God’s Tattoos

Call me a Boomer. Among the more surprising developments across my nearly seven decades of life is the now widespread practice of tattooing. As a child in the 50’s, the only tattoos I ever saw were on the occasional sailor, and we rarely saw many of them. Indeed, I don’t think there was a tattoo parlor anywhere in our city, and if there were, it would have been on the shady side of town. So, it was with an old-fashioned, skeptical eye that I first began to see (and judge) the advent of tattooing in the 2000’s. What was an isolated thing at first, a fashion of youth, is today rather ubiquitous. You see them everywhere, across age groups, religious groups, etc. Indeed, I suspect there are a lot of tattoo’s that we don’t see, inscribed in places that have meaning for the wearer, though not meant for the public eye.

I no longer judge them. They are clothing, of a sort, ink suits and badges, performing some of the things that clothing has always accomplished, but in a manner that indicates a deeper commitment or need. Adam and Eve (in their sin) found that they were naked and they sought to hide. They covered themselves with leaves. We’ve been covering ourselves ever since. Generally, our coverings are “identities,” false modes of being that always hide the truth of our shame. Our shame is painful – who would want it to be seen?

And so we wear our school colors, our class uniforms, the styles and fashions that seek to say many things about us, often suggesting things that are misleading. Our removeable identities seek to make us more than we are. The school colors and merchandise seek to say, “We won,” even though “we” didn’t play a single minute. They played. We watched. But our make-shift identities say that they are us and that we won.

It’s a tribal thing. Nations are but tribes writ large, flags but tattoos on a pole.

And then there are God’s tattoos.

See, I have inscribed you on the palms of My hands; Your walls are continually before Me.” Isaiah 49:16

This comes in a passage where God is assuring the people of Israel that He will never forget them.

“Can a woman forget her nursing child, and not have compassion on the son of her womb? Surely they may forget, Yet I will not forget you.Isaiah 49:15

In our Orthodox prayers for the departed, we pray, “Make their memory to be eternal.” It is a prayer that asks God to do what He has already promised to do (which is typical of most prayers).

There is yet more to be seen in this “eternal memory” within God. Isaiah depicts it as “graven on His hands.” We clearly see the hands of God, manifest in the hands of Christ, who is crucified for us. Our “names” are engraved as wounds in the hands of “Lamb slain from the foundation of the world.” God not only remembers us (described in such a graphic manner), but remembers us in our suffering. Those same wounds do not disappear in the resurrected Christ, but remain visible, now as marks of His glory.

…if indeed we suffer with Him, we will also be glorified with Him (Rom. 8:17)

The clothing, costumes, and marks we place upon ourselves seek to reveal something (or cover something). In some manner, they shield us, though feebly, like the fig-leaves of poor Adam. There is, however, a nakedness that is not ashamed, when it is covered in the righteousness of Christ, received in Holy Baptism. Its marks are indelible. Within the soul there is inscribed the wounds of Christ, gathering into them all the suffering of the soul. In that patient work, suffering is transformed into glory by the God who will not and cannot forget.

Remember us, O Lord, in Your kingdom!

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.






60 responses to “God’s Tattoos”

  1. Owen Kelly Avatar
    Owen Kelly

    In the headline picture, Christ blesses us with bloodied hands. What an amazing reality.

  2. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Father, your words remind me of Ezekiel 36:26 ” I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit within you; I will take the heart of stone out of your flesh and give you a heart of flesh” so that His Word may be written on our hearts as many other Bible passages tell us.
    It may be a leap, but are the Sacraments not a form of that writing?

  3. Dean Avatar

    Children in schools in CA no longer have to wear masks in school. Yet as I pass teens going to junior or senior high I see many walking to school wearing them. Some, with the mask and hoodies in place, have almost their whole face hidden. I commented on this while I was taking our 14 yr old granddaughter to school. In her young wisdom she noted that they were wearing the masks to hide behind.
    I am sure some are attempting to cover the shame they feel.
    Had we had masks 60 years ago, I would probably have worn one to H.S., as I had really bad acne and continually felt shamed by it.

  4. Paul Avatar

    Father, what is the title of the picture of Christ? It looks like a Midievel painting

  5. Andrew Roberts Avatar
    Andrew Roberts

    It’s amazing how vibrant the colours of that painting still are.

