Always Ready for a Party

Authentic hospitality is one of the greatest human experiences. There is the literal hospitality of receiving and hosting a guest with a sense of delight and dignity and belonging. More importantly, there is the day-to-day openness to the experience of receiving and being received, the surprising delight that can arise in encounters that cause us to feel more authentically human and more authentically Christian. You just never know when a small foretaste of the heavenly wedding feast might unexpectedly manifest itself! But we easily miss the moment if we are not abiding in love and truth.

I’m currently in the midst of a 3-month sabbatical, and gratefully receiving the hospitality of Benedictine monks. The importance of hospitality is actually written into the Rule of Saint Benedict, that brief but adaptable treasure trove of wisdom that still inspires people of all faiths even 1,500 years after he wrote it. Benedict instructs his monks, “All guests who present themselves are to be welcomed as Christ, for he himself will say: I was a stranger and you welcomed me.”

Some of my happiest memories of childhood are moments of hospitality. I was recently asked to reflect on experiences of wholeness in my story – when I most deeply felt a sense of delight, belonging, and justice. It was a challenging exercise at first! My story includes much deprivation and going it alone. But with prayer for illumination, my memories turned to my grandparents’ home, their joy and excitement at seeing me every time I arrived, the warm embrace, the twinkle in their eyes, the offering of food or drink or toys they knew that I enjoyed, the total sense of belonging and safety. Or I thought of Christmas gatherings with extended family – the laughter, the acceptance of everyone present, and the material and emotional abundance, the ache for the moment to last forever.

During my college seminary years, I met a few friends from the South, and came to appreciate their constant readiness to show hospitality to guests. It felt dignified and important to me, and became something I’ve valued over the years. Whether my years in communal living or my years in a rectory, I’ve relished the opportunities to show hospitality to guests. Planned gatherings are fun enough, but the best moments have been the unexpected parties. I’ve learned to ensure that I have a few things on hand to be up for the occasion. As I sometimes quip, I like my living space to be ready to go “From Zero to Party in 10 Minutes.” People have appreciated the gesture more than once.

Truthfully, though, I am still very much learning the height and breadth and depth of human hospitality. There are various versions of it, not all of them equally great. There have been times where my hospitality was more about projecting an image or feeling the pressure to perform, rather than simply “being with” the guests. There have been times where it was more about subtly grasping at my own unmet needs than about serving those I was hosting. And there is my frequent tendency to get disengaged, to check out of the present moment or withdraw emotionally into my own space of isolation – and then my connection with others is diminished or lost.

Speaking more universally, when it comes to hospitality of the heart, being open and receptive to unexpected “Jesus moments” with others, I cannot truthfully say that my heart is always ready. It’s one thing to think ahead and have a few items stocked up in the pantry. It is so much more challenging to abide in love and live wholeheartedly in the present moment.

Jesus was a human being who knew how to experience hospitality – how to receive it and how to give it. There is a great vulnerability in authentic hospitality, a tender willingness to enter into intimacy. We cannot give well if we have not learned how to receive. We don’t often ponder this point, but Jesus was quite willing to receive hospitality –from the very beginning.

God though he was, Jesus began his human existence in humility and obscurity, depending vulnerably on the tender care of his mother and foster father, taking in the delight and awe showed by so many guests at his birth: the shepherds, the magi, and the angels. He spent thirty of his thirty-three years learning how to receive. Even in his public ministry, he still allowed himself to be vulnerable and receive. I think of the woman with the alabaster jar in Luke 7 – weeping, kissing his feet, and anointing him with costly perfume. Jesus does not squirm or resist, as many of us probably would. I think of Jesus’ apparently frequent visits to Bethany, cultivating a deep friendship with Lazarus, Mary, and Martha – including a willing reception of their hospitality. He even goes there during Holy Week, shortly after his entrance into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday. Even on Holy Thursday, as he enters his “Hour” of suffering, Jesus reaches out to Peter, James, and John – asking them whether they would be with him in his sorrow. And of course, there is his belonging to and receiving from his heavenly Father, as Jesus regularly withdraws – not in isolation or disengagement – but into vulnerable and intimate relationship.

