Orthodoxy and Shame

Ancient Faith Writers’ and Podcasters’ Conference 2019

The Ancient Faith Writers’ and Podcasters’ conference was held June 13-15, 2019 at the Antiochian Village in PA. This is the third such conference which is planned for every other year. Many of the presentations were video recorded and the break-out workshops are audio only. The conference was intended to provide practical insight and inspiration for content creators both existing and hopeful. Many of the Ancient Faith authors, podcasters, or bloggers were present. Be looking for the next conference in the summer of 2021.

June 2019

Orthodoxy and Shame

Fr. Stephen Freeman is an archpriest in the Orthodox Church in America and serves as pastor of St. Anne Orthodox Church in Oak Ridge, TN. He was educated at Furman University, Seabury-Western Theological Seminary, and Duke University. He is the author of the popular blog Glory to God for All Things, and of the weekly podcast Glory to God, on Ancient Faith Radio.

June 27, 2019 Length: 1:17:22





Fr. Stephen Freeman: Well, I hope this will work tonight. Shame is a topic that I’ve starting speaking on, writing on, the past five, going on six, years maybe, and I’ve had a lot of response when I have written about it, enough to say that it is a topic that could be written on a lot more. I got interested in it through some personal experience of coming to grips with some shame issues in my life. I kind of got into a little bit about it, but I didn’t realize how big an issue it was in my own life, so it was very helpful and really was a catalyst in a healing over from a panic-anxiety disorder that I’d had for 40 years or more. That’s to say, this is powerful stuff. It’s pretty universal, so I know to a degree I’ll be preaching to the choir tonight because this stuff is simply part of humanity. So we’ll see how this goes.

I was standing in line at my local Target store, quietly minding my own business. Of course, I was wearing my cassock, so I suppose my presence was a little less than unassuming. [Laughter] The woman behind me sneezed, to which, being the southern gentleman that I am, I politely turned and said, “God bless you.” She became visibly angry and growled, “Don’t put any of your religion on me!” [Laughter] I think, “Golly gee! It’s like voodoo or something. I don’t know.” It was a Target store, but it could have been Facebook, you know, in terms of how the reaction was.

By now anybody attempting to communicate in America, even in polite, innocuous tones, should be aware that we’re in an angry culture with a hair-trigger. A monk pumping gas in Seattle is sucker-punched in broad daylight back in April. Laid out. Abbot Tryphon. That was just for looking like a Christian. I was accosted on the streets on London a few years ago and flipped off by a cabbie for apparently looking like, oh, maybe a Catholic priest. I’m just going to blame it on them, because he couldn’t have known I was Orthodox. He looked Irish. [Laughter] I thought, “Well, they probably had it coming to them…” [Laughter]

But my email inbox and the comments moderation on my blog are daily visited—not always a lot, but daily visited—with at least one angry invective. A stranger from Romania who stalks me—he has his own special folder in my email thing. [Laughter] He doesn’t know that, and mostly I don’t ever see his stuff, but a stranger from Romania recently wrote me and put a curse on me. I’m blaming that curse for why my shoes fell apart in the Atlanta airport. [Laughter] So there is a general observation that everybody makes that public civility is breaking down, and you can’t blame it on one president or one candidate or things like that. It was broken before that.

But why? Why is civility breaking down? And the simple answer is: the dynamic that surrounds the emotion of shame. That’s the simple answer to the question about public civility. It is the dynamic that surrounds the emotion of shame. It’s been said that America is a shame-based culture in which the topic of shame is taboo. We’re going to go into some taboo territory tonight.

Civility is a word that refers to a set of social rules that serve to prevent undue shaming and thereby keep the peace. You know, having grown up in the South and been raised to be a gentleman of sorts, that basically meant keeping these polite rules that keep you from shaming people. I was in Florida a few years back with a priest buddy of mine who was from New Jersey. I don’t mean to slam his state, but I just… He wasn’t raised the way I was. [Laughter] They don’t do that in New Jersey, but we were in a store in New Jersey. It was actually in one of my first years as an Orthodox priest. He was doing some training with me. We’re in a store—not in New Jersey, but in Florida—it’s like an office supply store, and he was picking up something, and I don’t remember what it was that the girl at the checkout counter did, but it upset him, and he kind of let her know and said a few things. Anyway, later in the day—he was very perceptive—he said, “You looked like you were kind of upset with me in the store this morning. What did I do wrong?” I said, “A gentleman would never call out a cashier like that.” And I said, “And you don’t know when she’s visiting your church.”

Fr. Barnabas understands these things. You just don’t do that to people. You don’t do shame that way. Of course, these days, everything, everything is there, because the social rules in our culture have suffered greatly through various revolutions of the past 70 years ago. I mean, you wonder, “Am I supposed to hold the door open or not?” All kinds of things that way. We’re left in sort of a bit of the Wild West in that we live in Deadwood and there is no sheriff in town. [Laughter] That’s how life is for us.

Well, over the past several years I’ve begun to write and speak on the topic of shame and its place in the Orthodox tradition. Much of what I say and write about it could be found in almost any of the popular books on the topic. I mean, there’s stuff like John Bradshaw’s Healing the Shame that Binds Us, the things that Brené Brown has done, a number of other things. When I got interested in it, I started reading the heady clinical material, simply because I really want to understand what the mechanism in all of this is. But much of what I’ve found you can find in those books, but how it fits in the tradition is not so clear, at least at first, and it’s been a topic, as I say, that resonates with people when I speak or write about it, and so it makes sense for us to try to make our way through a culture that’s riddled with shame and shaming.

I’ll tell you something in a little bit about what I call the shame of converts, the shame of conversion. The very easy version of this is someone who says they haven’t crossed themselves because they’re afraid they’ll do it wrong and they feel like everybody’s looking at them. Generally, I clued the congregation ahead of time, and the first time they crossed themselves, we all stop and applaud. No, ha! [Laughter] No, they only feel like that, but there’s that… there is that: You don’t want to stick out. What’s the number one question you get from priests coming up like that is people want to know how to behave. Maybe that’s doing evangelism in the South. What do people wear? That’s getting to be a very hard question to answer. If you tell them just to dress decently, they don’t know what that means! [Laughter] Anyway, we live through it.

