It’s A Crying Shame

Childhood-Trauma-300x162Orthodox Christians make a beginning of their Lenten discipline with the forgiving of everyone for everything (theoretically). This is expressed in the rite of forgiveness which is part of Vespers on the Sunday of Cheesefare. The ritual expression of forgiveness can easily and often be little more than a ritual. It reminds us of the need to forgive, but does not, on its own, achieve what it expresses. This should not be surprising – forgiveness is perhaps the most difficult spiritual undertaking. I believe the reason for this is clear: to forgive is to endure shame.

The experience of shame (how I feel about who I am) is easily the most vulnerable point of encounter in our lives. Generally, we cover our shame with any number of layers of protective identity. How we dress, how we speak, how we engage our emotions, how we use our bodies and especially our faces: all of these have a primary purpose of shielding the most vulnerable aspect of our existence. It is only in the safest places with the safest people that our guard is dropped, and we allow a level of naked vulnerability. Most of this operates on an unconscious level. We are armed at all times to shield ourselves from any assault on that vulnerability.

Any foray that another makes into the territory of who we are will immediately provoke a defensive response (in one form or another). Encounters that shame us are deeply provocative. It is in this vein that actions requiring forgiveness involve shame. Everything that we experience as a sin against us, is an action involving shame. The shame is the source of its power and is the engine of our protective efforts. To forgive is to drop our guard and expose the nakedness of our selves. The infraction need not even be a true accusation – it may very well miss the mark of who we truly are. But even as it misses the mark it asserts something about who we truly are and is therefore experienced as an assault.

I contrast this with the many, many experiences we have of painless infractions. Someone accidentally gets in our way, hesitates and says, “Excuse me.” We quickly respond, “It’s nothing. No problem,” or something like that. And what we say is entirely true. Such actions are of no consequence precisely because they are not assaults on our vulnerability (and are not shaming). But imagine standing in line and someone breaks in front of you saying, “I was here first!” We experience such a moment as a dismissal of our importance and our worth. It is shaming, even if it is slight. And now we bear a grudge. We are probably angry, or at least a bit huffy.

Certain epochs in history have given deep expression to this reality. Ancient Greece (in Homer’s time) had a very deep sense of honor and the possibility for its insult. It drove the Trojan War and most of the events within it. It is, however, a universal experience, even if various cultures give it different expression.

It is in understanding this that we can see the importance of Christ words, “Father, forgive them!” This is a profound expression of Christ accepting the shame that was His death on the Cross.

I gave My back to those who struck Me, And My cheeks to those who plucked out the beard; I did not hide My face from shame and spitting. (Isa 50:6-7)

Christ’s voluntary self-offering is far deeper than the simple willingness to have His hands and feet nailed to the Cross. It is much more the shame of being cursed (“cursed is everyone who hangs on a tree”) and publicly mocked as a criminal. The gospel accounts of His crucifixion have nothing to say about the pain of crucifixion, but report in lurid detail the mocking jeers of the crowds and those around Him. It is the shame of the Cross rather than its pain that are displayed in the gospel account.

Those mocking taunts are a vivid expression of the intention behind each nail and every blow that was struck. Again, shame is the theme of the crucifixion:

Surely He has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows; Yet we esteemed Him stricken, smitten by God, and afflicted. (Isa 53:4)

And it is at that profound point of deepest shame that Christ speaks of forgiving: “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.” This is absolute vulnerability, total self-emptying. He is utterly willing to endure the shame that is placed upon Him:

He was oppressed and He was afflicted, Yet He opened not His mouth; He was led as a lamb to the slaughter, and as a sheep before its shearers is silent, so He opened not His mouth. (Isa 53:7)

Every true act of forgiveness that we ourselves engage in, shares this same pattern. It is an act of self-offering, an act of pure vulnerability. It risks saying to the other (or it may feel that we are saying), “You were right. I am who your action says I am. I will make no effort to correct you.” Every instinct to protect ourselves, especially from the frightening wounds of shame, screams out to us that this is something we must not do! We look for some small shred of dignity and protection. We will forgive…if. The “if” sets the condition for forgiveness, and keeps our protective identity in place.

Every time I have written about forgiveness, particularly forgiving everyone for everything, there is an immediate push back. Our collective vulnerability refuses to allow such an affront. We immediately raise objections and issue caveats. Our shame cries out, “Protect me!” We absolutely want to hide our faces from the spitting and the shame. And, as such, we do not want to take up our Cross and follow Christ. We will give many reasons and plead the extenuating circumstances, but they all revolve around the vulnerability of our shame.

Thus, at the beginning of our Lenten journey, the Church invites us into the shame of the Cross. It can only invite, because the Cross can only be born voluntarily. Christ did not come to crucify humanity, but that through voluntarily sharing in His crucifixion we might have His life. And so, we see the ritualized forgiveness of that first Lenten Vespers. It is indeed “bearing a little shame.” We are made more comfortable and courageous by the crowd who share in the same action and by the fact that those of whom we ask forgiveness, will themselves ask forgiveness of us as well.

