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Thursday, June 6, 2013

Being Ashamed of Who You Are

There are a lot of people who are ashamed of who they are.  Yes, most people get their identity from what they do, but there are also those who derive their identity from a single instant.  And, when that instant is shameful, then the shame of identity it hard to overcome.

It can even come between us and God.

If we think of a 'sinner' as one who is, by nature of that identity, broken off from God, then if we love God we will fight to not be identified as a 'sinner.'  We see this impulse all the time among people who think that God will hate them if they wear the 'sinner' label.

Of course, Orthodox Christians believe that the identity of 'sinner' is exactly who Christ seeks out, so you are safe with such an identity.

'Alcoholic' and 'addict' present more of a challenge.  Most people in the modern world are afraid of this identity because they know that it means the problem is incurable (fear of relapse) and requires life-long treatment (fear of pain and inconvenience).  It does not necessarily drive one away from God, unless your religious hang-ups demand that you be perfect before God will have anything to do with you aside from lightening bolts.

In the Orthodox community, I have seen one particular form of shame that has driven a number of my seminary classmates out of the Church.  It is the 'shame' of being an ex-priest or, in other words, a deposed clergyman.

There are three main reasons a clergyman in the Church is deposed: you messed up, you are tired of it, or your wife messed up and left you.  Even in the latter case, there are some divorced priests that still serve because their cases were clearly that of abandonment.  This is why bishops really need to take a closer look at the wives of seminarians.

What is sad is that I have seen a majority of these men, once they are deposed, leave the Church altogether.  I'm not going to pretend to speak for all of them, but I do know a few who have hung in there and have even continued to serve the Church in new and very much-needed ways.  Almost all of them, I would say (and this is a mark of my own arrogance), were much better priests than I ever will be.  

The problem often has to do with how others receive them.  Just think about it: when you hear someone is an ex-priest, you are likely to begin wondering why he left.  Could it be something bad?  The wheels start grinding, and most of these guys are with-it enough to know that's what you are thinking about.  Like the alcoholic, he is identified by his problem, and frankly, that can be depressing if all you know about it is that it is a problem.

What you have done becomes who you are.

Now, an alcoholic bears an identity because of an ongoing condition, but what about the man who leaves the priesthood?  Must he be marked for what may have been a one-time act, or even a perfectly honorable reason like burn-out?

What some of them have confided in me is that they detect how uncomfortable people, particular clergy, are with them.  They feel the discomfort of others in a painfully sensitive way.  They know that we cringe.

For clergy, they are reminders that the identity as a priest is really fragile.  It can be broken by a single act violating the disciplinary canons.  Once the trust the priesthood demands is broken, the identity becomes obscured.  This is why the canons call for the deposition of clergy based on a single instance of major sin.

But, we need to be reminded that it is delicate, lest we take it for granted.  I think on a regular basis about how little control I have over my life, and how all that I have, even the priesthood, can disappear in an instant.  

The only thing that cannot be taken from me is my humanity.  I am a human, first and foremost.  And, part of that humanity that cannot be taken from me is my past.  When Christ heals the Paralytic, He tells him, "Rise, take up your pallet, and walk."  He does not leave the pallet behind, because this past is how he encountered God.

The pallet is holy, even if it was sinful and burdensome.

To this extent, no one can erase my past, and so my past shapes who I am today.  If I am deposed, there would only be shame if I fled from that identity.  I can't.  It has brought me to where I am now and will determine the direction that I go through the rest of my life.

Let other people think and wonder and guess and ponder.  That's their own problem.  I won't let their thinking get in the way of my relationship with God and the Church.  The truth is that once the initial discomfort is over, the healthy people will start to judge you on what you do now, and the crazies will always be crazy and judgmental.

Do not let the identity of being an addict come between you and God.  If people get weird, that's too bad for them.  Don't buy into their problems.  You can help them just by being yourself.  If you react with shame, then you are reinforcing their judgments and will make it harder for others to came after you.

This does not mean you have to wear it on your head like a hat, but do not be ashamed of what is not shameful.  It is not shameful to be an addict in recovery.  It is not shameful to be an ex-priest, even if both conditions may have had shameful aspects or events tied to them.  It would be shameful to be an addict who refuses recovery or a priest 'acting out' but avoiding discipline.

To be honest, even honorable people have their shameful moments.  We need to get real here.  Nobody is perfect.

If you are one of those people who demands perfect clergy or a perfect Church, then you are perfectly out of your mind.  We are all broken in some way, and the point is not to avoid being broken but to be healed.  That's why Christ came, and that's why we 'come to' in the Program.

Do not let shame keep you out of the Church.  If anything, let it be the reason you need to stay.

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