Shame and the Modern Identity

It is a common definition that the emotion of shame is about “who I am.” It centers in feelings of exposure, unworthiness, and damaged identity. Guilt, they say, is about “what I have done.” There are ways to deal with guilt – but shame, if it is actually a matter of “who I am,” runs deep. It is little wonder that the wounds of shame can be toxic. Self-loathing and related pain can so cripple an individual that life becomes nearly impossible. The answer to the question, “Who am I,” is not just important, it is primary.

A difficult aspect of our identity is that it is not always stable. We are not born into the world with a strong identity. We are helpless, unable to fend for ourselves. Our sense of well-being and comfort utterly depends on those around us. If parents neglect a child, what is internalized is not a sense of “I have lousy parents.” Rather, if the child survives, what is felt is, “I wasn’t worth the bother.” A deep internal shame will make life difficult and will manifest itself in a wide variety of damaged forms.

One of the pernicious notions of individualism is its failure to understand that health and well-being are at least as social as they are personal. There are forms of mental illness that are biological in origin. However, the bulk of the things that poison our lives flow out of the failures within our social experience. Chief among those failures are the injuries caused by the experience of shame.

Shame is not inherently bad (though that thought is certainly out there). The neurobiological basis of shame is hard-wired and is as necessary to our well-being as hunger, hearing, sight, anger, etc. It is only when that hard-wired neurobiological response becomes enmeshed in painful scenes that the paralyzing emotion of shame is created. At its core, the hard-wired reaction revolves around disappointed expectations – the experience of “no.” However, that very experience is essential for the formation of boundaries, and boundaries are essential for the formation of identity – including (particularly) healthy identity. The lack of boundaries has a name, “narcissism,” and it is painful and destructive to everyone around it.

But the very mechanism that is essential to the recognition of boundaries is also the mechanism that is at work in creating shame (in all its varieties). We could say that toxic shame, or damaging shame, is the abuse of something that is essential and necessary. That is a useful understanding, and points to just how tricky the acquisition and formation of identity is. It is a razor’s edge and pretty much no one survives the years of its acquisition without a legacy of unwanted shame. The years following that acquisition can often be occupied with the patient work of cleaning up the unwanted bits that shadow our existence. Adults gradually gain a sense of their identity, but very few feel entirely secure about it. “Who am I” can be a haunting question, for example, for someone going through a divorce or a loss of employment. When the props that we have gathered in the establishment of an identity are removed, it’s easy to fall apart.

Identity is worth considering from a theological angle. For though human beings are understood to be created in the image and likeness of God, and to be unique and of infinite worth, “who we are” is not at all clear in our earliest years (and even later). For the Scriptures, identity is often coterminous with naming. Abraham begins his life as “Abram,” his wife Sarah, as “Sarai.” The change in their names represents a revealing and unfolding of an identity that they did not know or understand until coming into contact with God. Jacob becomes “Israel” after wrestling with an angel. The New Testament continues this pattern. Simon is renamed “Peter” by Christ. Saul is “Paul,” etc. And much more than that, the Book of Revelation has this:

To the one who conquers I will give some of othe hidden manna, and I will give him a white stone, with a new name written on the stone that no one knows except the one who receives it.’ (Rev. 2:17)

In my mind, it is similar to St. John’s statement in his first epistle:

Beloved, we are God’s children now, and what we will be has not yet appeared; but we know that when He appears we shall be like Him, because we shall see Him as He is. (1 Jn. 3:2)

In both cases, “who we are” (the name), is something eschatological, something that belongs to the age to come. Who we are is not based on who we were, but on who we shall be. Identity is a movement towards something that we ourselves do not yet know.

Our culture has largely turned this on its head. We locate our identity somewhere in our youth and erect a cult of adoration around it. We worship being young. Tragically, this is the one demographic in the culture in which identity is the least formed and the most likely to be over-burdened with unhealthy shame. Youth cannot have wisdom for it lacks both experience and the judgment born of experience.

Of course, identity as an eschatological reality cannot be marketed. The fleeting disguises that pass for the identities of the young, on the other hand, are almost entirely the product of marketing. We do not so much have an identity as we acquire a brand. The identity marketed by our culture has a violent aspect. We “make our mark” on the world. We demand recognition for our latest imaginings. We even take up the grievances and wounds of history and wear them as an armor of entitlement. The rise of identity politics is particularly aimed at the young, and often surrounded by anger, a sure symptom of a shame-driven reality.

This understanding reveals the emptiness (and pure modernity) of Christian belonging when it is treated as a phenomenon of identity. Such a move reduces the irreducible eschatological reality to nothing more than another worldly brand. Ideological identity arguments (“Orthodoxy is better,” “Catholic is better,” “Reform is better,” etc.) are spiritual nonsense, for the simple reason that no one who boasts of their Christian identity has actually acquired it. And, of course, had that true identity been acquired, there would be no need to speak of it.