Drawing from that sense of joy and belonging and abundance, Jesus showed hospitality so beautifully. One of the strongest “accusations” against him was that he welcomed sinners and dined with them! Jesus attuned to people’s hearts, noticing the desire and the movement of the Holy Spirit there (or the hardness of heart and resistance!). When there was movement, he stopped and lingered and invited them into relationship. They felt seen by him. They felt understood by him. They felt welcomed and delighted in by him. They were loved as they were, and they also realized that he was committed to their well-being and wasn’t going to fudge or fake things in the relationship. I think here of the woman at the well, the woman caught in adultery, Zacchaeus, Matthew, and Peter (at so many moments!).

I have always cherished hospitality, and intuitively understood how central it is in the human experience. I have not always appreciated the invitation to vulnerability that is there, the call to give others access to my well-guarded heart, the call to be present and engaged, to be open to unexpected surprises, to notice what God is doing in the hearts of others, to appreciate their uniqueness and to accompany them step by step in becoming who they are (versus who I want them to be!). To the extent that I abide and stay open to hospitality, I truly get to “taste and see the goodness of the Lord” – even now amidst this sojourn through a valley of tears. Such moments never last, but they are truly good – a promise and foretaste of the Day in which the joyful feasting we experience together will never end, but only become ever more delightful and more real.

Spiritual Bypass

This summer marked the 15th anniversary of the animated film Cars. The movie breathed life and personality into dozens of vehicles, including the cocky and arrogant young racecar Lightning McQueen, who unexpectedly gets stranded in the rusted and rundown town of Radiator Springs. Initially seeing no value in this long-forgotten place, he undergoes a deep conversion and learns many life lessons. He also comes to appreciate the story of the town, once great, then sliding into decline with the introduction of the I-40 bypass. Whereas travelers along Route 66 used to take their time to linger and enjoy this scenic stopping point, these days they just zoom on by along the bypass.

As many of you know, I am currently going through a few trainings for pastoral ministry to God’s beloved children experiencing unwanted behaviors or addictions. In them, I’ve come across a strikingly similar metaphor, encapsulated in the term “spiritual bypass.”

Spiritual bypass happens when you or I use our spirituality as a way of avoiding difficult experiences or undesirable emotions. In the name of being spiritual, we can actually evade and avoid the most difficult aspects of discipleship! When we do so, our bodies and souls suffer in much the same way as the town of Radiator Springs. Through chronic neglect, little by little, things begin to crack and crumble. The more this decay happens, the more we prefer to avoid, and the more alluring spiritual bypass becomes. And so the vicious cycle continues.

You can see how these cracks offer fertile soil for the weeds and rotten fruits of addictions. But addictions are only one of many such weeds. The great spiritual authors over the centuries remind us that sins of the flesh (lust, gluttony, drunkenness, etc.) can actually be less serious than envy, passive aggression, gossip, self-righteousness, or pride. Think of the story of the repentant tax collector versus the proud Pharisee (“thank God I’m not like _______”). Think of the story of the younger son and older son in Luke 15. Both are far from the heart of their father; both are avoiding his love; both are miserable.

Spiritual bypass often gets woven into the very fabric of our families and our church communities. For example, we from the upper Midwest are notorious for being “nice” – and thinking ourselves kind. Niceness is not the same as kindness! Niceness avoids conflict. Niceness pretends not to be angry. Niceness does not know how to sit with sadness, but tries to minimize or fix or anesthetize the pain of the situation. Kindness, by contrast, can be intense and messy. It takes great inner strength just to be with someone who feels deeply sad, angry, or ashamed.