But it’s important for us to know where we live, the setting that we’re in, and the nature of the struggle that it puts before us, because this dogs our steps. You cannot be involved in public media, which is all social media, and ignore the reality of shame. It’s just there, and it helps to understand it and perhaps to think some about how to deal with it.

Shame is a lot more than just an emotional, psychological category. It seems to run deeper than that, and it colors a lot of our life and existence. A short psychological definition—and I’m sure you were waiting for this—for shame that’s often used by writers is “how we feel about who we are.” Guilt is about how I feel about what I did. It may very well be that what you did makes you feel bad about who you are, and then they get sort of complicated in there. It’s deeply involved in our relationship with God. Who am I?

We get a lot of inquirers in the South who’ve come from one version or other of cultural Calvinism. They’ve got a God who shames them. I mean, if you’re totally depraved, it’s not easy to feel good about who you are. It’s difficult. Many people have grown up in churches, including in Orthodox churches, in which shame has been used as a pastoral tool. I would say shame as a pastoral tool is a tool of spiritual abuse. It is not to be used; it’s just not how you do things. We’ll get more to that.

But it’s interesting: a lot of the clinical material describes shame as the “master emotion,” meaning it’s not just about itself, but it seems to be keyed in and connected to other emotions as well, so it has a very devastating aspect. It’s described… I was taken aback the first time I ran into this. It was in a clinical book written by a Jewish shame researcher and clinician. He described shame as the loss of communion, which suddenly got my attention. Got a little underlining there in thinking, “Okay, I know about the loss of communion.” The experience of shame, particularly in its stronger forms, cuts us off from others. It’s how we feel. It isolates us, and it also cuts us off from ourselves. We just get completely… You can be in these social situations—and we’ll talk about some specific ones in a minute—in which something has shamed you and you just… you can almost lose the ability to see. You don’t know who you are, you’re kind of not certain where you’re standing, you’re stammering, you don’t know the next thing to say.

The first reaction to shame normally is your face flushes, your eyes look down. It’s a very uncomfortable thing. I’ve learned—I’m just throwing this in for free [Laughter]—shame is even present in infancy. We’re hard-wired with it. It’s one of the emotions and affects that we’re hard-wired for. I’ve noticed mothers bringing up a child, a toddler in the arms for Communion, and they get close, and you’re heading at them with the spoon, and suddenly they go—and turn back. And Mom’s embarrassed, and the priest is being polite, and the guy who’s holding the cloth or trying to work with this baby. As often as not, it’s going to wind up in crying. The reason is is that the child feels vulnerable, which is one of the feelings of shame. I’ve actually been experimenting—I hate to say that about Communion, but… [Laughter]—when they’re at a certain age, not making eye contact with them. Eye contact—direct eye contact—induces vulnerability. So I kind of give them Communion out of my peripheral vision, or don’t look until it’s right at the mouth. [Laughter] And it has been more successful than not. So for you priests, you just file that away as “Things I’ve Learned in My Shame Research.” [Laughter]

It also cuts us off from ourselves, so it’s very much one of the deepest forms of loneliness, and we feel isolated in it. An interesting thing about shame—in those who look at it and how does the neurobiology work, what is your body doing with it—is that it essentially is the interruption of certain positive things like enjoyment or joy and expected good experience, and it just gets interrupted. Something happens. You come into the room, and you expect to be decently greeted and it doesn’t happen and you—mmm. Then you’re suddenly awkward and not feeling quite right. You walk up to someone that you haven’t seen in a few years and they don’t remember you. So you have that feeling of there’s something wrong with me, who I am is not worth remembering. You had this expectation and it was disappointing. Had it, was disappointed.

In its roots, that experience, oddly, has to do with how we experience boundaries. Boundaries are about No, you can’t go there; No, you’re not me; No, you can’t have your way; No. I mean, if you’re a child, they don’t like it. What does a child do when you tell them No? Well, they don’t go: “Wow! Yaaay!” They may complain. They may cry. They may get angry and yell at you. This is all just sort of versions of what shame does in us. It’s always interested me—and we’re going to come to the garden of Eden, which is the great shame story in Scripture—but that God put a No in the garden of Eden. All the trees are a Yes, Eden, but not that one. The more I’ve thought about it, the more convinced I am, if you will: it was the only boundary in the garden, the only boundary. Without a boundary, you cannot know God. You cannot know God.

One of the great German writers, Rudolf Otto, described what he called the idea of the holy, and one of the things he described it as was the ganz Andere, that is, the utterly, totally different. So there’s this boundary. You stand before God, and as one old AA buddy of mine once said, “The only thing you need to know about God is: You’re not him.” [Laughter] That’s a place to start: You’re not him. So that experience of No… Because without a boundary, you’ll never know him. Any of you who’ve ever been in a relationship with a narcissist—and you’re not happy about it—if you have, what you know is that they don’t have any boundaries. “You belong to me.” “Every step you take… I’ll be watching you.” [Laughter] “You don’t know how that affects me,” etc., etc., and on it goes. It’s awful. Clinically, they say that in narcissism you have such a deep pool of shame that they can’t go there. It’s very difficult to be healed, but it’s not that they have no shame; it’s that they have way too much, and it would be overwhelming and devastating to go there. If you’ve ever been in a relationship with one, I say that so that perhaps you at least can pray for them compassionately, even if you’ve created a boundary and left them. That’s oftentimes about the only thing that can be done. There’s that dynamic about it.

I’ll give another illustration. This deep experience, positively, this experience of communion, described in clinical studies, they always go to the image of a nursing child, a nursing child and the relationship with the mother. There’s a bond, a commonality of being and action, a unity, a union, love, warmth, belonging. It’s primal, and it’s given to us by God. It’s just primal, and it’s utterly necessary to the healthy development of a child. If you don’t do it like breastfeeding, then you’ve got to do some other kind of feeding, but that nursing and bonding experience is utterly essential.

I told someone recently—you women, you mamas know what I’m talking about—I was telling someone, trying to explain Mary to him, “You don’t understand. I don’t know how many times a day Jesus was on-demand nursing. I’m sure he was. I mean: It’s the will of God; feed me!” [Laughter] But I mean, Mary is experiencing communion with God face to face, eye to eye, how many times a day for what, three years? two and a half? two years, anyway. You think about that, the union there, unbroken, unbroken union that she knew.

