Communion Heals Shame

Shame secretly torments every one of us as fallen human beings. It affects every single relationship we have – with God, with each other, and with ourselves.

Recall the story of Adam and Eve in the garden. The devil seduces by inviting a mistrust of God’s goodness and generosity. Once Adam and Eve choose to be their own gods, they experience the reality of that rupture. They run and hide from God (as though he were a petty tyrant eager to punish them). They sew fig leaves and begin protecting themselves against each other. Their good human passions become unruly – in themselves and their descendants.

One need not read far into Genesis to experience the downward spiral of depravity. We begin to use, manipulate, envy, hate, and kill.  Shame is at the root of it all.

Brené Brown is a fellow Catholic who often speaks or writes about shame. She describes it as “an intensely painful feeling or experience of believing that we are flawed and therefore unworthy of love and belonging.”

I see shame as the shadow side of communion. It warns us when connectedness is under threat. It shows up in our bodies as a neurological warning signal, swiftly and intensely seizing our attention and launching us into a survival response.

We all know the experience of “overreacting” in the present moment. What is really going on? Our body is feeling the familiarity of rejection, abandonment, failure, or humiliation. And our limbic brain is catapulting us into a survival response. Without even thinking, our defenses spring into action: fawn, fight, flight, freeze, or (as a last resort) shutting down. Depending on the situation (and on the skills we’ve learned over the years), we placate or smooth things over; we power up and begin shaming the other person; we change the subject or leave the room (or grab our phone and plunge into our screen); we freeze up and just take it; or we go numb and stop feeling anything.

In intense situations of threat, these are actually brilliant responses that give us a better chance of surviving! But in everyday life they really rupture our relationships.

Unhealed shame fuels contempt. I have always found it to be the case that those of us who are hard on others are experiencing (or intensely avoiding) our own shame. Our self-contempt shifts into a contempt of others and an urge to make them pay. Just spend a minute or two on social media and I think you’ll see what I’m talking about!!

In my own life, God has provided many moments of melting my shame. One was totally life-changing.  I was a 23-year-old in the seminary in Washington, D.C. Some very challenging circumstances – including a severe lapse of judgment on my part – left me feeling intense shame for months. I remember one Sunday simply not wanting to go to Mass anywhere. I couldn’t bear being seen. That put me in an intense bind.

Not going to Sunday Mass was simply unthinkable for me, but that inner conviction was in a mighty tug-of-war with my desperate urge to hide and isolate. Even attending anonymously across the street to the National Shrine felt unbearable. I slinked upstairs to a little chapel to pray, and there found two resident scholars, Romanian priests. They were offering Mass in their own language, and I had a way out of my dilemma – for now.

It was in this season that my friend Peter “saw” me and drew near to me. Peter was a 37-year-old who was about to be ordained a priest. I desperately miss him – he died in his sleep only four months into priesthood! He and I had many talks, in which – without naming it at the time – he helped me feel seen, soothed, safe, and secure (to borrow language from Curt Thompson). I didn’t want to be seen. I told him as much. I’ll never forget his words: A good friend is someone who sees right through you – and loves you anyway. And that was the thing – Peter wasn’t seeing the perfectionist version of me, nor the always-succeeding version of me. He was seeing all of me, telling the full truth, and (for some reason I simply couldn’t fathom) he was still eager to have a relationship with me. It was so dumbfounding and so healing.

He provided for me what Jesus so often provided in the Gospel – with the apostle Peter, with the woman caught in adultery, with Zaccheus, with Matthew, or with the woman at the well. He saw right through them, but he saw them in their wholeness. He invited them into communion: follow me.

The Greek word is koinonia – which means not only “fellowship” (as many Protestant Bibles translate it) but a true sharing or participation in the communion of the Trinity and of the whole Body of Christ. Because Jesus has reconciled us to the Father and to each other through his blood shed on the Cross, we now have a place to belong. In a sense, our shame is speaking truth – we can never become “worthy” by our own best efforts – and we don’t have to! Jesus declares us worthy and invites us to be secure in his Father’s love. THEN we can begin growing and bearing fruit.  Apart from him we can do nothing.

But it’s never just “me and Jesus.”  He always places us in koinonia with each other. He desires his Church to be a community in which we all have ways of experiencing what I did way back when with my friend Peter. We all need fellow Christians who see right through us and love us anyway!

I invite each of us to recognize the ways that we sabotage or block real community from happening in our families and in our churches: Do we let our whole self be seen? When and how and by whom? Do others feel totally safe and secure in our presence, knowing they don’t have to hustle or hide? Why or why not?

Authentic communion heals shame. We all ache for that – and are perhaps terrified of it at the same time.

Will we allow the Holy Spirit to create it in our midst?

How can I walk in the Spirit?

Galatians 5:16 teaches, “But I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh.” What does it mean to walk by or in the Spirit?

