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 our desire to be “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.