, is this related to prayer? In the sense of prayer being an emptying of one’s self before God (in order to be filled by Him)?

    I am thinking also of the difference between prayer and crying out to God that Met. Bloom so aptly described in his book on prayer. Is the cry to God a recognition of our helplessness before all things and trust in Him?

  3. Byron,
    Prayer can be an essential form of this – particularly prayer from the heart. St. Porphyrios cautions against doing prayer simply as a dry task. It’s almost better to stop, warm the heart (there are various ways to do this), and begin again, or even to simply sit in God’s presence and give voice to the dryness itself (the Psalmists do this). And, sometimes when the Theophany seems far removed, or even absent, we sent in the presence of the very desire for that Theophany (that, too, is a gift).

  4. Dee,
    Thank you. I’ve been very moved (and very affirmed) by Patitsas’ writing. I called him last week just so we could have a conversation. It was very encouraging. For one, it’s a reminder (to me) that this is not a private insight – but at the very heart of the Tradition – even if there are not many voices speaking about this at present.

  5. Dear Fr. Stephen,

    Thank you for this article. It reminds me of Archimandrite Zacharias’ discussion on bearing a little shame in confession in his book The Hidden Man of the Heart. I have not been able to fully understand what he means by this until reading your article.

    Christ is Risen!

  6. Thank you very much for this, Father.

    I get the impression that in the presence and the harboring of healthy shame acquired through the vision of God (theophany), that this is the foundation to healing this terrible toxic shame. Yes?
    That is not to say that counsel with someone trustworthy is unnecessary. But it seems that within a soul that harbors healthy shame, in beholding Beauty, it is as if our soul becomes enclosed within a protective hedge where our former reaction to shame slowly begins to be no longer toxic.

    On another note, Father. Re the icon you have at the head of the post, did you choose it to make a point that ‘right worship’ is more Orthodox than the ‘letter’ of ‘right doctrine’? Or am I totally off base?

  7. Father, is healthy shame also connected to a sense of decency? I ask because of a moment of public shaming that occurred about 70 years ago:. Joseph Welch representing the U S Army before Sen Joseph McCarthy’s committee on “Un-American Activities. Judge Welch, in response to a particularly insulting line of questioning about one young man Judge Welch said, “Have you no decency, sir?”
    Everyone who heard it at the time was shamed and that shame changed the course of American history.

    Just wondering?

  8. Paula,
    The short answer is: Yes. Dr. Patitsas began some of his thoughts on all of this reflecting on the book, Achilles in Vietnam: Combat Trauma and the Undoing of Character, by Jonathan Shay. There’s a lot of shame in the creation of PTSD. I first read an article by Patitsas on the role of Liturgy in healing that trauma. That article, it seems, grew into this much, much larger book.

    He especially looks at healing trauma through this slow work of “Beauty-first.” It’s interesting because it not only draws on Orthodox tradition, but on ancient Greek tradition (philosophy, ethics) as well. That’s fascinating.

    First, I think, is the slow nurturing in the soul of the perception of Beauty, of Theophany, etc., as well as nurturing “right worship.” My own personal practice is to sit quietly with my rope and the Jesus Prayer, and to “extend” myself towards God. Any number of things come to mind during that time, and, unless they are distracting, I allow them to be there. Sometimes, what is there is a bit of shame (like a noisy puppy). I work at being patient. I don’t try to judge myself (my past), but I don’t try to erase it, excuse it, or force it to go away. That broken, traumatized self needs to sit in the presence of God as well.

    The verse that I’ve used before comes very strongly to mind in this: “I have quieted my soul like a weaned child on his mother’s breast.” That traumatized aspect of the soul is often a very disconsolate child. So, I try to be as patient as a mother.

    The Litugy itself has all of this within it, I think. We slowly learn how to be present to what is there. It bathes us. The holy sacrament forgives and heals us.

    Re: the icon. I did a google search on Isaiah’s vision – and this is what I got. That vision is at the heart of every liturgy. Isaiah is healed and forgiven, and sent. He “becomes” the true Isaiah.

  9. Dear Fr. Stephen, thank you for this blog post for many reasons that I know and many that I am sure Our Lord will help me with. And your comment here: “That broken, traumatized self needs to sit in the presence of God as well…
    …The Litugy itself has all of this within it, I think. We slowly learn how to be present to what is there. It bathes us. The holy sacrament forgives and heals us.”
    God bless you for writing these words and for all the words you write!