Simply put, any Christianity that is not directed towards the eschaton (the end of all things) fails to understand the gospel of Christ. The Kingdom of God is “that which comes” (“Thy Kingdom come”). What we shall be is that which is being revealed. Even Tradition cannot properly be located within history. Vladimir Lossky rightly describes Tradition as the living presence of the Spirit in the Church. That which is true in an early century remains true in a later century, not because of history but because it is made known by one and same Spirit. “Tradition” does not describe something “old,” but something that is “received” or “handed down.” It is not handed down from the past, but from God. The continuity within Tradition exists because God gives to us what He has always given to the Church. This also explains why Christianity (and Orthodox Christianity in particular) is apocalyptic in character – it is always a matter of “that which is to come” being revealed, made known, or uncovered, in our midst.

Interestingly, this spiritual formation is not shaped in the context or experience of shame. It is a gift, a revelation of something which is complete. In that true identity we stand before the judgment seat of Christ (the End of things) “without shame or fear.” In the course of our spiritual life, we learn to “bear a little shame,” in that we come to see who we are in our weakness and sinfulness, and, without anger or sadness, sit with it in God’s presence. This is the very heart of humility.

It is in this humility that we are able to receive that which is given – our new name – the truth of our existence as it is hidden in Christ. Glory to God!

About Fr. Stephen Freeman

Fr. Stephen is a retired Archpriest of the Orthodox Church in America, Pastor Emeritus of St. Anne Orthodox Church in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. He is also author of Everywhere Present: Christianity in a One-Storey Universe, and Face to Face: Knowing God Beyond Our Shame, as well as the Glory to God podcast series on Ancient Faith Radio.


64 responses to “Shame and the Modern Identity”

  1. Drewster2000 Avatar

    I’ve been thinking about infrastructure in North America and why it seems so…soulless. I believe your article touches on this. You can whip up big box stores anywhere, but if they don’t have a name, an identity, then they might make up a body but they have no life in them – and therefore it is no great tragedy when the mall dies.

    In like manner when we treat people as nameless, we take away or at least ignore their personhood. I think any version of doomed society is one in which people are not appropriately acknowledged. Make them the center of the universe (individualism) and we see the world collapse. Make them nameless and we see humanity fade away – until one breaks away from the crowd and demands to be known.

    One of the biggest signs of the fallen world is that we are forgetting our names, who we are – let alone who we were created to be.

  2. Byron Avatar

    Good to see you again, Drewster!

    A lot to chew on, Father. Thank you for this.

  3. Jacob Pederson Avatar
    Jacob Pederson

    It was very healing to hear that one’s identity is a thing to be given in the end of all things and that petty spiritual branding has no place in the Christian Life. I’ve also got to hand it to you-you know how to “de-weaponize” compassion (of the identity politics brand) without sacrificing an ounce of it. As someone with a fair share of youth shame and doubt about the goodness of God to boot (though I’m practicing Oriental Orthodoxy, hope that isn’t an issue here), you consistently provide a glimmer of hope in some sad, angry corners of my life I’m working through. Keep up the great work, Fr. Freeman!

  4. Barbara Levich Avatar
    Barbara Levich

    If you ask God who you are, he has a one word answer, MINE. ~ Jordan Lee Dooley

  5. Dean Avatar

    “Fear not, for I have redeemed thee, I have called thee by thy name, thou art mine.” Isaiah 43, God speaking to Israel. And as St. Paul says in Gal., we are now the Israel of God. Also, Jacob, you are so welcome here. I have some close Coptic friends. Makes me think of the brave 21 martyred Copts. They were certainly not ashamed of their Lord and God. A bishop says that “Jesus” was the last word on their lips.

  6. Allen Long Avatar
    Allen Long

    Thank you, Fr. Stephen,
    I needed these words today: “Who we are is not based on who we were, but on who we shall be.”

  7. Paula AZ Avatar
    Paula AZ

    You strive to make a point about identity by emphasizing the eschatological aspect. Who we are will be revealed when we see Christ. I understand that, in a way that I trust it is true. St Paul says the mortal will become immortal. What this will look like, or be like, I haven’t a clue.
    So when we identify ourselves now in this life as, say, a father, mother, friend, priest, Christian (this especially), butcher, baker, etc. aren’t we those things? We are, but they are not really who we are? If not, then who are we now? How would we self identify? Is it not in our relationships?
    Would you help penetrate this concrete wall I have in my thinking?!

  8. Dodee Avatar

    Fr Stephen, So wish I could sit and talk with you about this (and so much more). Our psychological health gets beaten up and for some, shame ‘owns’ us. It is an affliction. One ‘knows’ we can’t be lovable and this is the source of despair. I have been reading a little of Brene Brown who has some creditionals on this area from a psychological perspective. I am grateful for this blog article. You get it and this is consoling.