I have seen, over the years of my Orthodox experience, that every year some few persons within a congregation who will clearly avoid participating in this service. They may bear wounds of shame that are too painful to expose. Some simply find the whole thing embarrassing in the extreme and may describe it as “silly.” That, of course, is the voice of shame. But this also has to be respected. What we are invited into can only be voluntary. Great Lent is not, and must not be, the Church’s efforts to shame us. For this reason, we see in the pre-Lenten Sundays images of those who voluntarily bear their shame (Zacchaeus, the Publican, the Prodigal Son) being welcomed in safety. We are being assured that God will not use our weakness to destroy us.

Forgive me, my brothers and sisters.


About Fr. Stephen Freeman

Fr. Stephen is a priest of the Orthodox Church in America, Pastor Emeritus of St. Anne Orthodox Church in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. He is also author of Everywhere Present and the Glory to God podcast series.


66 responses to “It’s A Crying Shame”

  1. Monica Avatar

    Father Stephen,

    A question – I avoid the ritual, not because of the reasons you name above, but because of the sensory overload it causes due to my ASS. (I do not tolerate touch or indeed, the close proximity of other people, very well). Do you have suggestions for alternatives?

  2. Annie Avatar

    What if the hurt one was your child? I wonder if you would comment on that situation.

  3. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Yes. Our children and those we love often go to the very depths of our vulnerability. The complete powerlessness we experience in the face of the dangers that surround our children, is one of the deepest existential occasions of vulnerability (and potentially our shame – if you think carefully about how I have defined the experience). My child reveals my weakness. The deeply visceral and immediate response (usually of anger) provoked by any slight to our child, much less danger or harm, is both a desire to protect the child, but (I think), even moreso a desire to protect this deeply vulnerable self.

    It makes forgiveness all that much harder. But, if we think about the dynamics involved in the manner I have described in the article, we will understand our inability to forgive much better. We do not hold onto a lack of forgiveness because we are mean (though sometimes this is true), but because the extreme vulnerability it causes. If I lost my child through someone’s action, for example, it would expose my grief and weakness to the extreme. It is a pain that we fear pretty much above all others.

    Only the Cross and union with the Crucified and shame-bearing Christ could make such vulnerability bearable or possible. We pray for grace. Such vulnerability and shame-bearing must be voluntary. I cannot say to you, “You must do this.” I can, however, describe what it is.

  4. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Your confessor might have better ones than me. But you could take a list of the parish names, and carefully pray and ask forgiveness of each name, praying for God’s grace to apply this to your heart.

  5. Seraphim Robert Avatar

    A truly wonderful, thought-provoking article to read as we approach Great Lent! Thank you for this, Father.

  6. Karin Avatar

    As I observed it, one of our residents on her deathbed, took a journey of forgiveness. We were praying the Lord’s prayer together – in German – when abruptly she stopped after the words, “Und vergib uns unsere Schuld, wie auch wir vergeben unsern Schuldigern.” I opened my eyes to see if she had breathed her last, but had a check in my spirit that she was on a mission. She repeated that sentence, and paused a long time between repeating – over ten times! It seemed powerfully obvious to me that she was either forgiving, or asking forgiveness, after each sentence. When she completed this spiritual journey, she smiled the most heavenly smile, and we finished the Lord’s prayer. She went home the very next day! I’m so grateful for this memory of her and have shared it often! – Let’s not wait until our death bed to forgive and ask for forgiveness was the lesson for me.

  7. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    The most common objection I have heard over the years is “I have not harmed any of these people” or “No one here has done anything that I need to forgive”

    Can you comment Father on how these miss the mark?

  8. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Well, it’s possibly true. And largely because we have never put ourselves in a position vulnerable enough to be harmed. That also means we have not been vulnerable enough to be known. It’s safe, but not healthy or whole. Thus, we can be, in our heart, to ask forgiveness for this. And perhaps they are asking the same.

    Forgiveness extends to “things known and unknown, things done and left undone, whether voluntary or involuntary.”

    Love is vulnerable. If we have never been vulnerable enough to be hurt, then we have never loved. And so, “Forgive me, for I have never loved you.” etc.

    “I am a rock. I am an island. And a rock feels no pain. And an island never cries…” a lyric by Paul Simon.

  9. TimOfTheNorth Avatar

    Father Stephen,

    Your reply to Michael was very helpful to me. The last post about self-emptying prayer and some of the comments that followed started to begin to sound almost Buddhist in tenor. (In my reading of them. I am certain no one intended them that way.) “Empty yourself, become nothing, and let the great cosmic force inhabit you…”

    But now you have shown the contrast between the Buddhist “emptying” and the Christian emptying by revealing that it is an emptying unto love and vulnerability and suffering. We do not empty ourselves to escape suffering, but in emptying ourselves we embrace suffering. It is too easy for me to live out the Paul Simon gospel of impassibility under the delusion that I am actually somehow entering into holy stillness. May God instead grant me the gift of tears…

    Thank you for the healing reminder.

  10. Nicholas Stephen Griswold Avatar
    Nicholas Stephen Griswold

    Thank you Father. Its a good reminder for me to prepare to actually do this as more than a ritual.