We were all created for that, and experiencing that as a child helps strengthen the sense of who I am. Even though I’m not asking that question, I feel comfortable in it enough that once I’m weaned and move away from that, I can begin to feel brave enough to risk going out into the world of boundaries. But there’s always a coming-back, which we’ll see in a few minutes, too.

But when we have an experience of shame, all sense of communion, both with others and ourselves, gets interrupted. Our face flushes, we drop our eyes, we don’t know where to look, we become flustered. The instinct is to hide. “I could’ve dropped through the floor,” they say. The instinct is to hide. Oh, my goodness. I’ll get to… Maybe; we’ll see.

Shame is described as painful. Indeed, it’s often experienced as so painful that, rather than enduring it, it morphes—morphs. Morphs? Morphs. Okay, sorry. Is from the Greek. [Laughter] But rather than enduring it, we change it. In changing it, most often shame changes to either anger or sadness. You say, “You made me angry”; what you mean is: “You shamed me, and I changed my shame into anger.” If you’re really… I would say this especially if… Because anger is a gift from God, too, and anger is a very short emotion. It gives a burst of energy. Anger can help you lift a car off your uncle, that kind of thing. Toss a piano, whatever you’ve got to do. That’s what anger is supposed to be for.

If you’ve been angry for more than a few minutes, it’s not normal anger. Something else is energizing it, and usually what’s energizing it is shame. We’ll see how this works out there, too, and if it’s not anger, then it’s oftentimes depression. Anxiety and depression play a very large part in the spiritual condition we call akedia, the noonday devil, listlessness. Think about time and despondency; it’s very much there, this experience of it. Shame is a vital and essential element, therefore, in the spiritual life, understanding it, so I can deal with akedia. When we ignore it, it causes enormous damage that can easily be undiagnosed and unhealed.

Borrowing a little bit from some of the clinical stuff that I’ve read, and I’m using a book that I thought was very helpful, just came out in November. The writer was Joseph Burgo, and it’s just called Shame. It’s got a subtitle. It’s awful, these books that seem like self-help; they’ve got terrible titles. Shame: Free Yourself, Find Joy, and Build True Self-Esteem. I just think, “Coo-coo ca-choo, I’m the walrus.” [Laughter] I mean, it’s like: Do they just write these titles in California or what? Write them down in Georgia, and it would be: You, Too, Can Be Orthodox! Ha ha!

But anyway, I want to describe sort of four groups of shame that Burgo describes. I’ve found it just a handy list to just work through this, and I hope it’s not too painful. The first group are experiences of what he calls unrequited love. “I feel let down. I feel sad. I feel disappointed. I feel defeated or discouraged.” I read this stuff, and I barely… It’s all I can do to get through it. It just touches all those words in me. “I feel frustrated with myself.” Oh, that’s so much harder than being frustrated with you. “I feel like I can’t make the grade.” Those of you who’ve come who, say, haven’t published yet but you’re working on things like that, it’s so risky. I mean, to write something and hand it to somebody and to say, “Read this”? Oh, man! That’s vulnerability. If you’ve put yourself out there, you’ve poured yourself into a poem, this bit of creativity, much less if the creativity is about the inner you—you’re revealing—oh, that’s so hard. It’s hard to do. Your preaching itself, if you use stories and things that way.

Brené Brown talks about having a shame storm, which is: You’ve gone, you’ve spoken, you go back to your hotel room, and you’re going [Elephant Sound], and if you’re like me and you have ADD, which means you have a tendency to just keeping on talking anyway [Laughter] much less rabbit-trails and stuff—and you think I’ve got it, you should have seen my mama… [Laughter] But I’ll get back to a hotel room after being somewhere and just thinking, “I can’t believe I said that! Oh, gah! Did you tape that? Oh, please don’t put it out there on the internet.” Then I look at it later and think, “Oh, it’s not so bad.” [Laughter] It just felt that way, because the truth was that I was just vulnerable.

Frederica talked about that: Are you ready yet to talk about this stuff? Part of me, in dealing with shame, was I was sort of ready to talk about it, because if I didn’t talk about it, it was killing me. So sometimes vulnerability is the only way you can live, because the other stuff will eat you up. It will eat you up, so you begin to have to find safe places.

Feeling like a wimp or a dud. Male culture in America is almost nothing but shame. We play games with each other. We poke at each other. A man will say to the other guy, “It looks like you’ve picked up a few pounds this Christmas.” A woman never says that to a woman! [Laughter] A man will say to another man, “Did you know those pants make your butt look big?” Right? You never say that to a woman—and live. [Laughter] But we do that. We poke fun. I mean, your sports teams, your team lost: “Yaay!” Fr. Ted Pisarchuk, a guy in Florida, and I had a betting pool every year on Tennessee-Florida till I quit, because I got tired of losing, and that’s just as simple as it was. I mean, my little brother only calls me up once every four years. He works on the Mississippi. He calls me up once every four years before the national election just to taunt me. He called me up before the last one, and he’s talking about that guy. I said, “I’m not voting for him.” He still taunted me. Because that’s what guys do, and it’s just very difficult.

“I feel inept, feeble, ineffective, inadequate, incompetent, feeling like a loser, weak, undisciplined.” Oh, listen to people talking about their prayer rule! [Laughter] Good for you. [Laughter] I pray like Robin Williams! [Laughter] So we desired something or someone, and we were rebuffed in one way or another. It would be possible, you know, just to let it go or to assume that the problem was on their end, but chances are the experience will provoke some kind of shame.

