But what profit did you get then from the things of which you are now ashamed? For the end of those things is death. But now that you have been freed from sin and have become slaves of God, the benefit that you have leads to sanctification, and its end is eternal life. For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.Romans 6:21-3
Shame is a very powerful motivator. Paul says to the believers in Rome that in having been freed from sin and becoming slaves of God, they are now free from shame, which is a symptom of the death from sin. They have been brought into an eternal life that is shame free.
We can, in light of Paul’s words, ask ourselves if there really is possible a state of being, in grace, in which we would no longer be ashamed? Paul seems to say that this is possible once our life of desire has been transformed, that is once those parts of our bodies we have presented “as slaves to impurity” we now present “as slaves to righteousness for sanctification.” When do we feel ashamed? It is when our curiosity about, our desire for, and our need of others is made manifest. So, is Paul saying that to become a “slave to righteousness for sanctification” we are to eliminate our curiosity, desire, and need?
This question leads us into one of the great tensions of the life of faith, of what we might call the spiritual life. One psychoanalytic interpretation of the essential human conflict is that we are at once gods and animals. In the course of humanity’s evolution, we have attempted to dissolve this conflict and tension in differing ways, but most of which seem to be modes of repressing one or the other pole of this polarity. In truth, however, becoming ever more fully human requires of us to live with the tension between the pulls of these poles in us. As this is so difficult a truth for us to bear, we seek to dissolve the tension by eliminating from our awareness the conflict in us and among us that is the actual experience of our humanity.
Today a person who suffers from anxiety and depression and makes a point of communicating with me briefly each morning and evening asked me if I found it strange that he needs to check in to make sure I am “there” each day. He reminded me of an experience related by William Styron in his memoir Darkness Visible. Styron’s memoir is, at times, an excruciatingly honest account of his experience of depression. He speaks of how, at especially difficult times, if he was out at the supermarket with his wife he would actually need to hold her hand in order to know her presence and closeness in order to be able to remain in the store. “This,” the person speaking with me said, “describes why I need to touch in with you like this.” My own immediate reaction was that I didn’t find this at all strange. I fully understood, from my own experience, the truth of our need of and desire for each other, one which we spend much of our lives attempting to hide from others and from ourselves.
On my very first visit to Africa, I was moved to see how young people, even well into adolescence, would hold the hand of their friend without a hint of embarrassment or shame. While shame plays a very large role in many aspects of their cultures, such a manifestation of affection, even among friends of the same sex, was not at all shameful. The need of a close friend is no less for adolescents in our culture, and yet we are taught quite young that it is shameful to manifest that need.
Human sexuality and human desire are complex realities. Our curiosity and often our obsession with them indicates both our curiosity and our naivety about them. It is this aspect of our persons in which the polarity of our very being, as god and as animal, is perhaps most concentratedly manifest. Much if not most of our shame, as Paul’s words indicate, surrounds the intensity of our desire and the drive of our sexuality. Both culturally and religiously we are formed to at least hide and perhaps even repress the strength of our sexual drive and the constant reminder that it is of our curiosity about others and painfully deep need of them.
If we immerse ourselves in the mystical tradition, we can be astounded at the level of passion, need, and lack that we encounter there. St. John of the Cross, for example, concludes his poem The Living Flame of Love with the following stanza:
How gently and lovingly
You wake in my heart,
Where in secret You dwell alone;
And in Your sweet breathing,
Filled with good and glory,
How tenderly You swell my heart with love.
There is much in the language of the mystics that our culture would find shameful. For that matter, there is much in their language which our faith tradition’s ascetical tradition would find dangerous. In their writing we experience not a lack of eros but rather a fulfilling of it, an expression of what Adrian van Kaam would call “transeros.” What van Kaam teaches, however, is that the seeds of this transeros are present in our bioeros. We cannot become spiritual by pretending to be gods without our bodily and sexual natures.
Unfortunately this has been and still remains to some degree a deformative aspect of our asceticism. We can read a passage, as that from Romans today, and hear that we are somehow to eliminate, or at least repress, our curiosity, need, and desire for other human persons (at every level) and somehow replace it with purely spiritual longing. We think that we must not only be ashamed of hurtful and sinful expressions of our sexuality but of our sexuality in general. There may well have been no greater obstacle to the journey toward holiness and wholeness in many over the years than this harmful and dehumanizing understanding.
St. Augustine famously said that our hearts are made for God and so are restless until they rest in God. What we might miss about this, in our focus on the rest we so desire, is that it is the restlessness that is the way to the rest in God. A teacher of ours once pointed out to us that one of the reasons we gratify our sexual urge is so that we will stop having it. In short, we momentarily gratify the restlessness in order to cease experiencing it. Another way to attempt to stop experiencing the deep longing and restlessness that constitutes our human experience is to repress and ignore our life of desire. The result of this is to settle for survival rather than the life to the full that Jesus offers. So, both unbridled gratification and sexual repression are really attempts to achieve the same goal in a different way, the dissolving of the tensions inherent in our human condition.
Our eros is both bioeros and transeros. It is by a continual gradual and tentative formation and reformation that our bioeros becomes increasingly transeros. This formation will never occur if we live out our drives unreflectively, on the one hand, or ignore or repress them on the other. It will rather occur, as does our entire human and spiritual formation, by a reflective and mindful living out of the moments of our lives in service to a prayerful, gradual and tentative realization of the unique image of Christ we are called to realize. Specifically, van Kaam says that bioeros is transformed into transeros through the experience of disappointment.
Our restlessness is so deep and so impenetrable that no one or nothing, except God alone, can ultimately satisfy us. So, our curiosity, desire, and need for others, even when satisfied, will always contain seeds of disappointment. We shall never be all the other needs, nor they for us. Thus, even the closest of unions contains a distance that reminds us of the ultimate source of our longing. The disappointment we experience is not because of any human deficiency in the beloved other, but only the reminder that ultimately our hearts are made for God. To open ourselves to this disappointment is not easy. It is painful to live in longing, but it is a pain that contains a certain sweetness. Our own limits, our own naivety about ourselves, our sexuality, life of desire, curiosity, and need for each other is nothing to be ashamed of. It is who and what we are. We are always naive in these most important ways precisely because we are related to and share life in the Mystery. We even now live in what Ruusbroec calls “a love common to all,” both in which we are immersed and which is a mystery to us. This is “the the gift of God [that is] eternal life” in which we cease to be ashamed.
Shame, Freud writes, is the losing face caused by sexuality; it is sexuality — our desire, and our desire for others — that leaves us all too prone to the contempt and ridicule of ourselves and others (as though shame dictates where we look and how we look). But perhaps, by the same token, Freud’s account of sexuality — paradoxically — reveals his shameful relation to curiosity, or even to sexuality itself, which for him is the source and aim of curiosity. After all, he has warned us in no uncertain terms about our life task, of protecting ourselves from our desire (‘Man’s project,’ Lacan famously pronounced, reinterpreting Freud, ‘is to escape from his desire’). So Freud himself, in his text, can hardly be exempt from this project. In order to defend yourself against sex, you have to know — or believe that you know — what it is. Freud, I think, has a shameful relation to his omniscience about sexuality: he fears, like everyone else, his naivety about sex. This is what he wants to conceal and expose in his great work of psychoanalysis. He fears the contempt and ridicule of his fellows; he fears the exposure of his ignorance and his curiosity around and about sexuality.Adam Phillips, Attention Seeking, p. 67