  10. Margaret,
    There is much in our culture that pushes us to get “fixed.” And the misery of things that need fixing can be a powerful driving force. On the other hand, I have found it very helpful (and healing) to quite trying to fix myself and instead to bring things into that quiet place of worship and wonder, with an understanding that, even if nothing gets “fixed” in this lifetime, it is still ok. It doesn’t mean that the damage done by trauma, or the damage I’ve done to myself doesn’t matter, but it’s that anything only really matters as it is in the presence of God. So, like the friends of the paralytic, I sometimes just need to tear the roof off and lower my broken self into the presence of Jesus. And that’s what I can do. The rest is His.

    The combination of a wrong-headed version of theosis, in the hands of many Orthodox, together with a highly shaming culture regarding any form of failure, simply makes them more crazy than they already are. Christ is not the one making us do such things.

  11. Thank you Father.
    I am so grateful Dr. Patitsas developed his thoughts on the riches of Beauty in the way he did. And saw to it to share it with us. God bless him.
    And you too Father, for presenting the topic from your end.
    Very helpful pointers you give. Sit in the presence of God. Quietly. As when “the soft gentleness of heart that acknowledges its own shame (bearing a little).”

    About the icon, I had in mind the avoidance of painting an image of the Father.
    I do like the icon, though!
    Not too long ago, when I mentioned the old hymn “I see the Lord” I did a search for an image of Isaiah at that moment of vision as well. I liked this one – his face, as if frozen in time:
    https://s3-eu-west-1.amazonaws.com/lowres-picturecabinet.com/101/main/1/321665.jpg

    Yes, Father…never the same after that…he became the “true Isaiah”. A very great prophet.

  12. CHRIST IS RISEN!
    Dear Fr Stephen,
    Your shared insight and understanding of experiencing shame continues to provide me with new ‘angles’ to understand this, my, emotion around shame. Different manifestations of Shame can cripple or it can open our eyes. Don’t know if I’m in a more receptive place to gain some personally relevant insight. Maybe it is the threat of COVID 19 that has sharpened my focus on what is important, but reading this article around yourToxic shame vs Healthy shame has somehow allowed me to feel/consider being more comfortable to live with or alternatively shake off the chains that tether me to my personally difficult experience of toxic shame …and also guilt whether self imposed or otherwise.

    Perhaps the experience of toxic shame, is something that might well be necessary to reveal the necessary healthy shame in our spiritual journeys. God does work in mysterious ways!

    Your description about prayer in one of your replies to a comment is also comforting and perhaps gives insight into a matured approach to prayer. ‘Sitting with God’ is probably the most effective prayer rather than rattling off words that dont really sink in a lot of the time. My Spiritual father told me many years ago on the topic that ‘Patience is prayer’ and the understanding of what this means continues to evolve. It is comforting and brings me to feel closer to God.

  13. Dodee,
    These are thoughts/understandings to bear in mind as we read/practice the tradition. My introduction to really understanding and encountering shame (toxic) began in 2012 in a series of events that made it possible for me to recognize, name, and begin a path of understanding. It’s been a long, slow work, and I’ve had my eyes and ears open ever since – picking up pieces here and there – reading a ton of secular/scientific material – but also listening more carefully to the tradition (and hearing things that I once overlooked). It took a much more serious turn following a visit with Fr. Zacharias in Essex.

    Recent reading in Patitsas’ book was enough to make me pick up the phone to talk with him and share our understandings with each other – very fruitful. It is clear to me that this is quite essential – but that it is also learned by experience (which is most unpleasant when it comes to toxic shame). I’ve mentioned Patitsas’ book several times lately, and strongly recommend it.

    I’m still chipping away on my present book – and there will be stuff on shame in it. I very much appreciated Patitsas’ comment viz. shame and secularism. I’m glad if you find this article helpful, and ask your prayers for my continuing work.

  14. Joseph Welch was fundamentally a decent man. Hard to find any such in public life any more. Do we even have a common understanding of decency any more?

  15. Father Stephen,
    Have you found a difference between men and women on how they handle shame? If so, would treatment methods be different?