The thing about shame is that it’s all kind of connected. There is a form of shame, an extreme form, called toxic shame, that usually happens as a result of abuse. That can be abuse as a child or any other time in life, and it’s very, very difficult. Frankly, toxic shame is absolutely worth picking up a phone and going to a therapist. It’s absolutely worth however long it takes, because it’s crippling. All kinds of things can happen with that. It’s a function of PTSD as well, coming home from wars and all kinds of things. A soldier saying to his priest or pastor—especially if you’re in the military, chaplains often, the soldier’s feeling bad about having killed someone, and the pastor gives them Just War theory… Like, if you hadn’t shot him, he would’ve shot you. Not an iota of which touches the shame, because he knows in his soul that he has taken a human life, and he needs to be healed. That’s the canons of the Orthodox Church. We’ll go to that and diagnose that and heal it with the medicine of Communion and the medicine of fasting and of repentance. It doesn’t matter who was right or wrong. Legally, you should be able to sleep at night, but it doesn’t let you go that way. These experiences…

Another, second category: unwanted exposure. Feeling self-conscious, embarrassed, shy… My wife, the other morning, she was late coming in. I make breakfast every morning, and she was late getting there, kind of in a hurry, got to get out to work. I said, “Well, what took so long today?” She says, “Well, you know, I started getting dressed, and then I thought… no. And then I tried something else on, and then I thought… no.” I mean, any of y’all’ve had that? She works in an office, and you’re trying to go through that. What is going on? Me, I just go to the closet and think, “Mmmm. Cassock.” [Laughter] “Do I want to wear black or… black?” [Laughter] But it’s a difficult thing. Then there’s the whole thing about shoes. We have that at my house. I’ll come home and there’s been a visitor at church, a lady, and she’ll say something about ‘em, and she’ll say, “Which one was that?” And she’ll describe her shoes. [Laughter] And I think, “I didn’t know that’s how you tell people apart.” [Laughter] Apparently, the ladies in my house do.

But we can feel embarrassed, shy, or bashful, simply vulnerable or exposed, foolish, or ridiculous, like an idiot—oh, I hate that word—a dope, a jerk, mortified or feeling like I’m a laughing-stock. I was short as a kid, and I was a second son, and my older brother was big and athletic, and so I always felt like a runt and things like that. Like a lot of people that way, I became a class clown; I still am. It was survival. It’s a technique for protecting yourself. You may, in fact, lead with your vulnerability, but lead it with humor. In fact, there’s clinical studies that say the ability to laugh at yourself is actually a tool for healing certain kinds of shame. So it’s not all wrong, and, as I say, children can have a real instinct.

So there’s a lot of scenes that involve that kind of shame. Every speaker, including those who preach or teach, has the risk of this kind of shame, feeling exposed. It’s said that public speaking is ranked as the number one fear in our culture. People would rather take a bullet than to stand up and to talk in front of people. God, I’m so courageous. [Laughter] Nobody likes to feel exposed; nobody does.

Another form of shame is in the category of exclusion, to feel like an outsider. How many of you were ever the new boy or girl at school? Don’t you hate that? Oh! You get there; you feel like an outsider, a loner, lonely, misunderstood. Basically, all of these categories of shame are a complete description of life of a middle schooler. [Appreciative laughter] All of them. The middle school is like one unmitigated experience of shame, which is why they behave the way they behave. They clump. They’re hiding in groups. They dress alike, they talk alike, they listen to the same music—they’re desperate from that, because if shame is about who I am and you’re an adolescent, you don’t know who you are, because who you used to be, at your mama’s breast, is not who you are as a 12-year-old. You’re in the gym and you’re staring across the gym and looking at girls.

It’s not unusual now for priests in our present culture, having middle schoolers coming and saying, “I’m a lesbian.” I say, “Bobby, you can’t be a lesbian…” No, sorry. [Laughter] Well, I don’t know. Everything’s possible now. But, I mean, what they’re saying is—I’ve had a few times a mother brings a child in and says [whispering], “She says she’s a lesbian.” She’s 11 years old; come one. You sit and talk, and what you discover is: they feel nervous about boys. They are more comfortable around girls. I think, “Yeah, it’s called friends. It’s okay. It’s not a sexual thing. It’s not all that. It’s not all the stuff that they’re telling you about.” In a way, they’re not being helped, because they’re given language that is very confusing, very confusing.

And they’re just, in that sense, what’s youth culture trying to do? They’re negotiating one of the most shame-filled worlds imaginable without a sheriff. And they live in Deadwood. They go to school in Deadwood. Hell, they go to schools that actually have shoot-‘em-ups. You’ve got to feel some way: It happened in somebody else’s school; why can’t it happen in mine? Because it can. So they do live in Deadwood, and it’s a dangerous place. So the exclusion is… Who wants to do it? Who wants to be unpopular, uncool, unwelcome, left out, shunned?

I have never had a base hit in all of my life. I’ve not been on a lot of baseball teams, but all of my life I’ve never had a base hit. I just wanted you to feel bad for me. [Laughter] I was not the first pick for the baseball team, but anyway… Less important, feeling that people are avoiding you, overlooked, forgotten, or invisible—that experience of shame is really almost, as I said, the default position for adolescents. Even though it gets hidden in a lot of ways, it’s just there.

The last category that Burgo gives is disappointed expectation: feeling hurt, feeling rejected or spurned, unlovable, or, worse yet, unworthy of love, ugly, that is, not attractive or fit enough, not masculine or feminine enough, humiliated, unwanted or uncared for, ignored or slighted, unimportant, overlooked, or forgotten. Gosh, aren’t you glad I’m not handing out cards asking you to check these off? Here, let’s do a shame inventory—I passed. [Laughter]

It’s painful even to hear such things described, and a fascinating property of shame is what—this is not a clinical term—I call it “stickiness,” and that is, when we witness shame, we instinctively feel it ourselves. You’re attending a child’s piano recital. Partway through the recital piece, they forget and get stuck. Nobody in the audience is looking at the child; everybody’s staring at their feet, feeling a communion of shame. It’s one of the reasons our public life is as difficult as it is. It’s become normal in, say, political and news speech now to use shame language. When you hear somebody being shamed, even if you think the person is right, when you hear somebody being shamed, you will feel shame on some level. What happens when you feel shamed? You get depressed or you get, more often, angry.

Why is social media the way it is? Because it’s a sea of shame. It’s a sea of shame. I mean, you write as an Orthodox Christian, you write as an Orthodox priest, you wrote a blog article—and somebody says, “You’re not Orthodox.” Well, it doesn’t feel good. It’s shaming. You can come back to it and just discuss it rationally or whatever that way, but that’s different from saying, “You made a mistake” or something like that. It’s going to the who of who you are. You don’t care—all the things we can do, this shame language… As I say, we’re all kind of loaded for this because we’ve heard so much of it, everybody’s a prickly-pear, and we can easily get set off.

But this stickiness… How many of you remember the comedian Andy Kaufman? I know us old people will, on Saturday Night Live and other things. Kaufman used this sticky property of shame in a lot of his comedy routines. He would just get up and do shameful things on stage, and everybody is just—[Squealing] Stop it! Stop it! I mean, it’s just crazy things! In a way, the humor was him laughing at you, because he was manipulating your emotions, and the joke’s on the crowd. It wasn’t… He got hurt badly doing that. It might have eventually led to his death, but it’s not a smart thing to do.

