It is sometimes scary being a teacher because you have no idea what your words or actions may trigger. I graduated yesterday having written 80,000 words on shame in the church, but I would never have written them if it had not been for a teacher nearly half a century ago. I don’t remember the name of the teacher and if you have heard me speak about my research you almost certainly heard me tell the story.
But the (negative) actions of that teacher sparked something in me that over the years I have reflected on and began to realize that I needed to think more deeply about. Shame is horrible, shame which should never have been evoked is particularly horrible but shaming is prevalent in our culture. You only have to buy a tabloid newspaper to understand that. I devised a typology of shame and now see more clearly how shame happens in a range of contexts at different levels and I try to be priest who does not shame individuals, I may not always succeed but try to be mindful of the power inherent in my role and the call to be loving.
It may seem odd quoting words from a carol (O little town of Bethlehem) in September but these pictures represent five years of my life. The thesis I started as part of my ordination training is now finished and today I hand it in! Because of the nature of the subject – shame in the church, there are ways in which the thesis encapsulates some of the hopes and fears of all my years. The first trigger for wanting to study shame occurred at primary school when I became aware that institutions can harm us by the way they structure or approach something.
So the hopes and fears start again as the thesis is submitted and the viva draws near – no date yet but in a couple of months or so I will need to remember what it is I have written and explore it with a couple of examiners… I have enjoyed the journey but am hoping it is nearly at an end!
My own baptism stories are complex and as I got ordained I had to think through what I thought about baptism having various perspectives taught to me in my journey around denominations from childhood to adulthood! Over this last week I have been reading for my thesis and in that have come across a new way of seeing it that connects to my studies on shame.
I came across an article that focused on the Syriac tradition and which talked about a robe of glory. The roots of this concept are explained thus:
In the Hebrew text of Genesis 3 there is of course no mention of any ‘robe of glory’ worn by Adam and Eve prior to the Fall, but in an early exegetical tradition, to which later Jewish midrashim and Syriac
Christian writers were heirs, the verb in Genesis 3:21 was taken as a pluperfect, ‘God had . . . clothed them’, thus referring, not to the clothing of Adam and Eve after the Fall (as it appears in all modern
translations), but to their original clothing, prior to the Fall.Furthermore, this clothing was understood as being not of ‘skin'(Hebrew ‘or) but of light (‘or), or of glory (a translation reflected in part
of the Targum tradition). It may be that this tradition was already familiar to the Syriac translator of psalm 8, for in verse 6, where the Hebrew (together with Septuagint, Targum and Vulgate) has ‘You made
him a little less than the angels, in honour and glory did you crown him’, the Syriac has altered this to ‘ . . . in honour and glory did you clothe him’ (Brock 1999:248).
The part of the article which particularly resonated with my studies was this:
At the end of the Church of the East’s baptismal service there is a prayer which was once also found in the Syriac Melkite rite:
The new children that You have produced from a spiritual womb in Your holy font give You worship. Perfect Your gift with Your servants, keep back from them all that is shameful, so that they may preserve in
purity the robe of glory with which You have clothed them in Your compassion (Brock 1999:254).
The way this prayer evokes the compassionate way that God clothed Adam and Eve in the garden of Eden and the concept of the font as a holy womb offer me new metaphors with which I can see my baptism in a new way and next time I get to baptize a child I will have a fresh image of what the sacrament means.
Brock, S. (1999). The Robe of Glory: A Biblical Image in the Syriac tradition. The Way, 39(3), pp.247-259.
I smile each time I come across this picture, I was involved in helping create this Pudsey when I was doing some youth work at BCH. EJ, one of our students was on placement, and she helped a group of young people create this amazing structure – it was nearly as big as some of the younger members of the group. What was such an encouragement was that young people who Children in Need may help wanted to help Children in Need. Our research with young people with cancer suggested that for them and their families giving and giving back was important – particularly when they felt they had received a lot.