  9. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Yes and no. Our relationships (communion) with others is certainly a part of “who we are,” though, even that part is something yet to be fully revealed. If those things are good, we cling to them. If they are toxic – we want to know how to get rid of them.

    In truth, who we are is only fully revealed at the End of all things (i.e. in Christ). But, in knowing Christ now, in all that we truly know Him, we also know ourselves. That suggests that we do not know Him very well – and that is true. There is so much that stands between us (on our side).

    I’ll reflect a minute as a 66 year-old man. My relationship with my parents is/was very primary in my life – and it had lots and lots of broken pieces. Indeed, those pieces were also intertwined in some of the deepest shame in my life. That said, they have both been gone for some years (10 and 8). The “relationship” has changed. They are very much with me – part of my “now” – something that is revealed when I pray. Slowly, as some knots in my life have been unraveled, I’ve come to see them more clearly – I’ve come to see them “in me” more clearly. That has carried lots of forgiveness (in one direction) and repentance (in the other). When I think of them, I believe that I will see them again, and there will be a resemblance (if you will) – I will recognize them – but they will not be the broken, hurting persons that I once knew – but will shine with the glory of God.

    It’s not time, yet, but I can occasionally get hints of that Day.

    Too often, what we mean by our relationships and their value to us is something incomplete, broken, selfish, etc. Indeed, the more broken something is, the more it clings to us.

    In that Day, everything will be revealed. “And we shall be like Him, for we shall see Him as He is.”

  10. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    A couple of my adult daughters are great fans of Brene Brown. Brown admits that she’s thought mostly about shame in terms of women – (not exclusively). There’s lots and lots of material out there – mostly from secular/psychological points of view. But I generally prefer to read that stuff and then process it theologically for myself. What little popular Christian material I’ve seen tends towards “answers” that are more like bumper stickers (which is what too many people want). Healing from toxic shame is long, hard work, and I recommend doing it with a therapist on the one hand, and a spiritual father (priest/confessor) on the other – if he is wise. But it’s ok to go slow. The best prayer that I’ve found is, “O God, comfort me.” That prayer was given to me by Fr. Zacharias of Essex.

    In terms of identity – I would say to us all – accept no substitutes. Don’t try to take short-cuts to eternity.

  11. Dodee Avatar

    😭Thank you.

  12. Paula AZ Avatar
    Paula AZ

    Thank you Father. Thanks so much. I see your point more clearly now.
    I appreciate you sharing your thoughts about your parents, broken pieces and the shame, you have slowly begun to see them in yourself which led to forgiveness and repentance. Those are good words Father. I hope for that before I die.
    I also appreciate you bringing out that our relationships, as loving they may be, are indeed, deep down, for the satisfaction of ‘the self’. Hard to admit that.
    “the more broken something is, the more it clings to us”…this is something to remember…Lord have mercy…
    I pray for His mercy as I look forward to that Day, Father.

  13. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    I still find great comfort in reading Lewis’ The Great Divorce.

  14. Paula AZ Avatar
    Paula AZ

    Yes it is comforting, Father…like the part where the lizard (I think of our lizard brain) transforms into a beautiful stallion! C S Lewis…what an amazing mind!

  15. Nicole from VA Avatar
    Nicole from VA

    Father, thank you for sharing your reflections on your parents. My dad passed away last week and I will have to face his Hindu cremation ceremony as well as my mother this weekend. His name is Ramesh. Her name is Camelia. Please pray for us.

    My dad was born in Pakistan before it was Pakistan. I met a Muslim woman from Lahore (where he was born) at the park last year. She spoke little English but we smiled and chatted and we definitely looked like sisters. Our children played so happily together.

    I am hopeful that God will allow our family to live happily in Heaven though it has only rarely been that way on Earth. I hope that somehow my Baptism extends to him as well.

    Recently I read the books “Changes that Heal” and “Boundaries.” I thought both were excellent and cover themes in a way relevant for priests to potentially use in their pastoral work. They give a strong sense that God is not looking at us in how we fail but working for our healing and peace.

  16. Fr. Steven Clark Avatar
    Fr. Steven Clark

    Fr. Stephen,
    A very good article. Thank you.
    I invite you to reconsider the metaphor “hard-wired”. It is not a helpful metaphor to describe what goes on in our brains and bodies. We are not computers. We are both more efficient and less efficient than them. We do not do a complicated series of binary operations; we do a much more complicated cluster of non-binary operations.
    Fr. Steven Clark

  17. mary benton Avatar
    mary benton

    Hi Fr. Stephen,
    Wonderful article. However, I was a bit puzzled/intrigued by your defining a lack of boundaries as narcissism. I have never conceptualized it that way and would appreciate if you could elaborate.