I’ve described shame as an emotional experience of broken communion, and interestingly sin is often rightly defined as a break in communion. So shame, among many things, is part of the emotional experience of sin. It doesn’t mean you did something wrong and now you feel ashamed because you ought to or you had it coming to you or you deserved it. I do not mean that at all. I do not believe sin is about… Sin is not a legal category. God is not a lawyer. You do something wrong: it’s a symptom of this disease at work in you that we really call sin. Sin, death, all of that, corruption is at work in us. But it’s really a problem of our being, but the emotions are also part of the experience of our being, and when communion is broken, it is felt like shame and it gets morphed…

I mean, why do so many people have anger issues surrounding religion? Well, very likely because they were shamed. As a boy, teenaged boy wearing long hair belong my shoulders in Greenville, South Carolina, near Bob Jones University, it’s like walking around with a sign on your back saying, “Sic ‘im!” It’s like saying to Evangelicals, “Sic ‘im,” like a dog, because they can see you and they start coming up to you and quoting 1 Corinthians. “Don’t you know that even nature itself teaches that it’s a shame for a man to have long hair?” [Laughter] You know it. I hope you’ve never said it.

Man: I’ve said it!

Fr. Stephen: Oh! Mercy! [Laughter] I would usually, as a Jesus Freak, respond and say, “Jesus had long hair.” [Laughter] Yep, and they would say, “How do you know?” And I would say, “You don’t know him!?” [Laughter] Shame can be a game!

We experience that way. It’s interesting: in the opening chapters of Genesis, it tells us the story of the first sin. The man and the woman eat what they are told not to eat, and then we are told: their eyes were opened. Their eyes were opened, and they saw that they were naked. And so they hide. That’s an experience of shame. It’s this terrible vulnerability, and so they hide. It’s the emotional expression of their lost communion with God. They get fig leaves and sew them together, it says. But it’s worth noting how God responds to them. He says, “Where are you?” They’re hiding. And then he says, Adam says, “We heard you coming, and we were naked, so we hid.” Adam responds with a shame thing. God says, “Who told you you were naked?” And then says, “Did you eat what I told you not to?” In a way, God changes the conversation from shame to guilt. “Did you do that?” Not, “Are you naked?” but “Did you do that?”

And then, when it’s all done, even though they leave the garden, he covers them. God covers them. He gives them garments of sin. Fathers make the huge, huge commentary on the garments of skin. God covers them. Not only does God cover them, but that covering is a theme that begins there in Genesis and runs throughout the Scriptures. We’ve lost our communion and therefore entered into the nakedness of shame, and God covers us, covers us. Everything from the robes of the priest to ultimately in our holy baptism in which we say we are clothed upon with Christ, clothed in the resurrection on the last day, Paul says. As many of us as have been baptized in Christ, in the Greek, endyo, that is, have been clothed with Christ. Christ is my clothing; I’m not naked any more.

It’s possible, then, for us to understand the work of salvation, at least as this much. It’s ever so much more, but one part of the work of salvation is the healing of our sham, the restoration of our communion with God, the world, and ourselves. It’s good in hearing this story to understand: God is not your shamer. Instead, what do we hear in the verses especially we’ll use in Holy Week? “He did not turn his face from the spitting and the shame.”

Holy Week in Orthodoxy is not about pain. It’s not about paying payment. In Orthodoxy, Holy Week, it’s all about shame. He was mocked. What do you think that crown of thorns is about? It’s not just [that] they hurt his head. It’s a crown of thorns. They put a purple robe on him to mock him. They put a sign on him to make fun of him. They went by and they “wagged their heads” at him, and they said, “If you are the Son of God, why don’t you come down?” I mean, even the bad thief is railing at him and making fun of him. This is it: “I turned not my face from the spitting or the shame,” or Paul says in Philippians 2 that he became obedient unto death, and then he says, “even death on a cross,” by which he means a shameful death. Not just a death, because the Scriptures say, “Cursed is he who hangs on a tree.” He bears a shameful death, numbered among the transgressors. Not a noble death, not a death in the arena, not a death like that, no—a shameful death. That’s what he bears for us. He enters into that.

So I don’t care what you did and how you got there. I don’t know what made you naked—but Jesus clothes you. He clothes you, and that’s what he intends to do with us.

Another question that came to me in trying to understand what place does shame have in the tradition is that it’s there, but it’s often called by other names. Most especially it’s called by the name of humility. Our culture misuses the word and imagines humility to be a sort of polite attitude that doesn’t brag about its excellence. “Yes, I do, I’m a great concert pianist. I’m not as good as Rachmaninoff, but… ” We’re humble. “Oh, thank you.” That sort of thing, being humble about excellence. Anybody can be humble about being excellent! [Laughter] I mean, that’s just pretty doggone good. I mean, you just absolutely write a poem and knock it out of the park, and someone says, “That’s a beautiful poem,” and you say, “Thank you.” [Laughter] And you’re thinking in yourself, “You have no idea how hard I worked on that thing. It is just the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen, and I just want to dance,” and you just—“Thank you. Thank you.” That’s easy. It’s not humility.

Humility is really revealed—true humility is revealed in the context of shame. I’ll be as straightforward about it as possible. Humility does not consist in how we handle our excellence. Humility consists in how we handle our shame—which makes it really hard, very, very hard. Everybody can learn to be polite about the stuff they’re good at. That’s nothing more than being a gentleman and a lady, in the old-fashioned terms of my childhood. But it’s shame that marks how we deal with our failures, real and imagined, and that many times gets in the way of repentance. How many times have I heard, especially those who’ve been new in the Church—they’re talking about how difficult it is to go to confession, and they will say something like, “I just feel like you won’t think well of me if you hear what I have to say.” I tell them, “It’s a great sin for a priest to judge someone in confession.” I said, “Frankly, you can’t tell me anything, I suspect, that I haven’t done myself. I am no different from you. We both stand naked before God, and this is for your healing, not for your judgment.”

