Wretched man that I am! Who will save me from this body of death?
I have been on this earth for 6 decades. I just experienced a recent job change and move to a new state—another wearying “new beginning.” It caused me to reflect deeply on my life over the period of many months. In times of past reflection, I have always remembered the things I have accomplished and the adventures I have had. The nature of this change caused me to reflect on the person that I am. Images began to come into my mind, images would not stop—and they linger still—faces of the people I have hurt in no small way because of my radical self-centeredness. Some names I know, some I no longer remember or never knew. The overriding image in my mind is that of my life as a boat moving through a narrow canal, the wake of my life swamping all who are near the shore.
It is a remarkably painful image, that boat. During some late nights I wonder how I can continue to bear it. I see faces from my past as the waves of my life roll over them. I want to beg them for forgiveness. I have deeply hurt these people.. I want to hide myself from the world. I feel so deeply guilty for what I have done, but the guilt is familiar. What is new to me is that I have begun to feel deeply, deeply ashamed of who I am: a wretched man.
Jesus ‘…endured the cross, despising the shame…’
St. Paul says that Jesus “…endured the cross, despising the shame…” (Hebrews 12:1-3). Jesus unjustly endured the humiliation and shame of a criminal’s death, which He didn’t deserve. The Way of Christ for me, therefore, is the way of bearing the shame of who I am: a distorted human who deserves the cross of death and eternity in hell…and I must admit that fact to the God whom I love. It is the shame that I deserve and the cross of pain I must bear daily. And it puts me in the Way of Jesus, the path of salvation.
But, bearing my cross is not living a life of despair, or so I am learning. In the midst of the pain of my shame before God, a curious thing is beginning to happen. A very tiny point of light is appearing amidst the grayness of my shame. When I allow it to do so, that tiniest pinpoint of light illuminates those around me in such a way that I cannot help but love them and pray for them; they are me and I am them. Words fail to explain this mystery; perhaps the prayer of St. Nikolai Velimirovic will help: “For all the history of mankind from Adam to me, I repent; for all history is in my blood. For I am in Adam and Adam is in me.”
Most importantly, in my deep shame and pain I am finding budding joy. Jesus, “…for the JOY set before Him endured the cross, despising the shame…” Joy, the same joy of Christ given to you by Him (John 15:11) comes to you only through bearing your cross of shame and pain. The joy of Christ out of the pain of my cross. It is a mystery to me.
This is the Way of Jesus. You must face yourself and bear the pain of shame for your wretchedness to experience the joy of Christ. Four considerations:
- Shame can be painful beyond your capacity to bear it. Pray that the Spirit will reveal to you the things about which you must feel shame. Do not simply reflect on your own life judging yourself by your standards. This is false shame.
- Do not run from the shame God reveals to you. It may feel like it is beyond your capacity to bear, but it is not. Pray for tears of repentance. God is with you, weeping, too, and in answer to St. Paul’s question, above, God, through Jesus, will save you from your wretchedness.
- Pray for a very wise, mature Christian man or woman—a spiritual father or mother—with whom you can share your shame…someone who will not try to “fix” you; rather, someone who will silently bear witness to your confession of shame before God.
- Bear only a little of your shame. How much shame should you bear before God? St. Silouan, about whom I wrote last time, put it his way: “Stand at the brink of the abyss of despair, and when you see that you cannot bear it any more, draw back a little and have a cup of tea.”
In your bearing of your cross of the pain of your shame you will begin to experience the promised fullness of the joy that is Christ’s. This is the Way of Jesus. It is mysterious, indeed.