  11. Byron Avatar

    I have seen, over the years of my Orthodox experience, that every year some few persons within a congregation who will clearly avoid participating in this service.

    I watched this service last year as I was just beginning to try and understand the Church and her work. I found it terrifying in a way. To go to everyone in the congregation, especially those I do not know well, and ask forgiveness is almost overwhelming to me. I fear I would begin to list sins against them as I did it!

    I was just made a catechumen in the Church recently and I expect to take part in the service this year. Pray for me to pray! It is somewhat overwhelming to even think of this.

  12. Seraphim Robert Avatar

    Brother Byron,

    I never saw ANYTHING like Orthodox Forgiveness Sunday in any other Christian confession I ever tried. And yes, it definitely can be stressful and uncomfortable. But for what it’s worth….humbling oneself to take part in this, and to accept others’ request for forgiveness, helps create a sense that “We’re all sinners before God, we all need help and forgiveness!”

    And once Forgiveness Sunday services are finished, it feels like we’re all on the same footing and ready to start struggling through Great Lent TOGETHER. And no matter how well, or poorly (in my case) we keep the Fast, at the end we will all shout “Christ is Risen!” together. That’s a very powerful experience.

  13. Michelle Avatar

    All of these blogs about shame have made me realize the great sin of purposely shaming someone else. I’m guilty of this. Sometimes I shame my husband if I feel he wronged me in some (usually insignificant) way. Even if it were true that he really wronged me, shaming him I see is still clearly a grievous sin. There are countless incidents in my life where Ive tried to make someone see the truth and change their heart “for their own good.” Ends up most of those times I was merely shaming the person in order to make them feel guilty so they would then change themselves to my liking.

    If Christ willfully accepted His sentence of crucifixion as a criminal, in complete solidarity with all criminals (and sinners), then He wasn’t pleading for their forgiveness because they were ignorant of the fact that they were crucifying an innocent man. He willfully became an un-innocent man. What they were ignorant of was the fact that they were shaming God Himself.

    If Christ counts giving a cup of cold water to the least of persons as giving it to Himself, then if I shame the worst of sinners it will count as me shaming God Himself.

  14. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    There are studies that indicate mothers (and women) engage in shaming behavior more than men. Mothers, the studies say, complain most often about their little boys that they do not seem saddened or embarrassed by their bad behavior. They then try to make the child feel a certain way. Men (and these are just statistical tendencies) tend to ignore how a child feels about something and just punishes them. I have a theory that if this is true, it is because women (and little girls) are more generally shamed within families and within our culture. There seem to be many more shaming words for a bad girl than a bad boy. “Bad boy” itself carries a certain cache!

    When a man shames a child, I feel particularly offended and immediately think that the man is a coward, that he is hurting someone who cannot defend themselves.

    I think we shame others primarily because we ourselves feel shame. That others are not to our liking, is, strangely, experienced as shameful to us. Maybe we think, “Perhaps there’s really something wrong with me…that they are that different, etc.”

    Not shaming is deeply connected with not judging. “Grant me to see my own transgressions and not to judge my brother…”

  15. Subdeacon John Kennick Avatar
    Subdeacon John Kennick

    God forgives and I forgive, holy Father. Forgive me, a sinner.

  16. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Father, in addition to the not being vulnerable could such comments also stem from an individual understanding of sin rather than a communal/personal understanding? Not realizing that even if our actions, even our thoughts have not given apparent, direct and individual harm or offense to our fellows, certainly my sins have an impact on everyone else, especially those in my parish with whom I am in communion?

  17. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    That, too.

  18. Chris Avatar

    Wow, this post really resonates with me. There have been a few times in my life where I profoundly wronged others, and bore the consequential guilt and despondency. There were moments of slight reprieve, though, when I came to the realization that ‘something is seriously wrong with me,’ which resulted in apologizing and asking for forgiveness (something that was also painful). Unbeknownst to me at the time, it was in these moments that Christ was knocking.

  19. Gregory Manning Avatar
    Gregory Manning

    God forgives Father.

    I very much like the last words you wrote: “being welcomed in safety. We are being assured that God will not use our weakness to destroy us.” Being welcomed in safety is what I have come to experience when venerating icons.

    I’ve always liked this service. After several experiences it occurred to me that when I asked for the other’s forgiveness I was not actually looking at them when I said it. I meditated on that for some time and resolved to add the extra second to actually look at each person when asking for their forgiveness. I think it back-fired a little. Many people smile peacefully throughout the brief transaction where each of us shared this warm experience. Others were uncomfortable being addressed as you look directly at them. Otche advised me to keep doing it. He said such people must learn that in their encounter with you no harm is meant. A gentle smile is all it takes. Indeed, considering that your response to them is “God forgives”, what’s not to smile about.

    In a similar vein may I hope you will some day explain why an Orthodox funeral service is one of the most heart-warming services one could experience?

  20. Janine Avatar

    Today I happened to write a blog post on the beheading of John the Baptist in Mark’s Gospel. I thought a lot about corruption, that corruption seems to come down to what we choose to worship — God or putting another god first. I think it’s relevant to forgiveness, and your article made me think about that. To me, forgiveness is possible because it is God who is the mediator. I don’t have to fix somebody and I don’t have to condone what they did. I don’t have to go back to the time I trusted that person, I can still protect myself from future harm. But in forgiveness, I give all of it up to God and ask God to teach me my response. It seems to me this is the one way to bear shame and also the one way to forgive even when full reconciliation isn’t possible or is even dangerous.

