Posts Tagged ‘shame’

A sermon for Ash Wedensday delivered at King’s College Chapel, Cambridge.

One of the first puzzles that often faces a person who believes that there is a good God who loves us and desires our love in return is this: how do I live with myself? A sense of spiritual inadequacy is one of the most common responses to the presence of God. Faced with the purity, holiness and perfect loving-kindness of God we realize how very different we are and we feel guilty – if there is something specific on our mind. Or, just as often, we feel ashamed that we are – well, such a disappointing human being.

The guilt response is what we heard illustrated in the Psalm that was the Introit to this service. Allegri’s Miserere is David’s long song of lament when he realized just how bad and sad a person he was by misusing his power as King.

And that is rightly where our Ash Wednesday service, and therefore our Lenten journey, begins – with the sense that we are in the wrong. Although some people may have to work hard to generate a sense of penitence or compunction or sorrow, for many it is not far below the surface of smiling happiness or earnest seriousness. It’s one of those things that people think about but don’t talk about; that feeling of not being right with yourself, not being right with God.

But although feeling that sort of feeling is the beginning of the Lenten journey, it is certainly not the end. Lent is not an invitation to wallow in guilt or sink in shame, but to acknowledge it in some way and then to move forward in our relationship with God and our neighbours.

So – what to do for Lent? What to give up? What to take up? Most of us could afford to be rather more adventurous and self-challenging in our Lenten disciplines. There are, after all, no rules that we must obey. We are free to do what we like. My most memorable Lenten exercise was to try to give up grumbling.

I have since persuaded quite a lot of people to try it. No one has found it easy. One person told me it almost ruined her social life. And yet the pleasure of complaining is indeed a sinful pleasure. It does nothing to reflect the glory or grace of God. Sometimes we must protest, sometimes we need to critique, but much of our grumbling and complaining is unworthy of us.

But if giving up grumbling is a new idea, our service this evening will end with an invitation to you to connect with a very ancient idea. Before the congregation is dismissed, a bowl of ashes will be blessed, and those who remain for a minute or two will have an ashen cross smeared on their forehead while the minister says, ‘remember that you are dust and to dust you will return’. This ancient ritual points to the truth that while people imagine the spiritual quest as a struggle upwards, against gravity, as it were, in truth Christian spirituality is mostly about the journey downwards, based as it is on the belief that God can cope with anything other than dishonesty, hypocrisy and pretense.

It’s the real you that God loves, even if you find yourself disappointing.

The journey of Lent is not one of self-improvement, or one in which you discover how to be a perfect, good or impressive person; nor is it a journey that teaches you calm and serenity. It’s a journey that teaches you that God is love, and that God loves you.

To do justice to Lent we need to remember that at the heart of Christian spirituality we do not find the quest to be good, but the struggle to allow yourself to be loved by God as the mortal and the sinner that you undoubtedly are.

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I can tell you, if you are interested, the precise moment when I became interested in Psychology. I was listening to a radio programme, ‘Science Now’, I think, when I heard a feature on non-verbal communication. I was doing my A-levels at the time, all three sciences, and had become just a little tired of the anatomy of plants, the properties of molecules and being stuck in Physics because, unlike just about everyone else in the class, I was not doing Maths.

Hearing about the ways in which people communicate without words opened my eyes not only to what I had already intuited (that words are only the half of it) but also to the possibility that there was, just beyond my schoolboy reach, a science of human behaviour. Wow!

After a year on a General Science course at Durham University I was offered the chance to read either Botany or Psychology for single honours. It was, perhaps, my first ‘no-brainer’.

Over thirty years later all this came flooding back to me in a cinema, the Gala at Durham. The film was not ‘The Scientist’ but ‘The Artist’. The much praised silent movie by Michel Hazanavicius about a narcissistic actor who is hostile to the coming of the talkies.

From what I had heard, I had expected the film to focus on the issues prompted by a changing world. I had anticipated either a nostalgic endorsement of nostalgia or a nostalgic critique of nostalgia. I read a couple of reviews and feared that it might be not much more than a nerdy cinematic homage with clever-clever references that would whizz way over my head. Doubtless there were many of these, though the reviewers gave me enough tips to be able to notice a few flying by.

To my surprise, however, the film triggered a reflection not on change but on speech, voice and words. This was curious, since I began to think about the same subjects after my last visit to the cinema which was to see ‘The King’s Speech’.

What the two films have in common is a sensitive understanding of what you might call ‘voice shame’. It’s not subject that is often mentioned. It is the shame that dare not speak…. I wrote a chapter about it for my book Barefoot Disciple, but removed it in the final phases of the writing.

Inevitable, perhaps, but I don’t regret it. I have come to think of editing as the most important and defining skill of a writer. Producing words is simplicity itself. It’s removing the worthless words that is so difficult. And it is seriously painful to edit. As Annie Dillard put it in The Writing Life: ‘The part you must jettison is not only the best-written part; it is also, oddly, the part which was to have been the very point’. And that hurts.

Silent movies are not without words altogether. They have titles and there are credits at the end to read. And there are occasional intertile cards sharing the dialogue, and maybe the camera alights on a love letter which you, the audience, can read, or a sign on a wall. (An ‘exit’ sign is very significant at one point in ‘The Artist’.) This is constrained use of language rather than absolute silence. Absolute silence is so rare as to be relatively unimportant. Far more interesting is what happens between people when words become few and far between.

The most telling words in the film are when one of the characters says that she ‘did not mean what she was saying’ on an occasion when her hurtful words were overheard. It was a powerful speech that she had been making. But maybe the words she was producing led her away from her true self. Maybe her ‘position statement’ undercut her integrity. Words can do that – when we let them run on ahead of us.

When I studied Psychology we were taught that non-verbal communication is fatally ambiguous. But maybe what it lacks in precision (which in my view is seriously overstated) it makes up for in transparency. We all vary in this. Some of us can play poker better than others, but many of us have faces that others can read all too easily. And we all know that if the words say one thing and the facial expressions another, we believe the expressions. The twitch, the loss of eye-contact, the briefest of hesitations, these ‘say it all’.

Watching a silent movie is a different social experience than seeing any other sort. You start listening (or at least I did) to the quality and tone of the audiences’ ‘mmmmms’ and ‘aaaahs’ and laughs. There were neither belly laughs nor any sharp laughs when I saw ‘The Artist’. The noises at the Gala were more considered, sympathetic and, or so it seemed to me, shared than they often are in the cinema. They came not via the verbal intelligence but from other parts of the brain, or maybe other parts of our being. I refuse to think of these as more primitive. They are, I suggest, the opposite of that.

Relative, if not absolute, silence, like its sibling editing and its cousin verbal restraint, have the capacity to liberate our most elevated and exalted selves.

And what’s the word for that? ‘Soul’, perhaps.

I wonder: if we were content with fewer words, maybe our souls might find it easier to speak.

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