Grief stricken in spirit, I, Tobit, groaned and wept aloud. then with sobs I began to pray: “You are righteous, O Lord, and all your deeds are just. All your ways are mercy and truth; you are the judge of the world. And now, O Lord may you be mindful of me, and look with favor upon me. Punish me not for my sins, nor my inadvertent offenses, nor for those of my ancestors.”
At that time, then, Sarah spread out her hands, and facing the window, poured out her prayer: “Blessed are you, O Lord, merciful God, and blessed is your holy and honorable name. Blessed are you in all your works forever!”
Tobit 3:1-3, 11
Today we read from the Book of Tobit about the discouragement and despair of Tobit and of Sarah, and of the prayer they offer out of that despair. The experience they are living out is not foreign to any of us. They are feeling desperate and ashamed. If we ever doubt that we, as humans, are essentially communal, we are powerfully reminded of it when we experience shame. In shame, we feel that all of our connections with the world, especially the human world, are broken. We are cast out from the human community into an isolation and judgment that is worse than death itself. In fact, in shame we feel a longing to disappear, to cease living, so painful is the experience, so profound the sense of not-belonging.
The roots of shame, no doubt, go back to the earliest days of our lives. Connection to our mothers and to our first caretakers are literally and physically a matter of life and death for us. We have been thrown into the wider world at birth, and our survival there depends on our being seen, accepted, and taken care of. We cannot bear to feel disconnected, even for a moment. As we grow we, at some level, never cease to carry this experience and this need. When that deep vulnerability to be accepted and cared for is broken, we experience, once again, all the dread and rage of the infant who, in all her or his helplessness, cannot dare be excluded from the attention and acceptance of others.
So, Sarah contemplates ending her own life. Albert Camus wrote: “There is only one really serious philosophical problem, and that is suicide. Deciding whether or not life is worth living is to answer the fundamental question in philosophy.” Although, mercifully, most of us are not tempted to actually end our lives, we all, especially when overcome by the pain of shame, find ourselves in some way wrestling with the decision of “whether or not life is worth living.” One elemental aspect of the question lies for us in coming to grips with what it is that makes our life worth living.
Given our inherently social nature, we are disposed to make that judgment pre-reflectively based on our place in society. When we are acknowledged, accepted, and confirmed by others, we feel satisfied and fulfilled. When we experience the shame of rejection and exclusion, we feel that life is not worth living. In a totally non-transcendent and secular culture, this universal experience based on the acceptance or rejection of others leads us to demand of the world that it not only acknowledge and accept us, but also that it confirm and ratify us on our own terms. This is what creates our culture of entitlement. We begin to demand acceptance and confirmation as a right when they can only be received as a gift. The psychological and spiritual effects of this perspective are ultimately deformative and even dehumanizing. The more we aggressively pursue and demand acceptance by others, the more likely it is to be resisted and withheld. Thus, instead of lessening the experience of shame in life, it increases it.
The words of Tobit and Sarah as they pray out of their shame and despair are almost shocking to us. We have just heard Sarah described as desperate and suicidal. Yet, she spreads out her hands, faces the window and prays the words: “Blessed are you, O Lord, merciful God, and blessed is your holy and honorable name. Blessed are you in all your works forever!” If we reflect on the nature of our feelings of shame, we realize that the experience of its very nature is one in which we withdraw from the world and into ourselves. We close in, usually not even able to turn our eyes upward and outward, but rather turn them down and inward. So, how is it that Sarah, at such a moment, is able to spread out her hands and face the window? How is she able to bless the Lord’s name and works?
An answer that readily comes to mind is that she is, perhaps, fortunate not to live in our psychological age. Her culture lacks the extreme self-consciousness that has developed over time and seems to have culminated in our own time. Yet, it is clear from the description of her, as well as Tobit’s, experience that there is universal applicability here. Adrian van Kaam distinguishes between introspection and transcendent self-presence. In introspection we examine our lives and our experience as if we are a closed system, as if we are separate from the rest of reality. In transcendent self-presence, our self-reflection occurs always against a horizon of the sacred, against the Divine love that permeates the universe and so our own life.
In the moments where we feel thrown into a harsh world, when we feel judged or cut off from the human community, the truth of a deeper connection and communion remains. When the compulsion of our affective experience of shame would lead us to turn our gaze into our seemingly dark and hopeless interior, we can spread out our hands and face the window, contemplating the horizon of love in which we are held. We can consider the birds of the air and the lilies of the field, and we can bless the Lord’s name and the Lord’s works. Even when we cannot feel able to bless the Lord for the Divine work that we are, we can look to that which we can bless, and then experience our own connection with it and with all that is.
We need the acceptance and confirmation of others, but we need not demand it. For, we already have the affirmation of God. Being is already being loved. Tobit and Sarah are able to praise the righteousness, mercy, and truth of God, even as they are unable to feel it. Although we no longer, as Charles Taylor points out, live in the “enchanted” world in which they lived, we are also able to realize that there is One beyond us who is always worthy of our praise, whose righteousness, mercy, and truth exist outside of and within us, whether we feel them or not.
How do we learn this truth in practice when our cultural, and even our religious, lives do not support our formation in such transcendent presence? Perhaps one way is the practice of appreciative abandonment to the Mystery, to God. In the gospel story of the ten lepers (Luke 17:11-19), Jesus teaches how difficult gratitude is for us. If this is so when something we experience as so good for us occurs, how much more is it true in all those life experiences where we do not recognize the good for ourselves? Yet, we can learn to abandon ourselves, as does Sarah, to bless God in all God’s works, even those we are at the moment suffering. Praise and gratitude are inextricably linked for us. If we practice praise at all times, we shall slowly grow in gratitude for everything. As Dag Hammarskjold expressed it: “For all that has been, ‘Thanks’. To all that will be, ‘Yes’.”
In moments of deep distress and shame, we shall always spontaneously close in on ourselves. it is at just such moments that we need to spread open our clenched fists and face the window. We need to look out at the wider world of which we are but a small part and bless the name and the works of the Lord who, as Julian of Norwich says, makes, loves, and cares for all, including ourselves.
In this little thing I saw three properties. The first is that God made it. The second that God loves it. And the third, that God keeps it. But what is this to me? Truly, the Creator, the Keeper, the Lover. For until I am substantially “oned” to him, I may never have full rest nor true bliss. That is to say, until I be so fastened to him that there is nothing that is made between my God and me.
(Julian of Norwich (1342-1416), Showings, Chapter 5)