  16. Paula AZ
    I am glad you have asked about the difference in how men and women handle shame because it is something that I have been thinking about since I first heard Father talk about this issue. Here are my thoughts. It seems to me that men’s shame is often due to rushing into situatons, responding to hunches and intuition and then realising they got it completely wrong. For example thinking a woman is flirting or beng sexually provocative when she wasn’t. It can be acutely painful for them, but in knowing that they can be wrong and pick up the wrong signals can encourage virtue and humility in all things. For women, our shame comes from knowing that we have the power to destroy a man. It is a terrible thing that women can do. God gave us a special role in building men up to glorify God, our shame comes from realising how far short of the mark we are. I’d be interested in your views on this.

  17. Rita,
    Actually I had in mind if Father sees in men and women a more a more fundamental difference in the shame reaction, since we know it is primarily a physical response to an ‘interruption’ in the joy/excitement circuit of the brain. It would be interesting to know if there is difference between men and women at a very early age, before any cultural/social developments have a chance to establish itself . I ask, because if there is a difference, then perhaps the approach to treatment would be tailored accordingly. And further, it may offer some insight on effective ways to deal with our brothers/sisters, and ourselves, in kindness, rather than to automatically shame back in response and perpetuate such destructive toxicity. This reciprocal shaming seems to occur rather quickly, like a sharp, defensive sword. Its destruction is widespread, to be sure, damaging to all. It is a terrible thing.

  18. Shame will have the same “mechanism” (neurobiological) in men and women, but what triggers it will have many differences. A lot of that is based in cultural differences. Male culture, I’ve observed, uses shame a great deal in male-male encounters – almost establishing a “pecking-order” of sorts. There are things a man might say to another man that you would rarely hear a woman say to another woman. Woman use shame as well, but, in our culture, its often quite different. Additionally, the “social rules” of human interaction are largely built around shame (preventing it), but this has been breaking down for a good while. The “rules” of politeness, for example, exist to protect us, by and large. When misunderstood, the chances for shaming increase. As shame increase, the chances for anger flare-ups and for deepening depression/sadness do as well.

    All of the above tend to move in the range of mild to toxic shame. In the mild range, it’s just the experience of boundaries.

  19. Paula,
    I’m sure there are differences of a sort – but, as far as I’ve read, I don’t think the actual mechanism differs. Patitsas has some very interesting thoughts on male/female that I have not, as yet, digested. That, I think, will take time.

    It is interesting in my personal experience, the role of devotion to the Theotokos has played in healing shame. She is Woman, writ large, but without all of the baggage that this would entail in any other woman. It’s not sexual, not burdened with pain or rejection, etc. You can sit in her presence in a healthy manner – with proper veneration, etc. That, over the years, has been profoundly therapeutic.

    It strikes me as interesting that St. Paul describes our transformation (metamorphosis in Greek) in terms of beholding Christ’s face – going from “glory to glory.” That beholding seems to be the “mechanism” of our healing.

  20. Father, I really like all your writings on this subject and hope that they continue and both in the article and even more so in some of your comments thus far you have said a number of things that have resonated with me and my experiences.

    That said, I do wonder whether we’re in danger of getting that one word “shame” to do too much work? Just in this article it seems to include all the following : (a) the physiological and later psychological response to coming up against a boundary, (b) the super hot blush of humiliation (c) an internalized trauma response (c) a complex of inadequacy feelings, (d) and now ‘good’ shame which seems to be (in part?) a deep knowledge of true nature of the self in relation to God which you are also suggesting is the same thing as humility (another word which I have used, and seen used, to mean a number of things) (e) and then there is the idea of “bearing a little shame” which has me wondering a bit on how that actually works with (a)-(d). And then there are your other articles. I can see some of the links here, but I am wondering if this word is going to do so much work, whether it is worth trying to systematize it a bit in case it gets confusing? Particularly as ideas like beauty and truth get added in the mix.

    I hope you don’t regard any of that as disrespectful. My intention is quite the opposite. It is only because I think that this stuff is really important, and you are very good at it and have lots of interesting and useful things to say, that I want to maximize clarity for myself and others. Forgive me for being selfish!

  21. Yes, Father. The ultimate, to behold His face.
    Thank you for the remembrance of the Theotokos. As ‘the’ Woman,
    supremely interconnected with Her Son.

