Q. I struggle a lot with guilt and shame. What should I do about it?
A. I have to immediately praise you for identifying how you have been feeling and wanting to do something to find peace. While there are times when the experience of shame can be absolutely debilitating, guilt and shame can also be very good things.
Recently, Pope Francis pointed out how our experience of shame can reveal a profound truth about our humanity. He even called it “the virtue of shame.” He said, “shame is a true Christian virtue, and even human the ability to be ashamed … In our country, those who are never ashamed are called ‘sin vergüenza’: this means ‘the unashamed,’ because they are people who do not have the ability to be ashamed, and to be ashamed is a virtue of the humble.”
At this point, I can already hear the jokes about Catholics and guilt. I do not know if I can name one movie or TV show that portrays Catholics where the concept of “Catholic guilt” is not somehow woven into the story. My mom always says, “What is there that is ‘Catholic’ about guilt? It’s just ‘guilt!’” If I have done something wrong, I should feel guilty, should I not? What would you call it if someone could do something wrong and not feel guilt or shame? We call that a behavioral disorder. We call it “being a sociopath.”
Experiencing guilt when we have done something wrong is a sign that something is going right, not that something has gone wrong. In this sense, guilt is like feeling pain when you touch something hot; it is an indication that I should change what I am doing. But—and this is important—it is not the pain that is burning me, it is the heat. It is not the guilt that is hurting me, it is the sin.
The desire to avoid feeling bad about doing bad is a normal thing; it is not a good thing. You are not made for misery either. Christ came to give us life to the fullest. He offers a greater joy than we could find anywhere else.
What do we do with feelings of guilt and shame? How do we move toward joy? I think it might be useful to point out the distinction between “guilt” and “shame.” They are similar, but they are not the same. Therefore, how we confront them is not going to be the same, either.
I was listening to an interview with two counselors and they offered the following definitions for more accurately understanding the differences between guilt and shame.
They said guilt is the awareness of having violated some objective standard. For example, I know it is wrong to lie, but then I go ahead and lie anyway. I feel guilty about this because I am aware that I have violated the standard of honesty.
Now, there is such a thing as true guilt and false guilt. False guilt is when I am holding myself to a false standard. Therefore, while an accurate standard is that I ought to be a person of prayer, there are people who feel guilty if they do not “enjoy” prayer, but that is not a true standard.
There are a couple of ways we normally respond to guilt. We might argue with the standard and deny that a thing is really bad. We can distract ourselves from having to face our sin or we can admit our failure and confess our sin. We can repent.
Something to Hide
Shame, on the other hand, is more relational. Shame is the awareness of having failed in the eyes of another. That “other” could be another human being, God or even myself. For this reason, the primary responses to the experience of shame are either to justify ourselves or to hide ourselves. We will either demand that the other condone our actions or that he does not look at us; we do not want to truly “be seen” by the one who knows our failure.
With shame, as with guilt, there is true shame and “toxic” shame. Shame is toxic when it does not accurately reflect reality. For example, shame is toxic if I imagine that God’s vision of me is that I am simply an annoyance (or worse).
I was recently speaking to someone who kept calling herself a “freak” because of a particular wound she struggles with. This woman certainly finds it difficult to approach the God who loves her with any degree of joy. Her shame is not based on reality. A real sin has clouded her vision of herself to the point where she believes that she is her sin.
What is the best response to shame? If shame moves me to justify or hide myself, then the best response is to choose humility and come into the light of God’s gaze. It most likely means going to confession. Pope Francis put it this way: Confession “is an encounter with Jesus … who waits for us just as we are … [Therefore] we must have trust because when we sin, we have an advocate with the Father, ‘Jesus Christ the Righteous’ … who supports us before the Father and defends us in front of our weaknesses. But you need to stand in front of the Lord ‘with our truth of sinners,’ ‘with confidence, even with joy.’”
It is possible to step out from under guilt and shame, but it always involves being willing to tell the truth about our guilt and step into the light of God’s love.
Father Michael Schmitz
© serves as the director of youth and young adult ministry for the Diocese of Duluth. He also serves as the chaplain for the Newman Catholic Campus Ministry at the University of Minnesota-Duluth. Father Schmitz’s homilies can be found online at www.UMDCatholic.org or on iTunes.
