The Shadow in Christianity — Center for Action and Contemplation
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The Shadow in Christianity

Shadow Work

The Shadow in Christianity
Wednesday, June 16, 2021

We can patiently accept not being good. What we cannot bear is not being considered good, not appearing good.—St. Francis of Assisi

If you are willing to bear serenely the trial of being displeasing to yourself, you will be for Jesus a pleasant place of shelter. —St. Thérèse of Lisieux

The two Christian mystics quoted above have helped me to escape the trap of perfectionism which always leads to an entrenched shadow. The wise Benedictine Brother David Steindl-Rast describes this common ploy:  

In its enthusiasm for the divine light, Christian theology has not always done justice to the divine darkness. . . . We tend to get trapped in the idea of a static perfection that leads to rigid perfectionism. Abstract speculation can create an image of God that is foreign to the human heart. . . [A God that does not contain our shadows.] Then we try to live up to the standards of a God that is purely light, and we can’t handle the darkness within us. And because we can’t handle it, we suppress it. But the more we suppress it, the more it leads its own life, because it’s not integrated. Before we know it, we are in serious trouble.

You can get out of that trap if you come back to the core of the Christian tradition, to the real message of Jesus. You find him, for instance, saying, “Be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect” [Matthew 5:48]. Yet he makes it clear that this is not the perfection of suppressing the darkness, but the perfection of integrated wholeness. [Richard: Emphasis mine.] That’s the way Matthew puts it in the Sermon on the Mount. Jesus talks of our Father in heaven who lets the sun shine on the good and the bad, and lets the rain fall on the just and the unjust alike [see Matthew 5:45]. It’s both the rain and the sun, not only the sun. And it’s both the just and the unjust. Jesus stresses the fact that God obviously allows the interplay of shadow and light. God approves of it. If God’s perfection allows for tensions to work themselves out, who are we to insist on a perfection in which all tensions are suppressed? . . .

[As Paul writes,] “By grace you have been saved” [Ephesians 2:8]. That’s one of the earliest insights in the Christian tradition: it’s not by what you do that you earn God’s love. Not because you are so bright and light and have purged out all the darkness does God accept you, but as you are. Not by doing something, not by your works, but gratis you have been saved. That means you belong. God has taken you in. God embraces you as you are—shadow and light, everything. God embraces it, by grace. And it has already happened.

Reference:
David Steindl-Rast, “The Shadow in Christianity,” in Meeting the Shadow: The Hidden Power of the Dark Side of Human Nature, ed. Jeremiah Abrams and Connie Zweig (Jeremy P. Tarcher: 1991), 132, 133.

Story from Our Community:
Some years ago I was introduced to Richard Rohr. I was immature in my faith journey, unaware that not knowing is actually a real knowing. After reading “Falling Upward” and “Immortal Diamond” I was filled with a new way of hearing and seeing. I began shadow work, painful and traumatizing at times—it was my own spiritual awakening. Transforming pain has its moments of grace. —Renee M.

Image credit: Jenna Keiper, dapple (detail), 2020, photograph, Bellingham.
Image inspiration: Shadows are always influential if not always obvious. Some, in focus in the foreground, are easier to name while others remain hidden in the background. How might we attend to the lessons of our own inner shadow landscapes?
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