  22. Ziton,
    Not disrespectful at all. If I was starting from scratch, and was in charge of naming these various things, it might be possible to use some word other than “shame” to carry all of that load. However, the language I’ve used is the language, both in scientific/psychological literature, as well as in spiritual literature. So, my hands are tied.

    However, it is possible to differentiate by saying “the affect of shame” for the neurobiological response, “healthy shame,” “toxic shame,” etc., letting the modifiers do the heavy lifting.

    I will say, that having been working with all of this in my own understanding for about the past 8 years (more or less), I have found it more helpful than not that a single word does all of that work. Because, in essence, it is the same thing. The temptation in making too much differentiation is to think you’re working with different things. That, I think, was a great mistaken tendency in Western Scholasticism. It tended to parse everything so carefully, creating categories where none should belong, as if a category for something actually explained it. The language that is currently being used is, I think, more wholistic and accurate. It is, instead, our understanding that has to sharpen and press forward. But I do very much understand the point.

    Sometimes, I feel like diagrams would be helpful!

  23. Michael,

    Certainly the way McCarthy went after the commie infiltrators lacked “a sense of decency”, but what the official history (which truly is written by the winners, right or wrong) overlooks is that McCarthy was fundamentally correct.

    Maybe this gets at Dr. Patitsas’ distinction between a “beauty-first approach” (nurturing healthy shame) and a “truth-first approach” (blunting healthy shame). McCarthy chose a truth-first approach to ferreting out the Marxists in our government, and he failed because the naked truth left something to be desired (a sense of decency?)

    I wonder what a beauty-first approach to communism would look like…

  24. William,
    Sometimes the messenger gets in the way of the message – providing false cover for others. The entire question of healthy shame in the realm of government is fascinating – nothing like anything we know at present. But, we are learning, in a wide variety of ways, that the “truth” also requires integrity – which means a healthy speaker – who long ago began to embody beauty. In the political world, it’s been a fairly long time since men and women of great integrity were cast as leaders. For a long time, we have been governed by shamers and the shamed. The “truth” is so deeply buried and obscured that we can only wonder what it might be.

    I do not care for political discussion on the blog – mostly because it is deeply layered with shame and falsehood. The heart of good governance is good people. As a republic, we have leaders who are much like us, meaning, they are not good. If it is true (and it is), that you cannot serve God and Mammon, then, I assume it is because you cannot be truly good and serve Mammon. Mammon became the god of our republic long ago. And it shows.

  25. C..S. Lewis said, “Shame is a very interesting drink, if you try to sip it, it will scald you, but if you will drink it to the bottom, it becomes a very satisfying drink.

  26. Baseball used to create boundaries for players that tended to prevent shame. Players were not allowed to “show up” other players by words or actions. The pitcher of the team whose player got shamed was supposed to retaliate by throwing at the player who did the shaming. That is an example of how men handle shame. We tend to attack. That is true in less public venues too.

    I think women attack too, but more stealthily.

    Could be wrong

  27. Fr. Freeman,

    I’m currently reading Nassim Taleb’s “Skin in the Game” and there are some interesting touch points with this post. If I’m reading you and Patitsas correctly, truth divorced from beauty and goodness isn’t worthy of the name–whatever semblance it bears to Truth (factual accuracy, maybe) notwithstanding.

    Taleb writes that it is only the oddity of modern thought that has attempted to separate theory and practice, advice and skin in the game. And we are left with what we now have: adherents to scientism (not science, mind you) who get paid to peddle advice and write policies without bearing any of the consequences of their “work”; technocrats who use abstract language to convince people that newer is better; and politicians who wouldn’t be caught dead in any of the battles they signed off on. All of this is in stark contrast to the rest of history, when emperors were more likely to die on the front lines than of old age in their summer home. “Helheimr!”

    All that to say I appreciate your work of recollecting all the fractured remnants of the modern world and reminding us of the whole and God’s goodness in the midst of it all.

  28. Fr. Stephen,

    I was caught by this part toward the end of the article: “We are drawn by the revelation of God Himself, the wonder and worship of His theophany. It is as we move towards that Beauty, that we become willing to bear the burden and cost that might come from it (for love).”

    It reminded me of the lady horse in ‘The Horse and His Boy’ talking to Aslan:

    ‘Then Hwin, though shaking all over, gave a strange little neigh and trotted across to the Lion. “Please,” she said, “you’re so beautiful. You may eat me if you like. I’d sooner be eaten by you than fed to anyone else.”