Romans 8:3-5 helps to answer this question, stating, “For God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do. By sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and for sin, he condemned sin in the flesh, in order that the righteous requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit. For those who live according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh, but those who live according to the Spirit set their minds on the things of the Spirit” (emphasis added). In contrast with those who live by the flesh or human sinful nature, believers are called to live by the Spirit and the ways of God.

Part of the idea of walking in the Spirit is to set our minds on the things of the Spirit. This includes ending sinful practices (Romans 8:13), being led by the Spirit (Romans 8:14), knowing the Father through Jesus (Romans 8:15), and prayer (Romans 8:26). A person committed to holy living, fellowship with God, and an intimate prayer life is the kind of person who is walking in the Spirit.

Again, Galatians 5:16 contrasts walking by the Spirit with gratifying the desires of the flesh. To walk by the Spirit, then, is to turn from sin and walk with God in holy living. There is a clear command to turn from the flesh and to pursue the fruit of the Spirit. This includes, “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law” (Galatians 5:22-23).

Further, walking in the Spirit involves “keep[ing] in step with the Spirit” (Galatians 5:25). This includes, “Let us not become conceited, provoking one another, envying one another” (Galatians 5:26). In other words, an additional mark of walking in the Spirit is loving others. Instead of conceit, provoking, and envy, we are called to humility, encouragement, and love.

In fact, the first verse of the next chapter reveals the extent to which this love must grow: “Brothers, if anyone is caught in any transgression, you who are spiritual should restore him in a spirit of gentleness. Keep watch on yourself, lest you too be tempted” (Galatians 6:1-2). Walking in the Spirit involves loving others to the extent of helping other people out of sin. This includes carefully watching one’s own life to avoid falling to temptation.

Finally, in Galatians 6:16 Paul notes, “And as for all who walk by this rule, peace and mercy be upon them, and upon the Israel of God.” He called for peace and mercy upon those who would walk according to God’s ways. We are to walk in the Spirit, helping others in need, and receive peace and mercy in the process.

Sin in All its Forms

Fr. Ed Broom, OMV

In the overall formation of our conscience, not only must we know the diverse definitions of sin, but also the various categories in which sin can fall into. As followers of Christ we should maintain a perpetual state of optimism, better yet, the theological virtue of hope. By hope we mean a limitless trust in the goodness of God and His ultimate victory.  Saint Paul expresses it best in these words: “Where sin abounds, the mercy of God abounds all the more” (Romans 5:20). The great sinner become a greater saint, Saint Augustine, asserted that God allows evil so that He can bring greater good from that evil. The best case scenario is the catastrophe of the sin of Adam and Eve, Original Sin, which unleashed a moral tsunami that extends itself with repercussions until the end of the world. However, due to this, God sent His Son, Jesus in the Incarnation to save the world and to give us life and life in abundance.

Therefore, let us list the different categories of sin so as to attain a greater understanding of sin, and thereby utilize the means at our disposal to conquer this moral evil, mortal enemy number one!

First Sin: the sin of the angels.  Actually the first sin was committed even before the creation of the natural world. This we call the sin of the angels. Put to the test, Lucifer, the beautiful Star of the Morning, lifted up his voice in a clarion call of rebellion: non serviam! I will not serve. Transformation! The splendid beauty of the angels was transformed into the hideous ugliness of the devils (Read Revelation 12).

Second, the sin of our first parents.  The first sin in the created world was perpetrated by our first parents—Adam and Eve. This sin we know as original sin. It was the first of all sins committed by the human race and it unleashed a catastrophic snow-ball effect of sin that will have its repercussions until the end of time. Even now, we are the way we are, with our strong proclivities toward sin and evil, due to the sin of our first parents, Adam and Eve (Read Genesis 3).

Sin is simply a desire to be autonomous—to live our lives without God, without moral laws, subjecting ourselves to nobody except our own base and perverse desires.

Actual Sin.  Differentiated from Original Sin is that of actual sin—self-explanatory, it is the sin that we actually commit. We act upon a disordered desire and exclude God from the action.

Venial Sin.  With respect to the gravity of sin, some are more serious than others. As some sicknesses are minor and others are extremely grave, leading to death, the same can be said with reference to the reality of sin. Venial sin is less serious and does not deprive the person of a relationship of friendship with God. It would be a cut to the soul and not cancer to the soul.

Mortal Sin.  By mortal sin, we mean deadly. If not repented before death, mortal sin will eventually pave the way to eternal separation from God for all eternity. This we call Hell!

MORTAL SIN AND ITS CONSTITUTIVE ELEMENTS—To commit a mortal sin there must be present three specific elements; if lacking one of the three, the act will be attenuated in gravity. What then are the three components or elements that constitute the commission of a mortal sin?

