Sister Thècle Gong
Congregation of Notre Dame

The Shadow


SThecleUnder the rays of the sun we each of us have a shadow which follows us and accompanies us throughout the whole of life. We cannot see this shadow without the light, and there is no light without shadow. Shadow and light co-exist. The same applies to a human being: the shadow and the light interweave all through our existence, and we need to take this shadow into account if we are to develop harmoniously.

In fact self-discovery and discovery of this ‘shadow’ go hand in hand. What then is this shadow? We must get to know it in order to ‘tame’ it appropriately and effectively. The discovery of this element of shadow in oneself will help a person towards self-knowledge and so work out a good balance and a good orientation of human expansion both psychological and spiritual. Knowledge and awareness are the beginning of change. ‘The worst agony of all is not to know why my heart is in agony’ (Paul Verlaine). If one does not know why one has such agony how can one escape it? Normally life has many different facets, and the diptych ‘light and shadow’ stands out. According to Carl Jung shadow plays an integral part in our life, whether we like it or not. Refusal to acknowledge it and resistance to it by the subject are at the origin of imbalance and lack of progress in life.


What is ‘shadow’?

Shadow is that dark, negative part of the personality which one is unwilling to acknowledge, and thus relegate it to forgetfulness or repression because it is incompatible with the image one would like to have of oneself and which one would like others to accept. Sometimes one creates a mask or a fine individual image to parade it and give a good impression and at the same time hide the shadow from others or hide it in the depths of the unconscious. In reality the shadow by its nature is not only something evil and obscure but also the opposite of what is positive in a person. To detach it and exclude it is tantamount to denying one’s own personality. The question is to know how to discover its multiple facets and to integrate it into life itself.

Part of the consecrated life consists in changing, opening out and searching for perfection. For this reason there needs to be an awareness or perception of the unknown parts of oneself. This awareness is the product of education. Gaps in education can lead to a faulty awareness and erroneous behaviour which contradict the ways of conventional life in society. Consequently an openness to change is basic to formation. Formators must accustom their subjects to permanent formation. This is the work of a lifetime.


The Formation of the Shadow in the consecrated Life

In social life every organisation, large or small, has rules written or unwritten for the smooth running of the organisation and to help its members achieve its aim. These regulations may be compared to a compass to guide us in the right direction to reach the destination. To this religious organisations are no exception. Let us use the example of a religious community. To find shadow look for a large tree; the expression well illustrates the concept of shadow according to Jung. If the tree represents Canon Law, rules and constitutions, the traditions and spirituality of a religious Order its shadow will be enormous and proportionate to its height. This shadow is everything which the religious suppress internally because of all the rules and constitutions which have not been interiorised.

By entering the consecrated life the religious enters into a totally different world in which he or she must develop among the rules directives proper to the state of life. The new religious sets out on the life and behaviour of the ancients. He must follow them whether he likes it or not, even if they are contrary to his way of life and he does not fully understand them. In good faith he makes sure to observe the rules, but his head and his heart are not synchronised. This causes a certain oppression, ‘The good thing that I want to do I do not do, but I do the evil I do not want to do’ (Romans 7.19). In this way he cannot avoid suppressing elements deep in himself. His shadow follows him and sticks to him until by interior liberation he is able to go beyond these rules which dominate him.

The formation of this shadow seems to be unavoidable in the religious life; it is like the shadow and the body, two facets of the same reality. Nevertheless, the shadow becomes a negative factor and constitutes an obstacle in religious life if and only if it is not accepted and transcended by a religious through acceptance in the concrete reality of daily life. If the religious takes cognizance of the problem, and on his own initiative grasps the importance of the influence of this shadow, he will arrive at a real understanding of himself and be able to face up to the problem with serenity and confidence in the knowledge of himself and of his obligations. We will overcome this shadow ourselves more easily if we know it better or are more conscious of it.


