Webster’s defines shame as “a painful emotion caused by consciousness of guilt, shortcoming or impropriety.” Social scientists Merle Fossum and Marilyn Mason write that experiencing feelings of shame can be like facing a dragon poised to mercilessly devour its victim.1 As with many other psychological disorders, feelings of shame are often inherited from our ancestors. Fortunately for those who experience it, the dragon can be conquered. Fossum and Mason believe that, with therapy, feelings of shame can be successfully addressed.
It is apparent to me that the findings of the social scientist follow slowly and long after the insightful perceptions of the poet and novelist. Feelings of shame, as experienced in the characters of a novel, short story or poem, provide the psychological framework around which writers construct plots. The work of the nineteenth century American writer Nathaniel Hawthorne (1804-1864) is a good example of how feelings of shame are thematic in works of literature.
Because of his guilt-ridden past, Hawthorne was well aware of the dragon poised to mercilessly devour him.2 He attempted to use the process of writing as a catharsis to rid himself of the devastating pain of feelings of shame. Although the theme of familial shame may be found in almost all of Hawthorne’s writing, I believe that “The Minister’s Black Veil” (1836) is one of his most vivid depictions.
In the story, young Parson Hooper appears one Sunday morning on the steps of his country church wearing a black veil, from behind which he preaches and performs all his parish duties. Many years later, Hawthorne tells us, he enters the grave “a veiled corpse” and his body decays beneath the veil’s moldy remnants. Hooper explains that the veil is “a sign of mourning” and covers some “secret sin.” By wearing the black veil, he has publically and communally manifested his inner feelings of shame which he has inherited either from his family or from the larger Puritan community and exposed them to the light of day.
For all the confusion and anxiety it causes, however, wearing the “mysterious emblem” has a positive effect on Hooper: he becomes a better preacher. Hawthorne writes: “A subtle power was breathed into his words.”3 Although the veil strikes terror in the hearts of his parishioners, it had the one desirable effect of making Hooper a “very effective clergyman … he became a man of awful power over souls that were in agony for sin.”4
Why is this so? As a person, Hooper desires to address and externalize his feelings of shame for some obviously unspeakable sin, but as a preacher, he has something to teach his congregation from his own experience about their feelings of shame. Externalizing feelings of shame is not only a methodology for addressing the personally debilitating psychological effects of the disorder, but also a ceremonial one for treating spiritual ailments, as we see in the Penitential Rite of the Roman Catholic Mass and other religious denominations.
The congregants confess their sins communally because they have distorted the harmony of the family of God and harmed the intended order of love within creation. This they do to prepare themselves to liturgically celebrate the sacred mysteries of Christ’s saving death and resurrection — the answer to their prayer for divine assistance.
I have always found preaching challenging. I am rarely certain that I am connecting with my listeners. My colleagues confess a similar experience. Must we preachers, therefore, wear black veils on Sunday morning before we mount the pulpit in order to avoid the “Father MacKenzie Syndrome” — writing the words of a sermon that no one will hear?
Fortunately, there is another way. Let us examine more closely what recognizing and expressing feelings of shame have to do with preaching. My thoughts in this area are generated by a retreat preached by Reverend Paul Cioffi, S.J. whose theme was “Preaching and Prayer: How Preaching Fosters the Presbyter’s Growth in Holiness.”5
Cioffi makes five points. First, preachers must be intimately familiar with the gospel pattern of how God gets through to us. Scripture, he says, from Genesis to Revelation, offers us an attractive promise of spiritual betterment. The consequence of this realization is a restive dissatisfaction with our present condition and the intense desire to move to better spiritual space. The process, as with most human endeavors, is more complicated than it seems. Initially, we detour because we believe that we can accomplish the task with our own pelagian efforts. Next, we despair at our own paltry attempts which always prove futile. Finally, we beseech God for faith with assured confidence and without any sense of merit just as Christ instructed His disciples from the beginning: “Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you” (Mat. 7:7).
Cioffi says that God desires preachers who have themselves experienced and grasped this gospel pattern with its premise (“O God, be merciful to me a sinner”) and promise (“…for everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and the one who humbles himself will be exalted”).6 Without first hand and frequent experiences of this pattern, preachers will not speak with conviction. Consequently, preachers who do not figuratively wear the black veil, confront their own feelings of shame and face their “secret sin” cannot be effective homilists because they have not encountered the mercy and love of God that they desire for their listeners.
