A Greek myth tells the story of a hero who had to roll a heavy stone to the top of a hill. The snag was that, just as the stone was teetering on the top, it would roll the whole way down to the bottom. Not just once, but time and time again. Yet, he would have to begin his task all over again.
The story reveals the experience of carrying a burden yet being unable to cast it aside. This burden could be the loss of someone we love, a disability or, maybe, something that shames us in our past. Shame allows us get in touch with our core self. It puts us in touch with our true self; that call that is within our soul to ourself. Shame welcomes into the light that vulnerable side of us. In this light, we allow ourselves to see what troubles us and no longer hide from them.
Bind us Together
“We do things for others together”, to quote Pope Francis. We can see the wisdom of this even beyond the context of Ecumenism, and the Community of Taizé* does that in a special way. Its genius is to begin where people are at, not at the level of where they ought to be. Secondly, we really need the experience of belonging to a group to begin our journey. Here is one example.
A few years after the Second World War, many young adult Germans went searching for this sense of belonging. A common thread was running through their experience. They had become aware of the terrible deeds that their parents’ generation had been part of during the war and now the ‘children’s teeth had been set on edge’, as they heard of concentration camps and other atrocities. They felt ashamed of the parents that they once used to admire. Their expectations of that generation were shattered.
They were invited into a different style of experience by belonging to a special community of reconciliation. The community was called Taizé by sharing with each other; by allowing their experience to come into the light; by listening to the steps of hope that the Brothers of Taizé are so good at giving; by building a community of trust; by praying and singing together in faith an atmosphere was born. Taizé continues today to build a community of trust and reconciliation. Young adults are drawn there and mix, chat, pray, sing and live simply with one another. It is hard to explain what this week-long style of simple sharing brings about for them - but the fruits are good.
Of course, the experience of coming to terms can be achieved by a personal approach as well. I shall never forget John, who travelled a long distance to ring a bell at the priest’s door one cold night. He stood outside swaying slightly. Still, there was something about this fellow that did not ring alarm bells for me.
I soon found out that he could not put two words together and so could not tell me why he had come. I was stumped. Then I thought of getting his name by using my fingers. So, the thumb was the letter ‘A’, the first finger meant 'B', the middle finger would stand for 'C' and so on. John would nod when one or other finger meant a letter in his name. It took ten of my fingers to reach ‘J’, which was the first letter of his Christian name - John! With his name and address on paper, a cup of tea to warm him up and my promise to call around, he set off into the dark.
The next day, he was sitting before a fire when I called to see him. His young daughter was at hand. He could speak a little better and could now say that he wanted to reconcile himself with his Lord. So, now I knew why he had come to the parish that night. You may have guessed that John was suffering from Parkinson’s Disease. John died within ten days and it was only then that I met his wife, who had been caring for him. She did not know about his journey to the parish door or even why I had returned to visit him the following day. She was amazed he walked that far that night and delighted with my return visit. John inspires us to take steps, however difficult, to relate and to reconcile. Now that there was a sense of trust between us, the Lord’s blessing, healing and forgiving was present for John ... and me.
Key to the Lock
The opposite of John’s attitude is to stay in isolation, to think that no one would be able to save us. This leads us to think that we would be unacceptable to others or, worse, that we are unforgivable. It needs a leap of faith, a hint of compassion, a moment of determination and trust. I sometimes think that we get guilt and shame mixed up. Guilt is a poisonous affair. It locks us inside ourselves. When the feeling of guilt is coiled around us, we are convinced that no steps are possible to resolve our problem. We are caught in a trap.
The Wonder of Shame
Shame is a different kettle of fish. Shame builds bridges. Shame breaks open barriers. The knight of ages past would feel deeply shamed if he let his lady down in battle or at court. The culture of his time would demand that he would acknowledge his shame before her. Shame allows us to accept that we are imperfect; that we are vulnerable. Shame invites us to take steps outside ourselves. Shame gives us courage to relate to others. We don’t have to hide any longer. That thought of hiding away does not come from shame; it comes from our enemy, namely, guilt. Our true self knows that we are good people. Our true self welcomes into the light our vulnerable side. We can join the human race!
* For more information on Taizé, go to the website - www.taizecommunity.fr
Fr. Alan Mowbray SJ