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Happy Easter! St Peter and Shame

It’s Easter, and whether and to what extent you believe the Christian story, this is the most important event of the Christian calendar.  I believe it has relevance for all of us, in its exploration of utter darkness, despair, cruelty, deceit, loss, shame and loneliness, staying with the unbearableness of these feelings through the Friday and Saturday, to the celebration of Easter, bringing forgiveness, redemption and hope once more.

The story of Peter stands out for me today.   At the last supper with Jesus, Peter swore he would never forsake him.  But Jesus predicted that Peter would deny all knowledge of him before the cock crowed the next morning.  And that is what happened.  As Jesus was led away to see the high priest and answer his questions, a small servant girl came out and asked him if he was a disciple. He said that he was not, and went out to warm his hands by the fire.

Twice more he denied his knowledge of Jesus, and as dawn came nearer and the cock crowed, he buried his head in his hands and cried, feeling the utter desolation of his betrayal, both of his friend, and himself.

We have all done things, or failed do to do things, that make us feel utterly ashamed.  Shame has a positive side, in that it helps us to know when we have done something wrong.  But for many of us, shame is a pervasive sense that we are only ever one step away from being seen to be very wrong.  It’s always there,  like a hole or dark shape inside us.  Chronic shame comes from our earliest experiences that somehow gave us the message that we were wrong, or bad, or not good enough.   Shame is about how we feel about ourselves.  Guilt is also a horrible feeling, but is more about feeling we have done something bad.

We can be shamed by others, or we can shame ourselves.  If as children, we have struggled to make sense of parents or carers’ responses to us, we may often rationalise our experiences by believing there is something wrong with us.  We develop an inbuilt sense of shame, which is then increased by subsequent shaming events.  Others then telling us we are “over sensitive” or self centred really doesn’t help.

Shame feels horrible.  I have experienced it as a holding an ugly, hairy, “wookie” type part of me inside.  Others have talked about dark slime, a lead weight, a sense of nothingness.  We all feel it differently.  And shame can be released. Just as Peter was forgiven by Christ, and went on to lead the early Christian movement, to be the rock on which the church was built, so all of us can find release.

We can release shame when we talk about it, when we bring those difficult feelings into the light, with a person who we trust to listen and not judge us.  Someone who can stay with us in the unbearableness of the feelings, and who does not need to deny their existence or strength. The process has been called making “an interpersonal bridge” and it is literally that, allowing the difficult feelings to escape and diffuse harmlessly into the air.  

 Shame can be crippling, and it really can be released.  If your shame holds you back from living your life fully, maybe it is time to talk to someone?

Happy Easter.

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