  6. Dino Avatar

    I find the expression “God’s tattoos”, in light of Isaiah 49:16, to be incredibly apt.
    I am reminded how it’s not unusual to read almost ‘scandalous’ expressions of our saints, describing the desire and craving and love God has for each one of us, expressions appropriating the desire and craving and love we sinners, alas, seem to have for various things that are not our loving God – vain things we desire so fixatedly (that we now indelibly engrave their cypher on our bodies).
    God has such inconceivable love for His creature that He made His creature into His god, all while His creature’s reciprocation is drowning in a myriad of contending distractions.

  7. Dee of St Hermans Avatar
    Dee of St Hermans

    If I might add, Andrew, even the coloration of the skin and lips suggests death or near death. Indeed, we sense the very human and vulnerable (and thus naked) Jesus (whom we know is also God), here.

    The cloak he wears, suggests the Holy Spirit to me, but I understand in the Orthodox tradition of iconography, that it too, may represent his humanity.

    As our baptismal song goes, “For as many of you as have been baptized into Christ have put on Christ…”

  8. Martha Avatar

    Absolutely beautiful meditation Fr. Stephen…this is one of my favorite posts of yours. I will be thinking about this one for some time. Father Freeman, would you ever consider writing a piece on or suggesting any readings on the silencing of or ignorance of one’s conscience, for instance, when we indulge desires/passions we particularly struggle with or are habitual? This is something that has been on my mind (like tattoos! I am grateful to have found a lovely piece on such.). Thank you regardless, Fr.!

  9. William Tickel Avatar
    William Tickel

    I know that I am going to open myself to public censure by posting this reaction to your very thoughtful reflection on this, but I do have a caution in my spirit about the rampant cultural proliferation of tattoo’s, and their sister practice, piercings.

    If tatoo’s and piercings are tribal, then surely the tribal object of the practice is something deeper than school uniforms, or national flags, or NFL team bumper stickers, or even fish symbols on business cards. It seems to me to be more a tribal affiliation with an all-encompassing world spirit, and I do not think that the incredible proliferation of this practice is unconnected with the general disintegration of our culture. My assumption when I meet someone heavily tatoo’d or pierced is that what they have done is, at the very least, committed themselves totally to the latest fad with no care that they have bound themselves to it for the rest of their lives. This seems to me to be remarkably short-sighted.

    Please do not misunderstand; this is not in any way a soteriological reflection. Perhaps it is judgmental on my part, depending on how you define that word. All I can say is that, when I meet someone who has gone all-in with it, my instinctive guard goes up. I do not think that this reaction is completely unwarranted.

  10. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Mr Tickel, I understand your concern. Alas anything can be twisted and used against one’s soul. I have known people to make a fetish out of going to church and appearing to pray.

  11. Andrew Roberts Avatar
    Andrew Roberts

    Thank you Dee.

  12. Andrew Roberts Avatar
    Andrew Roberts

    Tattoos? I have many. They were done during the late 1970’ to the mid 1980’s, when they weren’t so fashionable. Why did I get tattooed? I was fascinated by them from a young age and when I was old enough I started getting tattooed. My Dad had been in the army and had two tattoos, done before I was born.
    Do I regret them? I went through a phase of shame and embarrassment about them and used to wear long sleeved shirts in public to hide them.
    I’m nearly 60 now and am no longer bothered by them. They are a permanent reminder of my youthful stupidity.
    I don’t know the reasons why other people have tattoos, but for me there was no tribal element, nor belonging to a sub-cultural group aspect. Just a fascination acted upon.

  13. Ted Bruckner Avatar
    Ted Bruckner

    There’s a commandment not to tattoo. And that quote is from the corrupted Hebrew text not the text a pious Orthodox should be using, i.e., the Seventy, which reads “painted” not “engraved”; i mean really! as if a pious Israelite or Jew 2500 years ago would have ever tattooed his palms or any part of his body!

  14. Andrew Roberts Avatar
    Andrew Roberts

    an after thought. The actual painting is much more vibrant in real life. The photograph doesn’t do it justice.
    Also in RC art red is often representative of the Holy Spirit. In the painting I think the red cloak is representing how Jesus was dressed by the Roman soldiers??

  15. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    I have not made any judgment in this post regarding the popularity of tattooing in our present culture. I think, for what it’s worth, that you’ve over-played it as a cultural “bind” to the spirit of the age. I think it is best explained and understood under the heading of shame and the loss of identity. It is sad, in that context. The more ubiquitous they become – the more they change their significance, I think.