In my personal journey, the Lord has definitely been inviting me and teaching me how to stay present in the face of awkward or painful situations. Historically, I did one of two things. Most of the time, I got small, hid my true self, or took the “nice” path out and compromised things that were deeply important. Occasionally I powered up, perhaps shifting my tone or raising my voice, perhaps making a subtly shaming comment that shifted the burden onto the other person. I regret those moments and the damage they caused.

But I am learning to be patient with myself as God works repairs in my heart. Healing and recovery is incredibly hard work. It’s tempting (like Lightning McQueen) to think I can re-pave the neglected and damaged street in a short time. It takes much patience and consistency – not to mention much help and encouragement from true friends. After nearly five years of diligent work walking my own healing path, I am beginning to discover that I can stay present and stay my true self even in challenging situations – without taking the bypass. Every inch of reclaimed pavement is worth celebrating.

I simply wasn’t capable for a long time because I was bypassing my own heart – including neglected streets that were crumbling in sadness, loneliness, fear, and shame. If present interactions caused me to begin feeling those things, it made sense that I would react instinctively and either flee or fight. God made us with survival instincts and defensive capacity.  For a time, we probably need these defenses. We may need, for a season, to be in a state of spiritual bypass. We can’t face everything all at once. We’re not ready until we are ready.

My heart is ready, O God, my heart is ready. So sings the psalmist. After years of preparing my heart, the Lord gently and kindly showed me how very much sadness and loneliness I had stored up. For me, the experience of coming out of spiritual bypass has been amazing, intense, and painful all at the same time. Sister Miriam James Heidland compares the experience with someone coming in from the cold with frostbite. To be in one’s heart and feeling again is both good and intense.

My prayer life has definitely shifted amidst this process. It is more tender and vulnerable, more about a love relationship with the Father, and more about receiving again and again all that I need. Ironically, I pray far more consistently. It’s less and less of a “should.” I simply need it. I need prayer. I need Jesus. I need the anointing of the Holy Spirit. And I desire all these things. I ache for them. I long to see the face of the Father. That, for me, has been the very best part about ceasing spiritual bypass. Returning to my place of heartache also opens up the freedom and capacity for my heart to ache for God. It renews and deepens faith, hope, and love.

Perhaps the best discovery of all has been to realize the stunning beauty of the human heart – my own heart and that of others. Yes, there is sin there. Yes, it’s a mess. AND we are beloved children of God, fearfully and wonderfully made, “very good” in his own image and likeness. You can’t appreciate the beauty of the town from the bypass. You have to slow down and spend time there. Then it captivates you. The beauty God has poured into the human heart is absolutely stunning – if we are willing to abide there amidst the mess.

I invite you to consider your own journey of following Jesus. In what ways do you take the bypass? Does it feel easier to avoid anger, sadness, fear, loneliness, or shame? How do you react when others around you feel or express those? How do they experience you? Do they feel safe and find it easy to open up to you about the deep things of their heart? Why or why not?

Does it feel easier to “say prayers” to open up in a tender and vulnerable relationship? Do you let yourself feel the ache of longing and desiring without yet fully possessing?

Jesus reminds us that the road is wide and easy that leads us to destruction. Taking the spiritual bypass is so appealing because it is wide and easy while pretending to be deeply spiritual. Engaging our story in the town that is our heart involves a dying and rising.

Above all else Jesus commands us to love the Lord, our God, with all our heart and mind and soul and strength. Yes, we may need to use the bypass for a time in our life, especially if we do not have the support and the resources to face the hard work that will be involved. But so long as we stay on the bypass, there are parts of our heart that are not being consecrated to the Lord, and therefore not receiving his blessing.

Wholehearted discipleship is certainly challenging! But it is worth it. You and I are worth it.

Talents vs. Gifts

What are your deepest gifts? The answer may not be so obvious as you think. In our culture that values doing over being, achievements over relationships, and strength over vulnerability, our truest and deepest gifts can often be buried beneath our talents.