    Paula AZ,
    Regarding your comment about seeing our identity in relationship: what I notice in talking to a great many people is that if there if no rooting in the eternal (i.e. God), there is a major crisis when something happens to these identifying features of “who I am”, i.e. they fail to develop or are taken away. Naturally such times can be hard on us all but for some, a relatively benign experience like retirement leaves the unmoored person with no sense of who they are or what their life means. While word labels about what I do may be useful in making conversation, they do not get at the essence of who I am or who I was created to be. What I do, e.g. “I am a psychologist”, may be a temporary vehicle for expressing who God made me to be but, at best, it is temporary and will eventually need to be forfeited. Who I am in Christ (Who is “I AM”) will only reach its fullness in eternity. It is then that my little “i am” is completely united to the holy and infinite “I AM”. Now we get glimpses and prepare ourselves as best we can but the end reality is pure gift.

    Or such are the thoughts swimming around in my addled mind.

  18. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Fr. Steven,
    You are reading much more into the metaphor than the metaphor contains. “hard-wired” is a common expression to describe something that is fixed and settled. The neurobiological mechanism known as the “shame affect” (which is prior to the emotional experience of shame) is in-born. It does not develop. It’s like hunger, anger, etc. It’s just part of our body.

    To say that it is “hard-wired” is not, by any means, to invoke the image of a computer – much less binary operations. I do not ever use computer metaphors for the human brain (I’ve written against them). So. Thanks for the thoughts. If I thought of a better image that says what I want, I’d use it. But metaphors are just that – metaphors.

  19. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    I find it helpful to always remember Christ on the Cross when I think of what God is or is not doing.

  20. Christopher Avatar

    Fr. Steven Clark,

    The specious idea that ‘brains are computers’ is now so common that it can be said to be “hard-wired” into our secular culture and self understanding 😉

    That said, “hard-wired” (the idea – I have no idea about the phrase) pre dates computing machines and their algorithmic character not only as electrical circuits/pathways, but all the way back to the Greco-Roman world and its various philosophies such as Epicurious. At the level of biology, and even emotion/instinct, there is much that is casual in a simple way that is captured IMO quite well by “hard-wired”.

  21. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    I have in mind the fact that everything in the world is about the narcissist. Everything exists for them. As such, there is no “no” within them. No boundaries. Additionally, the biggest issue most people have with narcissists in their lives is setting boundaries and keeping the narcissist out of where they do not belong. Forgive me, but there’s tons of stuff on this out there. I don’t think it’s obscure.

  22. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Christopher, Fr. Steven,
    Thanks Christopher. My experience as a writer/speaker, etc. is that if you stare at a metaphor too long, you’ll never say anything. So, when you do use one, then you have to expand and elaborate. A metaphor is a spring-board to something else.

    But, Fr. Steven, it seems like you have a bone to pick about the brain/computer thing. I get that. But this is not that.

  23. Paula AZ Avatar
    Paula AZ

    Mary…thank you much for your helpful response to my question.

  24. Jane Avatar

    But of course a person may lack boundaries without being a narcissist or narcissistic.

    Jane (fuzzy on boundaries, fuzzy on life, not a narcissist)

  25. mary benton Avatar
    mary benton

    Fr. Stephen,

    If I might clarify the basis of my question… with a metaphor, knowing the limits of metaphors…

    When I talk to patients about boundaries, I sometimes use the metaphor of a house. A person with no boundaries (or very porous boundaries) is like the person who leaves all of the doors and windows of their house unlocked. Anyone can gain entrance without constraint and can even move in and take over the house. No limits are set. Learning more healthy boundaries involves having doors and windows that are sometimes closed and locked and knowing when and to whom to open them. Often people with such a limited ability to set boundaries become the object of abuse by individuals with toxic levels of narcissism and entitlement. The narcissist is not a respecter of other people’s boundaries and is often drawn to people who do not have firm boundaries for this reason. They can demand what they want and the other will always provide it, often at considerable expense to their own well-being.

    My experience with people who are pathologically narcissistic (a specification made because some narcissism can be normal and even healthy) is that they often have a “house” where not only are the windows and doors closed and locked but they have high fences, even brick walls limiting how much others can access them. Very often they are very insecure at their core but they do not allow others to truly get close to them and know them as they may discover this. Hence, they build a psychological fortress that gives the impression of power and invincibility. Vulnerable people are often drawn to them because they tend to be charming and project an image of being strong, protective and confident. It is only a matter of time before the other recognizes that the narcissist has only their own interests at heart and that they never really “knew” the person they thought would protect them, i.e. they never got inside the fortress to experience true emotional intimacy.

    Of course, all personality traits and styles of coping exist on a continuum. Terms like “boundaries” and “narcissism” are used to help people conceptualize such things about themselves and others, whether informally or professionally. Generally, being at either extreme of the continuum is going to be less healthy.