  16. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    There is not actually a canon against tattooing, as some imagine, though there is the commandment you mention. But, apparently God more than “painted” us on His palms. The nails are even deeper than engraving. This post, however, is not about tattooing. Calm the passions, and simply read what is there. If it is of no use to you, then ignore it.

    As for Orthodox and tattoo’s. The Coptic Church has long had a practice of tattooing a Cross on the wrist as a quiet identifier in the midst of a hostile culture. For many years, Russian pilgrims to the Holy Land would get a tattoo of a Cross with Jerusalem printed below it (usually on the upper arm) as proof that they had made pilgrimage and were highly honored for it.

    Those practices are not the same as the decorative practices that are a current rage. It is a fad that will likely fade at some point.

  17. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Christianity is an incarnational faith. I do not want to forget that Jesus’ wounds are a part of that. He still bears those wounds if I read Scripture rightly.

    The inter-connection between my physical condition and spiritual condition, though easy to twist, is real, substantial and important.

    We anoint, we use incense and prostrations, we have the Sacrament of Unction. All Sacraments have a clear physical component. We fast and give alms, we feast.

    The Crucifixion and the Ressurection are bodily still as the painting forces us to confront.

  18. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    I will make what I hope will be my last comment on the question of tattooing in popular culture.

    This article is not about that topic. It is about the profound love of God who has “marked” (I don’t care about how you read the text in the Scriptures) us on the palms of His hands – which I have specifically identified with the eternal wounds of Christ manifested after the resurrection on His body.

    Those wounds are, in this reading, eternal marks of His love for us.

    As for the cultural practices that trouble some – think what you will. I have offered a couple of throw-away suggestions about my own take on that. But a discussion here, in this context, on the practice of tattooing is so utterly beside-the-point (and actually only serves to obscure the wounds of Christ) as to be maddening.

    I suggest to those who are troubled by the practice of tattoo’s – to turn their minds away from what troubles them and towards the fact that God has eternally “marked” Himself with us – such is His love. It is a fruitful meditation and turns the mind from the darkness of judgment to the light of God’s love.

    Since we can’t ever really do anything about other people’s behavior – it is a far better use of our noetic faculties.

  19. William Tickel Avatar
    William Tickel

    Father, please forgive me for having led this thread astray. The notion that I have vexed you grieves me deeply. I simply misread your post, and assumed that the preamble regarding the practice was a thesis, and that what followed were spiritual observations reinforcing that thesis. Clearly, my septuagenarian cognitive decline is accelerating. I do not post to your blog very often, and this has taught me to do a deep reading before I do it in the future. Again, please forgive me.

  20. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    You and I go back a long way…so understanding and forgiving are easy. I had a few comments on the Facebook posting (with a link to the blog article) in which it was obvious that some folks were only reacting to the headline and not even reading the article.

    Of course, it’s easy to do.

    Forgive my use of a “catchy” title – it could be misleading in some circumstances.

    Be well.

  21. Dee of St Hermans Avatar
    Dee of St Hermans

    Even while the conversation took off on a tangent, it brings to fore a reality about the fad, which essentially for some goes skin deep. However, even today with laser removal, the markings have a kind of permanence. Many who receive them ascribe to them a kind of identity, sometimes not just of tribalism, but of their personal story, a small picture of their journey, similar to the tattoo that you describe of the holy land pilgrims obtained.

    Your writings doe indeed work to open our eyes. “Those who have ears” hear, and “those who have eyes” see what you are saying. We do indeed suffer in this life. But Christ suffers with us, our wounds are His wounds. And His wounds bring into our sad reality, the holiness of His Cross and His wounds. Our wounds are marked in His flesh. Our wounds are tattooed onto our souls and hearts, and into the heart of our Lord. But His resurrection lifts our souls and our hearts and our very bodies (tattoos and other idiosyncrasies) to a new life in Christ. His death tramples down our death, and the dead arise.

    Glory to God for all things!

  22. Dee of St Hermans Avatar
    Dee of St Hermans

    Please forgive me, Father, for telling this story, if it should take us off track again. But I have seen judgmental attitudes among parishioners in the Orthodox Church, who take a perspective of disparagement against others who obtain piercings and tattoos. I ask for patience.

