Shame severs our relationship from God. It is so powerful that it often results in denial, apathy, and even a self-defensive wrath toward neighbor. At the same time, shame may drive us to discover the true source of our dignity beyond our isolated and broken self. The arc of the biblical narrative takes us from the fig leaves of Adam and Eve, who desire to hide from God and each other, to the liberation from self-consciousness that Jesus displays at the Last Supper, which can be seen as “undoing” the shame of Adam and Eve. Shame is the experience that can bring us close to the experience of the Cross, the place of simultaneous condemnation and liberation. By examining the biblical stories of shame and some personal and public stories of shame and of being shamed, Hirschfeld delves into this emotional and spiritual phenomenon to mine what shame has to teach. Shame cannot be erased, but God does not want us to be stuck in it. Working through our shame can lead us to a deeper sense of joy and freedom so we can, as the Proper Preface for Advent says, “without shame or fear rejoice to behold [Christ’s] appearing?”
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Without Shame or Fear
From Adam to Christ
By A. Robert Hirschfeld
Church Publishing IncorporatedCopyright © 2017 A. Robert Hirschfeld
All rights reserved.
Christmas Trees and Fig Leaves
Then the eyes of both were opened, and they knew that they were naked; and they sewed fig leaves together and made loincloths for themselves. They heard the sound of the Lord God walking in the garden at the time of the evening breeze, and the man and his wife hid themselves from the presence of the Lord God among the trees of the garden.
— Genesis 3:7–8
Every year the Christmas trees travel down the highway from Canada in large trucks. The trees look like needles with their branches folded up and wrapped in nylon netting. I usually see the first truckload a week or so before Thanksgiving while I am traveling from parish to parish throughout the Diocese of New Hampshire. I must admit that the first feeling I have is very far from the excitement and glee I remember feeling as a little boy. Then, my sister and I, upon seeing the first sign of an open Christmas tree lot or the first colored lights festooning a house or a shrub in our suburban Minneapolis neighborhood, would giggle with excitement for Christmas and begin the countdown of days. It was the glow of the season that captured me, even more than the hope of a new bicycle, sled, or chemistry set. What made Christmas special was the sense of being in the presence of the holy, which back then was conveyed to me, believe it or not, by the particular way red and blue and green lights would reflect off white snow. That glow would give enough light for me to aim my sled toward the bottom of the run in my neighbor's backyard. It's hard to conceive how stringing lights on the evergreen trees in the yard was all it took to convey to me the presence of God, a presence that I could enjoy for hours in the dark and the cold. That's all it took: colored lights on Christmas trees.
Nowadays it's different. I'm middle age, middle class, with debts, mortgages, college tuitions, a cramped schedule, lists of chores and shopping, and difficult conversations to negotiate. Seeing a Christmas tree can bring with it a certain sense of gloom, of portent: I won't be able to fit it all in. I won't be able to afford what's asked of me, either emotionally or financially. Add to this that sighting a Christmas tree or hearing Christmas carols at the local supermarket shortly after Halloween brings the sense that time has slipped by once again, a whole year, and what is there to show for it? Far from the childhood glee and exhilaration, the dread that a Christmas tree incurs is real.
After some reflection, I have discovered that the annual feeling that the Christmas tree stirs in me is more existential than just the seasonal blues or the SAD — Seasonal Affective Disorder — that can come with a northern winter. Perverse as it may seem to the consumer-driven Christmas industry that bids our hearts be cheery, I have come to the conclusion that contemplation on the origin of the old Tannenbaum can bring us to remember the experience of shame. Acknowledging the dynamic of shame may remind us of how our having fallen out of God's warm glow has been met with the restorative infusion of love in God's taking on our flesh in Jesus, the event we await in Advent.
To see how this works will require us to go back to the events that took place, as the Creation story goes, around the Paradise Tree in the Garden of Eden. It is not very well known, far less celebrated, that December 24 is the Feast Day of Adam and Eve. Rarely seen as deserving veneration, these two are in a sense exiled from the family history of humanity for having disobeyed God in the Garden and for introducing sin into the mix. But on the eve of Christmas, their exile is lifted, and they, along with the Paradise Tree, which is the object of their temptation, are allowed to come into our homes. It doesn't take too much imagination to see how the brightly colored glass bulbs hanging from our fir trees resemble the fruit that was forbidden.
Let's go back to that first story in our family history. If one searches the opening three chapters of Genesis looking for some indication of what it was like for Adam and Eve to be in that blessed state before the Fall, one might be surprised at how little we can say. Any emotional and psychological descriptions of that blessed state are absent. We can infer that they are in a state of bliss and contentment, but there is really no explicit indication that they are, in fact, happy. The best clue that we can take of some positive feeling from either of them comes from Adam upon his introduction to Eve after he wakes from that mysterious divine anesthesia needed for the extraction of his rib. "Then the man said, 'This at last is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh ...'" (Genesis 2:23a). This "at last" would indicate some relief at no longer having to tend the Garden alone. It's as though Adam is saying, "Finally, after all this time, I have someone to talk to who can understand me because she shares what it means to have flesh like mine!" But even that might be a projection, an insertion of our own experience, into the Bible passage. Again, the Scripture is quite silent about the inner life of our spiritual ancestors. The only thing we can say for certain, based on what the Bible actually says, is found in the following verses: "And the man and his wife were both naked, and were not ashamed" (Genesis 2:25).