  21. JD Avatar

    This is a respectful but presently still an outsider’s comment. And this is is not way in reference to the liturgy, but day to day forgiveness in general. So…forgive my intrusion, and certainly some sense of misunderstanding, but here it is.

    I’m not sure vulnerability thus forgiveness has to be the result of embracing a sense of personal shame. It seems to me vulnerability manifests with the absence of pride and the presence of trust. That is what the crucified Lord and the gospels communicate to us–utter vulnerability, faithfulness, and love–and why He is the source of its power. It occurs within the broader life of pursuing, receiving, and giving the gift of Divine love.

    I do not argue and debate someone all in a tizzy who cuts in front of me in the grocery store because in the instant I acknowledge any sense of personal shame and therefore deserving of this person’s ire, but from the grace given knowledge that my pride or ego or time or whatever is never worth embracing anger and hate to defend. It would be sinful, in fact. It is love that carries within it the power to forgive, and that love is always Divine and cruciform.

    Perhaps, then,

    “I was here first!”

    “Oh…yes, it seems you were. Please forgive me. Let me help you with that.”

    1 Cor.xiii.4-7

  22. Byron Avatar

    When a man shames a child, I feel particularly offended and immediately think that the man is a coward, that he is hurting someone who cannot defend themselves.

    Children, in my experience, want communion more than any other people. When I have had occasion to discipline a child, even a very young child, it is usually little more than talking to them and explaining the issue at hand. It is hard on the child for a parent, or authority figure, to temporarily step out of the communion they (both) love and take a more objective stance, so as to act as a guide for them in a situation. I always made/make it a point to hold the child and emphasize to them how good they are, once the “lesson” is over. They need the reinforcement in order to realize that the communion they think they’ve lost (for even a moment) was never really gone.

  23. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    When I reflect on how my parents raised me, I note that we were indeed “whipped” (they used a belt, common in the 50’s). But, oddly, never for the things that were actually serious. Those handful of events represented something so serious, I think, that no whipping would have been appropriate (as it was reckoned then). Instead, we talked. They only talked to me about really serious things. Not so serious, they just beat you. 🙂

  24. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    I think I disagree, and I’m not sure that you’re quite getting what I mean when I say shame. I’ll keep writing.

  25. Dean Avatar

    Father…I chuckled when I read your comment about your whippings. I too was raised in the 50’s. My dad used a belt also but my mother those stinging little switches…she’d usually make us go outside and get our own off a bush. Most of us were kids whose parents had come from the South. I think the major of us turned out pretty normal, though today I know that CPS would be called out. The raising of our own girls was much more mellow.

  26. marybenton Avatar

    Would it be inappropriate for a RC (i.e. me) to attend and participate in the forgiveness service? I would like to but would not want to create discomfort if you think it not a good time to visit…

  27. Gregory Manning Avatar
    Gregory Manning

    I hated those “talks” Father. Painful as it was, I’d rather have had the whipping and get it over with. The whipping stung my pride; the “talk” forced me to sit and be confronted with the shameful thing I had done.

  28. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Not necessarily inappropriate. They’re not closed events.

  29. Paul Avatar

    I am guessing that forgiveness sunday would be an awkward service to take your family to for the first time.

  30. Michelle Avatar

    “Men (and these are just statistical tendencies) tend to ignore how a child feels about something and just punishes them. I have a theory that if this is true, it is because women (and little girls) are more generally shamed within families and within our culture.”

    This could be true. I guess my theory would be that men rely less on feelings because throughout history their physical strength has proven to be their most useful tool and most effective weapon. Women, being the physically weaker sex, still needed a weapon of sorts so they used what was available to them that had the power to crush men -their tongue. Women access and utilize their feelings more because they are mothers and rear children. Being in-tuned to common human emotion and experience just so happens to also make an effective weapon.

  31. Dean Avatar

    Fr. Freeman, Last Sunday I saw a visiting family perform their own forgiveness vespers at the monastery we attend. The family formed a little line-dad, mom and 3 children. The couple first embraced and I assumed asked forgiveness mutually. This continued on down with all the children. Since it seemed natural for them, I assume they do this each week. They then proceeded to the Chalice. It was a touching moment to observe.

  32. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    It is a custom in some places to ask forgiveness of those around you in the Church before approaching the chalice. Priests, of course, ask forgiveness of the congregation every Sunday just after the Great Entrance.

  33. Byron Avatar

    Priests, of course, ask forgiveness of the congregation every Sunday just after the Great Entrance.

    This was one thing that greatly struck me when I was first visiting my Orthodox parish. It was rooted, I believe, in my Protestant understanding of the role of the priest (or preacher, in Prot parlance)–which was a complete misunderstanding of the actual role. The humility of our priest in this act still impresses me.

