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Father Paul

Beyond Blue Snow:
Finding the Gift of the Shadow

by Father Paul Keenan

When I was growing up, my parents had a large painting called "Shack in the Woods" over their fireplace. It was by a Canadian artist named Franz Johnston; and it depicted a lonely shack surrounded by a huge forest of trees, deep in the shadows of a rural Canadian winter. My parents loved the painting; but Nana, my motherís mother, absolutely hated it on sight and never changed her mind about it till her dying day at age ninety-six. The particular object of her wrath was a patch of blue shadow that the artist had placed so as to run from the edge of the cabin to the outermost of the trees. It was clear to all of us that he was depicting the deep sylvan shadows of a wintry dusk. To Nana, it was "blue snow;" and, to her, no artist in his right mind would ever paint blue snow!

Heart Storming by Father Paul Keenan

Thereís a big difference, of course, between shadows and blue snow. When I grew up and eventually became interested in Spirit and the inner workings of the human person, it occurred to me that those two interpretations of that painting marked a classic difference in the ways we view our shadow and that this difference captured the way in which we deal with the murky, shady side of ourselves. Our shadow is that dark side, the side we would not like to hang out on our clothesline or display on a resume. Yet it is a side that is there, one that can either help us on our lifeís journey or present a formidable obstacle. If we are wise, we learn to embrace our shadow and see it as a helpful aspect of ourselves, one that can lend depth and beauty to our personality. Our first tendency, however, is to see our shadow as "blue snow" Ė an abomination, an anomaly, something that we would do better to write off and forget about.

Growing up in the 1950ís, even in a together and non-dysfunctional family like mine, there was scarcely any recognition of the darker side of life, much less an acceptance of it. The face of life was that it was happy, that we were all together, taken care of and, hey, what could really be wrong? If you didnít like something, you could complain; but you could bet that your complaint would be met with a slap, with ridicule or with an admonition that kids in China or Russia or some other remote corner of the world would be happy to have it half so good. If you cried, you were a baby. If you got mad, you were a problem. If you acted out, you were punished. Your negative feelings were "blue snow" -- how could you even think of putting them out there for people to see? When my motherís second pregnancy ended in a stillborn baby boy, there was absolutely no mention of it. It was nearly twenty years later, when my parents were entertaining a colleague of my fatherís from the university, that a pre-dinner daiquiri mysteriously unleashed a flood of memories as my mother sobbed out the story of her long-lost infant son.

What is this shadow, this murky and unpurged side of us, the "blue snow" we try so assiduously to avoid knowing and to keep others from knowing as well? We call it by many names -- interesting, isnít it, how many of them end in the suffix "-pression. --Depression, Oppression, Repression, Suppression. That suffix comes from Latin roots meaning "to press." The image is that of our taking something and pressing it down, pushing it in, keeping it from Ö "ex-pression," which means "pushing out." What happens is that we take something that to us seems scary, unappealing or unpleasant and try to assure ourselves that under no circumstances will we hold it up for personal reflection or show it to others. We believe that it is too frightening or too shameful to acknowledge or to have acknowledged by those around us. What if others found out?

Stages of the Soul by Father Paul Keenan

The very name "shadow" should tell us something about how to deal with these scary and hard-to-reveal phenomena. Once we accept the fact that what we are hiding really is a shadow and not merely "blue snow" that shouldnít be there, several healing realizations can surface.

1. A shadow is a shadow of something else. What we are experiencing flowing up out of the surface of our awareness is not an isolated something in and of itself. It is a story, a voice in the song of Life; and that song is about some fact, habit or feature of our lives.

What we are so afraid of when we encounter our shadow is that it could be something that, if discovered, would simply destroy us. People have told me that they are amazed at how candid I am, in my writing, about the fears, failures and foibles that have been part of my personal history. Over the years, I have learned that every one of those things that I would hide, has a story to tell, a story that is a very important part of the moral of the story of my life. For example, when someone asks me, "How did you get into radio?" part of the story involves being forced to acknowledge a physical illness and a sense of personal inadequacy both of which had to be faced and healed. When I tell the story (youíll find parts of it in my first book, Good News for Bad Days), I am actually allowing those sub-plots to find their voices, to bestow unique tonalities to the overall story of my life. Like the shadows in my parentsí painting, each of the dark moments contributes something positive to the painting or the song of my life.

2. A shadow becomes visible only when it comes into the Light. The shadow is a sign of the Light, though it appears to be a sign of the darkness.