1. GRAVE MATTER.  This means that the action is something very serious in its very nature—murder, adultery, purposely missing Holy Mass on Sunday.

2. FULL KNOWLEDGE.  The intellect perceives this action as very serious—there is no ignorance, but rather total and full knowledge.

3. FULL CONSENT OF THE WILL.  The actions is not done inadvertently or by some freak accident. Quite the contrary, the will of the person (the decision-making faculty) gives full and total consent to the action.

f these three conditions are met, the person thereby commits a mortal sin. Consequently, he loses sanctifying grace and forfeits friendship with God. A perfect Act of Contrition and then a good Sacramental Confession will restore his soul to grace.

In the classical Confiteor or Act of Contrition that is commonly prayed in Holy Mass (taken basically from Saint Augustine), there are mentioned four ways that we can offend God through sin. They are: thought, word, deed, and omission. Let us go through and explain these four classic categories of ways that we usually sin against God.

Thought.  If we purposely allow and give consent to a sinful thought then this would be considered a sin of thought. A priest once asked a man this question: “Did you entertain bad thoughts?” The man responded wryly: “No, Father: they entertained me!” This was a Yes to sin! He gave consent and willfully entertained bad thoughts!

Word.  One can sin by word and in many ways. Falsifying the truth by lying, as well as insulting another and leaving a deep wound in their soul—these are two ways among many that we can sin by means of word.  (Read James 3—the best Bible chapter on the sins of the tongue!)

Deed.  This form of sin is carried out when we hurt a person by some physical action. The forms are many, to say the least. Here are a few: hitting another, punching them, or worse yet killing them. Sin by deed can also extend to sins against the virtue of chastity—such as fornication and adultery.

Omission.  More common than you might think, the sin of omission is quite simply failing to do what is our duty and obligation to carry out. Being negligent, remiss, or down-right lazy are pathways to the sin of omission. As parents, we have most likely committed many sins of omission but due to a lack of formation, we may not be aware of these sins of the past. A typical sin of omission would be parents failing to attend Mass on Sunday and neglecting to bring their children to the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass.

Sins of the Flesh.  This terminology usually refers to sins committed against the sixth and the ninth Commandments. Examples are many: fornication, masturbation, adultery.

Sin of Malice.  This is a more serious sin because it is carried out with full knowledge as well as the intention of doing real harm to another. Actually, the sin of the Angels can be considered a Sin of malice.

Sin of Fragility.  The opposite of the sin of malice, the sin of fragility is a sin committed due to human weakness and often ignorance. Jesus expressed it most clearly in these words: “The spirit is willing but the flesh is weak.”

Vice.  By the word vice is simply meant a morally bad habit that has been cultivated and formed due to the repetition of a bad action. The opposite of vice is that of VIRTUE—the repetition of good actions. Thus, the vice becomes second-nature.

Capital Sins.  These are the sins that flow out of the human person as a result of Original Sin. Related to the words of St. Thomas Aquinas: CONCUPISCENCE/ FOMI PECACTI, the Capital sins are bad tendencies within our fallen human nature. If these tendencies are not tamed and controlled, we become slaves of these sins. We no longer control them, rather they control us. Traditionally they are seven: Gluttony, Lust, Greed, Sloth, Anger, Envy, and Pride. The following are concise and easy to memorize definitions of the Capital Sins.

Gluttony:  A disordered desire to eat and to drink.

Lust: A disordered desire for sexual pleasure.

Greed: A disordered desire for material things.

Sloth:  “A disordered desire for ease and comfort.”

Envy.  “A feeling of sadness because somebody has something that I do not have.”

Anger.  “An impatience and bitterness towards somebody whom I perceive has done me wrong.”

Pride. “A disordered love for self and my own self-aggrandizement.”

Pope Saint John Paul II in his document Reconciliation and Penance points out five of the basic effects that sin causes. Yes, indeed, sin does leave negative consequences.  What are these five negative effects of sin?

1. Theological Event: Sin first and foremost damages our relationship with God. Contemplate Jesus on the cross and you will understand the theological effect of sin.

2. Social:  How true the poet’s saying: “No man is an island unto himself.” Our sins affect and hurt others. Just think of adultery!

3. Personal:  Sin can explode in our face and we only hurt ourselves. Pope Saint John Paul II calls it moral-suicide.

4. Ecclesial:  There is no doubt that by sinning we actually hurt and damage the Church, who is both Teacher and Mother to us.

5. Cosmic Event:  Sin also ends up wreaking havoc in the natural habitat in which we live. For this reason, Pope Francis insists on watching over and protecting nature as God’s gift to us.

Structuralization of Sin:  Once again, Pope Saint John Paul II makes reference to this form of sin. This is the type of sin that has imbued and encrusted itself into the very institution of society. Abortion laws, euthanasia laws, contraceptive laws—all are laws that have immersed themselves into the very structure of society.