My whole life I have been recognized as a talented individual, and certainly have no shortage of accomplishments. So many of those moments feel hollow to me now – especially when I see truthfully how I was performing to please others and not always in touch with the deepest movements of my own heart. I hesitate to say it, but I am grateful for moments of futility and failure, powerlessness and pain. Agonizing though they can be, they provide an opportunity for the hard shell of my perfectionism to be broken open, so that I can discover God’s treasures buried within, where I tend to feel so much shame – but where in fact he has made me in his own image and likeness.

Most of my life, I tended to use “gifts” and “talents” synonymously. It was in reading the deeply wounded and deeply wise spiritual author Henri Nouwen a few years ago that I discovered a distinction: “More important than our talents are our gifts. We may have only a few talents, but we have many gifts. Our gifts are the many ways in which we express our humanity. They are part of who we are: friendship, kindness, patience, joy, peace, forgiveness, gentleness, love, hope, trust, and many others. These are the true gifts we have to offer to each other.”

As some of you know, this Dutch priest, brilliant yet troubled man that he was, found his heart repeatedly transformed by his experience in Ontario with the L’Arche community, together with his friend Jean Vanier. L’Arche provides a home and a dignified existence for those considered by society to be mentally disabled. Nouwen was amazed to discover that they were more in touch with their humanity than he was. He sung the praises of their beautiful giftedness: “But since my coming to live in a community with mentally handicapped people, I have rediscovered this simple truth. Few, if any, of those people have talents they can boast of. Few are able to make contributions to our society that allow them to earn money, compete on the open market, or win awards. But how splendid are their gifts!”

We certainly live in a culture that values talents, achievements, and accomplishments. Consider how absolutely devastating it is for so many people these days as they go through the aging process or watch a loved one do so. Obviously, these changes of season in our life are always the occasion for healthy grieving, and are never easy. But these days some people simply cannot bear it. They get stuck and struggle to see any personal dignity amidst the experience of not being able to do the things they used to do, or exercise the talents they once had, or do the fun things they once did. Seeing giftedness amidst vulnerability and weakness is especially hard for modern-day westerners. What John Paul II described as “The Culture of Death” has seduced us with a distorted understanding of the human person that exalts talents, doing, and achieving over and above giftedness, being, and relating.

Some of us who have cared for loved ones with dementia have discovered a deeper treasure. Amidst devastating sadness, we witness the long and relentless and inevitable decline of talents. The person becomes less and less capable of meaningful rational or verbal communication. But when we learn to look past the outward weaknesses and losses, we discover that emotional and spiritual connection are still very much possible – sometimes in surprising and deep ways. We are certainly invited to acknowledge our own fears and insecurities, our perceived need for control, as we experience deep feelings of powerlessness. It is often only then that we are really ready to receive and discover God’s gifts deep within ourselves, if we are willing to stay present and engage.

I am a man of many talents, but it was only in various moments of powerlessness that God invited me to rediscover who I really am. I’ve always loved the words of the poet T.S. Eliot, but these days they resonate with me more than ever:

We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.

In my own journey, I am only beginning to rediscover my true gifts. Among other things, I am beginning to recognize that I am a sensitive, intuitive, empathic person, capable of connecting deeply and showing transformative kindness. I look back and see that these gifts have always been there, sometimes more in the forefront, and other times safely locked away and deeply buried beneath my multi-layered defenses.

No doubt, our areas of deepest gifting from God are also those that the powers of darkness attack early and often and (at times) with great malice and ferocity. The evil one sees God’s glory shining in us, and attempts to mar it. We often falter in allowing these deep treasures to emerge to the surface because we are held captive by the subtle lies that the devil has whispered to us from our earliest years: Others will always let you down. No one will really understand you. It’s safer to hide yourself. See what happens when you trust someone! You better stay strong and successful – if you fail, no one will love you…

I could go on and on. It is for each of us to discover and renounce these lies, allowing Jesus to rescue us and unleash our truest and deepest gifts.