I do not love my suffering. Saints embraced theirs; they even asked for it. It won them halos, while here I am avoiding pain whenever possible but still offering it all up, because it is heavenly collateral after all. I think I found an avenue suggested by saints and a priest that still leads to sainthood, minus the direct love affair with suffering. If I can appreciate what comes my way through suffering and the other blessings that suffering often reveals, then I can reap the benefits. Thus, gratitude can be the spoonful of sugar that helps the medicine go down. Mother Teresa knew this when she said, “Gratitude to God is to accept everything, even my problems, with joy.” She did not say we have to love the problems themselves, but to accept them with joy. A friend taught me this years ago, after losing his only son, when he shared his story for the “Amazing Grace for Families” book. After the death of his beloved son Josh, Steve Cates felt angry with God. “Steve,” his wife Cathy said, “we cannot be angry. Think of the gift God gave us for twenty-six years. We have talked about all the good things about Josh. Look at what we have had.” In an instant, Cathy’s words cut through his anger. “God does not want us to be thankful for everything, He wants us to be thankful in all things,” she said. “Then you will look up instead of looking down.” Saint Padre Pio embraced his own suffering but when people came to him wanting to add suffering into their lives, he told them to stop that. God would give them all the suffering they needed, he explained. They just needed to respond with acceptance. Gratitude offers a way to find joy in the midst of difficulties. I have found it to be a two-step grace. First, offer up the suffering, since when aligned with the cross of Christ it is an offering that can answer prayers and draw us nearer to God. The second step is gratitude. I have never said: Thanks for my suffering, but I can find endless appreciations within suffering, from having a roof over my head and food in my cupboards to my Catholic faith and the graces the suffering will bring. Rosary of Gratitude During a past Lent, Father Russ Kovash, pastor of Saint Joseph in Williston, North Dakota, held a retreat on "Gratitude is the Virtue That Changes Us." He shared how gratitude changed his life to the point that he now thanks God for the things he used to complain about. The transformation came eight years ago through the “rosary of gratitude” he learned from his friend Patty Schneier, who had a spiritual director recommend it to her. “I will not go to sleep without praying it now,” he said. It is simply prayed by taking a rosary and thanking God for something on each bead of the five decades, from the smallest to the biggest blessings. “When gratefulness is alive in our hearts,” Father Kovash said, “it lends itself to three fruits: a deep abiding peace and joy, a tremendous increase in the awareness of God’s crazy blessings in our lives, and those two things result in a great passion to do God’s will and build up His kingdom.” Gratitude is not just good for us, but God actually commands it of us, Father Kovash explained. Many Scripture passages teach us that we are obligated by God to thank Him. For example, 1 Thessalonians 5:18 states: “Give thanks in all circumstances; for this is God's will for you in Christ Jesus.” Father Kovash also pointed out that in the Eucharistic prayer at Mass we often say, “Let us give thanks to the Lord our God. It is right and just.” Praying the rosary of gratitude is life changing, according to Father Kovash. “There have been many fruits, and it has brought me deep abiding peace and joy in my life to see how ridiculously good God has been in my life,” he said. “I thank him today for blessings that eight years ago I would not have even thanked him for or maybe I would have complained about them.”
Just as baseball players head to spring training to practice and prepare for their upcoming season, might I suggest spring training for something a little different: being led by the Holy Spirit. After Deacon Ralph Poyo lead my parish’s mission one year, the message that spoke directly to me was that we need to be a people and a parish that is led by the Holy Spirit. If we do not ask for the Holy Spirit to guide us in all things, we will not become the vibrant, welcoming parish we desire and the saints we are meant to be. For example, after the second evening of the mission, when Deacon Ralph talked about spiritual warfare, I commented to him that I had dreamt about demons afterward. I asked him, “Is this something I should be worried about?” He said, “I am not who you should be asking. Who should you be asking instead?” I immediately replied that “Oh, I should probably talk with our pastor.” He said, “Nope!” Then I realized