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Faith and Values: Gratitude and judgment in the shadows

By Paul Graves Correspondent

Shadows get an undeservedly bad reputation in our culture. It’s like we see shadows only in “black or white,” or “dark or light” terms. Too bad, because we do most of our daily living in the shadows. We allow our fears to be enhanced rather than healed in the shadows. Again, too bad.

Let’s begin with the benefits of shade to some favorite flowers, vegetables and herbs. Half and dappled shade is preferred for bleeding hearts (one of my favorites), chard, kale, radishes, spinach, leeks, arugula, basil, parsley, dill, cilantro, chives and alpine strawberries.

If shade, and shades of shade are so good for the food we eat or flowers and vegetation we enjoy, why wouldn’t shade or shadows be healthy for human health? Especially spiritual health? Faith traditions of many kinds embrace the power of shadows rather than fear that power.

But many practitioners of those faith traditions have dismissed shadows as the place where only danger lurks, or evil flourishes. Phooey! The shades of shadows we find ourselves in present us with opportunities to engage in spiritual honesty.

Maybe that’s the danger we run from.

In fact, spiritual self-dishonesty may be a major reason people are eager to leave the shadows, but can’t. I read of a man who is in Alcoholics Anonymous who said, “Alcohol is only 10 percent of the problem. The other 90 percent is denial.” The same might be said for our fears about shadows.

Look around you in your shadows. A flashlight might help, but not really. Because the life-circumstance that keeps you in the shadows will only hide more deeply if exposed to the light before it is ready to “fess up.” How do we find the safe space in our shadows to fess up?

I don’t know what folks from other faith traditions might look for in their shadows. But Jesus-followers are wise to remember that Jesus isn’t just out in the light, coaxing you into that bright light. Jesus is in your shadows with you, simply waiting until you notice his presence.

I don’t say this to sound simplistic. I do say it to remind you that Jesus embodied full honesty and pushed his followers to do the same. “You must recognize the plank in your own eye, and only then will you see clearly enough to take the splinter out of your brother or sister’s eye.” (Matthew 7:5) Spiritual growth is a constant exercise in honest seeing.

In “Falling Upward: Spirituality for the Two Halves of Life,” Richard Rohr warns that “Shadow work is humiliating work, but properly so … You come to expect various forms of halfheartedness, deceit, vanity or illusions from yourself. But now you see through them, which destroys most of their game and power.”

To face down your own monsters in the closet robs them of their powers, because those monsters are created out of your ego-driven fears. But Jesus – or Jesus’ proxies (those who love you) – stand in your shadows beside you, encouraging you to open the closet door. Two things might happen:

The harsh, angry judgments you hold in your heart (or perhaps project onto other persons) can be tamed and transformed into moments of understanding, compassion, and hope that life can change.

As destructive self-judgments and judgments of others are diminished in power in your life, your eyes open wider to see what – and who – you’ve been grateful for all along, but couldn’t admit it to yourself.

Those judgments bring fear. But now deeper gratitude is also an option. Together, they can remind you of your own need for understanding, compassion, even hope. That’s great shadow-work.

The Rev. Paul Graves, a Sandpoint resident and retired United Methodist minister, can be contacted at

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