The shadow of shame

By Mary Marrocco

Catholic News Service


What makes it so difficult to overcome conflicts? Between a couple or family, groups or nations, often we just can't sort things out and move on.

We'll never be able to if we don't address guilt and shame. Shame isn't the only impediment to healing conflict, but its shadow won't go away until – in its time – it's faced and resolved.

The letters of Jacques Fesch, written from "the peripheries" of solitary confinement and published posthumously in 1972, shine a gentle, clear light – the real antidote –to shame.

Cardinal Jean-Marie Lustiger, then Archbishop of Paris, inadvertently ignited controversy by opening the cause for beatification decades after Jacques' execution by guillotine in 1957, at age 27. The cardinal wanted to give hope and inspiration to people in desperate situations, including convicted criminals. Others found it incomprehensible and infuriating to view Jacques this way.

All, including Jacques himself, agree upon his guilt. During an attempted robbery, he shot a policemen dead. Guilt, though not necessarily easy to prove or admit, is clear and objective: This person did this thing. Therefore, it's relatively simple to alleviate: This person acknowledges the fault, crime or sin, and makes amends. Doing so is a relief, as we know after confessing and addressing harms we have done.

Shame is different. It's not about what we do, but who we are. Piercing us more deeply than guilt, it's more elusive and trickier to deal with. Jacques experienced shame in every pore of his being. The closer he got to God, the more he uncovered uncomfortable parts of himself – in two ways.

First, there's healthy shame. His letters are permeated with shame of who he was as a husband, father and son, the shameful self he showed his family before his imprisonment.

We can benefit from healthy shame, once we acknowledge and learn from it. Jacques returns again and again to his family relationships, seeking to repair them.

Second, a toxic shame twines itself through all his being. He carries a deep sense of worthlessness and personal failure; a cynicism that he perceives and loathes in himself; a resignation that brings poison to his soul. Opening these parts of himself up to love and grace marks his spiritual awakening and journey.

After dreaming of buying a yacht and escaping – the goal of the poorly planned robbery – Jacques had to face himself in the cell of his shame. We humans are expert at escaping such cells; like the prodigal son and his brother, we know how to look everywhere else except inside our own hearts. What enables us to come and rest there at last, like the child on its mother's breast (Ps 131) and the beloved disciple on Christ's breast (Jn 13:23)?

Jacques' cell became permeated by the faith of his defense lawyer and the prison chaplain, who never abandoned him. In it, he read and wrote letters with his faithful correspondents, including Thomas, a Benedictine monk. He developed his creativity by drawing sketches for his little daughter, his mind by studying nature whenever he could get books. 

Ultimately, he could see himself as witness to Christ, receiving a Christian death and joining "the procession of all the beheaded who give luster to the church." Toxic shame can be reworked from within, no longer to failure and destruction, but to the glory of the person fully alive.

This transformation was accompanied by his increasing awareness of the shaming, condemning force that willed his destruction even as it denied his humanity. Without mistaking himself for an innocent victim, he experienced the hatred and contempt of those who simply wanted him guillotined without ever seeing him.

We can see why he felt increasingly close to the mother of God, who stood in her son's condemnation and shaming. She felt not only her pain and Jesus', but the merciless shame of human evil unleashed against its Maker and itself.

On her Nativity feast she helped Jacques rejoice, he says; on Our Lady of Sorrows she brought his anguish to the cross; her willingness to travel through it all with Christ taught him to do the same.

Marrocco can be reached at [email protected].