But during the night, the angel of the Lord opened the doors of the prison, led them out, and said, “Go and take your place in the temple area, and tell the people everything about this life.”
For everyone who does wicked things hates the light and does not come toward the light, so that his works might not be exposed. But whoever lives the truth comes to the light, so that his works may be clearly seen as done in God.
As a child in public school, my religious education occurred primarily through the stories that the Sisters would tell us in Sunday school and later in “released time” classes. Many of the stories concerned the themes of death, judgment, heaven and hell. For me, one of the scariest of them was about how, at the last judgment everything that we did in life would be known to everybody else, that is all of our bad as well as good deeds. I almost trembled to think that all about me that I saw as dark and kept in the dark would be brought out into the light for all to see. In fact, I don’t even recall hearing that our good deeds would be revealed, so taken was I by the fear of being humiliated by others learning about the parts of my life that I held in secret.
Shame is a powerful force in the lives of many of us. It is a terrible weight that may well be the greatest obstacle to our freely and generously giving the gift we have been given that is our own lives. The need to hold onto what we feel to be our shameful secrets and the shame we fear if we vulnerably express and offer all that we have are, in large part, the cause of our lives being so much smaller than they could be.
As believers we hold that although much of our experience is of a reality that is socially constructed, there is a reality that transcends our social structure and mores. If I reflect back on my boyhood, I can readily ask myself, what did I, at that age, have to be so ashamed of? And why would God be presented to us as the ultimate shamer? I think the answer to both lies in how central shame is to the reality constructed by society. It is the “enforcer” par excellence of society’s mores. It is the force that is meant to keep each one of us in her or his place, as the order of society and class designates that place. On the other hand, there is the “life to the full” of which Jesus speaks, a life of a very different order and so of so much greater possibility.
In all the times I’ve read today’s passage from Acts, I have never really taken note before today of the angel’s command to the disciples: “Go and take your place in the temple area, and tell the people everything about this life.” Up to now, my attention has always been focused on their miraculous release from jail and the reaction of the religious and military leaders. Yet, today I realized that the angel told the disciples not to tell people about the resurrection of Jesus, or to teach them about the tenets of the faith, but rather to tell them “everything about this life.” The mystery of the Resurrection is the reality of a way of life, a life that is somehow very different from the lives we tend to lead which are governed and inhibited by our social consciousness.
So, I ask myself, what would I want to “tell the people . . . about this life”? How do I experience living in the light of the resurrection? For one thing, as St. Paul writes, “this life” is a life that is gift of God, our being raised from the dead as God raised Jesus. It is being freed from the burden of discerning life and action on the basis of being acceptable or not. The “fear” of being revealed that I felt as a young boy continued to influence, if not dominate, my consciousness for much of my young and not so young life. The deep self-depreciation meant that I was driven by a need to prove that I was okay or valuable according to a measure that came from those outside of me. Instead of living out of who I was, I was always observing and performing. I was ever looking at myself through the eyes of those around me, those to whom I was appealing with my performance.
The life that the disciples are commanded to proclaim is not a performance. It is a giving away of the gift that God has given us — a gift that is small but that is infinitely significant and valuable. In this new life, one lives with the realization that, as a member of the one body, I must be and act as the member I am if the body is to be whole. Living by acting as I am called to act, I cease to be self-conscious. I am no longer attempting to control and manage my actions in such a way as to find approval and acceptance from the others. Rather, I am my action and call. My life is the doing of the task, assignment, and mysterious call that I am.
We all know of the experience of anxiety in the face of a serious or significant demand of us. Often we procrastinate or evade responsibility because of the anxiety it evokes in us. Yet, in a familiar paradox, we also know that once we “put our hand to the plow,” once we begin to do the work that lies before us, our anxiety disappears. This is because real life lies in the doing of our task, in the spending of the gift of our life for the world. This is most often not on a grand scale. It is rather doing what is to be done in the moment because that is how we can be who we truly are.
Shame and the fear of shame is the great inhibitor to such a life of action. In doing our work yesterday, we were thinking about and discussing how much possibility is lost in life because shame and fear keep us from doing what we could be doing, for offering what we have to offer, from living as we are truly called to live. I imagined a small community like my own and the dynamism it would have if each and every one of its members was released enough to be doing what they could be doing at any given moment.
In Hamlet, Shakespeare plumbs the depths of the paralysis of the self-conscious human being.
Thus conscience does make cowards of us all,
And thus the native hue of resolution
is sicklied o’er with the pale cast of thought,
And enterprises of great pith and moment
With this regard their currents turn awry,
And lose the name of action. (III,i,84-9)
Most of us “hate the light” not because of the scale of the wicked things we do, but because we fear being seen for who we are. In the creation story in Genesis, we are told that with the disobedience of Adam and Eve deceit now holds sway in the world. In the gospel of John we learn that after Jesus ascends, an advocate will come. The Spirit that is given in the life of the resurrection is an advocate for us in our struggle not to be overcome by the deceitful aspect of shame in us. We have a capacity to feel shame so that what is most vulnerable and original in us may be protected. However, far too often, shame becomes not protection but rather inhibition. We can come to feel that the only way to protect ourselves is to hide ourselves. Then we live the life of the disciples in the locked room.
Our shameful fear is unable to recognize the gift we have been given, and so we never, as intended, give that gift away. We hoard it, like the man in the gospel who fills his barns with grain to protect himself from the threatening future. Our experience of life is then that of constriction, of always holding on, and so of an ever increasing sense of the world as threat. The life the disciples proclaim is one characterized by gratitude and praise. It is gratitude for everything that we have received in the life we have been given, and it is praise which we act out by generously giving away all that we have been given to “all that meet in our journey of life.”
[John Chrysostom] . . . was ascetically inclined, and he angered both ecclesiastic and political authorities, including Aelia Eudoxia, the wife of the Byzantine emperor Arcadius, for denouncing the abuse of authority. For this rebuke, he was banished several times, and it was during the last of these banishment, which included a forced march that taxed his aged body beyond endurance, that he collapsed and died.
There is no extant record of his last words, but there is a strong oral tradition that those words were, “Thanks, thanks for everything. Praise, praise for it all.
If circumstances permit, I would like those to be my last words as well.
Houston Smith, And Live Rejoicing: Chapters from a Charmed Life, p.194