Orthodox America

  When the Conscience Falls Silent and Shame Dies Out

Nun Ioanna

      We have lain down in our shame, and our disgrace has covered us: because we and our fathers have sinned before our God, from our youth until this day; and we have not hearkened to the voice of the Lord our God (Jer. 3:25)


    Alas, the man of today cannot repeat these words of the prophet, for the conscience of  many fell silent long ago, and shame has been extinguished in the heart. With the secularization of ethics and the decline of morality, i.e., with the divorce of virtue from its Christian roots, morality and culture today are in a deplorable state. Science is trying to demonstrate that in matters of good and evil, as in everything else, all is subjective and relative: there is no one standard, there is not and cannot be, for people feel differently about things and believe differently; the conscience is a psychological prejudice, always indicating different things to different people. What motivates a person -- so science preaches -- is egoism, and all the rest is merely its diverse forms. The boundaries between good and evil are unclear, problematical

      For this reason, as we observe everywhere, modern man is not horrified by blatant and unconcealed manifestations of evil. He has become accustomed to them. He does not turn away from shameless, often blasphemous depravity. On the contrary, he is even attracted by it and ultimately succumbs to its temptation and falls. And thus, in the opinion of one contemporary psychologist, we have growing up entire generations of shameless people. Lying, betrayal, violence, murder -- these are common occurrences. It is concerning these that the Prophet Jeremiah said: Were they ashamed when they had committed abomination? Nay, they were not at all ashamed, neither could they blush (Jer. 6:15). With the loss of conscience, with the loss of shame, in the absence of spiritual resistance, in the face of complete spiritual numbness -- the success of evil is guaranteed.

    In order for a person to feel shame, it must be a religious feeling, because the trampling of shame clears the way for sacrilege, sin, or rather, a complete insensitivity towards sin.

      A synonym for spiritual shame, i.e., its positive source, is awe or reverence before what is holy, fear to offend it.

      Vladimir Soloviev distinguishes three fundamental feelings which characterize the moral foundation of the individual. These are: shame, compassion, and awe towards what is holy. This moral orientation, he writes, permeates all spheres of the personality, including the subconscious.

      To possess spiritual shame means to stand firm in purity.

      Concerning shame, the psychologist Sikorsky writes:

      "Shame is a purely human feeling which animals do not possess. Animals have only a feeling of guilt. There are two stages or gradations of shame: propriety and conscience -- propriety as a minimum dose of shame, necessary in society and in general in the company of others; and conscience as real shame, as morality (what is, from a Christian perspective, spirituality, which is present in every living soul if it has not lost it on account of the passions), which is introduced into each soul and assimilated by it. Below shame and propriety is the feeling of guilt, which is a trait found also among animals."

      Russian writers, especially Gogol, depict with rare artistry the various stages in the breakdown of the feeling of shame: pettiness, nastiness (Gogol's expression), or, in psychological terminology, vulgarity. Vulgarity is the loss of a feeling of shame.

      Professor Sikorsky maintains that the erosion of conscience signals the beginning of a general atrophy of all the most noble feelings. Thus, one cannot expect mercy from a person who has no conscience. In illustration, he again turns to the works of Gogol, who characterized vulgarity as the atrophy of the feeling of shame and as the psychological debasement of a person to the level of a brute beast, who is capable only of a sense of guilt. Gogol regards the sense of shame as the most acute indicator, a kind of barometer, if you will, for measuring a person's level of morality -- its elevation or debasement. Sikorsky adds that a sense of shame, in contrast to other feelings, not only does not blind a person, not only does not blunt the activity of the intellect, but, on the contrary, it makes it more refined.

      Soloviev writes that shame is inherent only to man. Man above all is shamed precisely by the very essence of animal life, by its natural requirements, which plainly shows him as a being superior to animals and to nature. In this shame, a human being becomes a human being in the fullest sense.

      According to Saint Maximus the Confessor, the first man was not subject to the law of carnal procreation from seed. In God's original design, human procreation did not occur through intercourse; if human beings were created male and female, it was only by reason of divine foreknowledge of the Fall. Not yet enthralled by the burden of the flesh and carnal life, man's strength and faculties were all focussed towards the life of the spirit.

