Beginning with this podcast and a number following it, I want to touch on the topic of shame. I’m not going to try to do a systematic treatment, but I’m going to be discussing it from a variety of angles. I wanted to begin, though, by giving something of a small definition of shame. This is something of a clinical definition, drawn from the works of psychologists, but it’s also very much in line with the tradition of the faith.
Generally, shame is that experience we have that describes how we feel about ourselves. If I feel shame, I feel that there’s actually something wrong with me, something wrong with who I am. It doesn’t have to be true; it’s just simply how I feel. That’s a terrible feeling. Shame of that sort is usually contrasted with guilt, which is how I feel about something I’ve done. Guilt is easier to deal with: we can make restitution or reparations, but it’s really hard—you can’t make restitution or reparations for who you are. So this is a much deeper wound. It does come up in the teaching of the Church and of the Fathers, and the language surrounding it can be quite important.
I encourage you: Listen and pay attention, in this podcast and on these thoughts on shame, but as well in a number of subsequent podcasts that I’ll be doing that look at this from a variety of angles. I hope it’s helpful to you. If you have questions and want to contact me, you can do that through Ancient Faith Radio. Thank you so much.
This morning I read a headline in the newspaper that said, “We will get justice.” In the relentless cycle of the daily news, this report was of the discovery of a young woman who had been murdered. It seemed a completely appropriate response by the law officer in charge of the investigation. His words doubtless echoed the sentiments of everyone who knew the young woman. The desire for justice is primal, and among the earliest thoughts of our childhood. But what is justice?
Essentially, justice is a desire for things to be fair or even. A young child, noticing that something has become uneven will quickly announce that “it is not fair!” One person’s gain often comes at the price of another’s loss. This instinct for justice never disappears. A crime such as murder provokes this response at the deepest level. One person has gained something, however perverse, at the expense of another’s life. We demand “retribution,” literally meaning the “restoration of value.” It is the instinct behind what is called the lex talionis: the saying, “An eye for an eye and tooth for a tooth.” It feels as though that is justice: I have gotten what has been done to me.
But such justice actually never seems to satisfy—it is really never enough. A human life has been destroyed. However, the destruction of the killer does not restore value—it does not bring anyone back from the dead. It is, sadly, only a fulfillment of the maxim: “An eye for an eye, and the whole world’s blind.” Imagine the tragic case of one brother killing another. The family has lost an irreplaceable son. Justice demands, that is, within the law, the loss of yet another son. There can be no “justice” in such a plight, only the abyss of grief. And, of course, when this occurs between two families, after “justice,” so called, is acquired, the result will simply be two grieving mothers. Things are now in balance, but it is a balance of emptiness and the abyss.
Justice, the desire for fairness, is both primal, rooted deep within our psyche, but also fraught with complex ironies that cause layer upon layer of sin and darkness. One of those layers is envy, the desire for someone else to “get what’s coming to them.” Because fairness is almost always illusory, the envy that it provokes can be radically incommensurate. An angry politician a while back denounced protesters and called for their arrests saying, “Ruin the rest of their lives!” That is simply envy, an angry demand for some infinite form justice. It is also evil.
However, beneath the desire for justice is an even more primal emotion—that is shame. What is lost in our lives is not just the object of our desire—that is, a child, a job, a political campaign. The loss itself is shaming: we feel that we ourselves have somehow been diminished, that our life has now been devalued and made smaller. What is at stake in shame is “who I am.” We find loss that is associated with this very deepest of instincts to be almost unbearable. In the oriental phrase, “We have lost face.”
This takes us to some of the core emotions surrounding forgiveness, and points to why we find it so difficult. It also points to the only way forward. The Elder Sophrony of Essex wrote, “The way of shame is the way of the Lord.”
The heart of the Christian gospel is the story of a God who, in an act of supreme self-emptying, humbled himself to the point of bearing our shame. It is the ultimate “loss of face.” His crucifixion was utterly unfair and unjust. He is the only truly innocent, the one who willingly endures the death of the most shameful criminal. And it is this very path of self-emptying that he offers to us as the way of salvation.
The reality of this invitation reveals the mockery that extrinsic descriptions of salvation have become in contemporary Christianity. That someone professes that they have “accepted Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior,” meaning that his death on the Cross has done something for them, external to their own actions and path of life, is simply not salvation. The shame and self-emptying of the Cross are the content of the commandment: “Take up your Cross and follow me.”