We often feel safer and more comfortable donning our “likeable” talents like a mask, hiding our true self. In my experience, this spiritual masking is far more of a barrier than the physical masks most of us wear during this time of pandemic. With those physical masks, I have found (to my pleasant surprise) that the eyes are still the window to the soul, and deep human connection is still quite possible! But only if you and I are also choosing to open up and be present. It takes great courage to allow access to the vulnerable places of our heart, in which our true gifts are found. When we are ready to do so, God’s wonderful treasures await us.

Do Not Idolize the Means

Happy Feast of Saint Sharbel! Every July 24th we remember this wise monk and shepherd who lived in Lebanon from 1828-1898.

Holiness is the true goal of our life, the entire purpose of our human existence. As we all aim for that ultimate goal, Sharbel identifies one of the subtlest and most common pitfalls – making an idol of the means. Even incredibly good and beautiful things like prayer, fasting, and almsgiving can become hindrances if we idolize them: “Prayer sanctifies you; do not sanctify it. Fasting strengthens you; do not make it a god. Mortifications purify you; do not adore them. Your singing is designed to praise God, but do not glorify it.”

God himself gave us these means. He commanded penance and fasting; he inspired the psalms that King David sang; he invites us to gather and worship him. These means serve us well when we receive them in gratitude, and give them back freely to the Lord, the true object of our desire. But if we make an idol of the means, we fall into the trap of the Pharisees.

Echoing Jesus’ words in Matthew 23, Sharbel warns us not to confuse the temple with the living God who dwells in it: “The safe can never be more important than the treasure it contains, nor the glass more important than the wine it contains, nor the bakery more important than the bread, nor the tabernacle more important than the Blessed Sacrament.”

Even with something as wonderful as Scripture, Sharbel warns not to idolize the means: “Christianity is neither the religion of the temple nor the religion of the book. Christianity is the person of Jesus himself.” An important distinction! We call Scripture “the word of God” – and so it is, but only because by means of it we encounter Jesus Christ, God’s eternal Word. All Scripture points to him. Sharbel compares Scripture to a mirror that reflects God’s light. As wonderful as the mirror is, our true destiny is the light itself. It is quite possible to cling to verses of Scripture while keeping Jesus at a safe distance from the depths of our heart.

It is also very possible to turn to God or to religious practices as an attempt to escape the pain of our problems. Sharbel cautions, “Do not seek refuge in God in order to flee from yourself … Do not let the world push you toward God. Allow God to attract you.”

Allowing our fear to give way to love – this is what distinguishes the disciple from the Pharisee. The disciple of Jesus discovers God in the deep yearnings of his heart, and refuses to numb those desires, no matter how painful the waiting can be.

It is in the desire of our heart that the Father attracts us, drawing us more and more deeply into Jesus (John 6:44). As we encounter Jesus, the Holy Spirit transforms us, casting out the spirit of fear that binds us up in slavery, and maturing us in the glorious freedom of the sons and daughters of God (Romans 8).

Without desire, our conversion will hit a wall. We will either get stuck in the land of religious idols, or (when they fail to satisfy) we will revert to our old idolatry of sin. I know, because it’s been my story! For too many years, I was more often motivated by fear than by desire. I toggled back and forth between firm and resolute observance of all the rules and then numbing myself out with addictive behaviors. In both cases I was motivated by fear rather than by love. I was avoiding authentic vulnerability, trust, surrender, intimacy, and the deepest desires of my heart. God has been inviting me to leave the ways of fear behind and to discover him in the depths of my heart, where he has always been present.

Granted, fear can be a great motivator – especially in the very first motion of turning away from evil. But it will never fuel a full conversion in Christ. Only desire can propel me away from the orbit of my past life of sin. If I do not open up in vulnerability and trust, if I do not allow myself to feel the depths of desire (which can be painful!) I will not grow in love.

