The love of God and the calendar of shame

Happy (belated) New Year from Time Eternal!

There are few times of the year that carry more collective hope and shame than the beginning of January.

On the one hand, hope. That magnitude of stepping into a fresh, brand-new year summons within us a surge of new hopes and expectations. Like clockwork, we find ourselves inspired to be(come) better, more put-together versions of ourselves. I don’t know how to explain it, but the start of a new year makes time seem “cleaner” and less muddled, and this makes us want to hope.  

On the other hand, shame. Because this annual re-awakening of our ideal selves can be a hugely vulnerable experience–it’s not easy to face a part of ourselves we want to improve or strengthen. This is especially true when the novelty of the new year begins to fade, and we find ourselves face-to-face with more or less the same people we were a few weeks ago.

It’s at that juncture, I think, shame quickly enters the game. Actually, it has been there all along, calmly biding its time. Shame knows it won’t have to work hard to gain authority in our hearts.

It’s helpful to recognize that shame can be its own kind of time-keeping mechanism.  

I call it the “calendar of shame”— the mental landscape of silent anniversaries that recall our sense of inadequacy and despondency. We go about the normal calendars of our lives–birthdays, holidays, vacations, feast days, namedays–never conscious of how heavily our calendars of shame weigh us down. “Our years,” like the Psalmist wrote, are “spent in thought like a spider” (Psalm 89[90]:9, SAAS).

Although everyone has a calendar of shame, for some it is more populated with reminders than for others. We can hear it whispering throughout the year, at critical junctures when we are more prone than usual to disappointment:

 

  • Another New Year and I still haven’t lost weight.
  • Another birthday and I’m still single.
  • Another feast day and I’m late for Church / not in Church again.
  • Another confession and I’m still struggling with the same old problem(s).
  • Another year sober but I’m off the bandwagon.
  • Another year goes by and I’m stuck in same old job.
  • Another Great Lent and I have yet to get with the program.
  • Another Christmas and I still have no one to spend the holidays with.

 

Shame is one of the darkest, most powerful and universal drivers of human behavior. When we are ashamed, we feel over-exposed and despicable, which motivates us to hide. As our psyche becomes chronically clouded by shame, our lives conform to a pattern of alienation and isolation.

It’s an impulse that dates back, I think, to Adam and Eve: their first response after eating fruit fruit the tree of knowledge was to cover up their nakedness. One of the most beautiful gestures in the entire Bible is what God does after He finds them huddled under  the fig-leaf aprons they’d sewn: He provides garment of animal skin to shield their nakedness. The coverings, of course, foreshadowed our salvation in Christ, but on a more immediate level it shows that God understands how alienating shame is.

God did not scold Adam and Eve for acting out of shame—He knew they were at their weakest point, that everything within them was telling them to hide from Him. He clothed them so they would feel safe enough to have some semblance of communion with Him. Such a loving gesture speaks more loudly than words. It says “I see your shame, and I want to be with you anyway.”

Speaking from my little corner of the human condition, I don’t think love gets more real or powerful than that. I’m reminding myself of that this month, hemmed in by the strange New Year’s admixture of hope and ideals and the shame that creeps in under the radar.

I love the metaphor of the shame calendar because it illustrates exactly what shame does—bringing us back, again and again, to the same old memories, the same old wounds.

But as a writer who has wrangle this post into a conclusion, it’s proving difficult to tie up this metaphor into a pretty bow. I considered keeping the calendrical symbolism going and ending on a smiley upbeat–let’s “turn a new page” in our calendars, I wanted to say, or let’s “cross off the dates” of our shame. But if you have ever felt actual shame for a fraction of a split second, those cutesy statements will elicit the same reaction they did for me: <vigorous eye roll>.

Taking things in a more realistic direction…

If I know anything about calendars, it’s that they are extremely durable over time–they don’t change easily, even if we want them to. (Case in point: we’re still using more or less the same civil calendar since 45 BC, aside from the upgrade to the Gregorian calendar.) Calendars of shame, I’m assuming, are no different–they stick around. We can smile and turn a new page, and blot out the dates of shame. But sooner or later, they will find us, someday when we are lonely or disappointed or when we’ve screwed up. Like a repetitive record, our calendars of shame will remind us of all the times we’ve been less than adequate. And then what?

The only thing that brings me comfort is that as repetitive as shame is, God’s love and grace are infinitely more so. In Christ, forgiveness is offered over and over and over—not just once, but “seventy times seven,” the number that best represents infinity (Mt 18:22). Christ depicts forgiveness in an almost boringly predictable way. Has your neighbor wronged you? Forgive him, then forgive him again, and keep forgiving him. It’s a mere inkling of the way God forgives us.