    Marybenton, I was invited to take part in the forgiveness Vespers when I was just visiting our parish. I don’t see any issue with you taking part but it would always be a good idea to discuss it with the parish priest just to be sure. As Father pointed out, it is an open service.

    Paul, it is not as awkward as you may think. It will feel awkward at first but it is also very humbling to observe, if you choose to not take part. I think it would be fascinating for children, especially youth.

  34. Lina Avatar

    Years ago I came to the conclusion that one of the most important things God wants us to learn is to forgive. Daily He gives us many opportunities to practice forgiveness. Or as the head of my mission sending organization put it, “Learn to keep a short grudge list.”

    Another practice I have found helpful, is to ask God to show me who are persons I need to forgive. He seems to bring them to the fore in His timing, which is always best.

    And, I can remember many sermons about our need to forgive, but very few on how to forgive.

  35. Fr. Thomas Avatar
    Fr. Thomas

    “Forgive me, a sinner.” – “God forgives. Forgive me.”

    Let me be venture a conviction. What is true of prayer in a previous post, is true of forgiveness.

    God forgives by nature, not us, and yet we can forgive, by grace.

    Forgiveness is a divine category of relating. We enter into – participate in His forgiveness of others and, in so doing, forgive in the only authentic way possible for a human being. Partakers of the divine nature is what makes us truly human and forgiveness is an aspect of the divine nature.

    I must bear the shame of “my” attempts to forgive, repent of them and yield into the forgiveness of God for others.

    So, in response to “forgive me, a sinner,” I cannot say, “I forgive.” I have to say, “God forgives.” AND it is I who truly say it and enter into the truth of it in and through Christ Jesus.

    Yes?? No?? Maybe??

  36. Christopher Avatar

    Yes Fr. Thomas, you are making some sense (at least to me). I am always a bit surprised when Christians sometimes speak (and preach) rather easily and flippantly about forgiveness, particularly of enemies (not that Fr. Stephen is in anyway doing this here). In our rich and relatively safe society, most folks don’t really have any “mortal” enemies – people who have the will and opportunity to truly take something very important from you (such as your own or a loved ones life). This is not true in the end (ask any victim of a serious crime) but thank God most of us don’t encounter this on a regular basis. Most of the offenses we suffer are rather on the surface, but the fact that we react the way we do reveals (or should) to us all how deep and fundamental shame is in our life.

    I have to confess, that I rarely forgive (truly forgive), and that it is difficult and that it takes time and effort (which so far God has granted me). I don’t know what it would mean to forgive a mortal enemy (though I know a person who does), and I don’t believe I could do it, or at least I can’t “see” it. It would take nothing less than a miracle. While I understand this miracle has been already accomplished, this “understanding” has not found it’s way into my heart – not fully, not “reliably”.

    Which brings me to my point, which is that true forgiveness, true Cross bearing, true love is all Divine and I am simply not divine. So I stand at the edge knocking, taking stock of my faint heartedness and sitting next to it as it were, praying.

  37. Janine Avatar

    I often wish we would think more about a difference between forgiveness and reconciliation. In the bible to forgive is to let go, like a debt that doesn’t need repayment. It’s unreasonable to suggest an automatic or full reconciliation in cases of ongoing abuse, for example, without a lot of truth first.

  38. Karen Avatar

    Fr. Thomas, I would say absolutely our forgiveness of another is the gift of grace. In one version of Forgiveness Vespers the response is “God forgives and I forgive.” Still, the assumption is my forgiveness of another is the derivative of God’s. Christopher’s experience and thoughts in his comments to you certainly mirror my own.

  39. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    It is easy for forgiveness to become just one more moral duty. One of the reasons I rail against morality from time to time is because (at least as I use the term) it is empty – an effort in vanity and frustration. Of course, forgiveness is frequently impossible for us. And it is useless for us to berate one another about what we “should” do.

    It is the bankruptcy of our moral efforts, our best intentions, etc., that brings us to our shame and our weakness. Forgiveness is a voluntary “bearing of shame,” as I’ve described. Sometimes a little, sometimes a lot. And if we discover that we can only “bear a little,” then bear a little. And, recognize the weakness and brokenness that, for the time, cannot be born. At least we must bear that reality.

    What becomes problematic in our lives are the moral arguments. When people begin to hedge the entire question of forgiveness, or constantly explain why it is impossible, it is simply engaging in moral reasoning. There is no salvation in moral reasoning. There is, however, salvation in the Cross. Christ invites us not to moral excellence but to take up our Cross. And, if I honestly and rightly encounter and bear even my failure, my inability to forgive, and do so without excuse and at the foot of His Cross – then I will find grace. But there is no grace in our reasoning otherwise.

    Repentance is a very difficult business. True repentance is possible. Moral progress and improved efforts are delusional.

    Christopher mentioned “mortal enemies.” In my family (and aunt and a cousin) we had victims of murder – some 25 years apart. One very brutal and horrible, another very senseless and random. My experience with that and the devastation it wrought in my family took me into a season, during my priesthood, of working with the families of victims of violent crime. It was some of the hardest, most difficult settings I have ever known. Grief is terrible. But there is no grief that compares with what accompanies a murder. When I think of the many thousands who have been murdered in war zones – I wonder that anyone who lives there is still even remotely sane.

