Discretion and Shame and the Spiritual Life


My experience is limited, so I don’t know if it’s the northeast, or seminary life or an Ivy League secret oath, but we don’t talk about much around here. Not about personal things. I think the word, the habit, is called discretion.

I have two close friends here who know the whole story: a friend my age— a self-described Rhode-Island-thug of a wife and mother with kids—and a queer young man who laughs with me and tells it straight. No pun intended.

We love Jesus, most of us. We might just might admit to stress or insomnia, but we don’t complain about one another, we don’t gossip, Thank you, Jesus! unless something really stings, and then only to one of our confidantes, and then only to the one who will be the most pastoral in said scenario and the one most detached from the circumstances and the most trusted to keep our indiscretion (gossip: speaking of someone who is not present) in the vault. A good practice, but one that helps one appear above reproach, beyond vulnerability.

Recently I was challenged in a formal setting—can’t say where—about referring to my 20+ years as a mother at home as invisible. I need to embrace those years, synthesize them into my new life and my new vocation, whatever God may want it to be. Those years brought me here.

stairstepYes. God makes all things work to the good for those who love Him. But the years were invisible. An invisible striving within tract-home walls hoping to procure and project domestic bliss, striving for the Catholic perfection of a large family my womb couldn’t manufacture (Do you know what stair-step children are?) Struggle with a child who couldn’t be made happy no matter how much we loved him, medicated him, educated him. A marriage my husband and I so painstakingly slowly learned to nurture into a mature love

Not all stay-at-home mothers have invisible lives, but I did. Homeschooling, fiercely devoted to the nest as I say too often, straining under—it’s not ecumenical to say it, and therefore not discrete— conservative Catholicism’s aspirational supererogation.

SUPEREROGATION: The concept of voluntary works besides, over and above God’s commandments, which are sometimes called works of supererogation, cannot be taught without arrogance and impiety. By them men declare not only that they render to God their proper duty but that they actually do more than their duty. But Christ says: “So you also, when you have done everything you were told to do, should say, ‘We are unworthy servants.‘ (Book of Common Prayer)

There ain’t nothin’ I miss less than that. The Episcopal Church welcomes you! It’s chock full of grace over here!

It was a life strewn through with blessing and love, but also desperation, doubt, fear and grief. My husband’s job losses. Miscarriage. The long illness and eventual death of my father. The Great Recession, during which I once went grocering shopping for the week with $7 (apples, potatoes, sour cream). A toddler in surgery. A boy who went temporarily blind. The hospital bills that followed.

In my 30s, as I was trying to find my voice, my worth and my way forward by going back to school, a Catholic priest told that a Master’s degree was not what I needed. Just get a job as a cashier at the grocery store, he said. You just need to get out a little, he said. Thank you, Father.

If a woman tells you she was invisible, ask her why.

Of course, discretion is necessary if we are to serve God’s people as priests, deacons, lay ministers and chaplains. But if perfectionism becomes our practice, well, that can foment clericalism,  “a disordered attitude toward clergy, an excessive deference and an assumption of their moral superiority,” a recipe for the abuse of power.

A few nights ago I had a dream that in a fit of rage in a Divinity school lecture hall, I threw a desk across the room, papers and books flying. I was summarily kicked out. I woke from the dream in a noxious sea of shame. I’m ashamed to even write it here: In a dream I was not perfect. But I’ve discerned it’s time for more truth telling. It may not be discreet. But perfection is Christ’s work, not mine. I am but an unworthy servant.

“If anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new.” 2 Corinthians 5:17