What’s really going on there is: Can I, as a priest, can we as a Church, create a place safe enough for someone to bear their shame? I think probably the greatest sin a priest can do is to use the content of confession to shame and control people. I’ve heard of cases of this, and it’s the worst kind of spiritual abuse, and the cases have usually been dealt with by deposing the priest, the sooner the better, because it’s just a great abuse of this most secret and vulnerable place in human beings.

I’ve written before that we are not saved by our excellence; we’re saved by our weakness. Paul is quite clear on this. Paul is so excellent. He said, concerning the law, he was blameless! He said, “I was a Pharisee. I was blameless.” I don’t know exactly what “blameless” adds up to as a Pharisee, but that’s what Paul was. And Paul then says he was not only blameless as a Pharisee, he had visions, caught up to the third heaven, heard things unlawful to be uttered. I mean, Paul is so excellent, spiritually, that he says, essentially, God sent a demon to torment him. And Paul said, “I prayed three times.” Wow, Paul. “I prayed three times to ask him to take it away.” Three whole times, Paul? That’s really something. [Laughter] I’d still be praying! Paul prays three times for God to take it away from him, and God says to him, “My strength is made perfect in weakness.” So I sometimes tell people, “You don’t want to bear your shame. You’re so good you just want a demon to come torment you.” No, no, no. Just be weak! Be weak.

Fr. Thomas Hopko wrote, in his 55 Maxims—it’s almost a theme in there—he said, “Don’t be afraid to be small, weak.” Protestants will do these church surveys, gifts and talents survey. You tell them what your gifts and talents are and they give you a job. So then you have a church full of excellent people. It is a capitalist management tool applied to the church, which makes it a colony of hell! [Laughter] You have all these excellent people. “That’s my job. She can’t do that as well as I can.” In Orthodoxy, we give you things you can’t do. [Laughter] The day I was ordained deacon in Dallas, Texas, I had never seen an ordination. I had forgotten to look at the service. I was a convert, and I just didn’t know that stuff yet. I remember praying that day, “Jesus, I pray I am the dumbest deacon in the Orthodox Church today.” And the Lord said, “You are.” [Laughter]

How do we gain humility? St. Isaac of Syria writes and says this [in Homily 71]. He says this is how we gain humility. Listen to this and think of it in terms of categories of shame. He says: “By unceasing remembrance of transgressions,” by remembering your weak stuff and that crap you did, by remembering it, unceasingly. He says, “by anticipation of oncoming death.” Well, that’ll do it. [Laughter] “By inexpensive clothing, by always preferring the last place, by always running to do the tasks that are the most insignificant and disdainful.” The holy fools that we celebrate so much? What do they do? They voluntarily step into shame and do these things. St. Xenia of St. Petersburg—people making fun of her. I mean, it sounds so great when we tell the saint’s story, but when she was walking around St. Petersburg, ain’t nobody thinks she’s a saint. They’re just spitting at her, calling her names. It’s just the things that people do; you know how we are—like she was on Facebook. [Laughter]

So he says: “By abhorrence of material gain, by raising the mind above reproach.” Now he’s kind of dealing with the shame: “by raising the mind above reproach and the accusation of every man, and above zealotry; by not being someone whose hand is against everyone and against whom everyone’s hand is set against him.” But anyway, this is this model.

Listen to this from a secular direction. They actually have a lot of similarity. Burgo wrote in his book, a complete secularist, he said:

I believe that the experience of shame in many cases presents us with an opportunity to grow and learn. If we listen to it, shame sometimes tells us who we are and who we expect ourselves to me. What largely stands in the way of personal growth is our defenses against an inability to tolerate shame.

The Elder Sophrony, when he was teaching the priest-monk Fr. Zacharias in Essex, and he was getting ready to become a confessor, to begin to hear confessions, he said to him, especially of the younger ones, but for all, he said, “Teach them to bear a little shame.” I had the privilege, several years ago, when I started working on shame, to go to England, and spent some time with Fr. Zacharias, and said, “Tell me about shame.” It was just one of the most beneficial days of my life. I realized when it was done that he really hadn’t said anything that I hadn’t read in one of his books, but the difference was that he said it to me, and that becomes a word.

Toxic shame is crippling, and it needs attention. It can need clinical attention. It’s not your fault. It’s not your fault. It’s not your fault. It’s very important to know. It’s not your fault. And it’s okay to ask for help, and it’s okay to say, if you’ve been through that, that you’re not ready to bear a little shame, because the problem is, even a little shame will touch the deep wound of the unattended toxic shame, and you just can’t bear it. You just can’t bear it; you’re not ready yet, and that’s okay. It’s okay. You have other medical issues going on that Jesus means to heal and deal with those things.

There’s this quote from St. Thérèse of Lisieux, a Catholic saint whom I like a great deal. I love this quote of hers. She said, “If you can bear serenely the trial of being displeasing to yourself, then you will be for Jesus a place of refuge.” Isn’t that just sweet? Ooh! That’s why I love her.

St. John of the Ladder, in the fourth book of The Ladder, writes and says, “Sometimes you can only heal shame by shame.” It tells the story about a man who comes to the abbot at this monastery he’s visiting, and the man has been a murderer, a thief, and he describes just about every form of sexual perversion you can imagine and all of these terrible, terrible things, and he wants to become a monk. And the abbot says to him, “Would you be willing to say those things publicly?” And the man said, “I would be glad to shout them on any street corner in Alexandria.” The abbot says, “Well…” He sets up a thing so they have a gathering, liturgy, and all the brothers in the monastery gather together, and he has a couple of brothers dragging him in, kind of roughing him up, beating him, and doing all this stuff, and he has to confess it all in front of the brothers. St. John who is visiting asked him about that, and the abbot says, “Sometimes you can only heal shame with shame.”

That’s not how we do it, but this is a serious case: murder, apparently multiple, and every other kind of perversion possible. He needs… Of course, it’s always like it is in these Desert Fathers. You get a story and it happened in an afternoon, and that’s great. Oftentimes, it’s much slower than that. You get the guy who comes to the parish, and it wasn’t murder but it was a lot of other things, and he’s simply being an ass for a long time because he hasn’t tended to his brokenness. He hasn’t tended with his shame. Can you be patient enough? Can we as a people be patient enough to heal them?

