The Shadow in Christianity – Richard Rohr, OFM

Richard Rohr’s Daily Meditation

From the Center for Action and Contemplation

Image credit: Jenna Keiper, dapple (detail), 2020, photograph, Bellingham.

Week Twenty-Four: Shadow Work

The Shadow in Christianity

We can patiently accept not being good. What we cannot bear is not being considered good, not appearing good.—St. Francis of Assisi

If you are willing to bear serenely the trial of being displeasing to yourself, you will be for Jesus a pleasant place of shelter. —St. Thérèse of Lisieux

The two Christian mystics quoted above have helped me to escape the trap of perfectionism which always leads to an entrenched shadow. The wise Benedictine Brother David Steindl-Rast describes this common ploy:  

In its enthusiasm for the divine light, Christian theology has not always done justice to the divine darkness. . . . We tend to get trapped in the idea of a static perfection that leads to rigid perfectionism. Abstract speculation can create an image of God that is foreign to the human heart. . . [A God that does not contain our shadows.] Then we try to live up to the standards of a God that is purely light, and we can’t handle the darkness within us. And because we can’t handle it, we suppress it. But the more we suppress it, the more it leads its own life, because it’s not integrated. Before we know it, we are in serious trouble. 

You can get out of that trap if you come back to the core of the Christian tradition, to the real message of Jesus. You find him, for instance, saying, “Be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect” [Matthew 5:48]. Yet he makes it clear that this is not the perfection of suppressing the darkness, but the perfection of integrated wholeness. [Richard: Emphasis mine.] That’s the way Matthew puts it in the Sermon on the Mount. Jesus talks of our Father in heaven who lets the sun shine on the good and the bad, and lets the rain fall on the just and the unjust alike [see Matthew 5:45]. It’s both the rain and the sun, not only the sun. And it’s both the just and the unjust. Jesus stresses the fact that God obviously allows the interplay of shadow and light. God approves of it. If God’s perfection allows for tensions to work themselves out, who are we to insist on a perfection in which all tensions are suppressed? . . .

[As Paul writes,] “By grace you have been saved” [Ephesians 2:8]. That’s one of the earliest insights in the Christian tradition: it’s not by what you do that you earn God’s love. Not because you are so bright and light and have purged out all the darkness does God accept you, but as you are. Not by doing something, not by your works, but gratis you have been saved. That means you belong. God has taken you in. God embraces you as you are—shadow and light, everything. God embraces it, by grace. And it has already happened.

David Steindl-Rast, “The Shadow in Christianity,” in Meeting the Shadow: The Hidden Power of the Dark Side of Human Nature, ed. Jeremiah Abrams and Connie Zweig (Jeremy P. Tarcher: 1991), 132, 133. 

Image credit: Jenna Keiper, dapple (detail), 2020, photograph, Bellingham.

Image inspiration: Shadows are always influential if not always obvious. Some, in focus in the foreground, are easier to name while others remain hidden in the background. How might we attend to the lessons of our own inner shadow landscapes?


The first quotation in this article from Richard Rohr, OFM, offers a conundrum:

“We can patiently accept not being good. What we cannot bear is not being considered good, not appearing good”—St. Francis of Assisi

This echoes the response of Jesus in human form when he was addressed as “Good Master”. Jesus’ words were “Who are you calling good, there is One Alone who is good?” – indicating that, in our falen human form, we need the power of God to be restored into the perfect ‘Image and Likeness of God‘, that was God’s intention for each one of us at our creation.

We Christians sometimes forget that the attainment of salvation is not all about us. The God who created us is solely responsible for our salvation, through the world’s redemption by God’s Incarnate Son, Jesus the Christ. What we are invited to do – through our Baptism into and feeding on Christ in the Eucharist – is to acknowledge the God who has secured our redemption, by responding to the invitation of Jesus to share in the Divine Life in The Word and Sacraments of the Church. In doing this, we are equipped by God’s Spirit to proclaim God’s salvation to the world, so that ALL may have the opportunity to hear and believe!

God’s power and will to save is not subject to our becoming ‘perfect’ by our own power and will – but only by our sibmission to the power and will of God, that we accept our own human weakness and submit to God’s mercy and forgiveness which has already been made available to us through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus.

Even the great Saint Paul himself has to acknowledge his own dependence on God’s grace and mercy in order to carry out his mission of revealing Christ to others: “Why do I do the things I know I shouldn’t do, and why do I not do the things I should do?” He had no answer to this reality in his life, so that all he could say was this “But thanks be to God for the victory in our Lord, Jesus Christ!”

The prayer of The Church, in coming to terms with our own need of God to lift us above our own tendency to fall short of the perfection God has designed for us to share is this:

“Kyrie eleison; Christe eleison; Kyrie eleison”

Lord have mercy; Christ have mercy; Lord have mercy

Father Ron Smith, Christchurch, New Zealand

About kiwianglo

Retired Anglican priest, living in Christchurch, New Zealand. Ardent supporter of LGBT Community, and blogger on 'Thinking Anglicans UK' site. Theology: liberal, Anglo-Catholic & traditional. regarding each person as a unique expression of Christ, and therefore lovable.
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