It is the tested personal familiarity of the gospel message that invests their preaching with authority. “I know what you need,” they say, “because I need it myself.” In Hawthorne’s story, Hooper, by wearing the black veil, is a more effective preacher because he convincingly and explicitly communicates his feelings of shame and invites his parishioners to express theirs.
Second, Cioffi says that preachers are spiritual healers who know the process of diagnosing their listeners’ spiritual ills and prescribing a possible treatment. I find it significant that, as news of Hooper’s effective and compelling preaching spread throughout the New England churches, his parishioners begin to call him “Father” Hooper.
Hooper’s self-accusation, symbolized in the black veil, makes him more pastoral, that is, more aware of others’ feelings of shame, or at least sparks in his parishioners feelings of shame that make them more open to the spirit of the gospel message: God’s healing and forgiving love. Cioffi calls this “prophetic preaching.” Prophetic preachers recognize the divided heart, the repressed dishonest self and, like Nathan, know how to short-circuit rational defense mechanisms.7
Prophecy, says Saint Paul, is the greatest charisma (1 Cor 14: 24). What do prophetic preachers prophesy? Cioffi says that preachers first admonish their listeners then elicit a confession of guilt which anticipates the final judgment. Preachers, through the lived words of their homily, shed light on the dark areas of their listeners’ souls. The listeners, in turn, judge more clearly their own faults, failings and human weakness and their need for God’s healing forgiveness. The result is an eye-opening experience. Hawthorne writes that this is precisely what happens to Hooper’s listeners: “His converts always regarded him with a dread peculiar to themselves, affirming, though figuratively, that, before he brought them to celestial light, they had been with him behind the black veil. Its gloom, indeed, enabled him to sympathize with all dark affections.”8
Besides enlightened preaching, the black veil also benefits Hooper’s pastoral effectiveness: “Dying sinners cried aloud for Mr. Hooper, and would not yield their breath till he appeared; though ever, as he stooped to whisper consolation, they shuddered at the veiled face so near their own.”9 Hooper’s actions are more macabre than morbid because Hawthorne’s stories are not meant to be read literally but allegorically. In fact, the subtitle of the story is “A Parable.” I believe that Hawthorne attempts to reveal, instead the critical importance of confronting one’s feelings of shame before experiencing genuine healing and conversion.10
It is the aim of preachers, therefore to invite their listeners to move into their own “secret sin” before they shape a positive image of God. The task of prophetic preachers is to help the congregation be present to itself, in other words, to hold up a full-length mirror so both preachers and listeners can behold more clearly the condition of their soul.
Martin Buber writes that to the degree that we are present to ourselves, and only to that degree, can we be redeemed. Cioffi states that preachers lead their people into their negativity because they know from their own experience that exaltation will emerge. How fruitless and dangerous a task it is to teach someone to swim if the instructor himself does not know how to swim.
Third, Cioffi warns that without prophetic preaching, preachers end up self-affirming, or, as he calls it, “banner waving,” that is, giving people false assurances that they are doing well. This is a particularly dangerous place for preachers to lead their congregation. The truth of the matter is that we are not doing well: we feel remorse for past sins, profess an anaemic faith, find it nearly impossible to love God and others and experience profound angst about our impending death. If the congregation hears Sunday after Sunday that there are no problems, what need is there for conversion?
Jesus never gave His listeners false assurances but led them along the path of honesty. He often reminded His disciples that they had no faith. After His resurrection, they were incredibly humble because they saw clearly the open wounds of their previous lack of faith. The sermons recorded in Acts and the extant letters of the New Testament are replete with confessions of their authors’ shabby response to Christ’s invitation to trust. It was their own deep humility that enabled them to enter their sins of denial, competitiveness and misunderstanding.
If preachers are not conscious of their own shameful lack of faith and love, they will never preach prophetically, but instead will reaffirm their listeners’ lack of faith. This means that, before they step into the pulpit, preachers are invited to honestly evaluate their own “sinking beneath the waves” and humbly admit their feelings of shame. This is apparent in Hooper’s ministry; he says to Elizabeth, his betrothed: “If it be a sign of mourning, I, perhaps, like most other mortals, have sorrows dark enough to be typified by a black veil.”11
Fourth, Cioffi says that preaching invites preachers to visit their imagination and, in so doing, to visit their humanity. Without images, preaching is abstract; it becomes an inhuman creedal statement. This is not Jesus’ way; He made it clear to His disciples that He preached only in parables. (Mat 13:34; Mark 4:33) Like Jesus, preachers attempt to retain more of the “sense of magical compulsion in words, because [they aim] at a kinetic effect on [their] audience.”12 Preachers preach in order to move their listeners to conversion. They learn from Jesus, who taught not the mind, but the imagination, where the battle for the human heart is lost or won.