    I know that the focus of your article is not about the finer points of psychology. And it may seem “narcissistic” of me to point these out as if I think I know more than you (God forbid). But I think there can be some valuable discussion on what constitutes a healthy “self-love” that can simultaneously cultivate humility. And to also recognize that severe or abusive shaming can actual contribute to pathological narcissism. While we may need to protect ourselves from highly narcissistic individuals, we should always pray for them. They are often wounded people who cannot bear to reflect on their own pain – and thus are less likely to seek therapy – muchless redemption. (They have convinced themselves of their own superiority so they think they do not need it. How very sad.)

    Please forgive me and correct me if my reflections have gone too far afield.

  26. Maria Avatar

    Maybe the confusion is in focusing on one of the two different aspects of narcissism: maintaining extreme personal boundaries for keeping others out (high walls and impenetrability that seem to me, at least in the case of a covert narcissist, linked to a deep toxic shame) but simultaneously disregarding boundaries of others (no respect of or for the other). If I understand correctly, narcissists have boundaries, strong boundaries, but they don’t recognize the boundaries of others.

  27. Maria Avatar

    And maybe some don’t have strong or any inner boundaries, which is why they are so strongly on the offensive—“a good offense is a good defense” (still seems linked to toxic shame as well to me, but I’m familiar with the covert narcissist which maybe is different from other narcissistic personalities). An offensive defense doesn’t always work…so this person can be like the line in a U2 song: “I’m a vampire or a victim; it depends on who’s around.”

  28. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    I see what you are saying and can clear up a misunderstanding. Boundaries work in two ways. I think of them as a wall that says, “No.” But it depends on which side of the wall you’re standing on. If it is my boundary – I am the one saying “no” – you may not cross that boundary into my space. If I am on the other side of the boundary, in a healthy manner, I should respect that “no.” Many people have a hard time saying “no” when they need to – for the variety of reasons you, no doubt, understand.

    For the narcissist, there is no recognition of the boundaries of others – “no boundaries” in that sense. There is an impregnable wall that hides their core – possibly even from themselves. Some even suggest that they have no core (I don’t think this to be the case). I do not think of that as a boundary. It is a false wall, likely created by deep, overwhelming shame that they dare not enter.

    It’s interesting, but in the many who have difficulty setting boundaries – saying “no” to others – shame is often a factor. The unresolved shame and sense of broken communion makes them afraid to say “no”, or creates insecurity when they attempt it. I live in this latter group.

  29. Xenia Avatar

    I have been listening to Fr. Seraphim Aldea a lot lately and he made a comment that I wish he would have elaborated on. He said that God is the only one who can say, “I am who I am.” We will not become our own “I am” until after the resurrection. When God says “I am who I am” He is stating that He is eternal and unchanging. We, however, are mortal and constantly changing if we are growing, particularly growing in our faith and likeness to God. The Holy Spirit was given in order to change us. I often read on Facebook someone saying, “I am sarcastic, opinionated, ……(fill in the blank). I always have been and always will be so deal with it.” This, in my opinion goes against 2,000 years of Christianity. Hopefully, we are changing each and every day. This is one reason why I love the Orthodox way of getting new names – upon Chrismation, if you are ordained, if you become a monk or nun, etc. Each new name recognizes a new being. Maybe instead of identifying ourselves as “I am ……”, we should say, “I will be…..”!

  30. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Those are useful thoughts. Much of what people imagine to be themselves is nothing more than false images drawn from outside of us (a bit here, a bit there). We assemble these things and live in them like the poor sheltering in poorly cobbled cardboard boxes. Who I am is “hid with Christ in God,” and we only know it as it is revealed to us.

    Your pointing to the names given at Baptism, tonsuring, etc., is spot on – and an indication of what is taking place at the deepest level.

  31. Matthew Lyon Avatar
    Matthew Lyon

    Fr. Freeman,

    You nailed it with, “who we are (the name), is something eschatological, something that belongs to the age to come. Who we are is not based on who we were, but on who we shall be..”

    I would have to say though, that while we don’t pride ourselves on being Orthodox – this is what distinguishes Orthodoxy from other Christian anthropologies (among other crucial distinctions). In Evangelical and Reformed theology (and by the way, no disrespect – but it is Reformed, not Reform) who you are is based on Imputed Righteousness. Really it is based on your initial identity as Depraved, then as loved (originally the proof of this was that if you had faith it showed you were Chosen – so your Election is love), then on the fact that God has meticulously ordained all that comes to pass for your good since you are Chosen – I could go on, but your identity as united to Christ – which sounds right, union with Christ – really means united to the Christ who was perfect on your behalf morally because you never could be – and sticks that righteousness in the bank account of your soul and who forgives your sins by being crushed under the weight of them on the Cross at the hand of His Father.