    About a decade ago I was teaching a chemistry lab that included a young man who was an Afghan war veteran. It was very apparent to me that he seemed fragile, gentle and paradoxically strong. He had seen active combat, it also seemed that he had some small level of PTSD when a glass beaker dropped to the floor, and he had a strong reflexive response. He was covered with tattoos and a piercing through his nose. Yet there was also a kindness in his eyes along with deep grief. I sincerely cared for him and helped him through the rigors of chemistry that he struggled with. He passed chemistry with flying colors. He was a young man who was deeply wounded by the spirit of this world, not a man of it.

    I pray that the holy veil of our Theotokos protects him for the rest of his days on this earth.

  23. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    This is a sweet story. God give us grace to see one another with noetic eyes – to discern and to pray.

  24. Andrew Roberts Avatar
    Andrew Roberts

    Thank you for your post Dee. There are many people with wounds that are not visible to the eye. Deep inner wounds. Some self inflicted by personal sins and others inflicted by the sins of others.

    We are all in need of God’s loving healing and forgiveness.

  25. Janine Avatar

    It is also the Armenian tradition to be tattooed with a very small cross (usually on the wrist, or for a woman also common to have it underneath her wedding ring) for having been a pilgrim to Jerusalem.

  26. Janine Avatar

    Regarding Christ’s wounds:

    I think I have spoken before of a contemplative prayer practice I once attended, led by a Cistercian who had become a parish priest at a Catholic shrine. He had extensively studied the Jesus Prayer and other forms of contemplative prayer, and was speaking about praying with pain (physical and otherwise, I suppose). He spoke about coming to the Cross with your pain. Somehow I saw inner wounds of my own that were the result of emotional struggles, and realized that this felt far too awful to give to Christ as some sort of gift — should we not present something perfect and beautiful to our Lord? It took me a great deal of time to realize that this, indeed, was what the Cross was for. So His wounds call to ours somehow, to bring our own “tattoos” to Christ. Like so much else, His self-emptying becomes so paradoxical for us.

  27. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    We are made “in His image and Likeness”. Somehow we are tattooed with Christ and the Cross somehow brings that image out?
    Somehow that is also how we are each and all intra-connected with God, each other and all the rest of Creation? (Quite a tattoo. Indeed early Christians tattooed Christian symbols on their bodies such as the two fish to recognize each other in times of persecution.)

  28. Janine Avatar

    William Bauman:
    We are made “in His image and Likeness”. Somehow we are tattooed with Christ and the Cross somehow brings that image out?
    So much food for thought here, I keep pondering it. Thank you

  29. Janine Avatar

    Ooops! Michael Bauman, please forgive me!
    (I woke up too early this morning!)

  30. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Janine, I have been called far worse. William is a good name.

  31. Janine Avatar

    Michael B 🙂

  32. Dino Avatar

    It seems to me again and again that the whole thing is so much about our attentiveness that it is difficult to even portray the momentous role attentiveness plays. All good spiritual words, like the ones above, seem to have the power to reawaken the right attentiveness in us.
    I find it is extremely important to re-ignite the awareness, the realisation (the “remembrance”) that God continuously remembers us. Our invocation of his Name at all times has this aim. That sort of ‘eternal memory’ and unceasing “remembrance” of our being by our God in all our suffering, in our vulnerability and darkness, as well as in our thankfulness and joy, [which we can call ‘Christ’s indelible tattoos’ of us], is absolutely part and parcel of His mind-blowing glory which we can partake of. If only we could be more aware of it (and less enthralled by the distractions taking us away from such a salvific awareness, the distractions that daily abolish that awareness in us)!

    Those same wounds do not disappear in the resurrected Christ, but remain visible, now as marks of His glory.

