I cannot watch the 1986 film The Mission without weeping at certain scenes – particularly the moment when Rodrigo (Robert De Niro) is unburdened of his shame.
Since you’ve all had 37 years to watch the movie, I will go ahead and spoil some of the plot.
It is the 1750’s, and Rodrigo is a ruthless mercenary and slave trader. He kidnaps and sells Guaraní natives in Paraguay, unabashed about torturing or killing in the process. When he murders his own brother in a jealous fit of rage, he finally hits rock bottom. Amidst utter despair, he discovers a glimmer of hope and repentance in his encounter with Father Gabriel (Jeremy Irons), who is actively tending to the needs of the natives in his Jesuit Mission, not to mention sheltering them against the greed and oppression of both Spanish and Portuguese colonizers. Father Gabriel invites him to choose a penance, just as he has chosen his crime. He challenges him to try – even to risk trying and failing. Rodrigo bundles up his armor and ties it to his neck. He hauls it for miles, even up the muddy slopes of the Iguazu Falls. His determination is astonishing, even though it becomes clear that he is only tormenting himself, and is stuck in his shame.
Father John (Liam Neeson) rushes in to fix it. He cuts the rope and allows the armor to tumble down the muddy slope. Rodrigo doggedly descends the slope and re-tethers himself to his burden.
An exasperated Father John approaches his superior (Father Gabriel) and insists, “He’s done this penance long enough! And, well, the other brothers think the same!”
And Father Gabriel wisely responds, “But he doesn’t think so, John. Until he does, neither do I.”
Atop the falls, with the river roaring beneath, Rodrigo collapses in exhaustion, just as they encounter the Guaraní, who recognize their tormenter. The chief commands one of them to approach Rodrigo with a knife. Rodrigo is ready for his throat to be slit, clearly believing that he deserves much worse. But when the chief understands from Fr. Gabriel why Rodrigo is lugging his armor, he commands that the rope be cut. The bare bodies of the surrounding Guaraní stand in stark contrast to the self-protective way that Rodrigo has been living his entire life – even after embarking on a path of repentance. This time, Rodrigo is ready. As his visible bundle of armor plunges into the waters below, his invisible armor is finally pierced. He allows himself to be loved and embraced. He sobs and shakes. The waters below, evocative of baptism, wash away his shame. He begins delicate growth in a new life in freedom.
Former slave traders are not the only humans who struggle with shame. One way or another, each of us armors up in self-protection, and each of us lugs around an invisible sack of shame.
Within that invisible sack is not only our own shame, but often the shame of others that does not belong to us. Abuse survivors carry the shame of their abuser, not to mention the shame of the community that failed to protect them or to care about their struggle. Adult children continue to lug around the shame of their parents, grandparents, and ancestors. From generation to generation the weight of the invisible shame sack often grows heavier. Even for Rodrigo in The Mission, it is not hard to imagine him having a backstory full of trauma. No doubt, he carried the toxic shame of others long before he captured his first slave or engaged in his first act of violence. Our repeated seeking out of shameful behaviors gives us a place to put that shame. Meanwhile, many of us try to spend the rest of our life pretending to be a knight in shining armor.
I know well what it is like to put on shiny armor, only allowing others to see my strength and my success, and concealing the rest of myself. That served me well for many years. It felt great to be admired, even though admiration is not love. I was lugging an enormous burden of shame – so intense and so toxic that I wasn’t ready to face it. It wasn’t just invisible to others (aside from highly perceptive people). It was invisible to me.
Wearing shiny armor kept me from feeling that shame in the presence of others. Plenty of people in our Christian communities thought the armor looked amazing. This tendency to armor up and pretend to be invulnerable is not just an individual problem. It is woven into the culture of many of our families, parishes, and dioceses. We keep telling ourselves that we can hide away the unpresentable or unpleasant things, and they will just go away. We praise and admire the “good priests” and “good families” who always look the part.
In the shiny armor of my perfectionism, in playing the part of a “good priest,” I was presenting a persona, but not my authentic and wholehearted self. I was bypassing my emotions, especially the big and painful ones. I was hiding away my invisible bag of shame – not realizing that concealed within it was also all the best parts of myself: my sensitivity, my empathy, my longing for connection, my playfulness, or my creativity. I strove feverishly and desperately to be good enough – much like Rodrigo lugging his load up those muddy slopes. When I was emotionally or spiritually exhausted, I was highly susceptible to my addictions. In my compartmentalized existence, those became the vessels that could contain my shame – keeping it far away from the rest of my life. Then I could still be that knight in shining armor.
Deep down, I desperately desired to be loved – but like Rodrigo, I wasn’t ready to be that vulnerable. And our good heavenly Father, like Father Gabriel, honored my freedom. He waited and waited until I was ready.
I have come to discover a profound truth. Those who feel unloved and unlovable will ultimately fail at loving others. We cannot give what we have not allowed ourselves to receive. If we do not let ourselves be loved (truly loved for who we are) there is no capacity or freedom to live out the commandment, “Love your neighbor as yourself.”
We do not like to feel vulnerable, but that is in fact the human condition. We can armor up all we want; it does not alter our mortality or our fallen state. Only love can do that – which means having at least some people in our lives who know us through and through. Only when we are securely loved by the Father and by at least a few others can we truly grow and bear fruit.
I challenge each of us individually as well as collectively (in our communities or in our presbyterates) to tell the truth about how often we wear armor that doesn’t suit us. What would it be like if we priests learned (at least with each other) to set down our armor and be our authentic selves? We would truly be brave shepherds able to lead others to the open heart of Jesus.
I close with the words of C.S. Lewis, reminding us of the connection between vulnerability and love:
To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything and your heart will be wrung and possibly broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact you must give it to no one, not even an animal. Wrap it carefully round with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements. Lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness. But in that casket, safe, dark, motionless, airless, it will change. It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable. To love is to be vulnerable.