A Reflection for Ministry: Meeting our Shadows

If you suddenly and unexpectedly feel joy, don’t hesitate. Give in to it.

~~Mary Oliver 

One need not be a chamber—to be Haunted—
One need not be a house—
The brain has corridors—surpassing
Material place—

~~Emily Dickerson

God, investigate my life;
get all the facts firsthand.
I’m an open book to you; even from a distance, you know what I’m thinking.

~~Psalm 139, The Message

Look for your other half
who walks always next to you
and tends to be who you aren’t.

~~Antonio Machado

What does our shadow have to do with ministry?  I have come to believe that recognizing the shadow we carry and relating to it honestly is an important part of ministry, and being fully human.

The poet Robert Bly described the shadow as an invisible long bag we carry or drag behind us. In the bag are those parts of ourselves that through the years we reject. The Franciscan friar, Richard Rohr describes the shadow as what we refuse to see about ourselves, and what we do not want others to see.

The first few decades of our lives are spent filling up the bag and acting “as if” these shadow parts of ourselves do not exist. The rest of our lives are spent trying to retrieve everything we’ve hidden away from others and ourselves.

This article will offer some reflections on the human shadow, especially for us as ministers.  What is the shadow? How does it impact ministry?  What can it do for us? How can it be counterproductive? How do we relate to this other who walks beside us?

Shadow does not exist by itself. A real physical body casts it. We may say a person is overwhelmed by their shadow: a Tiger Woods by their sexuality, a Richard Nixon by their overweening sense of power, those religious leaders in the New Testament and in our contemporary world who position themselves as superior or better than others (self-righteous), an institution or organization such has Enron by its hubris, but shadow is passive, an absence of light, a shape lent by a person’s or group of people’s own outline.  Shadow is shaped by presence. Presence comes a priori to our flaws and absences.

Jesus went into the wilderness. There he confronted frightening images that spoke and that invited him to places that were not consistent with his deeper vocation or calling. The wilderness brought him face-to-face with those dark possibilities and shadowy figures.  In the wilderness, Jesus related to these voices.  He talked, struggled and discerned his way with and through those voices. He heard them, engaged them, and moved to a deeper, more authentic place through the encounter.

The psychiatrist Carl G. Jung writes, “The shadow is the negative side of the personality, the sum of all those unpleasant qualities we like to hide, together with the insufficiently developed functions and the contents of the personal unconscious . . . .the shadow does not only consists of morally reprehensible tendencies, but also displays a number of good qualities, such as normal instincts, appropriate reactions, realistic insights, creative impulses, etc.”  Carl Jung called it our “sparring partner” because it serves as the opponent within us who exposes our flaws and sharpens our skills. Jung comments, “. . .the shadow is ninety percent pure gold.” By this he meant that much of what we have rejected in our own nature can be a great asset to us if properly developed and integrated. In the wilderness, Jesus is relating to, not simply denying or rejecting.  Through learning to relate to these hidden parts, he and we learn their value, their golden side, the wisdom these parts carry when related to in a positive manner.

If we do not accept the shadow we carry, often, it constellates around us and we live it out as fate.  Such describes some poor choices and behaviors by the best of people.  Through not recognizing our shadows, it can act out through us or we cast it on others and make them carry it for us like the religious leaders wanting to stone the woman for adultery. Jesus says that you, who are without sin, cast the first stone.  His response is someone who knows the shadow. Theirs was the reaction of not knowing and unconsciously casting their shadows onto others.  In this case, the woman was carrying for the others what they did not want to accept in themselves.  In the religious world, we see it often.  What scares us about ourselves, if we don’t accept them, we often cast onto other people and issues, so we don’t have to deal with them in ourselves.   According to the Gospel of Saint Matthew, Jesus says, “And why do you look at the speck in your brother’s or sister’s eye, but do not consider the plank in your own eye?” (7:5)

When we accept our shadow and learn to relate to it in healthy ways, we can tap into the humility of Ghandi, the tolerance of Martin Luther King, Jr. and the compassion of Mother Theresa and find the strength and courage to deal with what we carry; those issues, experiences, people and parts of ourselves that haunt or frighten us.  Thus, we move closer to whom God calls us to be. “There but for the grace of God go I” takes on new meaning when we can view this universal lens of humanity.  The shadow is often linked to our traumatic experiences and painful moments of our past.  But as we come to know this shadow and its gifts, there are no more fingers to point, judgments to make or blame to cast.  It can become our source of deep wisdom.

