Comfort to a Child - Speaking Peace to Shame

April 1, 2018 Length: 8:38

Fr. Stephen Freeman offers some insight on dealing with the dark thoughts that often fill our minds.

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In my previous podcast, I described the origins of the “self-talk” (the logismoi: that’s what the tradition calls them) that haunts our minds with negative chatter. These things lie very deep within us, even having something of a signature within the deeper parts of the brain itself. It is very “old” and yet it is very “young.” It is old in that the foundations of these voices and these things we keep hearing in our heads were formed, some of them, as early as infancy. But it is young in that it is much more akin to an injured child than it is to an adult. The chatter of these voices, the logismoi, is not rational; it is not subject to rationality. It does not come as a result of process, a process of thinking; it rather comes as a matter of reaction, often being triggered by things of which we are not aware. It comes unbidden, Lord knows, and shakes the ground beneath us. Most often, our responses to it are the stuff of sin.

I also identified this deep voice as primarily a matter of shame. It is a wound; it is an injury to the soul and the body that feels like abandonment, alienation, and pain. In emotional terms, it tends to make us feel worthless and that, in turn, is frequently expressed in anxiety, anger, or sadness. This noise can run for days on end, depending on the circumstances.

I’ve been asked a number of times: What can be done with this voice? How do we answer it? I’ll try to give just a small effort in that direction.

Several years ago I had an opportunity to spend time with Fr. Zacharias of Essex, England, and to ask questions about the nature of shame. Shame has been an area of interest for me, as the needs of my own soul took me there. Fr. Zacharias, relating the teachings of the Elder Sophrony and St. Silouan of Athos, had made more mention on the topic of shame than I had seen written anywhere else. I found his words to be extremely helpful—and something of a guide as I’ve continued my study. Interestingly, the Elder Sophrony had his own nickname for these dark thoughts. He called them “my assassins.” He would say, “My assassins are here.”

Fr. Zacharias offered one small word to me, which at the time seemed almost insignificant, but it has come to mean much to me, and I have come to realize it is a word of fullness. He said that we should “bear a little shame,” meaning that we should simply sit with it, without reaction, and pray, “O God, comfort me!” At the time I thought that the word seemed too simple. He did not elaborate on it. Time has done the elaboration. For one, I have practiced the word he gave me—and have found comfort. But I offer another insight that couples this with what we “do” with the voice.

In Psalm 131 we read this:

But I have calmed and quieted my soul, like a child quieted at its mother’s breast; like a child that is quieted is my soul (Ps. 131:2).

That voice, the logismoi, is the sound of a disquieted child, though its words can be as dark and fearsome as the worst adult imagining. It is not the voice of maturity; it is not the voice of reason. It is hurt and wounded, doubtful of everything good, certain of its own worthlessness. We hear its noise and quite often allow it to run along unattended. Its very words increase our sense of shame, which is like throwing oil on a fire. On occasion, we melt down, in what psychology calls a “shame storm.” We begin to resemble outwardly the child who cries out inwardly.

It is interesting that the psalmist recognizes this. “I have calmed and quieted my soul like a child quieted at its mother’s breast.” Some translations say, “Like a weaned child,” which puts them around somewhere between two and three. You can’t talk them out of it when they’re melting down, but you can hold them, you can quiet them, you can comfort them.

And so the words of the Elder teach us to pay attention. Attention does not ignore or run away. In fact, that is likely just to increase the volume. Instead, attention “bears a little shame.” Sitting patiently with the brokenness we say to God, “Comfort me, comfort me.” This is the sound of a mother who draws the disquieted child back to her breast. She doesn’t judge; she doesn’t rebuke. She quiets the child by herself being its comfort, its assurance, the affirmation that all is well.

A little while back, I was out and about, chasing errands, dashing through stores. I went into our local Oak Ridge Walmart, which is frequently an assembly that is a slice of Appalachia. I saw someone there who for me was a trigger, that is, someone who triggered the voice of judgment and disdain that started to darken my mind. It triggered a very, very old wound, a shame about my own Appalachian childhood. I remembered the Elder’s words. I didn’t argue with it or rebuke it, try to reason with it. St. James says, “The anger of man does not produce the righteousness of God” (James 1:20). Instead, I spoke peace. I said to my soul, “It’s okay. All is well. You are not alone. You are not abandoned. All is well,” and so on, and I quieted my soul. Then I was able to take up the prayer again: “Lord, Jesus Christ, have mercy on us…”

All of that was a version of “Comfort me.” It is good to make the sign of the Cross, but this battle is no place for anger. Anger is useless against shame. The dark thoughts are the sound of Adam talking to himself in the bushes. God comes to comfort him, saying, “Where are you?” We need to answer, “Here I am. Comfort me.”