Fr. Paul MacNeil
2nd Sunday of Lent - A Study in Shame
Whenever I hear confessions, I hear only really 5 basic confessions. The first confession is what someone might call a "one-off" sin. Something they've done once. It's not who they are; they don't know why they did it, feel ashamed, and seek forgiveness. Another kind of confession is addiction. Someone wakes up one morning, and maybe their life has fallen apart because of an addiction or some perpetual sin that they just can't shake. They need help. A third kind of confession is the opposite of that. They are well on the road to recovery and must eliminate the final vestiges of guilt and shame for the havoc the addiction has played in their lives. A fourth kind of confession is the "devotional confession." Someone comes to confession every month or every week even because it helps them hold themselves to a higher standard. These kinds of confessions are very much about self-improvement.
But there is another kind of confession, a very dangerous one because it is based on a false sense of insecurity about oneself and one's place in the universe. It is a scrupulous confession when someone approaches me because they think they are bad. Unfortunately, no amount of confession can seem to wash away. They are. not confessing their sin, they are complaining about their shame. Sometimes it isn't even possible to identify the sin. It's the person with a broken leg who is sorry for missing Mass when it is physically impossible for them to get to it. What kind of image of God is that? What kind of image of themselves is that? To think that God is even remotely concerned that you weren't at Mass because of a broken foot? No.
Web MD has a definition of Toxic shame:
"Toxic shame is a feeling that you’re worthless. It happens when others treat you poorly, and you turn that treatment into a belief about yourself. You’re most vulnerable to this type of poor treatment during childhood or as a teen. When you feel toxic shame, you see yourself as useless or, at best, not as good as others." (https://www.webmd.com/mental-health/what-is-toxic-shame#:~:text=Toxic%20shame%20is%20a%20feeling,childhood%20or%20as%20a%20teen.)
I often see toxic shame in the Catholic Church, especially in the confessional. Time and time again, I hear people who are not confessing sin. They are expressing shame. I can almost hear the next line, and sometimes I do hear it: I'm such a terrible person in God's eyes because God has done so much for me.
This strikes me as a deeply unhealthy spirituality. Yet the crucifixion of Christ is real, his suffering is real, and the theology of original sin is real; our human condition is real, addiction is real, and shame is real. So how do we navigate this unhealthy side of it?
I heard confessions of children last week. I looked around the gymnasium, and all I could think about were these absolutely wonderful priests sharing their faith and God's kindness and love with these children who were starting in life and just beginning to deal with feelings of shame and guilt and self-acceptance. Such a tender time in their lives when toxic shame can rear its ugly head and send them a message that somehow they are not ok. We, as clergy, are there to tell them that no matter what happens, they are loved and accepted and that there is nothing wrong with them if they have feelings of guilt or shame because of something they did wrong. They are there to experience the power of forgiveness.
And sometimes, when I hear the confession of children, I see this real sadness in their eyes, and I worry about shame. so I explore it with them. "When you sin, how do you feel after?"
"Bad" was the word most often used. But then I get nervous. Does she feel ashamed of herself, embarrassed, in a toxic way? How can we heal this? So we talked about shame briefly, and I couldn't help but wonder. I know psychologists clearly distinguish between guilt and shame, but the feeling is the same. They both point back to the same thing: something I did that I'm ashamed of. Is there anything wrong with that? Do you think it's possible not to feel that way if we do something wrong? Maybe shame can help us point to something we need to change.
But then I remember asking one child, "How does it feel when you do something good?" And her face lit up. It was a transfiguration. "Wonderful," she said. And I said that's who you are inside. You're not your sin; you're not the bad feeling inside you. You need to know that everybody goes through what you go through. When we do something, we know we're not supposed to do it. We all sin, me, you, these other priests, everyone. But the shame you feel that's not you. And when you recognize your sin, the source of your shame, you can ask God for forgiveness, and it's the most wonderful feeling in the world. Saying you are sorry for something you know you did wrong, isn't that also a good thing? Doesn't that also bring a feeling of peace and love inside?
Shame, I said, is like your car's windshield when it's cold outside. It fogs up. Sometimes it even freezes. So what do you do? You turn on the fan in the car so the warm air blows on it, and the fog disappears. It's like that with shame. Shame is like the fog on the windshield of your soul. You let God's grace blow on it, and the shame disappears. And you can see clearly.
Then I started singing her a little song, but I changed the words. You know the one: "I can see clearly now, the shame has gone, and it's going to be a bright, bright sunshiny day."
In today's readings about the transfiguration, the followers of Jesus, for the first time, saw who he was. If you could see yourself and your neighbour for who they are instead of seeing the world through the fog of shame, the world would be a better place, even with the reality of sin, guilt, and sometimes shame.
I can see clearly now the rain is gone
I can see all obstacles in my way
Gone are the dark clouds that had me blind
It's gonna be a bright (bright)
Bright (bright) sunshiny day
Oh, yes I can make it now the pain is gone
All of the bad feelings have disappeared
Here is that rainbow I've been praying for
It's gonna be a bright (bright)
Bright (bright) sunshiny day