    There is no eschatalogical identity in Classical Protestantism that is all that meaningul. You will be free from sin, corruption, death – but as it relates to who you already are – you already are that person. The eschatalogocial vision of human identity in Orthodoxy without Total Depravity makes all the difference. Our identity is in union with Christ, but Protestants to me, love God for all the wrong reasons. They have some analogical touchpoints with Christ’s real work so we have some common ground.

    But we are to rule and reign with Christ, we are to become gods by grace, we are to join the Divine Council with the Saints and the blessed Theotokos. And more. This is not possible logically when Total Depravity is the cornerstone of your theology.

    Obviously in my posts with you and others I’m trying to get a point across that the whole Ancestral/Original Sin is at the heart of all of these issues with which we are rightly burdened. Why should you have to explain that identity is eschatalogical, why is that a revelation – and it is, when it is clear in Scripture? It is because of Catholic and Protestant antropology. I’m not mad at them and I don’t blame them, but that’s how it is.

    Revelation 22:4 They will see his face, and his name will be on their foreheads.

    That is eschatalogical identity!

    God bless you,

  32. Paula AZ Avatar
    Paula AZ

    This conversation hits to the core.
    I is becoming more clear why you say, Father, that we will be who we are when we see Him. It is even more clear why some of us hope and pray for salvation for all. None of us are who we think we are…but Christ knows. Only Him. He does not punish. He does not condemn the broken reeds…differing in the degree of brokenness but nonetheless encompasses all of us. Even as we cover up our shame (mostly, I think, unconsciously) in so many ways.
    We are not the mess that causes our pain. So complicated it is.
    Mary, thank you for explaining the boundaries. You put things into words in a way that pierces my soul.
    Maria, you say well. the “offensive defense…I am a vampire or a victim…”. Anger, rage, either way.
    Father, for always pointing us to the Cross, as you did with Nicole. (God be with you and your family, Nicole)
    I can also see why you say we do not “change for the better” or we do not “grow up into the heights” (most don’t). I think we only become more aware that we are utterly incapable of “changing for the better”, which seems to be the path to humility. I also understand why the Pharisee in the temple looking down upon the sinners as he thanks God he is not like them, creates more torment for himself than one who turns to God, knowing his sin and helplessness, begs for mercy, and receives forgiveness. This seems to be the painful path to humility.
    Sometimes our lives, and these realizations place us right in the midst of Gethemene. It is for good reason it is called a Garden.
    Lastly, it seems that women are an easy target, more prone to abuse, because we naturally look for protection. Coupled with shame, we can be such an easy prey.
    Right now I can only gaze at the icon, the harrowing of Hades, where Christ is pulling Eve and Adam out of the pit. This was the very first icon I purchased.
    Well, thank you all so very much. My brain gets jumbled these days and you have lent a great deal of clarity.
    Father Stephen…I am eternally grateful to your devotion. May God ever bless you.

  33. Janine Avatar

    It seems to me the most startling, shocking thing that informs us about our identity is the Incarnation. God emptied God to be one of us. Now we seek to live our lives in Christ. It is just staggering. How does one fill those shoes in return and communion? It assigns us incalculable goodness, worth. The only thing that remotely touches shame, it seems to me, is the extent to which this matters to us or not. Probably I will never really understand it.

  34. Paula AZ Avatar
    Paula AZ

    Indeed Janine. Indeed.

  35. Jeremias Avatar

    I was listening to your conversation with Jonathan Pageau this morning and then I read this post, and I’m wondering if you’ve every written on Lewis’s Till We Have Faces, esp. in connection of your latest book project: Orual’s shame over her ugliness, Psyche’s shame at being mortal, the donning of a veil as the beginning of a revelation of identity, and the identity as a becoming of Psyche (a true soul) with a true face and a true beauty. Lots to explore there, and I would love to hear your thoughts on it.

    “I saw well why the gods do not speak to us openly, nor let us answer. Till that word can be dug out of us, why should they hear the babble that we think we mean? How can they meet us face to face till we have faces?”

    There are some interesting reflections from Fr. Andrew Williams on Masks and Veils, which briefly touch on that text too:

  36. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    It’s been years since I read Till We Have Faces. It would bear re-reading.

  37. Virginia Mejail Avatar
    Virginia Mejail

    i thought it an enlightening and very good thought, thank you for stating so well the process of being marketed
    “We do not so much have an identity as we acquire a brand. The identity marketed by our culture has a violent aspect. We “make our mark” on the world. We demand recognition for our latest imaginings. We even take up the grievances and wounds of history and wear them as an armor of entitlement” .
    thank you

  38. juliania Avatar

    ” …one who turns to God, knowing his sin and helplessness, begs for mercy, and receives forgiveness. This seems to be the painful path to humility.
    Sometimes our lives, and these realizations place us right in the midst of Gethsemene. It is for good reason it is called a Garden…”

    I’ve had difficulty with the term ‘shame’ and its ‘hard-wired biological presence, Father Stephen; so I am wondering if or how it relates to Paula’s description here of humility. (And she may already know that in the exapostalarion of the Feast of the Dormition, the Theotokos asks of the disciples that she be buried in Gethsemane.) To me, that humility, related to ‘humus’ in our language, is most demonstrated by us when we kneel or even prostrate ourselves: we are that. Earth is what we are made of. And she, the most accessible of all those who stand in the presence of God, kept in that hymn her relationship and concern for us all, while asking her Beloved Son to take her soul.