    As far as we ourselves are concerned, the entirety of our own glory comes from our “remembrance” of God in His suffering Love and in His all-powerful providence and Light. If this becomes our own indelible tattoo, then we’d certainly be walking the correct path.
    Surprisingly, entrance upon that path seems to come about as a minute’s realisation, an abrupt re-orientation, rather than any gradual self-development –besides, it is at least as easy to suddenly deviate away again. The more enduring fruits of stability after such immediate alignments might take time, it takes time to see this “indelible spiritual tattoo” marked upon a soul. But it does seem to me that it is the intensity of certain people’s decisiveness (repentance/metanoia) that makes the greatest and most permanent difference here. There exists an intensity, like that of St Mary of Egypt, that says, “it is finished, there is no possibility of deviation ever again” and absolutely means it no matter what comes.
    It all brings to mind how momentous distraction is as our enemy – especially considering we live in ‘the land of unceasing distraction’ from this path. Distraction is by far our most regular spiritual antagonist.
    We could say we digress from the right track in the spiritual life to the degree we cease to burn with love for God alone and no longer feel His presence and the inner harmony and union with God this brings about. So it is this “path” upon which we ought to re-calibrate ourselves again and again. When spiritual peace vanishes, we can be sure we’ve just lost this internal oneness readily generated by preoccupation with God alone. Such ‘derailments’ might transpire on and off daily, and somebody can object that, in practice, it’s far more viable (it certainly is) to retain such internal oneness when leading a simpler, plainer life (like that of a monastic who, at one point, decisively altered his entire context to fit his decision). But once again, what is noteworthy here is that this oneness is not so much an ‘achievement’ we slowly progress towards through steadily changing ourselves and acquiring wholesome habits replacing the bad habits etc, (even if there is an element of this). What is key is that this oneness is (considerably) more of a sudden realisation: the realisation that we are one with God, that we are universal beings (we start to feel this as soon as we start to fully trust His Providence through this re-ignition and re-alignment of our God-wards focus), that we are but a member of His Body – The Church –, that we are not part of the futility of the godless existence we were a minute ago when we had forgotten Him through natural distraction away from Him. When, thanks to such wholehearted attentiveness of the heart, aspiration towards Him becomes a kind of continuous possession, we start to recognise its power through our joy, which becomes seemingly immeasurable, making our life authentically spiritual.

  33. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Dino (some thoughts to go along with yours)
    That God remembers us is, at the very least, the means by which and through which we continue to exist, moment by moment. It is not that we exist, and God thinks about us. His remembrance of us is the abiding cause of our existence. Should God forget us, we would simply be no more.

    St. John’s dictum: God is love – is utterly striking in the same way. He does not merely say, “God loves us.” God is not one thing, and His love some separate action that might be other than it is. God is love. We can also say that our existence, moment by moment, is the love of God sustaining us.

    My mind has been turning towards St. Mary of Egypt as well this week as we near her feast. I have long been struck in her story by her relating that when the desire for her old life tormented her she would simply lie on the ground – sometimes for “day and a night.”

    “And how shall I tell you, O Abba, of the thoughts that pushed me towards lust once more? A fire was kindled in my miserable heart which seemed to burn me up completely and to awake in me a thirst for embraces. As soon as this craving came to me, I flung myself on the earth and watered it with my tears, as if I saw before me my witness, who had appeared to me in my disobedience, and who seemed to threaten punishment for the crime. And I did not rise from the ground (sometimes I lay thus prostrate for a day and a night) until a calm and sweet light descended and enlightened me and chased away the thoughts that possessed me. But always I turned to the eyes of my mind to my Protectress, asking her to extend help to one who was sinking fast in the waves of the desert. And I always had her as my Helper and the Accepter of my repentance. And thus I lived for seventeen years amid constant dangers. And since then even till now the Mother of God helps me in everything and leads me as it were by the hand.”

    This terrible pattern of torment, collapse, and release continued for seventeen years! In that pattern I am struck that she simply throws herself to the ground (and thus onto the mercies of God) and waits for relief. And, throughout that tormenting period, she always turned the “eyes of her mind” to the Mother of God (who had first sent her into the desert).

    That is contrasted in my thoughts to the self-assured teenager who ruled the streets of Alexandria with her sins and thought nothing of boarding a boat of strangers as a lark. I think the self-assured Mary hid the existence of Mary of Egypt, the saint. As she lay on the ground, weeping, they wrestled within her.

    The heart of St. Mary’s great “accomplishment” is rooted in “stability.” She stayed put in the desert. Having been sent there, she remained. Her abbess was the Mother of God who had given her but a single obedience: “If you cross the Jordan, you will find glorious rest.” Stability (staying put) is a form of humility – I suppose it could be described as the “shame of place.” The wanderlust of our modern narrative tells us to move on, to make progress, to change, to go higher, etc. There are so many forms in that urge.

    St. Mary “bore a little shame” (though to us it appears she bore a whole lot of shame) in her obedience to the Mother of God. It is, perhaps, the hardest thing in life. May God “establish our hearts” on the rock of such self-abandonment.

