Fear not, you shall not be put to shame; / you need not blush, for you shall not be disgraced. / The shame of your youth you shall forget, / the reproach of your widowhood no longer remember. For he who has become your husband is your Maker; / his name is the Lord of hosts; / Your redeemer is the Holy One of Israel, / called God of all the earth.
Isaiah 54: 4-5
In the scriptures we read often of how the coming of the Lord will make the barren fruitful, the burdened easeful, the anxious relieved, and the ashamed consoled. From the promises of the prophets to Jesus’ choice of the poor, the weak, and the sinful, we hear that the sign of God’s coming among us is the “lifting up of the lowly.” The distinguished researcher Donald Nathanson writes of the role in personal and political life of the effects of “the shame-pride axis.” How much of our personal lives as well as our shared and political lives is driven by the effects of shame and pride in us? Are the lowly “chosen” in the spiritual realm precisely because they, unlike the proud and successful, cannot deny their shame and so must be available to the gift of Divine love which allows them to transcend it?
From the very beginning of our lives, we live in and are dependent upon relationship with others. Should we not have adults who tend to us in our vulnerability, we would die. In the early years of our human and spiritual formation beyond infancy, we learn the necessary conformity and compatibility with those around us in order that we might survive in the world. We assimilate the values of our families, tribes, and cultures. We learn to cultivate and advertise what is valued in us and to hide and even deny what our cultures do not value. This process continues in large part throughout our lives.
The result of this is that all of us, to one degree or another, live the precariousness of what Freud termed “the vicissitudes of the ego.” When our project of self-creation and self-promotion is working well, we experience pride, we “feel good.” When something of what we work so hard to disguise or deny sneaks out, we feel shame. Shame is the deep and painful personal experience of being exposed in those ways that we believe to be unacceptable to others, usually because they have become unacceptable to us. Our shame is for many, if not most of us, what keeps us from knowing at our depth the love of God for us and the deepest possibilities of intimacy with others.
Pride is not true self-acceptance and affirmation, it is rather ratification of our own self-creation, of our false form. As such, it is the cause of much of the violence that pervades our human relationships. Greed, ambition, manipulation are all manifestations of our attempt to have the world recognize, confirm, and submit to our illusory idea of what makes us valuable. We strive to attain things at the expense of others, and even of our own deepest call, because we mistakenly believe that these attainments and recognitions are the manifestations of love for us. The precariousness of this experience is due to the fact that we know, even if unconsciously, that the shame of the revelation of the truth of who we really are threatens to erupt at any moment. If “they” see who I really am, then “my life” is over.
Our sense of social significance, then, is reliant, we believe, on the effectiveness of our pride form. The “poor and the marginalized” in any society are those who have been ineffective in their efforts at “conformation” with the values of the culture. They will never know the confirmation of who they are based on social values alone. To know the affirmation of their being, they can only rely on God’s love for them as the one whom God has created prior to their social identification. Those who have been more successful in the dissociative act of self-creation must first let go of their attainments before they can know that, even in those places they are most ashamed, they are loved by God. This is why, as we read in Luke’s gospel today, those “who listened to him, including the tax collectors, who were baptized with the baptism of John, acknowledged the righteousness of God, but the Pharisees and scholars of the law, who were not baptized by him, rejected the plan of God for themselves” (Luke 7: 29-30). When our lives are governed by pride, they are really being controlled by fear of shame. If that fear is strong enough, there is no violence of which we are incapable in order to preserve ourselves from it.
We speak of the call “to minister to the poor and marginalized” because being with those who lack our sense of self-sufficiency and pride is necessary for us. We are to make our home “with them” because they are us. Those to whom we are sent do not want of us our surplus, our money, possessions, or even primarily our accumulated talents. They want our presence. This is very challenging for us, however, because we have spent our lives moving away from the truth of who we are, from those aspects of ourselves of which we are ashamed. We want to give from our surplus and not, like the widow in the gospel, from “all she had to live on” (Luke 21: 4), that is from the depths, and what feels to us like the dregs, of who we are.
The description of human nature we hear in Isaiah today is very recognizable. As young people, and especially as adolescents, we all suffered the ravages of shame, the fear that who we really are is not “good enough” for the world. The prophet, however, tells us that we shall forget the shame of our youth when we realize how intimately God is with us, as our spouse and Maker. To forget about our self-concern and to “put ourselves in God’s service” will constantly remind us of our weakness and poverty, of the little we have to offer. It will keep us “honest” with ourselves, realizing that our all will always be less than we would have hoped. By giving what we have away, however, we also learn that as little as it is, it is nothing to be ashamed of. The little love we have to give is but an instrument of a far greater love. If we cease to hold on in fearful shame, we shall discover that the poor, broken, vulnerable person we are is a child who bears God’s love in the world and a beloved spouse of the Maker of us all.
You are still young and you must grow a good deal, and it is much better for you, if you wish to walk the way of Love, that you seek difficulty and that you suffer for the honor of Love, rather than wish to feel love. But take upon you Love’s interests, as one who wishes to be ever in her noble service. Have no care, therefore, for honor or shame; fear neither the torments of earth nor those of hell, if by them you could prevail on Love, in order to serve this Love worthily. Her noble service consists in the care you take to recite your hours and to keep your Rule, without wishing or receiving pleasure in any of your service. And if you find pleasure in anything at all, whatever it may be–anything that is less than this same God, who shall be yours in the union of fruition–be willingly ill at ease in it, until God illuminates you with his own Being and gives you the capacity to serve and to have fruition of Love’s being wherein Love loves herself and suffices to herself.
Serve nobly, wish for nothing else, and fear nothing else: and let Love freely take care of herself! For Love rewards to the full, even though she often comes late. Let no doubt or disappointment ever turn you away from performing acts of virtue; let no ill success cause you to fear that you yourself will not come to conformity with God. You must not doubt this, and you must not believe in human beings on earth, saints, or angels, even if they work wonders (Gal 1:8); for you were called early, and your heart feels, at least sometimes, that you are chosen, and that God has begun to sustain your soul in abandonment.
Hadewijch, Letters, Letter 2: 66, 86