I should be talking to God and he clarified that I should ask the Holy Spirit specifically. Light bulb moment! The Challenge of Being Holy Spirit Led Living guided by the Holy Spirit is not easy, as it is not how we usually live our lives. Rather, we tend to think what do I want right now and how can I get it? Or what do my kids want and how can I get it for them? We have to relinquish that “me, me, me” self-centered way of life and change it to “He, He, He.” That requires some serious spring training for all of us to get into spiritual shape! What does it mean to live guided by the Holy Spirit? It means asking His guidance in all things. I do not know about you but I cannot remember to throw the empty shampoo bottle into the recycling bin, so remembering to ask the Holy Spirit for guidance before all things? That is going to take some practice with undoubtedly a few curve balls along the way. If we want to live “Holy Spirit-led,” then we have to turn it into a habit; we have got to get to the point that it is just a part of our “swing.” That means at least three weeks of doing this on a regular basis until it becomes ingrained in our day-to-day activities, so we no longer have to exert effort to make it happen. That takes practice! Not only do we have to remember to ASK, we have to remember to take time to LISTEN for His answers and then ACT on them. I pray every day to Mary for the grace to better discern God’s will for me, to actually DESIRE His will for me and then to have the courage to DO His will for me. Spring Training Exercises to be Holy Spirit-Led: Most importantly, we have to give the reigns of our lives over to God, allowing Him permission to guide us. Here are some other ideas and suggestions: ◗ Go to daily mass as often as you can and present your questions during mass. ◗ Spend some time in the Blessed Sacrament at the beginning or end of your day, lifting up your thoughts to the Holy Spirit. ◗ In the book “Walking with Purpose: Seven Priorities That Make Life Work” by Lisa Brenninkmeyer, the author suggests taking some morning prayer time to do the following: ➔ Using a journal, write a note to God/Holy Spirit about any worries, concerns or direction that you need; ➔ Write down a list of what you need to pray for daily. ➔ Read the Bible—You can read the daily readings or follow a Bible Reading Plan like the one from the Coming Home Network. Look for answers from the Holy Spirit. ◗ Before major discussions, emails and phone calls, stop and say a prayer for those involved and that God’s will be done. ◗ Pray the Angelus at noon—Set a timer on your phone and stop and pray this short prayer in solidarity with others around the world. ◗ Pray one of the Liturgy of the Hours—Download the Laudate app on your smart phone and stop and pray at 6 a.m., 9 a.m., 12 p.m., 3 p.m., 6 p.m. or 9 p.m. ◗ Pray your calendar each day. Stop and review your calendar, praying for each person you will meet or talk with that day. ◗ Daily Reflection/Examination of Conscience— Matthew Kelly’s “Dynamic Catholic” offers a great prayer process you can complete upon the close of the day, examining what you did and did not do to be the best version of yourself, pray for others, thank God for what you are grateful for that day, etc. ◗ Go to Reconciliation monthly, so you can properly “hear” the Holy Spirit rather than have Him be clouded out by sins, even little ones. ◗ Receive the Eucharist as often as you can to continue to cleanse yourself of sin and receive grace from God. ◗ Engage in spiritual reading and look for answers from the Holy Spirit. After You Listen, Put What You Learned into Practice These exercises help us make time to ask and listen to the Holy Spirit but then it is time to ACT, which can be the toughest part. You are going to be out on the field, in front of everyone, putting into action all that you have learned in training and following the coach’s (Holy Spirit) orders even if you do not like them. The Holy Spirit puts me outside of my comfort zone all the time in what He asks of me. I have slowly adopted the attitude that it does not matter what others think, only what God thinks. As an introvert, if I feel afraid to introduce myself to someone, or think they might think I am being too forward or strange, it does not matter; as embarrassment and anxiety creep in, I try to let those feelings go. I have to be at peace knowing I was trying to do what God asked and knowing He will be pleased no matter what anyone else may think, even if I feel embarrassed or silly as a result (believe me, that happens most of the time!). That is truly all that matters. Are you ready to be Holy Spirit-led? It is critical if we want to become the saints God desires us to be. Let us let Him lead us to the Promised Land but first let the spring training begin!
