Encountering My Shadow

I have been encountering my Shadow – or my “dark side,” my old self, my sinfulness – all semester; for the most part, this has been a spiritually exhausting encounter and a time of deep, personal desolation. In talking with a few of my peers about course readings and other course lectures, I find that this is a shared spiritual climate around the seminary.

This week my Counsel & Care class addressed our Shadows and their intrinsic dangers for providing care of souls. My Leadership course addressed our Enneagram types and their value for leadership formation. My Pastor as Person class has been meandering through exploring our “dark sides,” in spite of their inherent invisibility and mystery. How timely, that all three of these courses, and the liturgical season of Lent — which calls us closer and closer to the site where, and the Person with whom, and the moment when our Shadows were crucified — are all asking me, like four cylinders of an engine firing in perfect synchronization, to become very familiar with my real, inevitable Shadow.

I feel a little like Peter Pan, wrestling with my Shadow (a little playfully, pretty frustratedly, and quite embarrassedly), and I’m only just beginning to get my Shadow sewn back on. It’s re-integration, where I am beginning to incorporate the self I approve of the self I am ashamed of. It’s a difficult and spiritually exhausting place, especially as I realize with greater and greater clarity that I am my own greatest obstacle for my spiritual growth.

Peter Pan & Shadow

Peter Pan tries to stick his Shadow back on with soap…I’m not doing much better.

This is also a place of immense personal and spiritual growth. I find myself in a stripped-down, exposed internal space, face to face with the Shadow that will not go away, and asked to befriend him. This befriending my Shadow is a much more complex (and, quite frankly, alarming) understanding of integrity. I am not asked, I don’t think, simply to be with others who I am on my own. That’s a simplistic understanding of integrity in light of this encounter with and acceptance of my Shadow.

Ichigo's internal space is home to his Inner Hollow, and there's usually this moment of personal growth where he has to face Hollow-Ichigo before he can get to the next level. It's a bit dramatic, but in some ways I feel like this is what I am picturing when I talk about a stripped-down internal space where I have to accept and befriend my Shadow.

Ichigo’s internal space is home to his Inner Hollow, and there are frequent moments where Ichigo has to face Hollow-Ichigo before he can get to the next level of personal growth. It’s a bit dramatic, but in some ways this is what I picture when I talk about a stripped-down internal space where I have to accept and befriend my Shadow.

Throughout this semester’s spiritual travail, Psalm 139 has been echoing in my soul: at first, it was a slow crescendo, almost imperceptible in January, and now is a kind of descant to my encounter with my Shadow:

You hem me in, behind and before,
            and lay your hand upon me. (Psalm 139:5)

This verse has become a word of assurance for me as I discover and explore my Shadow (my laziness and lack of spiritual motivation or gumption, my utter inability to change myself, my distract-ability and proclivity for self-gratification). I am comforted to know that God is in this space with me, and his comforting hand keeps me safe here.

Where can I go from your spirit?
            Or where can I flee from your presence?
…If I take the wings of the morning
            and settle at the farthest limits of the sea,
even there your hand shall lead me,
            and your right hand shall hold me fast. (Psalm 139:7, 9-10)

Again, God’s hand is a source of comfort, but this idea that the Spirit pursues me inescapably incited this encounter with my Shadow in the first place. When all is darkness, Shadow exists in peace, and comfort; when the Light was turned on suddenly and severely, revealing my Shadow in stark contrast, the Holy Spirit forced me to acknowledge its presence and begin to study it in earnest. Psalm 139 expresses this dynamic of Light and Shadow with beautiful clarity:

If I say, “Surely the darkness shall cover me,
    and the light around me become night,”
even the darkness is not dark to you;
    the night is as bright as the day,
for darkness is as light to you. (Psalm 139:11-12)

My Shadow may seem all-too-dark and all-too-menacing in my eyes, but in the eyes of the Triune God my Shadow is “not dark…for darkness is as light” for him. What a comfort for me, in the midst of my feeling overwhelmed by my own depravity, that this darkness is not a barrier or obstacle for God’s love for me:

For it was you who formed my inward parts;
    you knit me together in my mother’s womb.
I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made.
    Wonderful are your works;
that I know very well. (Psalm 139:13-14)

God knows me entirely, fully, wholly. Though many of the things I am discovering about myself surprise me or cause me anxiety, God is already fully aware of all of my sinful habits and depraved styles of relating and socialized flaws, and he loves me anyway because of the cross of Christ into which I have been baptized.

As my anxiety over encountering my Shadow decreases – seeing that it is not a threat to my salvation, but a clinging residue of my crucified “old self,” as Paul terms it – I am freed up to encounter it honestly and with a degree of acceptance that at first seemed alarmingly permissive of sin. As I have really committed to this journey, Psalm 139 has led me in prayer:

Search me, O God, and know my heart;
    test me and know my thoughts.
See if there is any wicked way in me,
and lead me in the way everlasting. (Psalm 139:23-24)

The Spirit’s interrogation spotlight switched on over me in January, and I was shocked and disgusted by what I saw. The gift of time has finally removed me from some of the rawness of my initial encounter with my Shadow, and has allowed me to begin the process of examining my self – Light and Shadow – for the sake of others.

Examining myself has become a missional practice: I know myself in order to better engage others authentically in ministry. The weaknesses inherent in myself – my Shadow – are real challenges to my present and future spiritual leadership, caring relationships, and pastoral ministry. At first I resisted the call to know myself; as the semester has progressed, however, I have reluctantly come around and slowly committed myself to this task: not so that the Shadow element of my self would shrink or disappear (that is impossible), but so that the Shadow’s occasional emergence within me and manifestation outside of me is not a surprise that harms the others for whom I am called to care.