“God may use the things that he has wrought in us, for the blessing of souls unknown to us.”
Suffering takes many forms. It can describe physical pain. It can describe emotional and social pain. In general, we can say that it describes human situations that we want to end or escape in order to feel better. Much of the pain that we experience in life is unavoidable: pain is an inherent part of the world we live in, both for good and for ill. Some pain is indeed avoidable but difficult to escape for a variety of reasons. Some pain is self-inflicted. But what we can say without fear of contradiction is that there is no such thing in this world as a pain-free existence. Everybody suffers.
There is a suffering that comes from pain, a suffering that comes from sadness and loss, but the most difficult to bear is the suffering that comes from shame. Our shame is generated by how we feel about “who we are.” Guilt is about “what I have done.” We can acknowledge guilt, but easily find ourselves crushed by shame.
Shame is a primary cause of anger and depression. Something happens and we encounter loss. We feel unworthy, or detached, or dismissed, or denied, or denigrated, etc. Generally, we react with anger or with depression, depending on many things within us. Both of these reactions remove us from the true burden of our suffering and create inauthentic suffering. Much of this occurs on an unconscious level. Our shame clouds the heart and the mind and we fail to see ourselves and the world as they are.
The only path to the truth in these situations is to bear the shame. St. John Climacus says, “You cannot escape shame except by shame.” (4.62) It is worth noting that the Elder Sophrony advised, “Teach them to bear a little shame.” This is something we do along and along, as the soul is able to bear it.
The inner act of acknowledging our shame, and sitting in its presence without anger or sadness, is an act of self-emptying. When we are in such a place we pray, “O God, comfort me.” It is then that the Holy Spirit, the Comforter, can enter in and grant us the great comfort of the image of Christ being formed in us. It banishes anger and dissipates sadness.
The acknowledging of our shame (whether deserved or not) is not the occasion for promising to do better or be better. Those are simply efforts not to acknowledge it. Rather, we acknowledge it with patience and attention. The experience of shame (of any sort) is a deeply, profoundly vulnerable experience. In many respects, shame itself is a feeling of extreme vulnerability. We do not experience shame as “safe.” It feels extremely “unsafe.” Our willingness to acknowledge it to ourselves and to God is a sacrifice of vulnerability.
Christ recognizes Himself in us when we bear our shame in His presence. He does not abandon us to death but comforts us. This is a deeply healing experience for the soul. It can and should be an essential part of confession and repentance, but can also be a part of prayer at any time.
In the story of our first sin, Adam and Eve encounter shame. Their shame is not over their sin, but over their nakedness. Their shame causes them to hide from God and to blame others for their fall. The first victim is the unity of man and woman, then the destruction of unity with creation itself. God covers that primal shame with the “garments of skin.” He is not the cause of our shame. Ultimately He fulfills what is prefigured in those garments by giving us the garment of His own righteousness to cover our shame. It is within the righteous covering of Christ that we find the courage to bear the shame that has been ours from the beginning and to enter the comfort of God and the freedom that comes from Him alone.