Today week 2 of giving up chocolate begins. I am going with the version of lent where you feast on Sundays so my chocolate treat this week was a crème egg! A foretaste of Easter day and a sign of hope that one day life may be different. While it may sound a little trivial to be talking like this regarding giving up chocolate food is not a simple issue for me, nor for many people.
I have found Lisa Isherwood’s insights helpful as I have reflected on a battle with food that has lasted most of my life. Isherwood suggests that “Fat is no longer to the popular mind viewed as the ‘silken layer’ that symbolized strength and energy – it is a sign of social shame and a signal of lack of control” (2010:23). One of my main temptations is thus very public and I have found that sometimes people make judgements about me because of it. She goes on to talk about how food is a “a sign of love, community and the sacred. The question arises that: if women are at odds with food through the cultures we have created are they too at odds with the love, community and sacredness of life itself?” (2010:22). I sometimes feel aware of this when eating in a public setting, fortunately only in a fleeting way but I have known others who have struggled much more with food. Much of what I hear about youth work and mission talks about hospitality and food and while food is an issue then it can be that events and activities feel a little marred if one is tinged by or even engulfed by shame afterwards.
I have been challenged by the End Hunger Fast campaign and it was one of the main motivations or giving up something this year and love Isherwood’s boldness is saying that Jesus “does not wish us to control our desires for food but rather to passionately engage with a desire for the world to eat and to celebrate the life that is enhanced through this abundance” (2010:32). I am challenged too, to adopt her attitude when she says “the Fat Jesus calls us all to obscenely declare ‘screw you’ to the myriad manifestations of patriarchal conformity that enslave us and narrow the glory of our abundant life and our liberative praxis” (2010:35). What is fascinating to me is that using the term “Fat Jesus” jars a little in a way that is not true of many other contextual theologies where I have no issues with the adjective that may precede Jesus. It is perhaps an example of the shame that lingers.
Isherwood, L. ‘The Fat Jesus: Feminist Explorations in Fleshy Christologies’, Feminist Theology 19 (1), 2010, pp. 20-35
I have been pondering an insight gained from my study on shame in the church. Some commentators suggest that rather than the beatitudes starting with “Blessed are”… it would be equally valid to suggest that they start with “Honoured are”. Now to me “blessed” sounds encouraging but honoured sounds like a challenge to my attitudes which requires a response. Blessed is something God does to people, honour is something to do with what is valued in God’s kingdom, a different set of values often to what is honoured in the world. I think I still have more to ponder to get the most out of this insight but honouring others, particularly others who may not receive much honour in other contexts is something I must pursue.
“I felt ashamed”
“But of what Psyche, they hadn’t stripped you naked or anything?”
“No, no, Maia. Ashamed of looking like a mortal – of being a mortal.”
“But how could you help that?”
“Don’t you think the things people are most ashamed of are things they can’t help?”
I was facilitating some reflection on shame yesterday with a lovely group of students and this quotation was one of the things we explored. I found myself again answering yes to this last statement. Having emotional or other responses to things I can do nothing about is one of those areas that I need to continually to work on and this is no exception. So I find myself feeling shame about my weight and while it can be argued that I can do something about it I have a family body shape and there is certainly a genetic element in how I look. I feel shame about being childless although there is nothing I did to cause this. I have felt shame in the past about not being the extravert, touchy feely type of woman I felt was more appreciated in some of the contexts I found myself in. I find it frustrating that I feel shame about such things as they feel like they are cultural constructs or expectations that I should be able to better resist and on good days I do.
Shame is about who we are whereas guilt is about what we have done so this makes good sense to me intellectually given my extensive reading on the subject. So when I feel shame I need to remember how much God loves me, how precious I am to God and others and realise how important it is to mediate this loving acceptance to others. It doesn’t take long to write that last sentence but it is taking me a life time to fully understand it and live it out!
C S Lewis Till we have faces: a myth retold New York: Harcourt, 2006 (originally published 1956).