When working in anxiety and conflict in congregations, watching for the shadow–our own, the collective shadow, and the shadow others cast–is critical.  When the shadow is working unconsciously in a group, the emotional charge intensifies, scapegoating can become magnified, anxiety heightens, judgment spirals, division broadens, the currents of dehumanization get stronger, space for accepting difference tightens and the reptilian brain can become ferocious, all under the auspice of being right or “in the name of God.” As James Hillman writes, “To the martyr-complex of the suffering-servant and the hero-complex of the soldier-of-Christ so much can be justified! When our time is in the dark confusion of Golgotha one need be only a degree or two off course, left or right, and one is kneeling before a thief.” In the swirling chaos of conflict and difficult encounters over important issues, if we are not deeply grounded in humility, compassion and love, we can become confused and lose our way.

When individuals and groups are aware of the shadow, their own and others, they are more accepting, forgiving, compassionate and loving, acting for justice while having mercy, honor and humility.

To change the shape of ourselves is to change the shape of the shadow we carry and cast.  To become transparent is to know, accept and relate to one’s shadow appropriately. I have heard people say that we can lose our shadows altogether, but I think to be human is to carry a shadow. Perhaps the goal of many of our contemplative traditions is to lose their shadows, but I do not think such a goal is something attained by most human beings. Changing the shape of the identity that casts a shadow is more possible, moving the sense of presence from the background penumbra we make to the robust foreground of our meeting and greeting.  Shadow is a necessary consequence of being in a sunlit visible world.  It is neither a certain identity nor a power waiting to overwhelm us.

Even the most beneficial presence casts a shadow.  As someone once said, “The brighter the light, the darker the shadow.”  In working in the religious world, I find that maxim helpful to remember.  Mythologically, having no shadow means being of another world, not being fully human, not being in or of this world.  I once read that only the devil doesn’t cast a shadow. Shadow is something that must be lived with, literally, as it follows us around, obscuring the sun or the view for others; yet we cannot use it as an excuse not to be present, nor to act, nor to affect others by our presence, no matter if it is indeed sometimes overshadowing and difficult.  Nor can we use it as an excuse to run uncaringly over others’ concerns.

To live with our shadow is to understand how human beings live at a frontier between light and dark and to approach the central difficulty:  that there is no possibility of a lighted perfection in this life apart from the shadow. The attempt to create it is often the attempt to be held unaccountable, to be the exception, to be the one who does not have to be present or participate, and therefore does not have to hurt or get hurt.  To cast no shadow on others is to vacate the physical consequences of our appearance in the world.

Shadow is a beautiful, inverse confirmation of our incarnation.  It is intimated absence; almost a template of presence.  It is a clue to the character of our appearance in the world.  It is an intimation of the ultimate vulnerability, the possibility of being found by others, not only through the physical body but by its passing acts.  Even in its darkening effect on others, shadow makes a presence of absence.  It is a clue to ourselves and to those we are with to the parts of ourselves not yet experienced, but already perceived by others.  Shadow is what is; neither good nor bad;  an inescapable; part of who we are, by the grace of God.

As ministers, how do we recognize and relate to our shadows in constructive, healthy ways? How do we accept our presence in the world with its light and shadow sides?  How can we, this Lent, find our way into the wilderness, and like Jesus, come out of it wiser and clearer about who we are and our role in this drama of life?  The shadow is part of the journey.  Let us live with it, learn from it and act wisely, authentically, compassionately and lovingly as a result.  Grace and peace be with and in you.

Agree or disagree, you are invited into the conversation!

I am not I.
I am this one
Walking beside me, whom I do not see,
Whom at times I manage to visit,
And at other times I forget.
The one who forgives, sweet, when I hate,
The one who remains silent when I talk,
The one who takes a walk when I am indoors,
The one who will remain standing when I die.

~~Juan Ramon Jimenez

Ignoring our shadow is like locking somebody in the basement until they have to do something dramatic to get our attention.

~~Dr. Charles Richards

~~Meditation on Self-Acceptance from C. G. Jung~~

The acceptance of oneself is the essence of the whole moral problem and the epitome of a whole outlook on life. That I feed the hungry, that I forgive an insult, that I love my enemy in the name of Christ — all these are undoubtedly great virtues. What I do unto the least of my brethren [sisters], that I do unto Christ. But what if I should discover that the least among them all, the poorest of all the beggars, the most impudent of all the offenders, the very enemy himself [herself] — that these are within me, and that I myself stand in need of the alms of my own kindness — that I myself am the enemy who must be loved — what then? As a rule, the Christian’s attitude is then reversed; there is no longer any question of love or long-suffering; we say to the brother [or sister] within us “Raca,” and condemn and rage against ourselves. We hide it from the world; we refuse to admit ever having met this least among the lowly in ourselves.” 

~~ C.G. Jung



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