Embracing the Shadow
Monday, July 11, 2016
Our shadow self is any part of ourselves or our institutions that we try to hide or deny because it seems socially unacceptable. The church and popular media primarily focus on sexuality and body-issues as our “sinful” shadow, but that is far too narrow a definition. The larger and deeper issue for individuals and Western culture is actually failure itself. Thus, the genius of the pure Gospel is that it incorporates failure into a new definition of spiritual success. This is why Jesus says that prostitutes, drunkards, and tax collectors are getting into the kingdom of God before the chief priests and religious elders (see Matthew 21:31). This is supposed to blow your socks off.
Our success-driven culture scorns all failure, powerlessness, and any form of poverty. Yet Jesus begins his Sermon on the Mount by praising “the poor in spirit” (Matthew 5:3)! Just that should tell us how thoroughly we have missed the point of the Gospel. Nonviolence, weakness in any form, and simplicity are the American shadow self. Just witness the current election cycle. We avoid the very things that Jesus praises, and we try to project a strong, secure, successful image to ourselves and the world. We reject all human vulnerability and seek dominance instead, and we elect leaders who falsely promise us the same.
I can see why my father, St. Francis, made a revolutionary and pre-emptive move into the shadow self from which everyone else ran. In effect, Francis said through his lifestyle, “I will delight in powerlessness, humility, poverty, simplicity, and failure.” He lived so close to the bottom of things that there was no place to fall. Even when insulted, he did not take offence. Now that is freedom, or what he called “perfect joy”! 
Our shadow is often subconscious, hidden even from our own awareness. It takes effort and life-long practice to look for, find, and embrace what we dismiss and what we disdain. After spending so much energy avoiding the appearance of failure, it will take a major paradigm shift in consciousness to integrate our shadow. Just know that it is the false self that is sad and humbled by shadow work, because its game is over. The True Self, “hidden with Christ in God” (Colossians 3:3) is incapable of being humiliated. It only grows from such insight.
One of the great surprises on the human journey is that we come to full consciousness precisely by shadowboxing, facing our own contradictions, and making friends with our own mistakes and failings. People who have had no inner struggles are invariably superficial and uninteresting. We tend to endure them more than appreciate them, because they have little to communicate and show little curiosity. Shadow work is what I call “falling upward.” Lady Julian put it best of all: “First there is the fall, and then we recover from the fall. Both are the mercy of God!”  God hid holiness quite well: the proud will never recognize it and the humble will fall into it every day—not even realizing it is holiness.
Gateway to Silence:
Help me see as You see.
 Murray Bodo, Francis: The Journey and the Dream (St. Anthony Messenger Press: 2011), 88.
 My paraphrase of Julian of Norwich, Revelations of Divine Love, Long Text 61.
Adapted from Richard Rohr, Everything Belongs: The Gift of Contemplative Prayer (The Crossroad Publishing Company: 1999, 2003), 162-163; and
Falling Upward: A Spirituality for the Two Halves of Life (Jossey-Bass: 2011), 135.