Sometimes it feels so much safer to cling rigidly to the means – especially those that God made so good and beautiful. Clinging to them, I can avoid vulnerability, resist surrender, and bury my unfulfilled desire. When I idolize the means, I feel in control. Unfortunately, without vulnerability there is no love. Without surrender, there is no faith. Without desire, there is no hope.

“It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God” (Hebrews 10:31). Not because he is a God of fear, but because all our illusions melt away in his presence. Our pretending and protecting hold no sway. He tolerates them with great patience. He respects our resistance – because he always respects our dignity and freedom, which he gave to us. He patiently waits. He entices and attracts, turning even our stumbling into wonderful opportunity. But only we can say “yes” and allow his love to be awakened deeply within in our heart.

Often, when the real growth begins, it is in ways we never expected. We spend so much of our time trying to force a path of holiness that is not for us. We grasp at means that may work well for others, but do not match with our own story. Sharbel invites us to discover our truest and deepest identity, and embrace the means of holiness most suitable to the situation God has placed us in. “The cedars and the oaks do not grow in the sand of the seashore, nor banana and orange groves among the rocks on the mountain. Do your work with the available tools, and flourish and bear fruit where God has planted you.”

Our deepest desires have always been there. The Father put them there in the first place. We just need to get reconnected with them, allow ourselves to feel them, to grow in them, and (propelled by them) to return to the Father. As this process unfolds for each of us I think we will find that we are experiencing what the poet T.S. Eliot once described in these words:

With the drawing of this Love and the voice of this Calling
We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.

The Tree that Holds the Nest

Ongoing insights from the sermons of Saint Sharbel (1828-1898).

For birds, nest building is a matter of security, survival, and nurturing. They instinctively seek out a safe location and then diligently gather materials to prepare a home in which they can hatch, nourish, and protect their young.

We humans have a similar instinct, both for ourselves and for those in our care. We are hardwired for survival, and we have a deep need to feel safe and secure. Ideally, those needs are met in our early and vulnerable stages in life. Through healthy relationships, intimate and consistent nurturing, and appropriate protecting, we learn to trust God vulnerably and be secure in his protection and love. Unfortunately, many of us have a different story, and continue to struggle with insecurity well into our adult lives.

Saint Sharbel reminds us not to get so intensely focused on our frenzied nest building that we forget all about the tree that holds the nest.

One mistake is to pick the wrong tree! Animals sometimes build their nests in funny places – especially when baffled by the shape and texture of human structures. A year ago my mother kept sending us photos of the duck that had decided to build its nest beneath her water meter, right outside the living room and just two feet from the driveway. In this case, she, my sister, and my nephews were all quite interested in helping protect the eggs that held the ducklings. In other cases, picking the wrong nesting place is fatal for all concerned.

We humans easily build our nest in artificial places – food or drink, status, wealth, luxury, entertainment, sexual fantasies, social media (or the image we project on social media), addictions, and so forth. These surrogate trees feel safe to us in the moment, but they are artificial substitutes for the only thing that can bring true human security and nurture – healthy relationships, beginning with God the Father.

Even as disciples of Jesus, we can get so unduly focused on our nest that forget all about the tree that holds the nest. Sharbel exhorts us, “Care for the tree with the same care that you devote to the nest. Just as you take charge of your nests, take charge of your trees also. Care for the roots, the trunk, the branches, and the leaves.”

This is another way of inviting us to put God’s Kingdom first in every aspect of our life. If the branches of the tree are healthy and full, our nest will have plenty of protection. We do not need to exert so much energy and wear ourselves out building high walls around our nest.

Parents worry a great deal about the safety and security of their children – especially in this age of “helicopter parenting” or (my personal favorite) Zamboni parenting. Such hopes for a life devoid of risk or messiness are unrealistic and serve only to steal away our peace as we chase the impossible. I say “we” because these parents are typiclly my age and because I have done more than my share of freaking out in my role as a spiritual father in parish life. Saint Sharbel gently lifts our gaze to remind us of the true security that we can confer on our children:

“You must give life to your children. Now, there is no life except in Christ. So offer them Christ! But if he is not in you, it will be difficult for you to give him to them. If you do not sanctify yourselves, how do you think you will sanctify your children?”

