Understanding Shame

During Lent I have been writing about thoughts and feelings which the desert monastics referred to as demons. I wrote an article which you can find HERE about the method of soul healing described by Evagrius of Pontus. So far I have used the teachings of Evagrius and Cassian to name three demons and discuss ways of talking back to them. The demons I’ve named so far are acedia, sadness, and anger. Naming demons is one of the first and most important steps to being rid of them. In Mark 5, when Jesus cast out the demons known as Legion the first thing he asked them was what they were called. In like manner we cannot address the demons in us until we know what they are. If we cannot name a demon, it is likely to slip by unnoticed and wreak havoc in our souls without us even being aware.

The demon I want to name in this article is one that the desert monastics appear to have missed – shame. Evagrius and Cassian don’t include a name for it in their list of eight demons. Perhaps it is hidden within another demon which I have not found yet, like how they understood fear to be an essential part of sadness. But it appears that the demon of shame eluded their system. I believe that our culture’s failure to name this demon has had disastrous consequences. We are quick to point out the problems with anger and pride but there has been a tendency to treat shame as an angel instead of a demon, often falsely linking it with compunction, which is a kind of sacred sadness.

However, it is true that shame can be found to have many commonalities with pride, which they did include and gave special attention to. I have heard it said that shame is simply pride turned inside out. Even though shame seems to be a contrary to pride, it is still not the blessed virtue of humility. It is as if shame and pride were both contraries of humility, which, as The Cloud of Unknowing so wisely points out, is nothing more than an awareness of oneself as one truly is. Pride assumes we are great and shame assumes we are terrible, but humility makes no assumptions and rather sees the truth as it really is in all its simple meekness.

So, ironically, the cure for shame is in the realization that we are wrong. Wrong about our assumptions. Wrong to make assumptions in the first place. The fact that shame presumes to make assumptions about who we are is one of the ways in which it most resembles pride. Often a person in the depths of shame refuses to see the truth about themselves. They cling to their self hatred with a kind tenacity that feels very much like pride.

If you want to learn more about humility and its different kinds, you can check out this article where I discuss perfect and imperfect humility from the perspective of The Cloud and Julian of Norwich. If you want to read more about my own journey in coming to understand how pride and shame are connected inside my own heart, you can check out this article which comes from my Lenten fast a couple years ago.

Although shame, by definition, is a feeling of worthlessness or inadequacy which is self directed, it most often is actually the voice of another person playing out in our heads. When we are told by others (especially others whose opinions we are supposed to value like a parent, spouse, or priest) that we are not good enough then their voice can often merge with our own. Without realizing it we end up internalizing their voice and making it our own. We may have no idea whose accusations are really fueling our self accusation and therefore learning where these thoughts come from is a first step towards finding truth – and the truth will set you free. Truth is the contrary to shame.

Shame, like fear, is often the root of other vices. It corrupts our thoughts about many things and leads us into all kinds of trouble. When we believe we are not good enough we may try to cover that up with anger. When we feel like we are constant failures we may try to compensate by people pleasing and falling into the vice of vainglory. When we feel like we are incapable of living a meaningful life we can easily fall into sadness. As we begin to clear away the layers of demons clouding our souls many people find that shame is in the background orchestrating the movements of all the other demons.

In his book Mirror of Charity, Aelred of Rievaulx comments on the words of Jesus in Luke 10:27 where we are told that love is the fulfilment of the law. Jesus said, ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind, and you shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ For Aelred, these words have deep meaning and he points out that there are three kinds of love being described. This is how he interprets this passage with its two commandments as to who we should love:

“On these two commands depend all the law and the prophets. Yet if you diligently examine these two commandments, you discover that three things must be loved: yourself, your neighbour, and God. Let love of self, then, be man’s first sabbath, love of neighbour the second, and love of God the sabbath of sabbaths. As we said above, the spiritual sabbath is rest for the spirit, peace of heart, and tranquility of mind. This sabbath is sometimes in love of oneself, it is sometimes derived from the sweetness of brotherly love and, beyond all doubt, it is brought to perfection in the love of God.”