We were all shocked and shattered when my brother announced he wanted to become a priest. It was not just that he wanted to become a priest, but he wanted to become a Cistercian priest. That meant that once he left home, he would never return. My mother was totally bereft. She was proud that her son wanted to be a priest, but why, oh why, did he want to become a monk as well? She did not know what to do, but fortunately, she did know who to turn to. She turned to Gus, a friend since childhood. He himself had left home to become a priest and a monk and was at the time the Abbot of Belmont. The Meaning of Motherhood Gus told her that a mother only really fulfils and completes her motherhood when her love is so great that she allows her child to both choose and follow his own chosen vocation in life, whatever that may mean. He told her this was the sacrifice Mary made when she allowed the Son she had given birth to go His own way and respond to the vocation to which He had been called. My mother felt much better after talking with Gus, or Abbot Williams as he was then. After all, he was a priest and a monk himself and so was able to console and encourage her better than anyone else. Although my brother had been accepted as a prospective monk at Mount Saint Bernard’s, the Abbot asked him to finish his studies in Paris, where he was studying at the Sorbonne. Naturally, he was delighted he had been accepted, because he thought his handicap would have prevented him from becoming a priest—one leg was shorter than the other as a result of polio when he was six. A Terrible Accident Unfortunately, my brother had a terrible accident on the way to his final examinations. Partly due to the iron calliper on his leg, he slipped down the escalator on the Metro, hit his head and was killed instantly. He was only twenty-two. I was seventeen at the time and called out of the school study to be told of the tragedy. When I got home it was to find my mother all but inconsolable. She had already come to terms with the sacrifice she had been asked to make when he chose to become a monk, now she was asked to make another, more complete and final sacrifice that she never thought for a moment would ever be asked of her. Once again, she turned to Abbot Williams for spiritual help. Like Mary, My Mother Became a Priest Abbot Williams told her she was now being asked to be the priest that her son never became. He told her Mary had been a priest and the greatest sacrifice she made was the sacrifice of her own Son. All of Mary's life revolved around selflessly giving her all for the dear Son she had born. Everything had always been for Him and then she had to give absolutely everything, even Him. This was the most perfect and complete sacrifice any mother had to make, and she made it as she stood there at the foot of the cross. My mother never forgot what Gus said to her. It did not take away all the pain, but it did give meaning to it and made it bearable. What helped most was seeing that the sacrifice she had to make was exactly the same sacrifice Mary had to make on Calvary. A Lesson Learned from My mother There is only one true priest and that is Jesus Christ, who made the most perfect sacrifice anyone can make, the sacrifice of Himself. We are priests to the degree in which we share in His priesthood. Throughout His life He offered Himself unconditionally to His Father and for the people His Father had sent Him to serve. We share in His priesthood when we also offer ourselves to the Father, in, with and through Him and offer ourselves to the same family of man He came to serve. That is what my Mother came to see and understand more clearly than anyone else I have known, not just in the way she thought, but in the way she acted. It was a lesson she had to learn at the most painful moment of her life, when she had to share in the sacrifice of Christ in exactly the same way as Mary had. Lessons learned in such moments are never forgotten. They indelibly stain the memory and determine the way you think and act for the rest of your life, for better or for worse. In my mother’s case it was for better not worse, as it was for Mary. For both of them it meant that through their terrible ordeal their motherhood had somehow been refined and deepened to the benefit of other children who looked to them for the motherly love that was always given without measure. I for one know this because I have experienced it for myself and still do. As I look back at the past, it is the more dramatic demonstrations of my mother’s self-sacrificing that stand out in my memory. However, the more I reflect the more I see that her whole life was a continual selfless sacrifice for her family, just as the life of Mary had been. Every day of her life and every moment of her day was given for her children, in a hundred and one different ways, through which she exercised her priesthood, as Mary did in her life on earth. It was little wonder that her three sons all wanted to become priests; after all, they had been living with one all their lives! Selfishness and Sacrifice When the family went to Mass together each Sunday, they saw my mother totally absorbed in what they took all too easily for granted. Their selfishness meant they had too little to offer while she was offering a thousand and one acts of self-sacrifice, made for them during the previous week. This meant my mother received to the measure of her giving, for it is in giving that we receive, and she received in ever-greater abundance with each passing week. This gave her the help and strength she needed to go on giving in the forthcoming week, go on sacrificing for the family that took her all too easily for granted. Without any formal theological education, my mother discovered for herself that the Mass is not only a sacrifice, but also the place where we offer ourselves in, with and through Christ to the Father and something further. It is also a sacred sacrificial meal where we receive, from the One through whom we have offered our sacrifices, the love that He is endlessly pouring out on to, and into, all who are open to receive it. Motherhood was for her, as for so many other selfless, self-sacrificing mothers, a way of participating in the central mystery of our faith. If her daily dying united her to the dying of Christ, it also opened her to receive the love that raised Him from the dead on the first Easter day, empowering her to share what she had received with the family for whom she had given everything. The son she always mourned may never have become the priest he desired, but she more than took his place. The priesthood she exercised would not only inspire her own family but other families as well— families who are still inspired, as I am, by her shining example that will never tarnish. My Brother’s Death Was Not In Vain The death of my dear brother affected me deeply, but his death was not in vain. It inspired me in such a way that I have spent my life writing about him and using him to spread the profound spirituality that attracted him to the monastic life, to inspire others as well. I have spent much of my life writing three major spiritual works. The main protagonist in each work is the hermit, Peter Calvay, who is entirely based on my brother, Peter Torkington. In my imagination, instead of entering the Cistercian order, as he had intended, I simply transferred him to the Outer Hebrides, where he became a hermit. Then, as his spiritual life deepened, he began to help others. If Peter had become a monk his spirituality would have been monastic. However, living as a lay-person enabled Peter to develop for himself a profound lay spirituality based on the spirituality that Jesus Himself lived with His disciples, through whom this spirituality was bequeathed to the early church. This is, of course, of particular help to a modern reader trying to live the Christian life while outside the context of the religious life, like yours truly. If these books help you, as they have helped more than 300,000 readers over the years, then my brother’s death will not have been in vain, nor will the simple spirituality we both learned from our mother.