    Christ, of course, lived in occupied territory, ruled by a very ruthless armed force. Crucifixion was a frequent and common occurrence. He entered into the very heart of that darkness and did what we find impossible. He invites us, at least to stand at the edge of that abyss (the fearful place in which we might possibly forgive a mortal enemy).

    In my own life, like those commenting, I do well even to forgive small infractions. I am finding that the more I understand that “the way of shame is the way of the Lord” (Elder Sophrony), some things are becoming possible that had never been before. I look forward to Forgiveness Sunday this year, to go to that place yet again. God help us all.

  40. SW Avatar

    Fr. Stephen, this blogpost and especially these words, “Christ’s voluntary self-offering is far deeper than the simple willingness to have His hands and feet nailed to the Cross. It is much more the shame of being cursed (“cursed is everyone who hangs on a tree”) and publicly mocked as a criminal. The gospel accounts of His crucifixion have nothing to say about the pain of crucifixion, but report in lurid detail the mocking jeers of the crowds and those around Him. It is the shame of the Cross rather than its pain that are displayed in the gospel account,” bring to light a view of the crucifixion that, in my experience, has always been taught as being subordinate to the actual physical suffering endured by Christ. This “shame” focus is astounding to me, probably because I’m so vain and prideful. It has made His death and life (since He was ridiculed and despised throughout His time on earth) more meaningful to me than they have ever been. I really can’t even put it into words, but thank you very much.

  41. Fr. Thomas Avatar
    Fr. Thomas

    All of this makes me dizzy and not a little confused. Which is probably exactly what I need to be. I need a cup of tea.

  42. marybenton Avatar

    Good post and comments. I have talked with a number of people over the years who have experienced horrendous abuse, been victims of vicious attacks, witnessed murders of loved ones, etc.

    One thing I have learned in observing all of this is that some people of faith can readily forgive the unforgivable while others struggle mightily with their inability to forgive. At the same time, others believe sincerely they have forgiven only to discover that they really haven’t.

    Why so much variability? I don’t know but I suspect that God knows what each of us needs to learn and when. Some are given the gift of the merciful Christ forgiving from their hearts almost immediately. Others are left to struggle for months or even years. The latter may not seem like a gift – but perhaps it is. Perhaps it is the way to salvation for that person and God knows this. And God may bring a holy person to an even deeper level of holiness by humbling them with an awareness of the limits to their ability to forgive.

    However it all works, I am convinced that God is at work for our good, even in the worst of tragedies, if we but glance in His direction.

  43. Justin Avatar

    Adam was the first to “bear a little shame.”

    He bore as much as he could, acknowledging his nakedness, shame, fear, and hiding:
    “I was naked so I hid.”
    But then he couldn’t bear the fullness of it, so proceeded to blame God and his wife:
    “This woman You made, she gave it to me and I ate.”

    The first Adam bore a little shame hiding in a tree, blaming his wife.
    The second Adam bore the fullness of shame exposed on the tree, saving his wife.

  44. Justin Avatar

    “Don’t forget the tea.”

    This reminder by Fr Stephen is vitally important. Here’s why.

    Tea (traditional tea, I mean) begins alive, then has a Fall and is dead. A sprig won’t grow. Dead and dried for months. Like us.

    But then the process of tea begins.

    First, the dead tea is BAPTIZED in living water (water which has been heated and/or in motion by the sun). Upon emerging from the water, the tea has returned to life, regaining it’s color, texture, shape, etc. (Some kinds will even begin to grow again if you plant the sprig).

    Second, the entire point of the baptism is to create a EUCHARIST in which the chalice is now filled with the body and blood of the dead-and-resurrected tea leaves.
    It is meant to be consumed. (With some kinds of tea you also eat the leaves).

    This is what Saint Sophrony (and Fr Stephen) mean when they say, “have a cup of tea” after bearing a little shame.


  45. Justin Avatar

    Morality and shame:

    The Publican is ashamed, the Pharisee is moral.
    The Prodigal Son is ashamed, the Elder Brother is moral.
    Paul the Apostle is ashamed, Saul the Pharisee was moral.
    The beggars invited to the banquet were ashamed, the ones making perfectly legitimate excuses to decline the invitation were moral.
    Judas was moral enough to return the money and hang himself; but he couldn’t bear the shame.
    Zachaeus, the woman with the jar of perfume, the woman caught in adultery, etc – all were ashamed. Their Pharisee counterparts had nothing to be ashamed of, they were moral enough to have done no wrong.

    “It is not the moral who need a doctor, but the shamed.”

  46. Byron Avatar

    I often wish we would think more about a difference between forgiveness and reconciliation. In the bible to forgive is to let go, like a debt that doesn’t need repayment. It’s unreasonable to suggest an automatic or full reconciliation in cases of ongoing abuse, for example, without a lot of truth first.

    Father, I remember you writing in one of your posts (or the comments) that forgiveness requires the reestablishment of relationship. You also pointed out that, in cases such as the one Janine points out here, there will need to be distance involved for reasons of safety.