This is so important to realize. A shadow can be seen only because Light is shining. When we feel uncomfortable about some aspect of ourselves or about some deed or history of deeds in our life story, it is good to remember that what is happening is that we are beginning to come into the Light of Truth. That Truth is the truth about ourselves because of who we are. Admitting or acknowledging the evil aspect or unbecoming feature brings it into the Light. That is uncomfortable at first; and as we allow this to occur, we may find ourselves being overcome by a feeling of helplessness or powerlessness to conquer the shadow. Remember this -- the Light into which you are coming is the Light of Truth. By nature, Truth is gentle and purifying; it builds you up, and does not take you down. The light you are afraid of coming into is the light of ridicule and condemnation, but that is a false light that, in the end, collapses into nothingness. The Light of Being, the Light of Truth, is very gentle with its own, and you are one of its own. That you are a child of God, made in the image of Being itself, is the only truth about you that ultimately matters. The Truth that is God transforms the shadow by lighting it and making it beautiful, just as the light of the sun or the moon transforms the shadow of a tree, making it a part of the overall beauty of the forest. When I finally sought medical treatment for what turned out to be my thyroid condition many years ago, I remember collapsing on the hospital bed in relief that I could finally give up the pretense of being well. In a short time, the doctors told me I was near death; and I recall surrendering once again in complete powerlessness over my condition, telling God, "Do whatever you want with me." At that moment, I experienced a profound inner peace, which, without words, told me, "Itís going to be all right." It was that Inner Light that carried me through to recovery over the next several weeks. Though some of my doctors tried to make me feel shame for having waited so long to seek help, their attempted humiliation of me was nothing in contrast with the gentleness of the Light that told me to relax and let it find the appropriate place for my illness in my life story overall.

Good News for Bad Days: Living a Soulful Life by Father Paul Keenan

3. There are times when it is appropriate to be ashamed, and inappropriate not to be. What matters is that the shadow has a gift to give us, and that Godís Light can help us to find that gift.

When we truly have done something foolish or wrong, when we have hurt others and ourselves through our actions, it is appropriate for us to feel shame. It is never appropriate for us to stay mired in shame. The gift of the shadow is that it can turn shame into beauty, wisdom, depth, direction and graciousness, that it can give us a gift. Said more accurately, it is not the shadow by itself that so gifts us; rather, it is the shadow illumined by the Light of God. Those of us in helping professions can recall, perhaps, how shallow many of us were when we so eagerly came bounding out of our years of training, ready to take on the world. How little we knew back then! When we have lived a little, failed a little, lost a little, come up against some barriers, made some mistakes, even done some things that were downright wrong -- we approach our work so very differently. What is it that is different about us? Is it a trace of compassion? Is it a new level of caring? However we describe it, we are different -- perhaps more humble, both in the sense that we are more modest in our claims, and in the sense that we know more intimately the Light that guides us and holds our hand as we help others to heal.

When I was studying graduate theology, one of my professors told us about a dream he had experienced. In that dream, he was being chased by a dark man, who eventually put him in danger of death. At the last minute, the man tossed a backpack to my professor, and disappeared. After awakening from the dream, the professor told us, he experienced an insight that freed him from something that had been burdening him for a long time.

The shadow side of our lives is friendly like that. It is a sign that at the deepest level of reality there is Light, not darkness; Gentleness, not condemnation; Purpose, not chaos and despair. It all begins when we acknowledge the murky side of life, not as anomalous "Blue Snow," but as shadow, the darkness that proves the existence of Light.

© Copyright 2002 Father Paul Keenan.  All Rights Reserved.

Father Paul Keenan
Father Paul Keenan: Popular speaker, author and radio co-host of WABC Radioís "Religion on the Line," Father Paul Keenan likes to talk and write about the issues that matter to people. Widely experienced as a national and local television and radio news commentator, he is the author of Good News for Bad Days, Stages of the Soul and Heartstorming. As Director of Radio Ministry of the Archdiocese of New York, he supervises, produces and writes for various radio and television programs. In addition, he serves as a parish priest in New York City.

Father Paul Keenan, came to his now-ten-year-old career in New York broadcasting after having been a college teacher and administrator and a parish priest for many years. He hails from Kansas City, where he graduated from Rockhurst University and completed an M.A. in Moral and Pastoral Theology at Saint Louis University. He was ordained to the priesthood in 1977, and went on to complete an M.A. in Philosophy at Fordham University.

Father Paul is also known for his work on the Web. He hosts his own website (www.fatherpaul.com) and contributes regular articles to various other sites. He is a regular columnist for the monthly newspaper, "Catholic New York." His other talents and interests include reading, cooking and being humble servant to his three cats, Teddy, Lionel and Midnight.





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