    It is somehow a fascinating idea that to come before and be in the presence of…of a particular deity or being would be preferable to ANYthing else – no matter what happens to you. Our survival instinct fights so hard against this, and yet could it be possible that in this one and only one case it is true… Because to be with Him is what we were made for – or else there is no longer any reason to exist.

    Fascinating.

  29. William,
    Thank you. I’ve only read an interview article with Taleb – but was struck by a number of his observations. Perhaps I’ll follow your lead and pick up one of his books.

    It is interesting to me that probably the first great abandonment in the modern project was substituting morality for goodness. This begins in the 1820’s or so – when abolition, early feminism, and prohibition had some common beginnings. The nature of the modern project was the false assumption that moral legislation would change the world – thus, we only needed better laws. But, we didn’t really address the deeper questions. What kind of person is ok with enslaving another and exploiting them? If nothing changes in that regard, then good laws will not really address the problem (and, in many ways, it did not). The evil of slavery was soon replaced with the evils of Jim Crow, etc.

    Many of the Founders held to an ideal of a good man – such as Cincinattus – who, having completed his public work, returns home to farm. Washington had that sort of model in mind. Oddly, the Christianity at that time in America was already a very hollowed-out version, incapable of providing the framework for a virtuous society. The narrative of our goodness is about as slanted as the Soviet account of their revolution and aftermath. It doesn’t enable us to practice either repentance or virtue.

    As an Orthodox Christian, it has been helpful (in my observation) that my Christian consciousness is not framed particularly by the narrative of Western Europe and America. I can think about those stories, but, by and large, they are stories without an Orthodox presence. Of course, I’m not a Russian or a Greek, etc., so that I do not exactly carry that narrative consciousness in me either. Instead, my consciousness is something of an ex-pat, or, a man without a country. But, that doesn’t absolve me from national responsibility or the inheritance of my ancestry – it only means I think about it a bit differently. Fortunately, Orthodoxy is replete with liturgies of repentance. It is most helpful in all of this.

  30. Fr. Stephen,

    Another inspiration: ““For there is a shame that brings sin; and there is a shame which is glory and grace.” (Sirach 4:21)”

    …reminded me of a quoted from one of my heroes, Robert McCall: ” There are two kinds of pain in this world. The pain that hurts, the pain that alters.”

    Maybe there is a correlation. Or maybe this is just part of a larger revelation about how there is the true essence of a thing (like pain or shame) – and then there is the cheap Walmart version which is peddled for a discount on every street corner.

    Just thinking aloud. You’ve been on a roll lately and I can’t help being inspired. (grin)

  31. “a man without a country”

    That phrase really hits home as an Anglo-American in a time when Anglo-Americans (at least the non-elite ones) are on the decline. Ever since you said that Westerners becoming Orthodox must involve a healing of the whole Western story, I’ve tried to begin wrestling through that in myself.

    I’ve noticed that it starts with my particular family’s story first–somewhat of a microcosm of the West. It’s interesting to me that I’ve found multiple ancestors with the name Andrew Jackson, christened as they migrated into Indian Territory. They were hard-working farmers striking out on their own, inadvertently upending native populations as they went (like their namesake), some following charismatic Baptist preachers, not knowing that this tradition wouldn’t hold enough steam for at least one of their progeny, who would become Orthodox and who would wonder with some sadness how Orthodoxy might have fulfilled all their longings had they known about it.

    I’m not sure what I am either, but God in His boundless mercy is patiently showing me that, ultimately, I am His.

  32. William it is my belief that Orthodoxy can and does fulfill all the longings for freedom for community and the ability to live in virtue. To form a more perfect union.

  33. Michael,

    Yes! God, at work in the healthy shame that is nurtured in Orthodoxia (right glory), answers questions deeper than we know how to ask and fulfills longings more profound than we can articulate.

  34. Fr Stephen, you wrote: “Oddly, the Christianity at that time in America was already a very hollowed-out version, incapable of providing the framework for a virtuous society.“

    As a student of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s works written during The Great Depression, thank you for articulating this. Wilder (who represents the 19th C. Anglo-American pioneer experience for many) filled her works with references to Scripture, God, and Providance. Yet set only a century after the Founding Fathers, something clearly reads tragically hollow— as if God is a distant Being who leaves mankind to balance between existential stoicism and sentimental emotionalism in an effort to reach Him. There is no fullness, no liturgy except devotion to Progress, with the paradoxical knowledge that Progress with its economics is tearing family and community apart.
    Perhaps it was a yearning for a liturgical, full Christianity which lead Laura Ingalls Wilder’s entire family (as far as I’m aware) to become devout Freemasons, an occurrence not uncommon among pioneers and their descendants.