When Ralph Waldo Emerson abandoned the Unitarian Church as a minister, his preaching, he said, was “corpse-cold.” Because they prescribed a solid diet of intellectual doctrine, the Unitarian preachers of his day did not address the spiritual hunger of their parishioners. They forgot, he said, that people are poets. Conscious of the human proclivity to the metaphor and the image, Jesus preached, on the other hand, in parables. Parables teach the mind through the heart, which appeals to the poet in us all. In the most fundamental sense, Jesus preached no doctrine, but spoke the truth in images.13
Preaching, therefore, involves two steps: knowing and crafting. Preachers cannot be effective healers if either is missing. Preachers must first know and experience in their own life the gospel path by which God works and second, learn to carve that path in images. Hawthorne describes the effect of Hooper’s preaching in this regard: “Each member of the congregation, the most innocent girl, and the man of hardened breast, felt as if the preacher had crept upon them, behind his awful veil, and discovered their hoarded iniquity of deed or thought. Many spread their clasped hands on their bosoms. There was nothing terrible in what Mr. Hooper said; at least, no violence; and yet, with every tremor of his melancholy voice, the hearers quaked. An unsought pathos came hand in hand with awe.”14
Whoever bypasses the imagination, says Cioffi, bypasses the person. The imagination enlarges preachers’ knowledge of human nature. Ideas devoid of images and experience do not usually have permanence. Preachers who think they are preaching because they are informing forget that preaching is a matter not of information, but transformation, which is always an affair of the heart.
Fifth and finally, Cioffi says that in order to preach effectively through images, preachers must be keen ob- servers of human nature in all its joys and ills. Observation, however, begins with the wooden plank in our own eye. Self-evaluation always precedes effective preaching. The art of preaching should force preachers back into their psyche and their own feelings of shame and, then, into the spirituality that reveals their divided hearts. Having addressed feelings of shame in themselves, they can preach to their listeners the insights they have gained.
When he lay dying, Hooper was asked if he was ready to remove the black veil which had covered his face for so many years and, as Hawthorne writes, “had hung between him and the world… had separated him from cheerful brotherhood and woman’s love and kept him in that saddest of all prisons, his own heart.” At first, Hooper agrees, but then reneges. “Never!” he cries, “On earth, never!”
But his last words, which prove to be his final sermon, strike terror in the hearts of Hawthorne’s readers: “Tremble also at each other! Have men avoided me, and women shown no pity, and children screamed and fled, only for my black veil? What, but the mystery which it obscures typifies, has made the piece of crape so awful? When the friend shows his inmost heart to his friend; the lover to his best beloved; when man does not vainly shrink from the eye of his Creator, loathsomely treasuring up the secrets of his sin; then deem me a monster, for the symbol beneath which I have lived, and die! I look around me, and lo! On every visage a Black Veil!15
1Facing Shame: Families in Recovery, W. W. Norton & Company, New York, 1986.
2Hawthorne’s ancestors were involved in the Salem witch trials. He believed a condemned witch put a curse on his family.
3Nathaniel Hawthorne, “The Minister’s Black Veil,” in Heritage of American Literature, James F. Miller, Jr., ed., Vol. 1, (San Diego: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1991), 1434-35 (hereinafter, Hawthorne).
4Ibid., 1439.
5Saint Joseph-in-the-Hills Retreat Center, Malvern, Pennsylvania, June 20-25, 1999.
6Luke 18:9-14
7Here Cioffi uses the example of Nathan the prophet who exposes David’s sin by forcing David to see his sin more objectively. David, in the end, condemns himself (cf. 2 Samuel 12:1-25).
8Hawthorne, 1439.
10Unfortunately, Hawthorne himself was apparently unable to accomplish this in his own life. Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote in his journal on the occasion of Hawthorne’s burial in Sleepy Hollow Cemetery, Concord, Massachusetts: “I thought there was a tragic element in the event… in the painful solitude of the man, which… could not longer be endured, and he died of it” (Hawthorne, 1389).
11Hawthorne, 1437.
12Northrup Frye, Words With Power. (San Diego: Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich, 1990), 66.
13Frye comments: “…we think of Jesus as primarily a teacher of doctrine who, as recorded in the synoptic Gospels, used parables as illustrations and examples. It would be at least as true, and in this context more rewarding, to say that the parables are the teachings, and that doctrinal material is concerned with their applications” (Frye, 87).
14Hawthorne, 1434-35.
15Ibid., 1440-41

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