RonRolheiser,OMI

Our Shadow and our Self-Understanding  

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What is meant when certain schools of psychology today warn us about our “shadow”? What’s our shadow?

In essence, it’s this: We have within us powerful, fiery energies that, for multiple reasons, we cannot consciously face and so we handle them by denial and repression so as to not have to deal with them. Metaphorically speaking, we bury them in the hidden ground of our souls where they are out of conscious sight and mind.

But there’s a problem: What we’ve buried doesn’t stay hidden. While these energies are out of conscious sight and conscious mind, they continue to deeply impact our feelings, thoughts, and actions by pushing through in all kinds of unconscious ways to color our actions, mostly negatively. Our deep, innate energies will always act out, consciously or unconsciously. Carl Jung, one of the pioneer voices in this, says that we are doomed to act out unconsciously all the archetypal configurations which we do not access and control through conscious ritual.

Perhaps a simple image can be helpful in understanding this. Imagine living in a house with a basement beneath your living room, a basement into which you never venture, and every time you need to dispose of some garbage you simply open the basement door and dump the garbage there. For a while, that can work, it’s out of sight and out of mind; but soon enough that garbage will begin to ferment and its toxic fumes will begin to seep upward through the vents, polluting the air you breathe. It wasn’t a bother, for a time, but eventually it poisons the air.

That’s a helpful image, though it’s one-sided in that it has us only throwing our negative garbage downstairs. Interestingly, we also throw into that same place those parts of us that frighten us in their luminosity. Our own greatness also scares us, and we too bury huge parts of it. Our shadow is not just made up of the negative parts that frighten us; it is also made up of the most luminous parts of us that we feel too frightened to handle. In the end, both the negative and positive energies inside us, which we are too frightened to handle, come from one and the same source, the image and likeness of God imprinted in us.

The most fundamental thing we believe about ourselves as Christians is that we are made in the image and likeness of God. However it isn’t very helpful to imagine this as a beautiful icon stamped inside our souls. Rather we might think of it as irrepressible divine energy, infinite eros and infinite spirit, constantly wrestling with the confines of our finitude. No surprise then that we have to contend with energies, feelings, pressures, and impulses that frighten and threaten us in their magnitude.

Ironically, the struggle with this can be particularly trying for sensitive people; the more sensitive you are, morally and religiously, the more threatening these energies can be. Why? Because two fears tend to afflict sensitive souls: First, the fear of being egoistical. Greatness isn’t easy to carry and few carry it well, and sensitive souls know this. The wild and the wicked unreflectively feed off of sacred fire, except they aren’t known for their sensitivity and too often end up hurting others and themselves. Sensitive souls find themselves considerably more reflective and timid, and for good reason. They’re afraid of being full of themselves, egotists, unhealthily imposing. But that timidity doesn’t everywhere serve them well. Too sensitive in dealing with certain energies inside them, they sometimes end up too empty of God.

The second reason sensitive people tend to bury much of their luminosity is because they’re more in touch with that primal fear within us that’s expressed in the famous Greek myth of Prometheus, namely, that our most creative energies might somehow be an affront to God, that we might be stealing fire from the gods. Sensitive people worry about pride, about being too full of ego. Healthy as that is in itself, it often leads them to bury some or much of their luminosity.

The consequence isn’t good. Like the negative parts of ourselves we bury, our buried luminosity too begins to ferment, turn into toxic fumes, and seep upward through the vents of our consciousness. Those fumes take the form of free-range anger, jealousy, bitterness, and cold judgments of others. So much of our undirected anger, constantly looking for someone or something to land on, is the shadow side of a greatness, which is repressed and buried.

Where to go in the face of this? James Hillman suggests that a symptom suffers most when it doesn’t know where it belongs. We need more spiritual guides who can diagnose this. Too often our spiritualities have been naïve in their diagnosis of human pride and ego. We need more spiritual guides who can recognize how we too much bury parts of our luminosity and how our fear of being too full of ourselves can leave us too empty of God.

Nothing is Ever Really Ours

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Everything is gift. That’s a principle that ultimately undergirds all spirituality, all morality, and every commandment. Everything is gift. Nothing can be ultimately claimed as our own. Genuine moral and religious sensitivity should make us aware of that. Nothing comes to us by right.

This isn’t something we automatically know. During a class some years ago, a Monk shared with me how, for all the early years of his religious life, he had been resentful because he had to ask permission of his Abbott if he wanted anything: “I used to think it was silly, me, a grown man, supposedly an adult, having to ask a superior if I wanted something. If I wanted a new shirt, I would have to ask the Abbott for permission to buy it. I thought it was ridiculous that a grown man was reduced to being like a child.”

But there came a day when he felt differently: “I am not sure of all the reasons, but one day I came to realize that there was a purpose and wisdom in having to ask permission for everything. I came to realize that nothing is ours by right and nothing may be taken as owned. Everything’s a gift. Everything needs to be asked for. We need to be grateful to the universe and to God just for giving us a little space. Now, when I ask permission from the Abbott because I need something, I no longer feel like a child. Rather, I feel like I’m properly in tune with the way things should be, in a gift-oriented universe within which none of us has a right to ultimately claim anything as one’s own.

This is moral and religious wisdom, but it’s a wisdom that goes against the dominant ethos within our culture and against some of our strongest inclinations. Both from without and from within, we hear voices telling us: If you cannot take what you desire then you’re weak, and weak in a double way: First, you’re a weak person, too timid to fully claim what’s yours. Second, you’ve been weakened by religious and moral scruples so as to be incapable of seizing the day. To not claim what is yours, to not claim ownership, is not a virtue but a fault.