There are parallel truths at the level of a parish family. How many of the feverish activities in a typical American parish are actually about connecting us with Jesus and helping our children fall in love with Jesus? How many of our parishes are dying because individuals and groups are so concerned with guarding their nests that they fail to notice how rotten or dead the tree has become?

I take the same challenges to heart as a priest, as I celebrate my 17th anniversary this weekend. Looking back over the years, I can think of many moments in which I was far more concerned with “nest building” than with abiding in the love of Jesus. In the early years, I plunged into all sorts of pastoral busyness, often finding that I had – yet again – missed my allotted meditation time or was praying the entire Divine Office at 11pm (or at a later time I will not admit!). The Lord gently and persistently invited me to depend on him and to put prayer first. Without prayer, I wither and die.

I have vastly improved my prayer habits, but I still struggle often with ungodly self-reliance or self-protection. God has revealed to me the deeper truth: he has placed me and my nest in a mighty tree by flowing waters. If I allow that tree to abide by the waters and grow, not only will my nest find protection in those strong branches, so will thousands of others. It is sometimes hard to believe in the depths of my heart that God will provide and protect. It takes so much surrender and humility to trust his branches; it feels so much easier to return to my own frenzied nest building or (at more selfish moments) simply to bury myself in my nest and ignore everyone and everything.

God wills for us to tend to the tree that holds our nest. If the branches are rotting, we may need to ask for help from wise people in our life. We may need to seek spiritual remedies such as prayer, sacraments, fasting, or penance.

Often, we need to go to the roots of the tree. If the soil and the roots are unsound, the whole tree is in danger. Getting to the roots takes determination and courage. As Sharbel explains, “the work of taking root is hidden, it will not appear, and it requires effort and asceticism.” We have to be willing to die to ourselves. It often means a great simplification of our cushy nest – something we tend to resist!

Nest building is a natural part of life, but the Lord invites us to turn our attention to the tree that holds our nest. May each of us have the humility and courage to tend to that tree, and to trust in the protection and care God will provide us there.

Dispelling the Shadows of Shame

I have come to realize that shame is the devil’s tactic of choice in his efforts to ruin our human existence. Certainly he entices and allures, divides and distracts. Occasionally he openly attacks, but he would much rather not. In those moments we might call upon the name of the Lord and be saved. If there’s anything the devil can’t stand, it’s being defeated yet again.

Rather than an open fight, the devil much prefers to lurk in the shadows and undermine us without our even noticing. As Kevin Spacey famously said in The Usual Suspects: “The greatest trick the devil ever pulled was convincing the world he didn’t exist.”

The devil subtly shames us with his lies, keeping us from becoming fully ourselves. If we don’t unmask him and expose him, if we don’t even notice that he’s there, he can deceive us with ease, convincing us that we are unlovable, that we must avoid being vulnerable, and that we must hide ourselves from others and even from God.

Curt Thompson wrote a marvelous book on the subject entitled The Soul of Shame: Retelling the Stories We Believe About Ourselves. He offers the image of a “shame attendant” who follows each of us around, pretending to be a loyal servant, eagerly whispering his counsel in our ear. I think immediately of Grima Wormtongue from The Lord of the Rings, who kept sapping and undermining the strength of King Theoden with his whispered distortions and lies.

Shame is all about distorting our true story. We humans are storytellers by our very nature. Even though we only know some of the facts in any given situation, we generally cannot resist filling in the gaps with assumptions about the parts of the story that we do not know. This is how rumors get started. This is why twenty different witnesses can give twenty different accounts of the same event. This is why one momentary interaction in daily life can sometimes feel like just a normal human interaction and other times can send us on a downward spiral for hours or even days.