  34. Dino Avatar

    I find it fascinating that St Mary’s “Protectress” (during her recurring despair for 17 years), is also called upon above all others for the three most crucial ‘times’ of our existence every night [during Compline]: “in this life repulsing the assaults of the adversary and leading us toward salvation; and at the time of our death, by embracing our souls and driving far away from it the dark faces of evil demons; and at the awesome day of judgment by redeeming us…”
    It seems as if we ask for a super-natural stability [and are given it], but it also seems this is always to the degree of awareness of our “default instability”. This blessing of “hopeful desperation” seems to be the generator of the greatest decisiveness. Through the ready help of the Mother of God we taste of its immediacy. The more we embrace the shame in decisive Godwards aspiration (like the returning prodigal did), the greater the strength we are given against oncoming tribulations. It seems “established hearts” -whether of previously addicted and deeply corrupted personalities (like St Mary’s) or of unusually balanced ones (I am thinking of elder Aimilianos who from a child secretly communed with the saints and remained profoundly unwavering)- are always created (established) in the furnace of that ‘desperate focus’ on their Redeemer alone which released them from self-centeredness, possibly pivotally hatched through some sharp awareness of either their nakedness and vulnerability, or the world’s futility, or the adversary’s menace.
    But these saints’ greatest heroism, often seems to me to be that they persisted in enduring being without God (at times) while having known being with Him, without flinching!. Their “decision” to be continuously pleasing to God had been so undeviating and genuinely God-centred that it did not require God to be continuously pleasing to them. A sign of incredible maturity.

  35. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    God’s rememberance is not passive, nor distant. I have heard it said that those who diligently practice the Jesus Prayer experience Jesus Praying within them somehow. The consolation of St Mary of Egypt seems to be an example of that.
    Yet, I must not be discouraged by the fact I am not a saint. I can still do little things consistently.

    May Our Lord’s ever present Incarnate Mercy remind us.

  36. Dee of St Hermans Avatar
    Dee of St Hermans

    I find it helpful, as you have written, to place our personal relationship with God into the broader ontological context:

    It is not that we exist, and God thinks about us. His remembrance of us is the abiding cause of our existence. Should God forget us, we would simply be no more.
    We can also say that our existence, moment by moment, is the love of God sustaining us.

    We forget (I suspect) how intimate our existence is with God, which explains, in part, how our wounds are His.

    Generally, I suspect also, that waiting for God is not easy, in that we want to manage how things come about rather than wait for God’s response. St Mary’s struggle, and her obedience and purposeful reliance and waiting for God is quite the contrast to our typical ways of interacting with God. It’s as though we want to broker a kind of ‘deal’ with God (or at least, this is how I have heard prayers in other confessions).

    I know what this desert is that St Mary lives in, within my own life. It can be difficult (putting it mildly), and I hear my own voice in my heart wanting to get ‘out’ of the desert. I’m grateful for your words regarding the importance of stability. I will embrace the desert, and wait for God, with the help of the Theotokos.

  37. Dino Avatar

    Regarding St Mary’s “tonsure” –through her promise to the Theotokos and her lifelong resolve to bear any shame thereafter– it is perhaps worth looking at why Church Tradition says that, among other things, shame, was ‘inserted’ into our nature after the fall… Shame is firstly regarded as a virtue (in its rightful function), even though it can become a vice. The Theotokos, who never sinned, had this ‘virtue’, according to the Fathers of the Church to the greatest degree.

  38. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    To say that shame was “inserted” into our nature after the fall – is deeply problematic and would need to be carefully unpacked. It is a term that has both a positive meaning and function (humility would be impossible without it) as well as a negative meaning and function. So, what is meant by shame as “inserted into our nature” is not at all clear. Do you have texts, authors? What is actually being said about what by whom?

  39. Dino Avatar

    I am afraid I don’t. I can search. What I remember distinctly is a patristic analysis by Fr Athanasius Mytilineos, outlining how αιδώς (shame) is considered an “inset element” -(ένθετο στοιχείο) after the fall. He was looking at its double function – good and bad – and was prompted by analysing the garments of skin

  40. Dino Avatar

    It’s bad side wasn’t describe in any more detail than its hindrance/embarrassment in public confession of faith while it’s good side was again only really exalted as a hindrance/embarrassment to sin. He also seemed to focus o on the it’s mutability according to fashionable ideas of fitting in. Didn’t go in to the deeply ontological notions implied elsewhere. But was pretty adamant about its post lapsarian insertion according to the Fathers. Other notions such as the ‘schema’ of marriage also share the exact post lapsarian insertion, same fate.