God has given us the tools: the sacrament of confession, Communion. “The servant of God takes the most precious body and blood of our Lord and God and Savior, Jesus Christ.” You are covered with the righteousness of Christ again and again and again, as the stole is laid over you. The Psalmist writes and says, in Psalms 131, “I have comforted my soul like a weaned child at its mother’s breast.” The child is upset, but he’s not going to back to nursing again, but he’s learned to quiet himself. When I was talking to Fr. Zacharias, he gave me that first, and he said, “When this is happening with you and you’re feeling it, don’t run from it. Just sit with it in the presence of God. Just sit with it and pray: O God, comfort me. Comfort me.”

It’s kind of part of my prayer routine when these things come up: going to the church and just sitting in the altar and saying, “O God, comfort me.” Not, “O God, why did I do that? O God, I can’t believe I was that stupid.” Sitting there, reciting my shame? That does you no good. That is not repentance. That is not repentance; that’s just increasing the lack of communion, the distance and the loneliness. Say to God, “Comfort me, and I will sit in your presence,” and he will comfort. He will teach you to comfort your soul like a weaned child at the mother’s breast. Jesus says, “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who were sent to it, how often would I have gathered your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing.” Or the verse in Matthew 11: “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.”

God covered them. Think of how Jesus treated the woman who was taken in adultery. I mean, I’ve always been kind of freaked out when it says she was “taken in the act.” I think, “Well, they didn’t show that in the movie.” [Laughter] But there is no condemnation. He stands between her [and her accusers], he covers her with himself, and he says, “He who is without sin, let him cast the first stone.” He puts himself between her and them, and then he says, “Where are they who condemn you?” And she says, “They’re gone,” and he says—wow—“And neither do I condemn you.” Can you imagine? I mean, goodness gracious, she’s already done the shame stuff. She had no choice. They drug her out in the street; everybody in town knows it. Her husband knows it; everybody knows it! God knows it, and God says, “Neither do I condemn you”!? This is a good God.

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve spoken… I do a lot of volunteer work in drug and alcohol rehab, and the number of times with young… because people are just strung out on drugs and alcohol, they’ve got plenty of shame going around, and many of them, especially down where I am in Tennessee, God would never do that. God is dangerous, God is wrathful, God is going to send you to hell. And the number of times I’m just watching tears rolling down cheeks when they’re just hearing this story and someone, instead of talking about hell, is telling them that God loves them… “Neither do I condemn you”? Oh, what good news. How is that not what we say all the time in the Orthodox service? “For he is a good God, and he loves mankind.”

I try to remember when I write: Be kind. One of my rules from my blog is—almost the first rule in it—Be kind when you write. And if you’re not, I’ll delete you. [Laughter] In my kindness and mercy, I will cover up that social media sin you’ve just committed. [Laughter] There’s a delete feature on Facebook, too, that I love tremendously. God is… This is what he’s called us to do. The world out there is going mad. It is crazy. I do not have any kind of scheme of how we bring them back except for the fact that they are human beings exactly, exactly like me and you, even if they’ve got crazy ideas. They’re just like me. They’ve got plenty of shame. They need to be covered, and they can’t…

Part of our culture is trying to do it with shamelessness. It doesn’t work. You go out, and you do the parade, and you do it in front of everybody, and you know what? You’ve got to keep doing it, over and over and over. Let me read books to your children in the library. Try to do something to cover up and say, “This is not wrong.” No, no, no. They need to hear the love of God. They need to hear… It’s not condemnation they need; they need love. They need to know that their shame can be covered, and not just added to. This is difficult; it’s really hard to do. Sometimes we’re talking about children and the issues involved, so this is very difficult, but this is our ministry.

The thing I trust in is that we—you and I—were born for this hour. This is our time. From all eternity, God knew us, called us by name, and meant for us to be right here. So here we are, and he’s given us love. He’s forgiven us, covered us. And, even though we’re working outside the garden we’ve got our Flintstone clothes. It’s the garments of skin he’s covered us with, just the righteousness of Christ. And we can go out there and be brave, to heal other people.

I think it’s something we have to slowly model in our lives: a little vulnerability. I’ve got a lot of flaws in me. I mean, I do, and they’re embarrassing and all that sort of stuff. But part of the style I use when I write, actually, is to share a little bit of that. I won’t share them all, because I’m not ready there, but the vulnerability… I get lots of responses from people that it made it possible for them to say things they didn’t think that they could say, or to understand that God loves them that much, if someone, if a priest can say something… I wrote an article this past year on anxiety, depression, and panic attacks. The views went through the roof. That didn’t get anywhere near the emails that I got. I mean, I got comments, but the emails—because they couldn’t talk about it in public. Nobody—in three years I’ve had this, and nobody had ever told me these things. I look at that and I think, “Jesus, thank you for letting me have panic attacks. Thank you for letting me be an anxious child. Thank you for all the trouble it has caused me in my life, and I thank you for comforting me so that we can comfort one another, as Paul taught us to do.”

Anyway, that’s pretty much what I have to say about this tonight. I don’t know how much time I used—probably too much. Goodness, it’s not even quite an hour! But we’ve got some room for Q&A, do we?

Woman: Yes.

Fr. Stephen: Okay.

Woman: I’m going to turn on the microphone.

Fr. Stephen: Yeah. Yay! [Laughter] You know how it was in basketball, in high school basketball, and someone fouls, and everybody in the stands goes you, you, you, you! Oh ho ho, we’ll do that to people who come to the mic. [Laughter] No! Comments, even is fine. You don’t have to have questions or stuff. Maybe there aren’t any. Yes, yes.

Q1: One of the things you said early on was that the only boundary in the garden was the No of the tree, but I wonder if you could talk some about the boundary of other people, because I feel like our limits that God gives us in our body, like you just said, having a problem or your weakness, the thing that God gives you… I write about disability, and disability as a limit is a way that I get to know God. It’s a gift in that way. So I wanted to see if you could talk some about, I want to hear your words about how other people are our boundaries and our limits and how that’s a gift.

Fr. Stephen: Okay, the question is about how boundaries work in our life with other people and with ourselves. I mean, Burgo is saying that these kinds of experiences of shame or, I would say here, boundaries, also teach you who you are, going there to find that out. I grew up in an alcoholic family, so I was raised a co-dependent. Mama taking you out at night, sending you into a beer joint to get your daddy back out. Crazy stuff, crazy stuff. A boundary was reaching a place in my adult life to say to my mama, “Your husband, he ain’t my problem. Sorry.” “But you’re a priest!” “Sorry.” [Laughter] “Go get you a different one.”