An acquaintance walks past without stopping to talk. A co-worker asks for a status report on our project that we are behind on. A parish member asks us how our struggling child is doing in school. A friend posts social media photos of amazing family activities. A spouse offers a suggestion for how to do something differently. Any one of these innocuous experiences can cause a sudden shift. We might immediately feel the urge to withdraw or isolate or procrastinate; we might lash out at the person; we might find ourselves replaying conversations over and over in our mind, trying to find just the right response.

Behind those reactions are the whispers of our shame attendant: There you go again; you always fail at those things… You’ll never be as successful as him… You’ll never be beautiful like her… Of course she would walk away from you; why would you let someone get close to you like that?… He wouldn’t understand – no one will ever really understand you… If you make mistakes like that, no one will want to be around you anymore… You’re stuck; nothing will ever changePeople will always let you down; they’ll leave you once they really get to know you…

The devil is the father of lies and a murderer from the beginning. He sees God’s glory in us and cannot stand it. Often very early in life, he begins his carefully planned attack. He sneaks in when we are the most powerless and vulnerable, and whispers lies and half-truths into our ears. He uses a few facts to begin distorting our story. This constant whisper becomes so much a part of our life that we cease noticing it. We learn to hide and isolate, for fear of feeling vulnerable.

The hiding and isolating can come in many forms: avoidance and withdrawal, shifting the blame to others, putting on a fake persona, overachieving, or addictive behaviors. Every addiction is fueled by shame. Whereas intimate relationships run the risk of abandonment or rejection, the soothing of an addiction (sugar, alcohol, shopping, pornography, binge watching) will always be there for us, won’t make any immediate demands, and will numb the shame if only for a brief time.

Perfectionism is also fueled by shame, and often goes hand in hand with addictive behaviors. Behind every perfectionist is a shame attendant whispering why failure is not an option: I am only lovable if I am accomplished and successful; I am not lovable when I make mistakes or fail; I have to…or else… When the pressures of perfectionism become crushing and unbearable, the escape of an addiction can feel irresistible.

Shame doesn’t just infect our minds in the form of negative self-talk or accusations; it also affects our emotions and even our bodies. We are a unity of body, mind, and spirit. So we typically feel shame and even carry it in our bodies. That is why our shame reactions can be so strong and so lasting in certain day-to-day human interactions. Many of us have shame-laden memories, unresolved moments in our story that we keep hidden away – moments in which we felt totally worthless or unlovable, threatened or powerless, rejected or alone or abandoned. In those memories, our body felt certain sensations. If we ever feel those again, our brain immediately sets off its “smoke alarm” (the amygdala) and warns us that we are in grave danger – even when we are not. We react. We hide. We isolate.

The solution is so counter-intuitive. We need to be seen and known, to come to the light, to be loved and to belong. It only works if I surrender and allow all of myself to be seen and accepted and loved (including the “bad” parts I would rather lock away).  If I pull back and only project an avatar of myself, a “safe” and edited version to share with others, I will never truly be known and loved – and shame can stay in the driver’s seat, ever reminding me that there are other weaker parts of me that must be kept hidden at all costs.

To be human is to be vulnerable, whether we like it or not. The whispers of shame convince us that we must not allow ourselves to feel vulnerable. So long as we are beholden to those whispers, we are unable to be healed and integrated as a whole person. We continue to experience what Mother Teresa described as the greatest form poverty – to feel alone and unloved.

And you – what are the parts of yourself that you hide from others or from God? Are you willing to be known and seen and heard by at least a few trustworthy people, and by God? He does not pull back; he loves us for who we are and he has always loved us. He has loved us “even when…” If we ask, he will also help us find others who can play that role of loving us for who we are. Those people are there to be found – we are just afraid!

Stepping out into the experience of vulnerability can be terrifying at times (believe me, I know!). But the shadows of shame take flight the more that we allow it to happen.