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Shadow Work
Shadow Work

Self-Critical Thinking Taught by the Hebrew Prophets

Wednesday, June 21, 2023

The Hebrew prophets do not hesitate to criticize their religious tradition, even while loving it. Father Richard shows how they help us to incorporate the shadow side of reality:  

The Hebrew prophets are in a category of their own. Within the canonical, sacred scriptures of other world religions we don’t find major texts that are largely critical of that religion. The Hebrew prophets were free to love their tradition and to criticize it at the same time, which is a very rare art form. One of the most common judgments I hear from other priests is, “You criticize the Church.” But criticizing the Church, as such, is just being faithful to the pattern set by the prophets and Jesus. That’s exactly what they did (see Matthew 23). The only question is whether one does it in a negative way or in a way that is faithful to God. I pray that I am doing the second. You pray too! 

The presumption for most people is that if we criticize something, then it means we don’t love it. Wise people like the prophets would say the opposite. The Church’s sanctification of the status quo reveals that we have not been formed by the prophets, who were radical precisely because they were traditionalists. Institutions always want loyalists and “company men”; we don’t want prophets. We don’t want people who point out our shadow side. It is no accident that the prophets and the priests are usually in opposition to one another (see Amos 5:21–6:7, 7:10–17). I think it is fair to say that the prophetic charism was repressed in almost all Catholic, Orthodox, and Protestant Christianity. None of us have been known for criticizing ourselves. We only criticize one another, sinners, and heretics—who were always elsewhere! Yet Paul says the prophetic gift is the second most important charism for building up of the Gospel (1 Corinthians 12:28; Ephesians 4:11). [1] 

We have to experience the negative side of reality along with the positive. No wonder we split, avoid, and deny. No wonder we prefer abstract ideas, where we can dismiss the unacceptable material. But the Hebrew Scriptures amazingly incorporate the negative. Jesus does the same when he is “tempted by the devil for forty days” (Luke 4:2). The Jewish people, against all odds, kept their complaining and avoiding, and kept their arrogant and evil kings and their very critical public prophets inside of their Bible. [2]  

Of course, there is such a thing as negative criticism and positive criticism. I think we can feel the difference on the level of energy. When we read the spare, unfiltered texts of the prophets, some of them sound negative, as does Jesus, too. But my assumption is that this criticism comes from a primary positive encounter with Divine Reality. We see this in other parts of their lives and writings. The positive energy is the overriding experience. [3]  


[1] Adapted from Richard Rohr, Way of the Prophet (Albuquerque, NM: Center for Action and Contemplation, 1994), CD. No longer available for purchase. 

[2] Adapted from Richard Rohr, Things Hidden: Scripture as Spirituality (Cincinnati, OH: Franciscan Media, 2008, 2022), 13–14.  

[3] Rohr, Way of the Prophet

Image credit: A path from one week to the next— CAC Staff, Untitled. Izzy Spitz, Untitled. CAC Staff, Untitled. Watercolor. Used with permission. Click here to enlarge image

Even if my shadow is out of my sight, it still will make itself known. 

Story from Our Community:  

I am widowed 6 years, and just ended a 10-month abusive relationship. I’ve always made time for daily prayer, and even through the difficult times I was able to “steal” quiet time. Throughout my life, I have hung onto to my deepest desire, to be one with love. Now when I close my eyes before sleep, I offer my gratitude for all the experiences I’ve had. I’ve embraced my shadow side, made it a friend. After all, it’s part of me. I’m beginning to feel a new joy bubbling up. I’m now not just swimming in the sea but have become a part of it. —Connie V. 

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