  35. Mary,
    When you ponder what mid-19th century in America produced religiously – cults, cults, cults, fase denominations, wacky, wacky, end-time based groups, etc., it’s little wonder that anybody on the plains could wind up believing anything and everything. The heart of a nation, I think, is revealed in its spiritual fruit. We’re very troubled.

  36. Father Christianity was hollowed out at the time of the Revolution. It still left vessels capable of being filled by Orthodoxy IMO. The salvation of the pioneer was the landscape so vast yet strangely full of life natural and Divine. At least that is what my father experienced. Both his sons became Orthodox. It was the only way we could be true to the vision of God and Man that he bequeathed to us.

  37. Even today, people who have never experience the vastness are changed for the better when they do, at least if their heart is open. I have seen it happen. The plains, the sky even the power of weather here is redolent with a force that is not easily forced into being changed and controlled by man’s will. It is simply too big.
    Some fear it. Few can actually ignore it. Beauty is not far. If you have eyes to see.

  38. Michael,

    Your description of the high plains reminds me of Rich Mullins’ song “Calling Out Your Name”. I think he must have had a similar experience. There’s something wonderfully wild about it. I have to say I prefer forests though. The treeless plains make me feel somehow unprotected!

  39. I must chime in here 🙂 .
    Even the wide open desert, with its own unique foliage and landscape, is a sight to behold! Yes, if you have eyes to see!
    As of late, the clouds are beginning to blow in, in anticipation of the summer monsoons. With the clouds, the sunsets are most spectacular.
    It should make you a believer!
    Surely, the heavens declare God’s glory!

  40. William, I understand your reaction but it is not one I have ever shared. I love forests but they can make me feel closed in sometimes. The high plains on which my grandfather and his family homesteaded in 1905 when my dad was 4 has not changed much. It is wild, dry and a challenging place to live even now. Still, the more verdant plains and hills where I grew up in south central Kansas always bring a peace to my soul. Tornados can disrupt that but little else. I live now with my wife on two acres of wooded farm land. The best of both worlds. Hawks, owls, deer, coyotes, rabbits, snakes, frogs some ferrel cats and an occasional skunk wander through.

    Before we married my wife, who has lived here for 35 years had to shoot a rabid skunk off the front porch. There are several dogs of hers buried here as well.as the ashes of here Native American friend Adam who I inherited when we got married. A great soul who struggled with alcohol most of his life.

    It is quite a home. One my wife’s generous spirit makes even warmer. On clear nights I can step out on our porch and see to infinity and beyond and sometimes I think I can just hear, maybe God laughing a laugh of joy at what He has made. I have not felt that anywhere else but on the plains.

    No shame anywhere.

  41. Michael,

    I have a friend from the high plains who introduced me to the poet/essayist, Bill Holm, who writes in The Music of Failure of the difference between what he calls “the woods eye” and “the prairie eye”: “the prairie eye looks for distance, clarity, and light; the woods eye for the baroque and ornamental…trust a prairie eye to find beauty and understate it truthfully, no matter how violent the apparent exaggeration. Thoreau, though a woodsman, said it right: ‘I can never exaggerate enough'”.

    And though I continue to resonate with and respect Holm’s et al descriptions of the plains and prairies, every time I visit them I feel most strongly the absence of the trees and their old, slow and patient growth.

  42. Paula,

    I had a Coptic church history professor who said once that the Arabic and Syriac languages are the most beautiful and poetic of all languages precisely because they were born in the open desert.

  43. When I was in Wichita earlier this year for the Eighth Day conference, a native Prairie-type used the term “tree-people” to describes Easterners like myself who need trees, mountains, etc., in order to feel truly at home. I liked the term. Proud to be friends with trees.

  44. My late wife was on a long bus trip through the southwest years ago. She was bored due to the seemingly ,unvarying terrain out side her window. THEN the bus stopped and let on this prospector right in the middle of no where. He found a seat next to her and for the next 30 minutes or so regaled here with stories and descriptions of the landscape, it’s subtle variations and beauty. Then the bus .stopped again and the man got off and walked alone into that expanse. The rest of the trip was not boring.