    I find this difficult to understand in terms of shame, but I can understand it in terms of Christ’s own emptying of Himself into human flesh. And there is a great mystery in how that human/divine process becomes a final eschatalogical transformation. I won’t attempt to describe it; it simply blows my mind.

    Thank you for treating of it here.

  39. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Shame is not the cause of humility – but humility can involve “bearing a little shame,” meaning, putting up with being less than we imagine, etc. “If you can bear serenely the trial of being displeasing to yourself, you will be a place of refuge for Jesus.”

  40. Janine Avatar

    Father Stephen,
    The sense in which I think you speak of shame, in your comment just above, is a mature sense (which I suppose is possible with understanding at nearly any age, surprisingly, or it may evade us for a lifetime). As I “hear” you, it is a sense in which we bear shame even for Christ’s sake, we take up our crosses. There are all kinds of ways the world will seek to foist shame upon us, as they did to Christ on the Cross. Of course, that shame also occurs when we fall on our faces, do something wrong or stupid, make a huge goof — but still, there is Christ who assures us when the world condemns. It is with us when we sin or hurt others, a true error or misstep. But it’s why, how, and what for that counts. Is this what you think is correct?

  41. Anonymous Avatar

    In light of your comment on humility, I came across this beautiful quote from Metropolitan Anthony Bloom:

    “The word ‘humility’ comes from the Latin word ‘humus’ which means fertile ground… Humility is the situation of the earth. The earth is always there, always taken for granted, never remembered, always trodden on by everyone, somewhere we cast and pour out all the refuse, all we don’t need. It’s there, silent and accepting everything and in a miraculous way making out of all the refuse new richness in spite of corruption, transforming corruption itself into a power of life and a new possibility of creativeness, open to the sunshine, open to the rain, ready to receive any seed we sow and capable of bringing thirtyfold, sixtyfold, a hundredfold out of every seed…Lord may my life become like the dirt and soil of the earth; an ordinary, unobstructive place where the pain and poison of this broken world silently fall, are absorbed, and miraculously transformed into new life”

    – Metropolitan Anthony Bloom, “Beginning to Pray”

  42. Janine Avatar

    Thanks for that, Anonymous

  43. Paula AZ Avatar
    Paula AZ

    I had a similar thought as you when I read the word “serenely”. Serenity is like a dream to me. I even guffawed in shame at the word.
    I understand Father’s point. I think it is a familiar (Orthodox) way of speaking of the ‘ultimate’ state of being, so to speak, where one is unhampered from the ills of life. This is what we would like to move toward.

    Surely we have had calm, peaceful. tranquil, moments. Though I think they are fleeting.
    Shame on the other hand is not. It remains. It is nasty too. And, as Father reminds us, it is not who we are.
    I don’t know if it is ever completely worked through in a lifetime. While all the prayers and devotions and liturgies and trust and therapy, and…..while all such things are life-saving, and not to be done without, the shame remains. In time, God willing, the troubling (tormenting) thoughts ease somewhat and you come to accept these things (which for me is another way of saying ‘you humble yourself’), as God knows …. it all is for our salvation.

  44. Paula AZ Avatar
    Paula AZ

    Father, you have written many articles on shame. They are all most helpful.
    I found a recent one that speaks of Christ in the light of the shame He endured…for us. It is a great article.

  45. Janine Avatar

    Thanks, Paula

  46. Anonymous Avatar

    Forgive me for posting again, but I came across something beautiful this morning, expounding on my previous comment in my thoughts…

    “The whole Earth is a living icon of the face of God!”
    ~St. John of Damascus 8th century

  47. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    It is a beautiful thought. Unfortunately, it is not a quote from St. John of Damascus. It was coined recently and falsely attributed to him. It’s making the rounds of the internet (even “quoted” by a major Orthodox program). I make the comment only to prevent its attribution from continuing yet more.

  48. Anonymous Avatar

    Thank you for this important clarification, Father. I saw the quote on a picture of an outdoor Orthodox shrine on a blog post. Yes, the thought still makes me ponder with wonder, though.