I think it’s healthy and important to know… I mean, there’s a whole lot to say about boundaries like, way, man, another talk, but I tell people one thing that’s important is actually, when you’re uncomfortable, pay attention to it. It might even be that you’re just not ready to be in the situation and you later would be, but pay attention to not being comfortable. I especially said that to my girls when they were growing up. You’re in a situation that makes you feel, you know, uncomfortable? Get out, call me, whatever. Draw your gun. [Laughter]

I mean, boundaries, they really matter, because in Trinity… There’s the old Latin triangle thing, so you have Deus at the middle, and you have Pater, Filius, and Spiritus Sanctus, and you have Est: you know, each is God. But between them it says Non Est. The Father is not the Son. The old Athanasian Creed—who knows who wrote it. The Son is not the Father. The Father is not the Son. There’s something about that that to me is part of the mystery of personhood. You’re not me. I’m not you. It calls for a kind of respect. Part of the relations of the Trinity in the Fathers is the perichoresis, which is about dance. The one thing I know about dance is I can’t occupy your space, particularly your feet! [Laughter] I’m a terrible dancer. I wish I was Greek! I want to dance like Zorba. Respecting the space of the other.

It is so hard, because of the ways that we’re pushing each other in our culture to give room and respect. I’m an old man now, and my children are adults. My oldest will be 40 this year or next; the youngest is about 28 or whatever. And you begin to discover when your kids grow up, oddly enough, they don’t all agree with you, even though you taught them better than that. It’s very difficult as a parent to not still want to run their little lives, to have that child tell you that I got a tattoo. Where? [Laughter] My wife said, “What does it say?” My child said, “Oh, no words. It’s just a flower.” Oh, okay. But you just have to give people room.

I prayed—like in dealing with them, you’ve got to do this with other people, too—for their salvation. It just has dawned on me as the years’ve gone by: I have no idea what that looks like, and if I’m blessed and fortunate before God, that won’t be finished until I’m long left this world. I’m going to watch their salvation from afar. Hopefully up close from afar.

What is God doing in the world? Well, he’s gathering together all things in Christ Jesus. It might not look like it, but he is. This is what it looks like when God’s providence is at work for the salvation of all; he’s gathering in. Part of that is that I… One of the reasons we don’t respect each other’s boundaries is because I’m afraid, that you’re going to violate my space or something like that. As crazy as we are, God’s in charge. God’s in charge. It’s a good question, though, and I tell you, there’s so much more to be said about it.

Q2: I was wondering if you could expound a little bit more on teaching children how to bear a little bit of shame.

Fr. Stephen: Ooh, ooh, well. You know, I don’t know about teaching them to bear a little shame. First off, I don’t like using shame with children. I don’t… It’s just that there’s so many better ways to deal with a human being than getting in there, just violating the daylights out of them. You can get things done with it, but I mean, no one’s going to be a better person by feeling like they’re a bad person. I’m not talking about giving participation trophies or anything like that, but I think one of the things with children… How do we teach the ability to do this is I create a space where they can.

When parents in my church, when the kids are like seven or eight, they’re going to bring them to confession. I tell them, “Look, I’m not going to do a class on sin for them, like how to confess their sins in confession.” This is just me. Other priests do other things, but me, I say, “Look, they’re seven or eight, they don’t have any serious sin yet. This is not what… The only thing I want them to know at age seven or eight is that it’s a safe place.” I’ve had kids come and sit next to me for confession just mum. Don’t say anything. I’ll say, ” Well, is that all?” They go, “Uh huh.” [Laughter] So I’ll put the stole over them, and I’ll give absolution. And you might have to do that for three or four years, but when they’re seven or eight, there’s not a lot. When they’re twelve or thirteen—it’s coming. [Laughter] I want them to have a safe place so that they can say that and know that there they will not get shamed. What a terrible thing, to bear a little shame and it not be covered, much less it be used against them! So we have to be… I think in that sense, there’s a gentleness; there’s a kindness.

St. Silouan told the story about his father. St. Silouan… They were working in the fields in Russia one day, and it was a fast day. His father sent him back to the house to bring him some food. He forgot it was a fast day, and he brought him some meat, and the father ate it. Six months later, he brought it up to Silouan and said, “Do you remember that day I was in the field and you brought me something to eat? It was a fast day, and it was like eating carrion,” and just sort of shared that with him. Silouan said, noted and said, “My father was a better spiritual father” than any of the great fathers on Athos that he had had. He said he waited six months before he chastised him at all, to wait for the right time. Whew!

I know for myself as a parent one of the things that was very helpful to us as Orthodox was for me as a parent to learn to prostrate myself before my children and ask for their forgiveness. How do they learn it? They watch me do it. My daughter, baby daughter, she’s 16 and the movie, Da Vinci Code came out, and she asked me for some money to go to the movies with her friends, and I said, “Which movie?” and she said, “Da Vinci Code.” That just sort of mashed a button, and I went off. I’m stomping around the house and I’m angry and I’m just mouthing off and I’m saying, “That movie is against everything I’ve ever worked for and everything I stand against!” [Laughter] You know, I’m just raving, and I don’t know where it came from. She’s sitting there just weeping, and then she goes back in her room, and I’m just standing there. Then I came to my senses and sat down and whoa, the shame came and I realized it’s me, it’s me. I went in to my daughter and I made a prostration before her, and I handed her $20. [Laughter] And I told her, “There is nothing you can see in that film that even comes close to what I just did to you. Here’s the money.”

It was funny the next day, the next afternoon, I said to her, “Well, sweetie, how was the movie?” And she says, “Well, Papa, I ruined it for everybody.” I said, “What’s that?” She said, “While we were watching the movie, I kept saying: Oh, that’s not true! That’s not true!” [Laughter] And then, sweet words. She said, “I’m your daughter, Papa.” Amen.

How did we do it? You do it. The best way to teach a child… I love Stanley Hauerwas that I studied under at Duke. Hauerwas said, “Almost no matter what you do, your children are going to grow up to be just like you. That’s good news and bad news.” [Laughter] Be what you want your child to be.

Someone else? Well, you all have been really sweet, and this felt like it was an okay session with each other. I appreciate you and thank you so much. Be kind. God bless. [Applause]

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