    My late wife had a number of singular encounters and told fascinating stories: like the time she and a friend were driving the New Jersey turnpike for the first time. They were getting confused. My wife’s friend as passenger saw an angel on the hood of the car who guided them the rest of the way flawlessly.

    Then there are the Spanish soldiers on the Coronado expedition who averaged maybe 5 feet in height. During part of their trek they had to march for several days through a sea of giant bluestem grass easily 6 ft and over. They had to follow the man on the horse blindly. The priest on that expedition, Fr. Juan Padilla chose to stay with tribe of Quivera Indians they encountered who welcomed him and his teaching of the Christian faith. Another tribe was not so welcoming and Fr. Padilla became the first Christian martyr in what would become the U S.

    Whether it is plains, hills, mountains or forests, by God’s mercy He reveals Himself in His creation with exuberant joy. Part of my coming to the Church was letting a bit of that joy fill me from time to time. After all our faith is the faith that established the universe. I find that in the face of that joy I have no shame even as I weep for my own sins.

    Christ is Risen!

  45. Just outside Lyons Kansas on the highway is a simple stone cross erected in 1950 and gifted to the state by the Kninghts of Columbus. To stand before that Cross and see the expanse of the plains beyond it is awe inspiring. God is good. Search for images 9f the Padilla Cross and that will give you a taste. (A couple of trees there too)

  46. While not Orthodox, I have long felt that the physical heart of the US has been consecrated with martyrs blood. I find deep hope in that. For now Fr. Padilla’s blood and sacrifice looks almost as barren as the land appears to be. Now if only the Orthodox Church would recognize and embrace the gift given to us in this land and her peoples.
    Lord have mercy on us. .

  47. I’m really enjoying this conversation about landscape. A pivotal moment of my life was the first time I saw a desert (the Negev in southern Israel). I was completely unprepared for it. It gave me the gift of my own sorrow. Something about the severity and aridity of it felt so refreshing. Hard to explain. There’s no room for sentimentality or preferences. I try to get back to deserts as much as I can. Ironically, living in an east coast city feels far more barren.. and maybe is more similar to what the desert was in the pre-modern world.
    The Solace of Fierce Landscapes by Belden Lane is a great book on the subject of mountain and desert spirituality.

  48. Jordon modern cities in general are more barren than deserts. IMO they are fundamentally anti-human. Equally as debilitating to the soul as any slave plantation even when more opulent.

  49. Father Stephen,
    I, too, am a tree person. I hope so! – I have degrees in Forestry and Forest Ecology 🙂 I grew up in New England, by the shore, so I feel at home wherever there are trees, or wherever there is salt water and boats and associated sounds and smells.
    I’ve traveled around a bit over the years, and have lived here and there for shorter or longer stints, from the rain forests in Panama and Costa Rica to the high Arctic tundra in Finland, Norway, and Sweden. The one place that made me think “you know, I could live here happily for a long time” was the high desert/pinyon-juniper country in northern AZ and southern UT, and the canyon country. It took me a while to truly see it, but when I did, it decided me to become an ecologist.
    But I always came back to the trees, and have lived in northern New England since 1985, and with this particular set of trees since we moved to this land in 1993. I look out my window, and I recognize them. And I think, “my, how you’ve grown” 🙂

  50. Michael et al,
    Raised in southwestern Kansas my heart aches for the open expanse of the prairie as I cannot experience in my now home of eastern Missouri. Going back a couple of years ago for my grandfather’s funeral it was disappointing to see the landscape marred by the ever growing need for so called clean energy of wind power found in the giant wind turbines. It will never be the same. But to behold the night sky once again was magnificent.

  51. Lovin’ these testimonies!

    William @ 9:35 am.
    Ah, no wonder the Syrians are dear to my heart…as well as their beautiful prose and poetry!

