Learning in the Shadows
Thursday, June 17, 2021
Usually sometime around midlife, we come to a point where we’ve seen enough of our own tricks and we come to feel that my shadow self is who I am. We face ourselves in our raw, unvarnished, and uncivilized state. This is the shadowland where we are led by our own stupidity, our own sin, our own selfishness, by living out of our false self. We have to work our way through this with brutal honesty, confessions and surrenders, some forgiveness, and often by some necessary restitution or apology. The old language would have called it repentance, penance, or stripping.
In a teaching I recorded with Sounds True about a decade ago, I shared that it wasn’t until I was in middle age, fully embarked on my vocation—a formally celibate priest evangelizing a gospel of love—when I had the courage to ask,
Richard, have you ever really loved anybody more than yourself? [Is there] anybody in particular you would die for?. . . I realized I did not have to do that, that my so-called celibacy which told me that if I did not love anybody particularly, I would automatically love God was not necessarily true. I worried that all I did was love myself in a very well-disguised form.
Much of my forties and my fifties was shadowboxing, seeing my own mixed motives, seeing my own inability to believe and to practice these very things I teach to others. I had become known as a spiritual teacher; and then I would see that very often I had dark thoughts, violent thoughts, lustful thoughts, and then would get up and talk to other people in more mature stages of spiritual development and I was not really there myself. I could point toward those further stages, but I was not really living them. 
I believe the darkness in which we find ourselves when facing our shadow can also become the shadowland of God—or what the saints call “the dark night”—if we can see God in it. Maybe this is even the most common pattern. The wound can become the sacred wound, or it can just remain a bleeding, useless wound with a scab that never heals. As I teach in The Art of Letting Go,
The work of the shadowland can go on for quite a long time and if you do not have someone loving you during that period, believing in you, holding on to you, if you do not meet the unconditional love of God, if you do not encounter radical grace, being loved in your unworthiness, the spiritual journey will not continue. You have to discover God as unearned favor, unearned gratuity, or you will regress, you will go backwards. But in the shadowlands, you learn to live with contradiction, with ambiguity. This is true self-critical thinking. 
Adapted from Richard Rohr, The Art of Letting Go: Living the Wisdom of Saint Francis, disc 5 (Sounds True: 2010), CD;
The Wisdom Pattern: Order, Disorder, Reorder (Franciscan Media: 2001, 2020), 186–187; and
The Naked Now: Learning to See as the Mystics See (Crossroad Publishing Company: 2009), 165.
Story from Our Community:
Fr. Rohr points out the roadblock that I think limits transformation. We do not accept the shadow side and focus only on the conscious world. As we become aware of our shadows, the divinity waiting there transforms us. Christ’s presence, our healing, and salvation are always taking place in messy parts of life. We have not and never will be abandoned by God. —Ed J.