“No one who lights a lamp conceals it with a vessel or sets it under a bed; rather, he places it on a lampstand so that those who enter may see the light. For there is nothing hidden that will not become visible, and nothing secret that will not be known and come to light.”Luke 8: 16-17
When I was a child going to Sunday school, I would often find the stories we were told by the Sisters quite disturbing. These stories often had to do with “the four last things: death, judgment, heaven, and hell.” These stories have come back to mind lately as we’ve been listening to a wonderful interpretation by the actor Colin Farrell of James Joyce’s The Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. Those familiar with the novel will recall the vivid detail with which Joyce recounts the talks of the Jesuit retreat master, and Farrell masterfully captures the tone, as well as Joyce’s point of view, in his reading.
As I listened it occurred to me that there was inherently a certain sadistic tenor to these oft repeated stories of the horrors of hell and punishment. One cannot but mistake the sense of a strange control, glee and gratification in frightening one’s listeners into stifling their supposed sinful impulses and controlling their behavior, lest they be condemned and forever tormented. As a young person, however, one of the most frightening aspects for me of the stories we were told was that in judgment everything we ever desired or thought or did in secret would be revealed to all humanity. Even in mere anticipation and imagination, the shame that I experienced at the very thought that my parents, relatives, and friends would one day know the horrible thoughts, feelings, and actions that at times besieged me was far more excruciating than the description of the endless torments of hell fire.
Now at the other end of my lifespan, I ponder why it was that this description of the universal judgment so terrified me. Why, in fact, do I read the words of Jesus today about there being “nothing hidden that will not become visible, and nothing secret that will not be known and come to light” so out of context. For the context is that of letting the light that we are shine before others. One of the great problems with a catechesis of fear is that it actually encourages in us our always present tendency to hide and to stifle that which is most original and true in us, to stifle our uniqueness in the service of conformity to the power of the collective. Perhaps this is why far too often ecclesial powers find themselves allied with the authoritarian and dictatorial.
One of the greatest obstacles to placing our own light on a lampstand to give light to all is how the proper role of shame in our affective lives becomes distorted and perverted. That which is intended to protect that core of our being and originality that is so precious and vulnerable becomes instead a source of self-depreciation and self-loathing. It becomes a large part of our motivation to make of ourselves something other than we are, and thus to deprive ourselves and our world of the real gift we have to offer.
The truth is: we are not very good at distinguishing the blessed from the shameful in ourselves. A good part of the reason for this is that we tend to judge not with the mind of Christ that is ours but rather out of the mindset of the present age. “Do not conform yourselves to this age but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and pleasing and perfect” (Romans 12:2). As a child, my need not only to be good but to be seen as good led me to flee through suppression and repression anything that did not conform, in the light of my own received wisdom, as compatible with being good or virtuous. Of course, our only way of judging this comes from what we are taught by the significant adults in our lives, our parents, our families, our teachers, especially Church teachers. Perhaps unfortunately, my efforts were quite successful. So I was seen by the adults in my life in the very way I wanted to be seen, and the more they supported that “self” the more dissociated from my true original life form I became.
By the grace of God, at a point in life this became too exhausting, but even more too lonely for me. As Thomas Merton says, “To be unknown of God is all together too much privacy.” And by extension to be unknown to self and others is far too lonely an existence. I needed to learn that the way back to myself was through my secrets. It was through the shame I felt at aspects of myself that I had been refusing and denying. As I undertook this work with the help of others, I began to see how mistaken were my judgments. Some of what I took to be my greatest virtues were manifestations of my sinfulness, and some of what I had so feared in myself was my way to the truth of my Divine calling.
So, strangely enough, I slowly began to appreciate some of those dimensions of my own life that I once thought would be my greatest shame at that final judgment. I slowly came not only to cease fearing being recognized in those ways which I had so long despised and repressed in myself, but I experienced a longing for them to be known. The greatest obstacle, I’ve learned, to community and to intimacy is our fear of our own vulnerability. Our lives together never change or reform or transform because we refuse to acknowledge our common weakness, fallibility, and fear of the unknown into which we are all being drawn. It didn’t occur to me as a child that those who were making me fearful were doing so out of their own fear. We can choose to live by fear, of our true selves, of each other, and of God, or we can choose the way of love, which is a way of shared vulnerability, shared enjoyment, and shared suffering.
It is interesting to think that we hide the light that we are because our very light has been judged by us and by our present age as darkness. And we hide it not so much by setting it under the bed but by replacing it with that which we think is light but is really the manifestation of darkness in us. The way of change and transformation requires of us that we enter the loneliness we have created for ourselves in our prideful attempt to create ourselves out of our own unconscious demands for power and recognition. This dissociation from ourselves, others, and God will inevitably evoke feelings of loneliness in us. If we enter the loneliness rather than flee it, we may begin to recognize how mistaken we have been about ourselves and about the world. Our “place” in God’s creation is to let the Divine spark, the light that we are, be seen by and so give light to others. There is much in us and in our world that would have us hide that light. Yet, as Jesus points out that it is difficult for us to separate the weeds from the wheat, so it is difficult to discern the light and the darkness, even in ourselves. To do so we must cease repressing that which frightens us, for it well may be the way to the light.