And in the Divine Liturgy, we find a similarly repetitive movement back and back and back to Christ, though everything within us may want to retreat and hide—we pray ”again and again in peace”; we cross ourselves; we call “Lord have mercy.” We do this all countless times in any given service, in any given year of the Church. We may never catch up with the many times our calendars of shame whisper their lies to us, but I think the repetition somehow helps refashion the way we mark time. It turns time into a movement back–not back to memories of our shame, but back to engagement, back to communion, back to Himself and out of “all the pieces of our shame,” to borrow a phrase from Rilke.

It’s a slow journey—like I said, calendars don’t change easily. They are kind of like redemption itself. And so, perhaps it isn’t such a bad place to end after all: let us turn a new page. And let us keep turning a new page, though everything within us may want to hide behind it.

“I see your shame, and I want to be with you anyway.”

 

  

 

  

 

  

 

15 comments:

  1. I have wondered for many, many years what God was thinking when he gave our ancestors animal skins to wear. Your answer – that He sees our shame, provides us with a measure of protection “to have some semblance of communion with Him. ” – is perfect! All because He loves us and desires us to love Him back.

    1. Yes! That’s exactly what I was getting at. I think we model this in human terms, too. It’s what we try to do when we love others, or when we see that others are uncomfortable–we try to make them as comfortable as they can be so they have the courage to participate in the conversation/ relationship/ etc.

  2. Dear Dr. Roccas
    I happened upon your blog and was struck by the heading, TIME ETERNAL. It embodies the Mystery of Salvation, the Incarnation – the Logos become Flesh. Thank you for your comments about “the shame calendar.” As Christians we are so mercifully kept honest about our past because of the One who redeems us out of it and draws into His Presence which will be our future.

    I’m going to alert my granddaughter about your site. She is so engaged as a young Christian freshman in college and is gifted for writing and film making.

    1. Hi Karl! Sorry this comment somehow fell through the cracks of moderation–I just saw it now. Thanks for writing, and yes I chose the name Time Eternal on purpose for all the reasons you mention 🙂

      Best of luck to your granddaughter! And wishing you a blessed Pascha/ Easter celebration.

      Nicole

  3. I happened upon your blog and was struck by the heading, TIME ETERNAL. It embodies the Mystery of Salvation, the Incarnation – the Logos become Flesh. Thank you for your comments about “the shame calendar.” As Christians we are so mercifully kept honest about our past because of the One who redeems us out of it and draws into His Presence which will be our future.

    I’m going to alert my granddaughter about your site. She is so engaged as a young Christian freshman in college and is gifted for writing and film making.

    1. Thanks Karl! Yes, I put a lot of thought into naming my blog and podcast for all the reasons you bring up 🙂 I wish all the best to your granddaughter–college can be a challenging and enlivening time for all sorts of reasons. I loved my college classes, and the ability to see one’s topic matter through the eyes of faith brings a meaningful depth to all intellectual endeavors. May God bless her studies and guide her heart in wisdom!

  4. Thank you for your wise and compassionate words.

    Two things come to mind – first, it is not said in Genesis that Adam and Eve were given animal skins. Simply, God gave them “skins” – and this is interpreted by many as a sign that the natural, “original” state of Adam and Eve before they fell was different. They were still in bodies, but their bodies were not opaque and coarse as our bodies are now – they were in some sense lighter, not bound by gravity, hunger, and fatigue – they probably resembled the body of the resurrected Jesus.

    Secondly, and this is more to your point: our shame is sometimes exactly that which drives us to God. It is important to remember that we have fallen before, that we will fall today, and we will fall tomorrow, to the end of our lives – but we take hope that the hand of God is not far away to raise us up again, exactly as we pick up our own children when they slip and fall.

    David says in his most penitential Psalm, “I know my transgression; my sin is ever before me.” I no longer try to forget my failings or “get over them.” Rather, when I am touched with a pang from some sin I committed in the past – sometimes a LONG time ago, and sometimes just a moment ago – I thank God for this memory as a reminder that without His lifting me up I would just be more and more dead.

    Glory to God for all things, even the memory of our sins.
    May God bless you with this blog.

    1. Thanks Mike for making these excellent points. I think, when we begin to see/ face our shame, it _can_ turn us toward God. When we aren’t vigilant, though, it tends to make us want to hide. Your strategy to view memories of past sins as avenues of thanksgiving for God’s grace is beautiful.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *