“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!”
“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.