    How do we reconcile with unrepentant, and often violent, enemies in view of the Cross? I can say, “pray for them and keep a safe distance” but somehow that does not always seem correct. I welcome everyone thoughts on this as it is a difficult thing to understand.

  47. Dean Avatar

    A verse that has helped me is Romans 12:18….”IF POSSIBLE, so far as it depends on you, be at peace with all men.” We may desire and strive and pray to be at peace with all people, but it’s not always possible. Sometimes, as you say, it may be for reasons of safety that we must maintain a physical distance from some. We can, hopefully with Christ’s help, eventually forgive someone even the greatest of hurt. However, reconciliation is not always possible (at times the person we need to forgive may have even died). I know it took me years to truly, from the heart, before God, to forgive someone. But I never reconciled with him because during this intervening time of long struggle to forgive, someone took his life. However, by God’s grace I can and do ask God to have mercy on him.

  48. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    It is also important in thinking about this to stay away from theoreticals. Theoretically, I can imagine anything, or I can imagine impossibilities, etc. Theoretically, all we have is imaginary experience. But grace is never imaginary, nor can it be imagined. So, something that we might imagine to be impossible might, by grace, be very possible.

    So, we focus on what is real and at hand. Is there someone I have difficulty forgiving? Why? What can I do? That’s enough. More than that leads us to speculations that become unhelpful and beside the point.

  49. Janine Avatar

    If I may, Byron, I would like to respond to your comment, also referring to something I believe Father Stephen has said above. Forgiveness can be a long process exactly like our full journey to Christ is. I think constant prayer will always bring to us unresolved relationships, and I have found at least in my own life, that God has brought me choices to help people who have hurt me. That forces me to think again about levels of truth within me. What I have found is that it is impossible to heal without truth; one cannot say something did not happen. Especially when dealing with the effects of long term repeated abuse, one has to acknowledge the truth of one’s own state that need healing. But at the same time, we know that all things are in God’s hands, and healing happens through grace, and for me, forgiveness is really “giving up” everything to God. So it’s not a one-time only or even one level only process, just like the rest of salvation is in Orthodox perspective. That makes sense in terms of the fullness of the journey to Christ throughout our lifetimes, doesn’t it?

    Father, I didn’t quite understand what you meant by morality. But I was wondering if you would comment on the process Jesus describes in Matthew 18:15-17 in light of this conversation on forgiveness.

  50. Byron Avatar

    Many thanks!

  51. Matt Avatar


    Related to Byron’s question, how do we go about forgiving those people we simply don’t have a meaningful, intelligible relationship with outside of the wrong? Someone who is nasty to you when you call them on a bad telemarketer job, or some random commuter who cuts you off, or the random teenager on the Team Fortress 2 (or whatever the kids are playing these days) public server who makes a triggering rape joke when they kill you, or someone who just bought the last box of green tea Kit Kats in the store that you had your eyes on yesterday but didn’t have the cash. How is a relationship restored when the other person hasn’t even a clue there was one to begin with?

  52. Byron Avatar

    Matt, I began to simply pray the Jesus Prayer, with a small addition to request blessing and safety to their destination, for people who incite me to a bit of road rage. I find this quickly redetermines how I view them as well as myself, regardless of the circumstances.

    Sometimes we can only hope to affect our “side” of the relationship (all people created in the Image of God are in relationship, whether we/they realize it or not) and must allow God to reach the other person. But it is important to recognize that the relationship exists and the prayer returns me to that realization. Just my thoughts.

  53. Nicholas Stephen Griswold Avatar
    Nicholas Stephen Griswold

    I think you hit upon a good beginning for dealing with the things that cause us to have the need to forgive. I have taken to the Jesus Prayer while driving and I have found that I have pretty much lost the urge to anger when someone is driving in an unsafe manner. I have found that instead of anger, I feel concern for the person and those he or she is driving with. This is not deliberate on my part, but it is certainly an outcome of praying first instead of driving all tensed up. Perhaps, I should learn from my experience and pray continuously, then perhaps I would never take offense. Hmm.

  54. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    As I’ve pointed out briefly in the article, the source of our pain in such instances is shame. If we can learn to “bear” it rather than hate it, forgiveness becomes much easier. The inner dynamic centers around being shamed. That said, it’s more or less the case that the relationship that is broken is within us and not external to us.

    How do we bear the shame? We name it, allow ourselves to feel it, and ask for God to comfort us – patiently letting Christ enter the wound. He will.

  55. Fr. Thomas Avatar
    Fr. Thomas

    The last five blog posts have been, for me, like looking at a collection of stars in the sky and realizing that, when taken together, they form a larger constellation. I am thankful for each star and the constellation.

    In the night sky of my life they help guide me on “The Way.”

    I am really grateful. God is Good.

  56. Vuk Uskoković Avatar
    Vuk Uskoković

    There is in the Acathistus to the Our Sweetest Lord Jesus Christ a beautiful and shattering contacium: Seeking to make manifest the secret hidden from the beginning, Thou wast brought as a lamb to the slaughter, and as a sheep before her shearers dumb, and Thou hast risen as God from the dead, and with glory ascended into Heaven, and with Thee us too hast uplifted who call to Thee: Hallelujah!