The idea that the spiritual sabbath is peace of heart goes right back to the desert tradition with Evagrius and Cassian. Evagrius described it as apatheia and Cassian described it as purity of heart. The primary reason we are to talk back to the demons and cast them out of our hearts is that they do not give us any true rest. Shame fills the mind with thoughts that attack us and keep us in a constant sense of conflict. The true spiritual sabbath is a kind of purity of heart because it is when our souls are at rest. Purity in this sense is not the same as so many people use it today. It is not purity culture and an avoidance of social taboos which seem to be primarily sexual for some reason. Purity in this sense is more like clarity. I think it is described well in this quote from one of the desert fathers, who unfortunately remains unnamed:

One of the fathers said. “Just as it is impossible for a man to see his face in troubled water, so too the soul, unless it be cleansed of thoughts, cannot pray to God in contemplation.”

Still calm water is like a mirror and our souls are like a pool of water. Since we are the image of God, when the water is still enough to see a reflection, it is the face of God which we see reflected in it. But when our souls are turbulent with the influence of demons and our thoughts are not pure and simple and calm then we are no longer able to see any reflection in the water. Contemplation requires a certain level of inner stillness and calm. It is like a sabbath in that way, a sabbath in which we are able to see God reflected in our own souls. For this reason practices like centering prayer or the Jesus prayer are excellent ways to help cast out the demon of shame. When we are able to still our minds so that the water is calm enough to see a reflection, then we come to a place of humility which sees the truth.

Since the contrary to shame is humility and humility is actually an ability to see the truth, in order to rid ourselves of the demon of shame we must diligently seek out the truth about who we are. Shame will tell us this is destined to failure because the demon of shame convinces us that we already have the truth – and the truth is that we are bad, ugly, worthless, unlovable, and beyond hope. Shame feels like a forgone conclusion and something we simply have to accept.

When thoughts of shame assail us, we are wise to think about a few different things. Firstly we need to name the demon for what it is and not accept the lie it whispers to us. Secondly, we should look at where this demon has come from and try to find the truth about whose voice is really speaking to us. Thirdly, we should talk back to the demon with truths about ourselves. We can recall all our good qualities, which every person has. We can try to seek that still water which is the spiritual sabbath and see reflected in our hearts the image of God.

Shame is about identity. It is a false sense of who and what we are. As we go deeper and deeper into contemplation we find that what we are is rather humble. We are not awful and we are not great, we simply are. The calmness of the water is really about avoiding extremes. We need not swing dramatically from shame to pride by trying to convince ourselves that we are the best. We are neither the best nor the worst. What we are is a reflection of God’s goodness. An image is by nature less than that which it is an image of, but if what it reflects is beautiful then the image is beautiful. Seek within yourself the simple goodness in which you are created and there you will find true humility.

In my previous articles I have included a couple entries from Evagrius’ book Talking Back. This book is designed to help you look up scripture verses which can be used in meditation like a mantra to talk back to the demon, breathing in with the first half of the verse and out with the second. By replacing the unhealthy thoughts with healthy thoughts derived from scripture, we cast out the demons, who are the unhealthy thoughts themselves. Since Evagrius does not have a section on shame, I have opted to write a few entries myself following his style and approach. Here are a few that I was able to come up with. The list in not exhaustive by any means and you may need to find something that fits your situation more directly.

To the soul who does not believe that self knowledge will lead to self love, “The one who gets wisdom loves life; the one who cherishes understanding will soon prosper.”

Proverbs 19:8

To the soul who feels unlovable, “See what great love the Father has lavished on us, that we should be called children of God! And that is what we are!”

1 John 3:1

Against the demon that claims we should love other and hate ourselves and hides this lie behind the virtue of humility. “You shall love your neighbor as yourself. Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore love is the fulfilling of the law.”

Romans 13:9-10

Against the demon that brings shame about the body, saying that a person’s value is in their body and that their body is ugly, “For you created my inmost being; you knit me together in my mother’s womb.”

Psalm 139:13

To the soul that does not know that it is loved, “You are altogether beautiful, my darling; there is no flaw in you.”

Song of Songs 4:7

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One thought on “Understanding Shame

  1. You bless me with your words and council me with the wisdom of the beloved. I take comfort and pray that they find fértil ground in my soul.

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