When I give talks on evangelization, I can feel great energy in the room as we look at the Church’s documents on evangelization. Evangelii nuntiandi, Evangelii gaudium and a host of quotes from popes, thinkers, saints and atheists get people fired up and ready to go out into the streets to live and speak the gospel. While it is a great feeling to see Church leaders getting fired up, that enthusiasm can often fade when I begin to share current statistics. Real, cold-hard facts give black-and-white numbers to peoples’ hunches and experiences about the dramatic loss of numbers experienced in our churches. Among these statistics, there is one that breaks my heart more than any other. Among Christians, Catholic teens are the least likely to pray daily. It breaks my heart because of the richness of our tradition in terms of personal prayer, contemplation and mysticism. I know many evangelicals and when they begin to dive deeply into personal prayer, they begin to read Catholic writers and spiritual masters. Merton, Rohr, Theresa of Avila, John of the Cross, Meister Eckhart, Thomas a Kempis and Julian of Norwich are the great writers and mystics in our treasury that my evangelical friends discover with great delight and about whom many Catholics remain ignorant. The second vexing statistic is that the Catholic Church has the greatest rate of attrition among Christian churches. Even worse, among those who still identify as Catholic rather than ex-Catholic, only 16 percent are highly involved in their churches. Only our Episcopalian friends have a lower rate of high involvement at 13 percent. The third statistic—and it sounds like a contradiction—is that Mass attendance does not equal Mass attendance. By this we mean that taking your children to church every Sunday is no guarantee at all that they will continue to go to Mass in college and in the later young adult years. Of all factors, the one factor rating as the highest guarantor of ongoing participation in the life of the church is daily personal prayer. It seems that the dots are quite clear to connect: 1. the greatest guarantor of ongoing religious affiliation is daily prayer; 2. Catholic teens are the least likely to pray daily; 3. the Catholic Church has the highest rate of attrition among Christian churches and ecclesial communities. May I posit a “therefore?” Therefore, the greatest thing we can do as youth ministers and as parents is to foster a daily prayer life among our teens. I do not know why we have not done a better job at this than we have. When I was in the parish, I lead awesome group prayer. Candles, incense, music, lighting, an authentic proclamation of the scriptures were staples at the weekly prayer services; our youth nights were stunning. Yet, I do not recall asking my teens about their personal prayer life. I wanted to give them experiences. I wanted to instruct them in the Church’s teaching, but did I give them what they needed to develop a daily personal prayer life? Those of us who follow the lectionary have all of the tools to help our teens do so. We do not just stick a Bible into teens’ hands and say, “Here, start reading.” The Church gives us a rhythm of seasons and daily readings from scripture. We have an inherent guide through the Bible. Even more than that, the Church also gives us lectio divina, a four-step method for praying with scripture: 1. Use your body. Read the passage. 2. Use your mind. Think back through your day at school and what happened with your friends and family today. What does the passage mean to you based on what you are going through in life? 3. Use your feelings. Now that you understand the meaning this passage has for your life, what does it make you want to pray for? 4. Use your intuition. What does God say to you in return? We have to remember that our faith is not an ideology. Our faith is in a person, Jesus the Christ. It is Him who we encounter, fall in love with, follow and to whom we conform ourselves. I feel like those of us in youth ministry are pining for the one, single program, movement or innovation that will stop the bleeding of our youth and young adults from our churches. Our mission trips, lock-ins, leadership training conferences, efforts at liturgical renewal will all only make sense if our teens are rooted in a person they encounter on a daily basis. Back when I was a parish youth minister I discovered that good youth ministry is about asking the right questions. Perhaps the best question we can ask is, “How was your prayer time last night?”
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