Sunday, August 21, 2011

Shame is Good

Whenever discussions arise surrounding how to understand Blessed John Paul's Theology of the Body, the topic of shame frequently comes up.  It is good this happens.  The proper understanding of shame not only unlocks a proper understanding of the Pope's popular speeches, but unlocks the proper understanding of everything surrounding Christianity.

Unfortunately, shame is almost entirely presented in a rather negative way.  Shame is something wrong, that occurs because we feel we have done something wrong.  There are some writers and thinkers who have made a veritable cottage industry out of mocking the "shame" of those they disagree with, implying that the existence of shame demonstrates how backwards they are in the Gospel.  Such an approach is misplaced and betrays a lack of familiarity not only with God's word, but human nature itself.

To acquire a better understanding of shame, we must turn our attention to the Wisdom literature of the Old Testament.  I have in mind specifically the book of Sirach.  In the fourth chapter (the verse itself varies depending on your translation), the wise man states:

For there is a shame that bringeth sin, and there is a shame that bringeth glory and grace
For Sirach, shame is something that simply exists.  It is not something you can do away with.  Indeed, in this context, he speaks about the futility of trying to fight the current of a river.  If one fights to eliminate shame entirely, one is engaging in a pointless battle.  Since the fall of Adam, shame has existed, and will always exist on the earth.

Yet what does Sirach mean when he says that there is a shame that brings "glory and grace?"  I submit the answer to this question comes in the key to all wisdom literature.  King Solomon tells us, before any of his proverbs, that "the fear of the LORD is the beginning of all wisdom."  While it might seem so, I am not exchanging one cryptic passage for another.  Like shame, fear is something often misunderstood.  Far from terror, the Bible understands this fear to be a sense of reverence and awe. 

Take a young boy to a baseball game.  He will stand in amazement at the green of the grass, the sheer size of the stadium. He might not understand the intricacies of the WHIP statistic (many adults don't), yet he can still just take the grandeur of the game in. When it comes to dealing with God, we are that little boy.  The beauty and grandeur of his works are something so beyond us, we can simply sit there and stare, taking it all in.

The more you take in the great things that God gives, the more you come to a realization.  That is a recognition of your own smallness.  Man, being the progressive being he is, always wants to better himself.  Yet this advancement only makes our limitations more apparent.  King Solomon acquired more wealth than hundreds of his descendants could possibly spend, yet Christ tells us a simply lily flower was adorned even greater than the King in all his majesty.

The just and the wicked alike come to this conclusion.  Both have that experience of shame within them.  (Sometimes you may have to dig deep!)  The question becomes:  how does one respond to it?  The shame which brings sin responds to such inadequacy through pride.  Solomon magnified his status to an absurd degree (gold everything, 700 wives, etc).  A man may see a woman of virtue reject his advances, and feel a sense of being diminished..  The shame that leads to sin tries to seize what needs to be offered as a gift by force.  The idea he should be denied anything is absurd.  Rather than recognizing the limits of humanity, they strive against them, believing they can change them.  Even worse, those limits come to be viewed as a hindrance towards what you can truly be, so they must be dismissed.

So how does the shame which leads to grace come about?  That shame comes from an acceptance of one's limitations, and of their smallness.  Standing before what they perceive such a great mystery, they simply accept it.  Indeed, to add anything to it of their own accord would just screw everything up.  Only when this attitude is adopted can God begin the real work within.  When such a person sins, they do not despair at it.  Yet they do not ignore it.  They realize all the better what they were called for, and how far short they fell.  It is at this point grace is at its strongest.

That is why it is absurd to speak of doing away with shame, and being without shame.  If one were without shame, one would be without humility.  If one were without humility, one could not possibly love.  As for a world without love, well, I think we see where this is going.

1 comment:

  1. Blessed John Paul II described shame as an essential part of "the perennial norms regulating the mutual donation" of the body (General audience of April 22, 1981--a great resource for this topic!). In other words, the body's nakedness is revealed in the context of a deeply personal gift to one's spouse. To expose it outside this context reduces us to "anonymous nakedness."


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