Sin of Scandal:  This is a sin that is seen in the public eye and causes others—often the very innocent ones—to be contaminated by it. Jesus strongly denounces this sin as being worthy of the Millstone-award. By scandalizing, by giving bad example to the innocent, such a person deserves to have a millstone tied around their neck and to be cast into the very depths of the sea.

Sin of Sacrilege:  This is a sin that is committed against a sacred person, object, place or Sacrament. One of the most common examples would be that of receiving Holy Communion in the state of mortal sin.

Sin Against the Holy Spirit.  This is the sin of the person who fully and completely rejects the Holy Spirit and His invitations with total and unreserved obstinacy. Example: Pharoah rejecting the many visits and invitations of God through his holy servant Moses.

Sin of Impenitence.  This is the sin of the person who rejects God and all of His movements of grace even to the very end of their life.

My friends, we have concluded our catechesis on the explanation of the various types, forms or categories of sin. Hopefully, a knowledge of this catechesis can foster within us a greater knowledge and love for God and the desire to run from sin and find our refuge in the Immaculate Heart of Mary and the Sacred Heart of Jesus—our true havens and refuges in time and eternity. 

Dealing With Difficulty and Doubt

Once we understand that a healthy faith has room for difficulties, we should take stock of difficulties we struggle with and put them into perspective.

First, there are difficulties concerning things we would never expect to know or perfectly understand in this life. This might include what our unending life in heaven will be like, since St. Paul says of these realities, “For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall understand fully” (1 Cor. 13:12). 

Or it might relate to our understanding of God’s attributes, such as how God can be timeless, or be immaterial, or create something from nothing. God is infinite, so “our human words always fall short of the mystery of God” (CCC 42), and we shouldn’t expect our minds to understand the mystery of God’s “inner life.” But that doesn’t disprove the solid reasons we have for believing that a timeless, immaterial God created the world from nothing.

In other words, we can have the wow even if we can’t grasp the how.

Another difficulty we wouldn’t expect to resolve in this life relates to God’s plan for our individual lives, especially when they involve suffering. The most difficult questions I have to answer as an apologist usually go like this: Why did God let this terrible thing happen to me or to someone I love?

My honest answer is “I don’t know.” 

Because God has infinite power and perfect knowledge, I know he can bring good from any evil and always make things right. But my tiny, finite mind can’t even come close to explaining how God can do that in the face of certain evils. In those instances, I remember what the prophet Isaiah said: “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, says the Lord. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts” (55:8-9). 

Second, there are difficulties concerning issues that are not essential to our Faith. For example, some people may have difficulty accepting that certain miracles attributed to the saints or Marian apparitions really happened. But since the Church doesn’t oblige us to believe in these events, any difficulty we have with them doesn’t threaten the integrity of our faith as a whole.

Third, there are difficulties concerning issues of secondary importance for which the Church has not officially endorsed a particular answer. For example, the Church has not defined how one should interpret passages in Scripture that appear to describe God commanding the nation of Israel to kill the men, women, and even children among their enemies, the Canaanites. Theologians have proposed a variety of ways to interpret those passages, from literal commands that are justified based on God’s sovereignty over human life to non-literal commands that were symbolic of totally rejecting Canaanite culture. (I survey these approaches in my book Hard Sayings: A Catholic Approach to Answering Bible Difficulties.) 

Even if you’re not sure how to resolve a difficulty, it won’t prove that God does not exist or that Christianity isn’t true. We have to balance the skepticism that might arise from a difficulty with a secondary issue against the confidence we have that comes from our faith in a foundational issue. 

But what happens if we have difficulties with doctrines that are foundational to our faith? This might include the existence of God, the Incarnation, or the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist. These are the most serious difficulties, as they can quickly lead to doubt and then a complete rejection of our faith. Here are some ways a person can approach difficulties with these doctrines:

  • Remember that there is a difference between knowing that these doctrines are true and showing they are true. If you faced with an objection you feel unable to answer, that in itself should not necessarily be a cause for doubt. You can know that something is true (including our Catholic faith) even if you can’t show that it is true to other people.
  • Accept the limits of your own knowledge. Just because you may not be able to answer an objection or question about our faith, it doesn’t follow that no one else in the 2,000-year history of the Church has likewise failed to respond to such a challenge. Prayerfully consider what the Magisterium has said on these issues as well as theologians and apologists who have studied it. 
  • Don’t think the grass is greener on the other side. The only way to have a belief system that doesn’t face any difficulties is simply not to think very hard about it. For example, even if one abandons God because of the problem of evil, the problem of evil remains. The pain of suffering doesn’t change, but now the hope of redeeming it is gone, and questions about how to reconcile evil with God get replaced with questions about how to reconcile things like objective good and evil with a purposeless, accidental universe.