Eighth Sunday of Ordinary Time
[Scripture Readings: Is 49:14-15; 1Cor 4:1-5; Mt 6:24-34 ]
Monastic ethics are to ethics as monastic music is to music. That is one of the first conclusions I drew early in my formation. It was in distinguishing secular ethics from monastic ethics that I learned that no man can serve two masters. In the secular world I came from, ethics were practical; they were about control and getting along with each other. Love was portrayed in movies and music as two people looking at each other. In the monastery ethics are meaningful; they are about seeking union with God. Love is about all of us looking at the same thing; we are centered on Christ. How do you make the transition from one to the other? I think today’s gospel tells us that.
The book of Sirach (29:21), a wisdom book, tells us that food, water, and clothing were the absolute necessities of life. The book of Genesis (Ch 3) tells us that the need for these goes back to the Fall. After Adam and Eve took to themselves the knowledge of Good and Evil their first reaction was to experience shame. Consequently they devised their own protection: they made clothing from leaves and blamed someone else. They became distant from each other. Then God made them clothing from animal skins. When they accepted them it eased their shame. It re-united them because it was a gift from a common donor. It also confirmed that God was still in a bond with them. Shame is the only emotion that is good by its very nature. Jesus knows that anxiety is not an emotion that is good of its very nature; He advises its opposite: calmness. Later in our Mass, after we pray the Our Father, we will ask God to “protect us from all anxiety.” Guilt is not good of itself because it is better to be guiltless. Shame is the only essentially good emotion. It is not good to be shameless. Shame is not a reaction to our acts; it is the discovery of the kind of person we are. Shame is essentially good because it upsets us if we stray from God. If we read it right, it makes us want to return. Shame is a protection God gave us to preserve our self-respect. Our self-respect is simply an awareness that we are made in the image and likeness of God and that His law is written on our hearts. That awareness sets our dignity and insures our worth; it sets our limits and guides our actions. But, we disdained the limits of our humanity. Being limited and dependent is what we’re ashamed of. We’re ego-maniacs with an inferiority complex!
Apart from God we might deal with shame by finding someone to blame; by scapegoating. Jesus came to expose scapegoating as the greatest threat to a restored relationship with the Father. It is “the sin of the world.” It distracts us from shame and that prevents us from being upset about our alienation from God. The evil in evil is that it does not upset us to do it. In my experience, we begin to live the moral life when the horror of what we have done is allowed to have a shattering effect on us.
And if, apart from God, we deal with shame by not blaming another, but instead by detesting self, then we will experience the anxiety Jesus describes today and self-respect will again elude us. Instead we will become self-preoccupied and try to gain a false superiority by standing above ourselves and replacing God as judge. As Guigo the Carthusain wrote: “The beginning of the return to truth is to be dissatisfied with our falsity.”
Our confrontation with shame — our rejection of our human limits—is why St. Benedict gave us the Steps of Humility. Humility moves us beyond shame. After shame makes falsity unpalatable, humility presents the truth of our limited, created condition and we experience that truth as liberation. The animal skin clothing God made is humility. It eased the shame; it made relationship possible again. Humility is the art of being human when the human is clear about what matters most.
Underlying every vice is the will to control. When Jesus says not to worry about what we will wear, He is saying to be meek and humble of heart as He is. Like Him—and like the birds of the air and the lilies of the field—we can see our limits as opportunities to yield control and experience the care of the Father.
The great paradox of the moral life is that only those who undergo the most profound experience of shame are capable of being profoundly good. To make that transition, Jesus tells us, we must become shame’s docile pupil and then, make a decision to “seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness.”