It's startling when one thinks of it, really. After all, though the word is actually not used in Genesis, we have come to describe the Garden of Eden as paradise and to think of it as a time and place as close to heaven on earth as we have ever come. This is in the days before poverty, racism, hunger, war, and every other kind of depredation. But the closest we get to a description of what we have come to believe was the bliss before the Fall is that they are not ashamed. Upon first realizing this, one might feel a sense of deep betrayal by the Bible. Part of us might want to say, "What the heck, Holy Writ? Is that all you can say about what it was like for Adam and Eve when they had everything going for them? No expressions of ecstatic happiness? No songs of mirth and exuberance? All you can say is that they were not ashamed?"
It's safe to say that western culture is keenly interested in the inner life. From the self-disclosive Confessions of Augustine, to the "confessional" poets of the twentieth century, to the courageously revealing spiritual writings of Anne Lamott (just to name a few), we are interested in what's going on in the human heart. We read these writers with interest partly because we need some reassurance that we are not alone in our struggles in life. But Scripture is often reticent when it comes to the interior world. And so it might be striking that the state of mind of Adam and Eve is not of much interest to the Scripture writers, except by their having registered the absence of a feeling that is so deeply rooted in the human experience — that of shame.
Could it be that our modern interests, or some might say even obsession, in personal fulfillment or purpose, in the avoidance of depression or anxiety — none of which are mentioned by name in the Scriptures — all boil down to the experience of shame? Though we pine for the days of unmitigated bliss that we project onto our dear spiritual ancestors Adam and Eve, the Bible actually doesn't ascribe any other emotion to them besides the absence of shame. Some in my (baby boomer) generation may remember the nostalgic anthem sung after the great "Festival of Peace and Music," better known as Woodstock. As the song went, "We gotta get back to the garden!" as though the lack of porta-potties, the mud, the drugs, the lack of food and water, and the unreported sexual assaults and humiliation that took place in those fields in Upstate New York somehow realized the Edenic ideal. Projection and denial are powerful things.
Disobedience and Awareness
After eating from the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, the eyes of Adam and Eve are opened,
... and they knew that they were naked; and they sewed fig leaves together and made loincloths for themselves. They heard the sound of the Lord God walking in the garden at the time of the evening ... (Genesis 3:7–8)
The story is called an etiology; that is, it serves to explain or give a reason for a condition. Woven into the human condition is the experience of shame. To be a human being means to feel shame. The biblical author of this part of the creation story seems to be offering an answer to the pervasive and inescapable feeling that makes us want to hide from our God and our neighbor. After partaking of the fruit of the tree that was forbidden them, they suddenly are made aware of themselves and their vision is made clear about their condition of nakedness.
To use the language that theologians have adopted, they fall from a state of grace, which seems to be akin to a state of ignorance. The awareness of themselves as naked coincides with the knowledge of having disobeyed God. The effect of the disobedience is a sudden vision of themselves in comparison to their fellow creature and certainly to God. Whereas, previous to the serpent's temptation, there was no hint that they were separate from God, now they recognize that God is out there somewhere, lurking.
At the sound of God walking in the garden at the time of the evening breeze, Adam and Eve panic and run to hide among the other trees in the garden, revealing their awareness of God's judgment and their separateness, even before God expresses disappointment and judgment upon them. Adam and Eve recognize their fall prior to God's stern encounter with them. Their creatureliness — having been created by a creator whom they are not — puts them in a disfavored state and results in their shame. Seeing themselves as naked is seeing themselves as creatures of God, as having been formed of one who is infinitely greater, more powerful, infinitely more than who they are. Adam and Eve come upon this feeling all on their own, before God asks them anything about why they are wearing clothes or why they are lurking behind trees, and before God has expressed displeasure for their having trespassed the commandment not to eat of the fruit of the tree.
The Inner Mind
Teachers of Buddhist meditation and mindfulness sometimes refer to the plight of the "comparison mind"— the habit we all have of rating ourselves for better or worse in relation to others. When did you first reckon with the truth that you didn't run as fast as your sibling, or were not as quick in mathematics as your classmate? And, conversely, when did you first derive a sense of comfort from realizing that you lived in a more stylish and expensive part of town than others, or that your parents' car was nicer than the cluttered minivan of your friends?
If we are honest, we know that such comparisons are silently going on in our minds all the time. Our minds are busy making comparisons even while we are sitting in our pews in church: "Who gets to sit up there next to the altar?" "I could read that text from Ezekiel far better than he did!" Or, perhaps even more often, "I am not as put together as the people in this congregation. Compared to all these saints, my life is a complete wreck. What right do I have to be here? Please, God, don't make me have to say anything to anyone. Let me just sit here and pray. Maybe then I can get out of here safely without being revealed for the fraud and scoundrel that I really am!"