It was those kinds of voices that this monk was hearing during his younger years and because of them he felt resentful and immature.

But Jesus wouldn’t echo these voices. The Gospels make it pretty clear that Jesus would not look on so much that is assertive, aggressive, and accumulative within our society, despite the praise and envy it receives, and see this as admirable, as healthily seizing the day. I doubt too that Jesus would share our admiration of the rich and famous who claim, as by right, their excessive wealth and status. When Jesus states that it is harder for a rich person to go to heaven than for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle, he might have mitigated this by adding: “Unless, of course, the rich person, childlike, asks permission from the universe, from the community, and from God, every time he buys a shirt!” When Jesus tells us that children and the poor go to heaven more easily he is not idolizing either their innocence or poverty. He’s idolizing the need to recognize and admit our dependence. Ultimately we don’t provide for ourselves and nothing is ours by right.

When I was in the Oblate novitiate, our novice master tried to impress upon us the meaning of religious poverty by making us write inside of every book that was given us the Latin words: Ad Usum. Latin for: For use. The idea was that, although this book was given to you for your personal use, you ultimately did not own it. It’s was just yours temporarily. We were then told that this was true of everything else given us for our personal use, from our toothbrushes to the shirts on our backs. They were not really ours, but merely given us for our use.

One of the young men in that novitiate eventually left the order and became a medical doctor. He remains a close friend and he once shared with me how even today, as a doctor, he still writes those words, Ad Usum, inside all his books: “I don’t belong to a religious order and don’t have the vow of poverty, but that principle our novice master taught us is just as valid for me in the world as it is for any professed religious. Ultimately we don’t own anything. Those books aren’t mine, really. They’ve been given me, temporarily, for my use. Nothing belongs to anybody and it’s good never to forget that!”

It’s not a bad thing as an adult to have to ask permission to buy a new shirt. It reminds us that the universe belongs to everyone and that all of us should be deeply grateful that it gives us even a little space.

The Flavor of God’s Energy 

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All things considered, I believe that I grew up with a relatively healthy concept of God. The God of my youth, the God that I was catechized into, was not unduly punishing, arbitrary, or judgmental. He was omnipresent, so that all of our sins were noticed and noted, but, at the end of the day, he was fair, loving, personally concerned for each of us, and wonderfully protective, to the point of providing each of us with a personal guardian angel. That God gave me permission to live without too much fear and without any particularly crippling religious neuroses.

But that only gets you so far in life. Not having an unhealthy notion of God doesn’t necessarily mean that you have a particularly healthy one. The God whom I was raised on was not overly stern and judgmental, but neither was he very joyous, playful, witty, or humorous. Especially, he wasn’t sexual, and had a particularly vigilant and uncompromising eye in that area. Essentially he was grey, a bit dour, and not very joyous to be around. Around him, you had to be solemn and reverent. I remember the Assistant Director at our Oblate novitiate telling us that there is no recorded incident, ever, of Jesus having laughed.

Under such a God you had permission to be essentially healthy, but, to the extent that you took him seriously, you still walked through life less than fully robust and your relationship with him could only be solemn and reverent.

Then, already a generation ago, there was a strong reaction in many churches and in the culture at large to this concept of God.  Popular theology and spirituality set out to correct this, sometimes with an undue vigor. What they presented instead was a laughing Jesus and a dancing God and while this was not without its value it still left us begging for a deeper literature about the nature of God and what that might mean for us in terms of a health and relationships.

That literature won’t be easy to write, not just because God is ineffable, but because God’s energy is also ineffable. What, indeed, is energy? We rarely ask this question because we take energy as something so primal that it cannot be defined but only taken as a given, as self-evident. We see energy as the primal force that lies at the heart of everything that exists, animate and inanimate. Moreover, we feel energy, powerfully, within ourselves. We know energy, we feel energy, but what we rarely recognize its origins, its prodigiousness, its joy, its goodness, its effervescence, and its exuberance. We rarely recognize what it tells us about God. What does it tell us?

The first quality of energy is its prodigiousness. It is prodigal beyond our imagination and this speaks something about God. What kind of creator makes billions of throwaway universes?  What kind of creator makes trillions upon trillions of species of life, millions of them never to be seen by the human eye? What kind of father or mother has billions of children?

And what does the exuberance in the energy of young children say about our creator? What does their playfulness suggest about what must also lie inside of sacred energy? What does the energy of a young puppy tell us about what’s sacred? What do laughter, wit, and irony tell us about the God?

No doubt the energy we see around us and feel irrepressibly within us tells us that, underneath, before and below everything else, there flows a sacred force, both physical and spiritual, which is at its root, joyous, happy, playful, exuberant, effervescent, and deeply personal and loving.  That energy is God. That energy speaks of God and that energy tells us why God made us and what kind of permissions God is giving us for living out our lives.

When we try to imagine the heart of reality, we might picture things this way: At the very center of everything there sit two thrones, on one sits a King and on the other sits a Queen, and from these two thrones issues forth all energy, all creativity, all power, all love, all nourishment, all joy, all playfulness, all humor, and all beauty. All images of God are inadequate, but this image hopefully can help us understand that God is perfect masculinity and perfect femininity making perfect love all the time and that from this union issues forth all energy and all creation. Moreover that energy, at its sacred root, is not just creative, intelligent, personal, and loving, it’s also joyous, colorful, witty, playful, humorous, erotic, and exuberant at it very core. To feel it is an invitation to gratitude.

The challenge of our lives is to live inside that energy in a way that honors it and its origins. That means keeping our shoes off before the burning bush as we respect its sacredness, even as we take from it permission to be more robust, free, joyous, humorous, and playful – and especially more grateful.