When I was growing up I remember really liking my Uncle Michael – we used to call him Uncle Mickey. I didn’t get to see him very often, but I so looked forward to his visits. I only found out much later why he didn’t come to visit us more. He felt ashamed, he thought we wouldn’t want to see him, he believed he wasn’t worth seeing. You could say he felt “unclean.”
The notion of uncleanness was a very important one in ancient Jewish culture, and it was applied to both food and people. Reasons for such laws included, for example, concerns over hygiene or the creation of a unique Jewish identity. Originally, they were never meant to indicate a person’s state of sin or social worth, but by the time of Jesus being pronounced “unclean” could put you in the category of moral failure and social outcast.
In Luke’s version of today’s gospel story, the person suffering leprosy bows his face to the ground before Jesus, hiding his shame over his unclean, untouchable status. Those who are oppressed, marginalized, or abused often come to deeply believe in their own lack of worth or state of brokenness, and act in ways that announce this to the world. In the case of those with leprosy, they were instructed by the law to cry out “unclean, unclean” to all those they passed, their shame serving to form their identity in the world.
Shame is more than the guilt of knowing we’ve committed a wrong. It’s a feeling and belief at our core that we’re intrinsically broken, worthless, ugly, not enough somehow — that there’s something fundamentally wrong with who we are. The priest and spiritual guide, Henri Nouwen, used this idea of shame and the false sense of our identity, as the basis for our perceived separation from our truest selves, from each other, and from God.
That kind of shame and false belief often arises when we’re young, falling prey to messages of disgrace and worthlessness from parents or peers. For my Uncle Michael, his feelings of shame and being somehow wrong or broken came at the hands of his abusive father. Very sadly, that sense of shame replaced his true and sacred identity as God’s beloved and beautiful child, which is why I consider the stealing of someone’s true identity to be sacrilege, a stealing of the sacred.
When we have our sacred identity stolen, we usually react by either becoming prideful and arrogant, trying to prove our worth any way we can think of, or we become depressed and withdrawn, trying to hide or prove how worthless we think we are. The early monastic desert fathers called these sorts of beliefs and reactions “passions,” and spiritual warfare in the solitude of the desert was meant to confront and defeat these demons. There comes a point in this kind of struggle when a part of ourselves recognizes that we’ve been living a lie, but we’re also not quite ready or able to believe otherwise, and so we call out to be made clean, to have our sacred identity returned to us, to be healed.
My Uncle Michael died a lonely man while I was in high school, and I still regret not reaching out to him when I had the chance, not hearing his call to be made clean, not helping him see himself as God saw him, a good and beautiful man. As followers of Jesus, our responsibility is to listen for those calling out to us, and to respond in love by reaching out and touching the untouchable, reminding them by word and deed of their sacred identity.
But if you’re feeling too deeply mired in your own spiritual warfare to reach out to others, hoping for your own escape from the lies of unworthiness, you could start by reaching out to yourself. If you walk the path of the desert fathers, turning inward, surrendering to God’s mercy, in time your painful aloneness will become blessed solitude, and an oasis of stillness in Christ will be born in your heart. And in this quiet place you’ll begin to see yourself as God sees you, and you’ll find the small voice of the Holy One, waiting only for you to listen, telling you as often and for as long as you need to hear that there is absolutely nothing wrong with you, that who you are in the world is God’s infinitely precious beloved, and that you’re truly so very beautiful just the way you are. There is nothing wrong with you. You are God’s beloved. And you’re beautiful just as you are.
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