Shame and the Roots of Separation

In one of Giacomo Puccini’s shorter but nonetheless lush and beautiful operas, Suor Angelica (“Sister Angelica”), we watch the tragic story unfold of a young nun who, after having given birth many years prior to a child out of wedlock, was sent to live in a convent removed from her wealthy family and her son. No one in the convent knows the Sister’s secret, yet she thinks of him often. To compound her anxiety, her well-to-do, pretentious aunt enters the picture. She is the trustee of Angelica’s deceased parents’ estate and announces that Angelica’s sister is to be married. She demands that Angelica sign papers transferring her inheritance rights to her betrothed sister. As if throwing a stone at Angelica’s eye, the aunt declares that the marriage will take place and that, just maybe, the stain of shame borne from Angelica’s prior actions will finally be removed from the family. Angelica is crushed. The aunt then reveals the devastating blow: Angelica’s young son died two years prior.

As the opera builds to a climax, Sister Angelica, tormented not only by the news of her son but also by the overbearing presence of the aunt, is drawn deeper into hopelessness and despair. Fueled by her grief she concocts a fatal remedy. She instantly regrets her decision and prays for forgiveness. In a final vision, Angelica reaches for her son but is almost instantly torn from him as she slips away.

Although the story might be a new take on an unoriginal theme, the music and pathos of the singers nevertheless draws you in, and you cannot help but feel incredibly sorry for Angelica. Confined to a lifetime removed from all she held dear, shame was a wet coat she could never shake off. Forced into hiding and hammered down by a lack of grace and dearth of mercy, her constant companion was sadness as she died an unfulfilled person weighed down by regrets. As an aside, it is hard to ignore that the setting is a religious institution.

When Jesus was busy teaching at the synagogue, a group of religious men brought a woman caught in adultery with the secondary intention of shaming and possibly stoning her. Their main objective, however, was to trick Jesus into justifying their ill-conceived notions of justice for those who fell short of the community’s expectations.(1) Imagine this: the religious people using someone’s public shame in order to draw out and frame Jesus as one who is out of line. There would appear to be no winners in this scenario. But Jesus quickly dispatched them all when he simply asked them to undertake some self-examination, a request too heavy to bear apparently. The story does not tell us what happened next, but we can very likely surmise that the woman knew her day ended better than it began.

Or what about the prodigal son who returned after having blown his last dime in rampant self-absorption?(2) Such an action was tantamount to the ultimate disrespect shown a father in ancient Judaism. After hitting rock-bottom, the son could not wait to reverse course. Jesus paints a picture of a father who looked past all of this with open arms and a welcome home party even in the face of the bewildered brother who remained.

Separation, removal, and disunity are the common themes in each of these stories. The individuals here were not simply experiencing a case of blushing embarrassment. They were shamed, or in the case of the brother, should have been ashamed simply because of their infraction of communal and familial standards. Old Testament scholar John Goldingay writes that shame “suggests a deep and generalized inner sense of unacceptability and worthlessness” with strong ties to “internalized community and family convictions.”(3) And there’s the hammer: shame, whose initial flight is lifted by sin is only propelled higher by the winds of untempered family and community expectations.

Shame and its companions can wreak havoc on any life but especially a young life. Any episode that brings on shame can serve as an anchor to a buoy, which continues bobbing up later in life to remind us of those moments we would rather forget. Researchers recently found that moments of shame do not simply serve as reminders but can have more damaging effects as those episodes serve as “emotional memories,” which themselves shape future expectations and morph into “turning points in the life story and as central components of identity.”(4) This is worth remembering: shame can be so strong as to reinforce your self-image and shape your life story.

So what is the antidote? Put differently, what did our Suor Angelica need? Forgiveness? To the extent she never received it, likely so. But she also needed something even greater: restoration.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote that shame “is overcome only [...] through the restoration of a fellowship with God and men. [...] In shame man is reminded of his disunion with God and with other men.”(5) Peter and Paul—each using a version for the word for peace—both thought enough of the topic as to exhort different church bodies regarding it. “If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all.”(6) For “Whoever desires to love life and see good days [...] let him seek peace and pursue it.”(7) The Biblical mandate is clear, and we are without excuse when it comes to extending the olive branch, no matter how hard.

Toward the end of Suor Angelica, in one of opera’s great arias, “Senza Momma”—or, without mother—we hear Angelica sing to her lost son. Ironically, one line goes, “And you are dead without knowing how loved you were by your mother!” How tragic that Angelica’s description of her son’s ending would soon mirror her own as she threw herself in violent reaction to the poison she ingested without feeling the love—and forgiveness—and that eluded her.

As the opera drew to a close, I caught myself wondering how things might have turned out differently for Angelica. How would things have ended if, notwithstanding Puccini’s colorful imagination, Jesus had turned to the aunt and said, “Before we go any further, do you mind if we discuss that you time that you...?” Or what if the aunt simply entered and ran over to Angelica and scooped her up to take her home and be part of a wedding celebration? Other than witnessing the world’s shortest opera, one thing would be clear yet again: the presence of Jesus repulses any notion of shame-fueled separation.

This is what Jesus is for our lives, and it is what we should be in the lives of others. People who restore. People who shape an identity focused on hope. Witnesses to a life’s story unburdened by the shame of the past and whose future expectations are founded on forgiveness, healing, and welcoming. Now that’s a show I’d like to see and even take part in.

Lowe Finney is a member of the speaking team at Ravi Zacharias International Ministries in Atlanta, Georgia.

(1) John 8:1-11.
(2) Luke 15:11-32.
(3) John Goldingay, Old Testament Theology, Vol. 3: Israel’s Life (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2009), 606.
(4) Pinto-Gouveia, Jose Augusto, and Marcela Matos, “Can Shame Memories Become a Key to Identity? The Centrality of Shame Memories Predicts Psychopathology,” Applied Cognitive Psychology, 25(2):281 (2011): 17-18.
(5) Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Ethics (New York: Touchstone, 1995), 27.
(6) Romans 12:18.
(7) 1 Peter 3:10-11.

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