  52. Michael – very true. One of the redeeming qualities of the city is that something like village life /can/ be possible, though it is difficult for American-born

  53. On “thin” spaces in which we feel close to the presence of God. The American city typically has it’s negatives likely due to the utilitarian mindset that is the hallmark of modernity. I too just received Dr Patitsas’ book as well yesterday and noticed there’s a chapter on beauty and the city –unexpectedly– which echoes the content in Jordan’s last comment. I haven’t read it yet, but throwing into this stream of comments, that it looks like there can be a beauty in city life. Nevertheless, to be honest, I live pretty much a rural life but commute to a not so beautiful city for one of my “jobs”. Thanks be to God there is a lot of natural beauty that surrounds the city, however.

  54. Dee,
    That sounds interesting. I hope to read that book someday. Much to say about this! I live in Kensington, Philadelphia, which is an old working class neighborhood in a working class city, which fell into ruin and disrepair with the loss of industry (textiles especially. Stetson hats were made here, for one). Open air drug selling, prostitution, and gang violence has been common; widespread in the 90s and 00s, now a BIT more contained, There’s also a large population of immigrants from various parts of the globe. And then there is the artsy, gentrifying element which has ushered in an food and arts scene, which I suppose I am a part of. I’m new blood for sure. It’s not the “beautiful” part of the city. The wide boulevards, nice architecture, and access to open park spaces are elsewhere… and they get all the polish for obvious reasons.

    Cities are places where trauma has visited. And thus there is the possibility of seeing beauty. But it’s hard. Suffering seems to both hide us from beauty but also make us more receptive to it. You absorb the hardness of life here- it’s impossible to not see it… but it is also possible, as a white middle class person, to find a way to preserve myself from the pain around me. To be willing to belong enough to this neighborhood as to suffer with it seems overwhelming. Not a cost I can pay. It’s a matter of survival for some people, especially those who have endured here and now have a mild form of PTSD. But there are people who bear the presence of Christ here. They are fine people, willing to suffer with others. I don’t think they know the gift they bring.

    And yet also, communities – especially immigrant communities – find ways to preserve what is essential to their life. They have public liturgies, to a degree. They bring beauty. Father has written about it elsewhere on this blog. My poor church (protestant) tries to form community and maybe does a decent job at it (that many of us live within walking distance helps), but we don’t really need community so it doesn’t really work.

  55. All the conversation about the interconnectedness with the rest of creation leads me back to a favorite author: Wendell Berry.

  56. Michael,
    Wendell Berry has been a guide and a mentor for me since the 70’s. A serious human being, who calls it likes he sees it without flinching. (He does also have a sense of humor.) As far as I am concerned, he is a national treasure.

  57. My mother was a contemporary dancer who danced with the luminaries of that art I’m the early 20th century she was also a teacher and student of rhythm. She had a connection to the Native American’s of the Plains and Southwest through learning their dance and the drums which immitate the rhythm of the human heart. She taught me some of the basic steps and the approach to their dance. The key element is that the steps must come up out of the ground not as we do pounding down into the ground.
    I think that one way modern cities both inculcate shame and perpetuate it is how disconnected they make us from the natural world and each other.

    Later on my journey to the Church I learned that such dance is a sacramental form of prayer. Still later I learned that there is a profound difference in spirituality and worship between the Plains Indians and the Woodland Indians. That is reflected in their dance. How I do not know but there is a difference.

    One if the hopeful moments coming from COVID, to me, is that the large corporate farming and husbandry is proving to be not only inadequate but dangerous. There are farmers and ranchers who are moving to a more localized approach in processing and selling. These are the farms making money.

    Modern shame I think I’d intimately tied up with the de-humanization of modernity in general and the movement to make everything LARGE, HOMONGINIZED and EFFICIENT. Trying to remove the natural, local variations and connections which as Wendell Berry points out are vital to our well being.

    That is further reflected in the incredibly intimate and personal nature of our journey toward salvation. To be human is to be particular in goodness. Part of the experience of shame is to deny and denigrate that particularity. If you are not “normal’ you are not worthy.

  58. Father, and Michael,
    I read Taleb’s first two ‘big’ books many years ago, and what struck me right away was the Orthodox mentality in them. Humility, Caution, and a Deference to Tradition are far as I understand his main prescription. For an Orthodox Christian, particularly an Old World one, many of his major ideas are straightforward and really nothing new. But it’s remarkable how he’s managed to communicate with a modern audience – no doubt his bombastic style helps! And it’s remarkable how his Orthodox mindset at least partly survived decades of Modern education and indoctrination.

    I think you would enjoy his books, Father. I would start with The Black Swan.

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