Andrew and Martha sat glumly, turned half-toward, half-away from each other. Once again, they were stuck in the same argument they’d had so many times before in their life together as a couple. One stabbed using sharp words; the other stonewalled using the silent treatment.
Each wanted to be right, but for different reasons. He was desperately afraid of being swallowed up and disappearing as a person; that’s why he hid behind a wall of silent contempt. She was afraid of being seen as she really was; so she hid behind a volley of poisoned arrows.
It was the more discouraging because their argument was about a real-life dilemma, which they needed to resolve. Now, not only were they unable to sort it out, but they also felt alienated and isolated from each other. No wonder they were discouraged. It was a big mess, practically and personally. Deep down, both felt guilty and ashamed. Neither wanted to take the risk of exposing themselves to each other, so they clung to their wall and their poison-tipped arrows.
They were like Adam and Eve in the garden: ashamed of their nakedness, and trying to hide. Theirs was a toxic shame, the kind of shame that says: “there’s something fundamentally wrong with you: who you are is no good.”
This is not God’s word to God’s creatures. God’s word is: “You are good.” That’s where the tragedy of sin comes in. Sin tricks us into shame, making us look away from where healing can come. And toxic shame makes it hard for us to hear God’s voice whispering to us, or feel God’s breath infusing us. How can we hear the song of love when we believe ourselves unlovable?
Andrew and Martha were weighed down by guilt, and yet could not get to the real question of guilt: who did what to whom, and what did they need to do to make up for it? They were too caught up in their false guilt — that vague, general sense of “I’ve done something-or-other wrong, and” (in Andrew’s case) “I had better not let her in or she will know,” or (in Martha’s case) “I had better work up a flurry of words and activity so he will not notice.” False guilt can take up so much space that we can’t assess our real guilt. We lose the simple, clear capacity to acknowledge what we have done that we ought not to, and rectify our harmful action or reconcile with whoever got hurt. False guilt is a frequent companion of toxic shame. Together, they can prevent us from meeting each other. We end up like Martha and Andrew, feeling lonely, misunderstood, and miserable.
Where can this couple go? How can they get out of their prison?
The truth of relationship is that we only know how to be with each other by coming to God. And we can’t wait until we’ve sorted ourselves out before we go to God — though we often try. Fortunately for us, he does not sit back and wait for us to come by. That would be a long wait! As St Athanasius observed long ago — when the human race forgot to look up to God, and could only look down, he became small enough and lowly enough to go where we were looking. So it is today, with us.
God beguiles us with yearning. God woos us and invites us to dance. God teases our senses and plays in us like the wind playing in our hair. When we are too proud to bend, he bends the heavens and comes down (Psalm 18:9). When we don’t know how to get up and unlock our door, God puts fragrant oil on the lock till he can work his hand through it (Song of Songs 5:4-5). When we can’t get into the sheep pen, God becomes the gate (John 10:7), and when we wander away from the hillside and get lost God drops everything to go and find us (Matthew 18:12-13).
How can we withstand the persistence, delightfulness and gentleness of God’s love? How can we stay away? How can we not want to cast our cares on God (1 Peter 5:7), tell God everything we’ve done that kept us far from him, behold again the light of his countenance (Psalm 34:5) and shine with joy for our Maker (Baruch 3:34)?
How else can we truly repent and become better, and better able to be with one another?
The sacrament of confession really is this. Relationship really is this. The season of Lent really is this.
Lent is, above all, love and forgiveness, repentance and renewal. Guilt and shame are the shadows we discover because the light shines. We prepare for Easter already in the light of the resurrection.
Marrocco is a marriage and family therapist, teacher of theology, and writer, and co-ordinates St. Mary of Egypt Refuge. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org