Further Thoughts on Shame

In the previous essay  I claimed (following the lead of John Climacus) that we can only be saved by embracing our shame. Living in a family that has a multi-generational issue with alcoholism and the shame that can both cause alcoholism and be a result of it, I recognize this advice might sound rather horrible. I therefore want to delve a bit deeper into the issue.

Shame is the proper internal reaction to sin. Conversely, being shameless is is the hallmark of ungodliness because it indicates we have lost all reference to God and thus lost all sense of our moral standing before God.

When we lose our reference to divine things, we can become “shameless,” or callous. The celebration of debauchery is a form of such shamelessness. When this happens we might say that such a person has become agnostic on a practical level because their actions have no reference to nor consideration of God.

Shame can also manifest itself in a completely different manner, which is every bit as agnostic but not shameless or callous. This happens when a person develops an overwhelming sense of shame that is self-focused rather than divine-focused. Alcoholism, eating disorders, and other forms of self-destructive behavior are frequently driven by this second sort of shame.

It appears that these two problems are opposite ends of a single spectrum and one might assume they need to be dealt with in quite different ways, but this appearance is false. It is the same problem but with two different manifestations. The primary difference is that the seemingly shameless person focuses the self-loathing externally while the overly shameful person focuses the self-loathing internally. In both cases, the problem (as is the case with nearly all sin) is that the focus is on the wrong place. Healing for either sort of shame only comes when we look upon God and go through the discipline necessary to travel the paths that God in Christ has traveled.

When we look fully and openly on God we find it necessary to look away because what is looking back at us, in the form of the energies of God flowing from him, is unconditional love, and that unconditional love is too overwhelming or embarrassing to receive. We are accustomed to being looked at critically or dismissively or having the experience of having people look right past us, as if we do not exist at all. But as we train ourselves to look fully and openly on God and simply accept those energies of unconditional love and acceptance flowing back over us and into us, we can begin to see ourselves as God sees us. Said in this way, it sounds simple. It’s not. This is a lifetime of work, forcing ourselves to stop looking either loathingly or lovingly at ourselves (ie, idolatry), and, in turn, to truly turn our attention on to God.

The Navigators (a Protestant parachurch organization I grew up with) accomplishes this through scripture memorization and contemplation of God through scripture. The Orthodox Christian Church encourages personal devotion through the means of scripture, especially the Psalms, but also through hymns and simple prayers such as the Jesus Prayer or the Trisagion Prayers. Roman Catholics often use the rosary. While each method has strengths and limitations, the aim of each is the same: to help us learn to put our full and (eventually) unflinching attention on God while, through his energies, he gazes back at us, knowing us as we are, and accepting us in all our corruption and immaturity, and inviting us to  travel with him where he, to hell and back again.

When I can finally see myself as God sees me, then (and only then!) can I embrace the true shame I ought to feel. On the one hand, I’m not nearly as good as I believe I am (false pride). On the other hand, I am not nearly as bad as I have convinced myself that I am (false shame). I am created in the image of God and because of that, I am an inherently and exquisitely good creature, a creation of the good God. Simultaneously, I am dead, and the rot of corruption makes me smell like a corpse, act like a zombie, and loathe both myself and circumstances in which I find myself. I learn, as I gaze unflinchingly at God, to be ashamed of the stink while simultaneously holding in wonder the glory of myself created in the very image of God.

And as I slowly but surely learn to gaze unflinchingly at God, God’s energies flow into me, give me life, where before there was only death, and transform the corruption into what God intended me to become in the first place. This is the journey into the very heart of Hades … not by myself, but holding tightly to hand of Christ the Victor. And once I have arrived in the heart of Hades … and only from that spot … can I see, in the distance, the glorious light of Heaven.

One of Elder Sophrony’s most beloved aphorisms is,  “Stand at the edge of the abyss until you can take it no more. Then have a cup of tea.” (The abyss he’s referring to is Hades, or as Fr Stephen described it so perfectly, it is simultaneously “the Gate of Hades and the Gate of Paradise.”) Gazing at God will utterly undo us. It is disconcerting and even terrifying. In short order we must step away. But Elder Sophrony’s advice is wise. When we step away, don’t step away in shame that we cannot look into the face of our Savior, for that is the nature of being dead. Don’t step away in embarrassment, just step away and (in his classically English manner) have a cup of tea. Try again this afternoon. In God’s time, and with self-discipline you and I will eventually learn to gaze upon the abyss that is simultaneously The Abyss and God and be utterly undone. Only then can God make us anew.

Thanks be to God.

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