  41. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    I’m not surprised by this analysis – as the speculations about pre/post lapsarian realities are a common feature in some patristic writings. To a great extent, I see them as little more than interesting artifacts, and certainly not part of the dogmatic teaching of the Church that can be described as “Church Tradition.” The very worst of this stuff is exemplified by Augustine’s treatment of sex as inherently sinful (impossible apart from the sin of sexual desire). It then acquired a very nasty history in many ways.

    First – these musings, though typical, are (even for the Fathers) quite speculative. They represent a form of theoria and can be meditated on, as such. They begin to be very problematic if they become the basis of a theoretical anthropology – describing what it means to be truly human but with reference only to a speculative version of humanity. In point of fact, we know two things: our own experience as “fallen” human beings (subject to death and decay), and Christ. With regard to Christ we have some received dogma and understandings but I do not find it of great use to ever substitute those “understandings” for the direct experience of Christ Himself.

    In science, there was a period in which the theoretical nature as taught by Aristotle constantly trumped any experiential science. It was science from the “top down.” There is a sort of danger in the speculations of pre/post lapsarian humanity that posits an Aristotelian “top-down” view of humanity.

    For example, when I write about shame, I have spent time also looking at its neurobiology, which is as experiential and testable as hunger, fear, etc. If we can imagine a human existence that has no experience of hunger (for example), I’m not sure what good it would do. On the other hand, I can imagine a great deal of harm being done if someone were to think that hunger were actually “sinful.”

    I think the same about the neuro-biology of shame (which is still many steps removed from the complex emotion we describe by the word “shame”). Shame, in its healthy form, can actually be described as humility itself – our willingness to bear the burden of healthy shame – to stand naked before God as we are. That is “glory and grace” (the healthy shame described in Sirach 4:3).

    On the post-lapsarian insertion for marriage – I’m a bit wary as well – despite the many fathers who speculated in that direction. I’m not sure it has done much good, and it has certainly done much that was bad. Not to say that it is of no use – but that it has often been put to ill use. So – on the whole – I just leave it alone.

  42. Dino Avatar

    I too have seen many misunderstand and even harm through these notions. I particularly remember someone attacking Elder Aimilianos about him saying authoritatively that marriage is post-lapsarian. However, these are invariably because of misunderstandings. Modern rationalisations tend to have a propensity for such misunderstandings. The ‘speculations’ of the Fathers on these things are probably far more informed by their experience of Christ in the Uncreated Light than the speculations of the rest of us, even if these second ones are founded in the most discerning, solid analytics of human science.
    I have to trust the Saints when they say these things, they have encountered the honour and the dishonour of Man more profoundly, they beheld Man’s glory and fall in depths that would then make them formulate such notions as: ‘shame and marriage were additions to Man’s nature -after the fall-, additions which become transcended in the resurrected Man.’ I believe it is said, at least by some of them, not as speculation but as, “I have seen this when I saw the Lord”.

  43. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Yes, no argument from me on that. In the meantime, we live a life that is “lapsarian,” in which our experiences matter. As I say, I am very cautious about the misuse of such theologumena. When we stand before the throne of God, we pray that it be “without shame or fear.” And in the meantime, we are taught by St. Sophrony, “The way of shame is the way of the Lord.”

  44. Dino Avatar

    Interestingly we, also, have certain patristic expressions regarding the Theotokos whose sublime spiritual beauty was seen from the ‘holy shame adorning Her face’…

  45. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Yes. It’s my point about the need for context, etc. “Shame,” even in the Scriptures (cf. the Sirach reference) carries more than one meaning – which can be frustrating, I suppose. But it requires clarification when we speak of it.

    FWIW, I submitted my manuscript for the book on shame that I’ve been laboring on for so long – last week. It dives deep into the various meanings and the place of healthy shame (humility) in the spiritual life. We’ll see how it goes from here.

  46. Dee of St Hermans Avatar
    Dee of St Hermans

    YAY!! Father I look forward to reading it!

  47. Dino Avatar

    I can’t wait for your book Father!

  48. Dee of St Hermans Avatar
    Dee of St Hermans

    A note about shame vs pride.
    Pride is strongly encouraged in this (Western-USA) culture. Even pastors of other confessions encourage this, such as with a slogan: “What a good day to be proud of all the progress you’ve made”.

    I believe behind such slogans and encouragement is an intention to offset toxic shame. But I’m not sure about that.