    God bless you, Father! Ad multos annos.

    Vuk Uskoković,

  57. Sam Avatar

    I’m with Monica, first commenter. Some time ago, I was at a much smaller parish and knew just about everyone. Forgiveness vespers in that setting was quite a beautiful time. I do not feel I have a problem forgiving or asking for forgiveness, but to go through this service in my current parish with 170 people, most of whom I do not know, is completely overwhelming to me. That level of physical intimacy with strangers is not ok.

  58. Ann K Avatar
    Ann K

    Father, I owe you a great debt of thanks. Something you said in one of your lectures posted to YouTube–a single sentence–instantly wiped away (through God’s grace) decades of pain, brought to the fore upon the death last week of the one who caused the pain.

    Also, I hope you will consider writing a book on the modern project, even if it’s simply a collection of your posts. A fresh look at Fr. Seraphim Rose’s “Nihilism” would also be of great benefit, and you would be an excellent choice to write it.

  59. Lindsey Avatar

    This article brought together a lot of things for me. Remembering to “bear of a little shame” makes fasting, almsgiving, vigils, etc. make so much more sense. The goal is not some noble sacrifice, but to peal away those things that hide our shame, our weakness, and our vulnerability so that we can meet Christ there. Looking forward to Forgiveness Vespers now!
    I am thankful as well that you brought up the difference between “shame- and guilt-” based cultures, though that is a bit peripheral to your point. How to deal with a shame-based culture has confounded me for some time, especially since spending several months in the Middle East. Sometimes I try to figure out which is the “better” way of doing things, though neither really seems to be better than the other. Both can be warped. However, so many aspects our Western and guilt-based culture seem to be the product of our post-Great Schism history (as far as I can tell). The honor/shame culture seems to be a more ancient way. I wonder if you could comment a little more on the difference between the shame you’re speaking about in this article and shame-based cultures, Father. A shame-based culture doesn’t guarantee that you’ll bear it well, off course. Hence honor killings, I suppose.

  60. Matt Avatar

    Thank you Father. It seems obvious in retrospect but I am getting much cognitive resistance, which is probably directly related to what you are talking about.

  61. Carolann Avatar

    God forgives all. Forgive me

  62. Janine Avatar

    I was writing a blog post on Mark chapter 8. Peter confesses that Jesus is Christ, and Jesus tells the disciples of His Passion, death, and Resurrection. He teaches them they must take up their own crosses. He says, “For whoever desires to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for My sake and the gospel’s will save it. For what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world, and loses his own soul? Or what will a man give in exchange for his soul? For whoever is ashamed of Me and My words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of him the Son of Man also will be ashamed when He comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.”

    It never struck me before that Jesus is asking us all to risk shame rather than our souls. He will become scandal. In a way I think this is a teaching that we will all somehow suffer shame in following Him, and this must be something we are prepared to bear for the sake of following the Gospel. That sort of paradox of “shame that cleanses shame” discussed above makes more sense in light of His call here.

  63. Byron Avatar

    I do not feel I have a problem forgiving or asking for forgiveness, but to go through this service in my current parish with 170 people, most of whom I do not know, is completely overwhelming to me. That level of physical intimacy with strangers is not ok.

    Sam, if you suffer from the same issue as Monica, then Father’s advice to her should suffice.

    If you are simply overwhelmed by “physical intimacy with strangers” then I think it would be good to begin to expand your circle of friends in your parish, little by little, as you are able. A level of love and acceptance that allows that intimacy with strangers (bearing, in grace, any suffering or discomfort that comes with it) seems a Saintly thing to me. It is very difficult to acknowledge our debt of forgiveness to those we “don’t know”–almost as difficult as it is to pray for and ask forgiveness of our enemies. God bless us as we pray. Just my thoughts.

  64. Janine Avatar

    One more note: Wondering how God’s question, “Who told you that you were naked?” fits into this. Possibly the shame we need to undo? Sorry if I am asking about things already explained which I haven’t seen.

  65. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    I hear it as God shifting the conversation from shame (which is not something He does to us) to guilt (which is about what we did). He immediately asks about what Adam has done (guilt).

    Shame is Hades, death, destruction, since it is about “who” we are. Anything other than the truth of who we are is ultimately a lie and has no existence – it is death and seeks to draw us into it. But, like Christ, we can enter such death voluntarily and then trample it under foot.

  66. Agata Avatar


    I really love your reply to Sam. I wanted to say something similar, but did not know how to phrase it well. I think it is actually very possible to grow close (enough) to that many people, especially if they are in your parish and we live the parish life together.

    Over the years, I have grown close to many more people in my parish than I ever expected to. I seem to now have friends among the elderly, as well as among people my age (middle age), all the way to new young parents and even kids… It really “enlarges” our heart when we make that effort.

    Plus, for the upcoming Forgiveness Sunday, I was going to offer a suggestion to focus less on ourselves (our discomfort and awkwardness) and more on the person in front of us… It makes a huge difference…

    I ask forgiveness of all of you here (Fr. Stephen especially!), and offer my heartfelt gratitude for your influence on my life.

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