The daily expression of that way of self-emptying bearing of shame is displayed in other commandments, such as: forgive your enemies, do good to those who hate you, give without expecting in return, rejoice in your sufferings, and such. All of these involve the loss of face. All of these feel, on one level, like the diminishment of our lives. How could we expect self-emptying to feel like anything else? Think about it: when I forgive my enemies, and someone says to me, “How could you do that?” and I’m embarrassed and ashamed. Doing good to those who hate you, you feel again embarrassed and ashamed. Or giving without expecting in return, people almost make fun of you for being so foolish. Again, the bearing of shame.
The path of forgiveness, of love towards those who hate us, of unrequited generosity and thanksgiving for all things, represents a decision to step away from the protected life of the guarded self. It accepts injustice towards the self, the loss of what is rightfully due, and giving what is not deserved or merited. None of this would be possible to us apart from the example of Christ and our mystical union with him.
It seems to me that we have acquired the spiritual habit of making our salvation into an abstraction. We speak of being “crucified with Christ,” or of being “baptized into his death,” language that holds a prominent place in the lexicon of the New Testament, but we tend to treat these as though they were happening in a manner somehow distinct from our experience. Neither crucifixion nor death should have an association with things that seem pleasant. Christ himself constantly makes reference to very unpleasant things: forgiving injustice towards the self, the loss of what is rightfully due, giving what is not deserved or merited. These are all things that we seem to instinctively loathe. The shame we encounter through such acts of self-emptying is invariably painful—but this is the Gospel.
It is in this vein that the Elder Sophrony speaks from within the Tradition saying that we must learn to “bear a little shame.” There is much that must be said in this regard. First, bearing shame can only be voluntary; involuntary shaming is always toxic and leaves very deep wounds. The experience of such wounds, which underlies and provides the vast source of pain associated with forgiveness, surrounds the entire experience of forgiveness. To be told, “You must forgive…” in such circumstances is tantamount to saying, “You must endure the shame.” This can easily be nothing more than an invitation to more toxicity. So, the “moral” use of the commandment, “You must forgive,” can inadvertently be another tool in the hands of others to drive the pain and burden of shame ever deeper.
We must understand first and foremost, that the bearing of shame can only be voluntary, and then, only a little at a time. Only Christ dies for the sins of the whole world. It is indeed possible that great saints unite themselves utterly and completely in that shame-bearing self-emptying entrance into Hades, but they did not start at that point. It is the gift of God and a work of grace. For us, we must, in the words of the Elder, learn to “bear a little shame.” By the same token, we learn to practice “a little forgiveness.” This is not abandoning the commandment of Christ, but is rather a sober reflection of precisely the truth of what forgiveness really entails.
“Forgive your enemies.” This means “voluntarily bear the shame of the loss involved with forgiveness.” Enemies will not love you for loving them. They will hate you and despitefully use you and do all manner of evil against you for the sake of Christ, whom they unwittingly hate. Our voluntary bearing of that little shame unites us with Christ who took the whole of all shame upon himself and said, “Father, forgive them.”
Bearing shame requires safety. Shame involves deep vulnerability. We feel exposed and naked—even abused and raped. Like victims of trauma, we can only visit the memories of such things when we are assured that we are not walking again into fresh abuse. Christ, we are told, dwelt “in the bosom of the Father.” The Father never abandoned him. In the Garden of Gethsemane, Christ reckoned the full cost of his self-emptying, but he does so in utter communion and knowledge of the Father. He goes to the Cross, as it says in Hebrews, “for the joy set before him…despising the shame” (Heb. 12:2).
In our communion with Christ, and in the bosom of the Church, it is possible to know the safety sufficient for forgiveness and bearing its shame, but, again, it needs to be voluntary, the acceptance of Christ’s Cross, in union with his own joyful acceptance and not through some moral compulsion. One enemy at a time, we make our way into the love of God, learning step-by-step the joyful way of Christ’s self-emptying.
St. John of the Ladder wrote, “You cannot escape shame except by shame.” It is one of the great paradoxes of the faith, a paradox resolved only in the Cross of Christ.