Rev. Fr. Dimitrios J. Antokas is the Presiding Priest at St. George Greek Orthodox Church in Bethesda, Maryland.
Sunday is the Sunday of Forgiveness, the last day before Great Lent begins. Forgiveness is not a difficult concept to understand—we offend another, we ask for forgiveness, someone offends or hurts us, we are called by Jesus to forgive.
Forgiveness is dialogical, involving two persons, as the theologian Martin Buber said an “I and Thou, in an exchange or transaction of mercy.” Forgiveness opens up a new beginning, letting the memory of the hurt slowly evaporate from the pain of our consciousness. Human forgiveness is rooted in the forgiveness of God—granted, sealed, and delivered in the passion, death and Resurrection of His Son.
We can forgive others and be forgiven, because He first forgave us, without hesitation or question. Yet there is a kind of forgiveness that is not easily understood or received, or granted. It is the forgiveness of ourselves. This Sunday is about that forgiveness as well.
Guilt Vs. Shame
The spiritual writer Marjorie Thompson in her book The Way of Forgiveness, puts her finger on the heart of the “self-forgiving problem.” It is guilt and shame.
“Guilt,” she writes, “is about what we have done, it is about an act. (‘I did something bad’), while shame is about who we are, it is about identity (‘Because I did something bad –I am bad’).”
The distinction is about recognizing that I made a mistake (guilt) versus believing that I am my mistake (shame). While guilt is a natural and appropriate response and can come upon us in varying degrees, shame, on the other hand, can be toxic. It paralyzes us; it is cruel; it can become a taskmaster that drives us to overachieve, overcompensate, overwork, and protect ourselves with a face that is not our own.
The Desert Fathers identified the tyranny of shame as demonic. Evagrius of Pontus (345-399 AD), a 4th century Egyptian monk, tells us in the Philokalia that shame is not about bad thoughts but is the power of bad thinking. He notes that shame is really “wrong vision,” seeing ourselves from the perspective of our fears and fantasies (unrealities) rather than seeing ourselves as we truly are, thus becoming unable to say with the Psalmist, “I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made; your works are wonderful, I know that full well.” (Psalm 139:14)
Guilt can function as a prelude to repentance and is a natural feeling when we have hurt another or done something wrong. Guilt leads to “Godly sorrow” and can inspire metanoia or inner transformation. Orthodox Christianity does not hold to the notion that guilt is a punishment for sin. Guilt certainly exists as an indicator or symptom that sin has occurred. It is a means through which spiritual healing begins and not a process by which punishment is imposed.
On the other hand, shame is an emotion that will keep you forever shackled to the past. Guilt says to your conscience, “You made a mistake, what you did was bad.” Shame tells your conscience, “You are no good, you are bad, you are inadequate.”
The consequence can be spiritually, psychologically, and emotionally devastating. How then, do we deal with shame in our lives?
• Embrace a Spirituality of Imperfection. A spirituality of imperfection suggests that spirituality’s first step involves facing myself squarely, seeing myself as one who can be paradoxical, incomplete, even mixed-up, misguided and coming to peace with it. It is owning our finiteness and accepting our limitations. While we can and should do the hard work of asceticism so as to come closer to God (theosis), we will never shed our limitations as human people. After being Graced, limitation is the first fact about human beings. Shame about ourselves and our limitations begins a downward spiral into discouragement and even despair. By identifying ourselves with our sin, we, in fact, make a statement of disbelief that we are bad, that “God made junk,” that we are out of reach of God’s loving mercy, beyond the pale of His compassion. All are untrue. St. Gennadius of Constantinople underscores this spirituality of imperfection by saying, “Do not say ‘I have sinned too much therefore I am not bold enough to fall down before God.’ Do not despair! Try not to increase your sins with the help of the All-Merciful One, and you will never be put to shame.” (The Golden Chain)
By allowing ourselves to be mired in shame, we are living under the illusion that unless we are perfect, we are of little value and use to God. We have only to listen to the consoling words of the Prophet Isaiah to know that is not true.
“Do not fear, for you will not be ashamed; Neither be disgraced for you will not be put to shame. For you will forget the shame…and will not remember the reproach anymore.” (Isaiah 54:4)
We are loved by God as the persons we are, imperfections and all. Far from defining us, our imperfections only serve to reveal the fact that deep down inside our heart of hearts, we, like Jesus on His Cross, cry out every day: “I thirst! God, I thirst for you!” Be at peace, we are loved!
• Do Not Trust the Wrong Angel. For the Fathers of the earliest centuries of Christianity, the desert became a laboratory for studying what it means to be human. Their reflections depict within us a certain tension or struggle, what the 16th century Priest Lorenzo Scupoli called his master work—“The Unseen Warfare” within.
An ancient text of the late 1st century, the Shepherd of Hermas, identified this struggle as “the battle between the good and bad angels within each of us.” Dark forces can exert a powerful influence over us and over our spiritual life. We must, therefore, take care not to put our trust in “the wrong angel.” To protect ourselves against shame, you and I need to be in an intimate, on-going, affirming relationship with Jesus Christ. The questions are not do I go to Church? Do I get involved? Do I give in stewardship? Do I volunteer at Church? etc.
The single most important question we need to ask ourselves is this: Is Jesus Christ the actual center of my life and my lifestyle? How easily we answer “Yes!” But is it TRUE? We all sin and fall short. We don’t always hit the mark. The question is can we survive all this falling without Jesus in our life? The testimony of the Gospels and the Fathers and centuries of Orthodox Christian lived-experience tell us, “NO!”
The world’s promises are deceptive and empty, the temptations to ego, pride, and self-centered pleasure are ultimately destructive. and the peace for which we seek will always elude us unless, by prayer, fasting, and submerging ourselves in the Word of God, we enter the sanctuary of that awesome relationship, we hand our fragile soul to “the right Angel,” the Angel of Great Counsel, the Mighty Lord, the one who restores peace in the human heart, the Crucified God. In this Divine relationship, shame will never defeat us.
• Hand Over the Shadows of Shame. As we come to the eve of the Great Fast, you and I would do well to look into our hearts and souls for the shadows of shame, be they acute or passing, long-standing or brief, something we think about now and then or something that holds us captive.
It is the nature of Great Lent to look within, to make ourselves see what is actually there. The truth is that only when we face the self-as-feared do we find the self-as-is. We tend to hide the things that we find, to keep them secret, to avoid considering them, and feel ourselves being eaten away slowly but steadily by shame’s insidious power.
Our holy father St. John Cassian warns us, “Hidden things hinder wholeheartedness and holiness.”
We need to hand them over to the Lord through the Holy Mystery of Confession, honestly, unvarnished, openly and with courage. We need to lay it bare before the Divine Physician. If the Cross of Christ means anything, it means that God comes through the wounds. The descent to the depths brings the realization that without help one is lost, without speaking the wounds healing cannot take place.
Come to Confession, talk to God, show Him your wounds, free yourself, and give Him a chance to tell you face to face from His wounded heart, “You are loved and forgiven, your faith has made you well!”
To Him be glory unto the ages of ages. Amen!
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