  49. Janine Avatar

    This conversation sparked what might be a silly memory. When I was about four, I made what I think was my first moral choice. The big kids (the oldest was 12) decided on a challenge to have a race around the block. Us little kids couldn’t keep up, and stopped on the curb along the way. I seem to recall my brother lost his shoe in a drain, but we fished it out. Running the last leg past my house, I realized that, contrary to all my expectations, I could cross the finish line. Glory and approval from those huge big kids awaited. But then my brother started crying. Even younger than I, his lungs hurt. So I took him home. I tend to think it was the first time I bore a little shame (as a quitter who couldn’t finish the race) for a good reason. Not that my brother ever appreciated it, Ha!

  50. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Great story. What a good sister! On his behalf, I give you thanks!

  51. Janine Avatar

    LOL thank you so much Father 🙂

  52. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Yes. I’ve been having several private conversations recently, including with a retired Bishop, about several quotes that have gone “viral,” all of which are actually quite dubious. One of the most famous (I’ve used it any number of times) is, “Concepts create idols, only wonder understands anything,” attributed to St. Gregory of Nyssa. Several of us looked at the Greek passage cited for the quote and could not, for the life of us, make it say what is stated. You could say, that based on what is in the passage would agree with the quote – but it never actually said it.

    When I first saw the “face of God” quote, I was suspicious, simply because it sounded “modern.” Sure enough – it’s somebody’s modern creation. I don’t mind the quote – it could be understood as true. But I’m sort of picky about false attribution. It’s just like Abraham Lincoln said, “You can find anything on the internet.” 🙂

  53. Janine Avatar

    (Believe me your thanks is a true priestlyintercession! 🙂 )

  54. Byron Avatar

    “If you can bear serenely the trial of being displeasing to yourself, you will be a place of refuge for Jesus.”

    Father, who is this quote from? It is vaguely familiar (you’ve may have used it before) but I cannot remember who said it….

  55. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    St. Therese of Lisieux.

  56. Christopher Avatar

    Just last week I had occasion to suffer and bear a certain type of shame that has been part of my life since at least adolescence. The cause itself is not so much a “sin” (more like “an event”), but my inability to control it and the effects it has on me and my social context is very shameful for me. Thankfully I have learned as the years go by that God has given me the space as it were to suffer a bit and then “move on”. So thinking of your question Janine of “…But it’s why, how, and what for that counts….”, at least in my particular context I don’t know if there is any real meaning in or behind the shame. Perhaps above it – in the recognition of its actual smallness. Just thoughts.

  57. Janine Avatar

    Christopher. Peace! I’ll pray for you. There may be a hidden blessing contained in it, even as, just by way of example, St Paul learned to boast in his weakness …

  58. Esmee La Fleur Avatar
    Esmee La Fleur

    In so many of the Lives of our martyred saints, when asked who they were or state their names, they all said, “I am a Christian.” What a glorious identity! If I can remember this, it really simplifies everything for me.

  59. Matthew Avatar


    Thank-you for your comment.

    Total Depravity is crushing, isn’t it? Luther may not have used the term “Snow covered Dung heap”, but Augustine did use, “massa damnata et damnabilis”. And there have been others who have uttered or written similar sentiments from pulpits and tracts all over the world. No list would be complete without also including Johnathan Edwards, “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God”.

    For years I was Christian in name only, for the benefit of my family. I believed in God, just not THAT god. I wondered how THAT god could have converted the world from paganism, and how THAT god’s message could be good news. It isn’t. THAT god isn’t the God of the Apostles. THAT god is a demon. For the longest time my prayer was, “I know you aren’t the GOD I am being taught, please do not abandon me if I cling to you.”

    It was only when I started really getting into the story of indulgences that I realized that Orthodoxy was outside of that, and that there was a difference.

    Glory to God for his providence.

  60. Matthew Avatar

    Drat, – Matthew Lyon – thank-you for your comment. Etc…

  61. David Waite Avatar
    David Waite

    Thank you, Father.

  62. David Waite Avatar
    David Waite

    Father and Byron –

    If you can bear serenely the trial of being displeasing to yourself, you will be a place of refuge for Jesus. – St. Therese of Liseux

    Thank you for sharing this! And thank you Father, especially, for helping me to finally begin to understand something I read years ago.

  63. TimOfTheNorth Avatar

    Father Stephen,
    I appreciate every post you make on shame. There is so much to learn about myself when I read these.

    I’ve been thinking about your statement that shame is the experience of “no” and of boundaries. How does that fit into Adam and Eve’s experience of being naked and unashamed? Is this the same concept of “shame”? I’m thinking that they were still “boundaried” persons, even in their prelapsarian state. They had unbroken communion with God, but there was still the simple boundary of created and uncreated, as well as the limit of “you may eat of any tree except…”

  64. Lisa Avatar

    Father Stephen,
    Your blog posts stretch my mind in ways few others do–even my own priests. Thank you for your posts and for being a courageous soul to face all these comments head on. May God continue to bless you. I look forward to reading more of your thoughts and understandings.

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