The framers of the Book of Common Prayer seem to have taken all this mental static into account when they chose to open the liturgy of the Holy Eucharist with the prayer that is known as the Collect for Purity:
Almighty God, to you all hearts are open, all desires known, and from you no secrets are hid: Cleanse the thoughts of our hearts by the inspiration of your Holy Spirit, that we may perfectly love you, and worthily magnify your holy Name; through Jesus Christ our Lord. (BCP, 355)
I notice it is becoming more common in the churches that I visit to adopt the practice of inviting the whole congregation to pray the words of this prayer, instead of just the priest. In doing so, it's as though we all move out from our cover behind the trees, where Adam and Eve sought hiding, and we risk allowing ourselves to be open to the One who already knows what is in the recesses of our hearts and our memories.
The passage in Genesis does not dwell on the emotional trauma that accrues to Adam and Eve upon their realization that they are not God and that in each other's presence they would need to cover themselves in order not to be seen as insufficient in their nakedness. There are very few monologues in the Scriptures where a character benefits from an aside, like in Shakespeare when the action of the play pauses to allow the character to reveal the inner workings, doubts and quandaries, or strategy making. However, that reticence of the Scriptures does not prevent us from pausing in our reading to imagine the inner life of the figures we meet there who, over a lifetime of prayer and reflection, become in a real sense part of our own life stories, dwelling in our inner life.
Adam and Eve are a gift of the Scriptures to us. When we read about them, we are actually reading about ourselves, and each time we encounter them, another facet of their story comes to light. Just like when we look at a family photo album and new information is often revealed to the viewer, even though the photograph itself does not change from year to year. We change, and often the people with whom we are turning the pages of the album are not the same. New stories are told and new truths are disclosed in a small detail that is noticed or shared for the first time. Adam and Eve occupy a page or two in our family album over which it is profitable to pause and reflect. What must have been going through their minds as they punctured the holes in the fig leaves to sew those britches together? I imagine that it was not a shared task, but that each went behind their own tree to learn how to accomplish this chore apart. That is certainly one sorry effect of shame: isolation. Although they had been charged with the stewardship and tending of the garden in the beginning, it probably did not feel like doing chores, but sewing fig leaves together could very well represent the dreadful introduction of drudgery.
Samuel Beckett and O
When sitting at the family album of Scripture contemplating Adam and Eve at the painful moment that their eyes are opened, I find myself alongside one of the most penetrating poets and playwrights of the twentieth century, Samuel Beckett, who offers insight into what happened at that pivotal moment in human consciousness. In his only foray into cinema, Beckett dramatized the terrible burden of the self's need to hide from any observer, whether that observer be a neighbor, God, or even one's own self. Though not alluding directly to the story in Genesis, Film gets to the emotionally complex texture of shame and self-consciousness that would not, I suspect, be far from what the inspired Scripture writer had in mind. One can see in the age- weathered face of the silent film star Buster Keaton the fear and the shame that compel his character, known simply in the screenplay as O (for object), to protect his one field of vision from seeing any other eye, including the eye of the camera, referred to in the script as E.
The simple plot involves Keaton's O doing all he can to keep himself from being perceived. Beckett uses the sparse format of his screenplay to dramatize the proposition of the seventeenth-century philosopher and Anglican priest George Berkeley that esse est percipi; that is, to be is to be perceived. To state it more fully, our existence relies on our being seen, and our being seen in essence determines our existence. It was this proposition that led to countless late-night college bull sessions around the question: if a tree falls in the woods without anyone there to hear or see it fall, did it actually fall? Berkeley postulated that even if no creature witnessed the falling timber, the omnipresent and omniscient God in whom all things have their being is there, providing the requisite "seeing" conditions necessary to the falling tree's existence.
In Beckett's film, the primary character O seeks to avoid the agony of being known. Film is essentially a chase flick. O's frantic hiding within the crumbling urban landscape, his scurrying away from any observer, could be exactly what Adam and Eve do among the trees of the Garden, no longer a Paradise. They seem to being running away from anyone who can possibly see them, including themselves. In fact, both the first and last frame of Beckett's short movie is the rather discomforting image of Buster Keaton's eyelid opening. We stare into the dark abyss contained within his iris. It's a threatening image, perhaps for the same reason that the Collect for Purity may initially be threatening to someone worshipping in an Episcopal service for the first time: no secrets are hid.
Excerpted from Without Shame or Fear by A. Robert Hirschfeld. Copyright © 2017 A. Robert Hirschfeld. Excerpted by permission of Church Publishing Incorporated.
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Table of Contents
CHAPTER ONE Christmas Trees and Fig Leaves,
CHAPTER TWO The Nakedness of Noah,
CHAPTER THREE Sarah's Laugh,
CHAPTER FOUR Create in Me a Clean Heart,
CHAPTER FIVE Yet More Wonderfully Restored,
CHAPTER SIX What Appearances to Save,
CONCLUSION Back to the Garden,