Archpriest Dimitri Smirnov writes,

      "When there was as yet no evil in man, neither was there any shame. Man became shamed only at something that was by its nature bad, because he was created by God for a higher, i.e., spiritual life, and goodness was his by nature. Evil, however, is a violation of the harmony between God and man. Sin is a departure from what the heart of man and the command of God call good; it is, furthermore, a voluntary departure. And this voluntary departure of man from God is always connected with shame. The first man departed from his Father and hid himself; he understood that he was naked, and he became ashamed. The consequences of sin for man were dreadful. His nature changed: his spiritual eyes were closed, he ceased to understand the true essence of things, and, what was most terrible, he ceased to see God; he withdrew from Him."

      We see here that the sense of shame, which manifest itself in human nature after the Fall, was placed there by God. The absence of shame is a frightful sign of emptiness. There, where shame ought to appear, is emptiness. Shamelessness is an indication of inner death.

      Shame and conscience are manifestations of the spirit in a man. According to the Holy Fathers, the words, "I am ashamed, I feel guilty," -- this is the beginning of repentance.

      Fornication, roaming, gone astray, [1] lost, abandoned by God, having no conscience, no shame -such a man's soul has become numb; he is spiritually empty. He is dead while still alive./.../

Here is what Saint Tikhon of Zadonsk writes:

      "O, men! You are shamed to do what is bad in front of another: how much more ashamed should you be before God! O, Christian! Hide your face, you who do such things. Be ashamed, you who confess God to be omnipresent, true, just; Who takes every care for you and your salvation. Blind and wretched is that Christian who is ashamed before men like himself, even those of high rank, but who has no shame and no fear before God, Who is everywhere present and sees all things. You are ashamed and fearful before your tsar and before your father not only to engage in licentiousness/wantonness and other immoral acts, but even to laugh foolishly and speak vain words. But before the all-seeing God and dread King you are not ashamed and not frightened not only to speak vain words and to laugh but even to commit gross iniquities -- to engage in fornication, to steal, to lie, to slander, to judge, to be abusive, and to perform other shameless deeds!"

      Thus, the feeling of shame ought to be natural to every psychologically healthy person. 

        Modem sociologists call Western society (and it applies today not only to Western societies) "the realm of indecency." In it everything is sexualized: advertising, media -- all are filled with shameless exposure. In the world, where everything is the target of TV cameras and is reflected by mirrors, man becomes transparent. What is shameless has become so ordinary that today it is unseemly to be modest.

      As we see from the words of modem psychologists and sociologists, the shamelessness of people today is evidence that, for many, moral values no longer exist -- neither good nor bad. And therefore there is no distance between the creature and the Creator; consequently, there is nothing to be ashamed of.

      B.V. Nichiporov, in his book, An Introduction to Christian Psychology, writes about the contemporary state of morality in Russia:

      "The principal sin of today's youth is the sin of idleness of the soul. The mere mechanical participation in various clubs or groups unfortunately offers only a partial solution to this idleness, this emptiness of the soul. Ideals that cultivate social consciousness, he writes, are altogether amoral (girls as models, girls as prostitutes). What leads to this anomaly is the widespread propagation of pornography and violence, promiscuity and licentiousness, which are the focus of today's media. And because of this, he adds, in the face of such an intense expansion of depravity -- on all fronts -- modesty or bashfulness will be regarded as some kind of neurosis."

      In the article, "You are Corrupters" (Statement by the Committee "For the Moral Renewal of the Fatherland'') there are expressed some very interesting thoughts on this subject. We read:

      "The feeling of shame, which is natural to every psychologically healthy individual, consists in the impossibility of a person seeing another's nakedness -- or being seen naked by another -- without harming his soul. This feeling is innate; it is a requirement of our nature, independent of consciousness and perspective -- until its bearers lose their humanity and become like animals and reptiles. This feeling, like the feeling of a prickly conscience, is very painful; it exposes within us the dissension between who we are and who it is we should be; that is, it reminds us of Paradise. It does not allow us to become accustomed to shame or disgrace. This is humanity's cross; it is heavy, oppressive, but one must not cast it aside; one must carry it in order to be liberated in Christ, Who took upon Himself our shameful nakedness and clothed us in His light, as in a garment."

      And so, as Saint Isaac the Syrian writes, shame is a great good. It is a restraining principle given to fallen man to make possible his salvation by God.

Translated and abridged from the Russian in Pravoslavnaya Rus', No. 12, 1996, Jordanville NY.

[1] In Russian, these words -- bloud, blouzhdeniye, zabloudshi -- are etymologically related.

The author is the senior nun at the Community of Saint Elizabeth the Grand Duchess in Jordanville, NY. She teaches Russian and Russian literature at Holy Trinity Serminary.

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