  49. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    I think your observation (“offsetting toxic shame”) is spot-on. Of course, there’s also the sort of mantra of modernity in which everything is about progress, including the spiritual and moral life. It takes a much more nuanced and in-depth narrative to explain the place of healthy shame and to unpack something like St. Sophrony’s “the way of the Lord is the way of shame.”

    What is generally true is that the state of theology in the Christian world is woefully inadequate and dominated by secular narratives.

  50. Janine Avatar

    A friend of mine (a Jewish convert to Orthodoxy) said to me recently that the flaws or weaknesses of the disciples in the Gospels are all tied to their strengths. I wonder if that is related to this dialogue on shame. I felt it was quite insightful when he told me that St. Peter (with all the flawed exuberance and weaknesses we know) showed a tremendous strength in bearing the rebukes of Christ. “Get behind Me, Satan!” “How many of us could bear that,” my friend asked me, “without wanted to crawl in a hole and cover ourselves with dirt?” I was really struck by this insight. It reminded me of St. Paul’s prayer to have his infirmity removed, but to be told, “My grace is sufficient for you, for My strength is made perfect in weakness.” And, “Therefore,” says St. Paul, “most gladly I will rather boast in my infirmities, that the power of Christ may rest upon me.”

    I don’t completely understand the notion of the shame of the Theotokos, except that no doubt shame was put upon her for her condition, but the key to her secret was its glory. Although she did bear that shame with faith and most certainly was so perfectly humble (which I would consider to be the ultimate in honesty and what’s real) we cannot suspect her of any sort of false pride or self-delusion

  51. Janine Avatar

    PS It strikes me now that she bore the shame of the Cross also in a unique way as did no other

  52. Dino Avatar

    The virtue of shame for the Theotokos describes something far more akin to prudence. The going red at the cheeks because of humility and purity. A very traditional notion.

  53. Byron Avatar

    FWIW, I submitted my manuscript for the book on shame that I’ve been laboring on for so long – last week. It dives deep into the various meanings and the place of healthy shame (humility) in the spiritual life. We’ll see how it goes from here.

    Where it goes: “I humbly sign this copy to send to Byron, and this one to Dee, and this one…”. 😀 LoL! I also look forward to reading your new book, Father! One of my bulldogs got ahold of your first book–but she only chewed the corners. Perhaps there is some respect for your writings in that!

  54. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Yes. This is much my point. “Shame” as a virtue is precisely what is described by the term “humility.” Humility would be no great feat were it merely a matter of turning down praise, and such. The actual “mechanism” (the physical experience that can be termed “shame”) of shame can be very benign, as in blushing at a compliment. However, if we have been subjected to abuse of various sorts, and become burdened with so-called “toxic shame,” even very benign situations can trigger that toxic form and be experienced as something unbearable. That is why there’s such a need for pastoral insight. “Humility” should be cultivated in the soul – but the soul needs a certain measure of health in order to bear such a burden.

    Humility is something of a “gate-keeper” or the nurturing ground for all the virtues. However, we live in a deeply shaming culture in which we are bathed in toxic messages all the time. It’s little wonder that we dwell in such an insane world. Only the love of God can nurture the soul in true health.

  55. Janine Avatar

    Dino and Father, thank you for your replies.

    Dino, you wrote:
    The virtue of shame for the Theotokos describes something far more akin to prudence. The going red at the cheeks because of humility and purity. A very traditional notion.

    Dino, what would be the Greek word for this notion? Is it phronima?

  56. Dino Avatar

    ‘phronima’ is more akin to mind-set, ‘aidos’ is the word used, but as Father explained, it is a word that can have opposite meanings. On the one hand, it is the healthy, wholesome shame, the humility and prudence of those who are concerned with God alone and are only ‘ashamed’ (as in “blushing” from decency) of the heights of inconceivable honours they are called towards by God, (and are simultaneously not ashamed to go against this world despite it trying to shame them. On the other hand, the same word might be used for the toxic shame this world might want to impart upon those it wants to belittle.
    However, the word used their would be “aishini”rather than “aidos”. In Greek the two words iare ῾αἰδώς῾ and ‘αἰσχύνη᾽.

  57. Dino Avatar

    Sorry for all the typos, that meant to say:
    the word used there would be “aishini”rather than “aidos”. In Greek the two words are ῾αἰδώς῾ and ‘αἰσχύνη᾽.

  58. Janine Avatar

    Dino, thank you so much. I will study both! God bless

  59. Alan Avatar

    Thank you for your comments here. Great stuff. I always appreciate and benefit from your insights.

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