How to understand and make use of this Shadow

SThecleOmbrePsychologists have pointed out several different methods of understanding and dealing with this shadow. We mention here some essential procedures and some practices which have been applied to the religious life. The simple concept illustrated by the proverb, ‘measure others by the yard-stick of yourself’ helps us to understand the psychic mechanism of projection. To judge by reference to oneself or gratuitously attribute to someone a negative word or deed when they are in fact in oneself. For example, one taxes someone with jealousy or boastfulness when one is oneself prone to these bad habits. In the same order of ideas, one misjudges the qualities or talents of others when one is trying to disguise the shadow which lurks in one’s own inability to achieve such good things in oneself.

Making an elephant out of a mouse is another popular mechanism of this projection. It is possible to imagine a projector which enlarges photographs and projects them on a screen. This makes us think of the affective intensity caused by an event which has been exaggerated beyond the limits of a real situation. In other words the reaction and perception of the event by the subject are asymmetrical.

What is the origin of the extreme reaction? The rejection of one’s shadow. When a similar trait is recognised in oneself the intensity of the criticism or condemnation is doubled. The consequence of self-criticism is added to the condemnation of another. What one cannot tolerate in oneself has been exaggerated by being projected into another.

The shadow of an inferiority complex is another form of projection less frequently noted. The positive side is projected onto another, that is, the tendency to praise the skills of another, admire them and wish to resemble them. In this way one undervalues and progressively loses whatever makes one unique in a community. One hinders one’s own capacity and faculty to makes use of a person’s functionality and creativity in the community. By this action with regard to the qualities of the shadow all opportunities of self-affirmation, self-development and service of the community are lost, together with the talent confided to one by God.

In short it seems that projections, positive or negative, all reflect the errant side of one’s personality. One could say that they are normally employed by religious to defend themselves in their relationship with their brothers and sisters, and the part of the shadow that they attribute to others saps their confidence and openness to true relationships.


Dreams open to us a new horizon of the unconscious. They open to us a certain number of secret messages. Normally we devote a third of our day to sleep, and the dreams which then occur constitute the time when the unconscious is active. The other two-thirds are consecrated to conscious activities. That is why many psychologists consider dreams to be a sort of disguised discharge, a sort of escape hatch. A hidden part of one’s shadow may be brought into the open by an analysis of dreaming.

In the last analysis a dream is a sort of projection in the form of a representation. A dream is also a means for the dreamer to thrust the object rejected or discharged to the bottom of his consciousness. It constitutes a symbol to represent a relationship which is causing a problem. In addition we should consider also humour.


There is always a reason to explain laughter. We laugh for several reasons, but we want to explain this part of the shadow hidden behind laughter by humour. Why, confronted by the same situation, do some laugh and others not? The answer is that the interest and the internal forum of each differ from one person to another. Humour normally hides irony, mockery, allusion, lack of consideration or joy.


In his work Apprivoiser son ombre (Ed. Novalis, Canada 2010) Jean Monbourquette suggests nine questions. However, in the context of religious life we take up only two sorts of questions fundamental in this context for the religious life:

Direct questions

1. What subjects of discussion do you tend to avoid in conversation?

2. In what situations do you find yourself irritable, hypersensitive, on the defensive?

3. What type of remarks annoys you, make you lose your cool?

And suchlike questions. The answers to such questions could surprise and shame us. But when we face up with sincerity and courage to this part of the shadow one thing becomes evident to us: we live in an imperfect world, we all have limits. We ask ourselves why, for the same subject on sexuality, I become so tense, while others consider it absolutely normal. It is because before I entered religion I was sexually abused. I wanted to hide this part of my shadow from others.

Indirect questions

1. What are the most flattering parts of your ego which you would like to see recognised by others?

2. The behaviour of a wise man is to wash his dirty linen in public. How does this relate to the shadow? Is it the same for one who allows his qualities to be seen? There is no harm in allowing our qualities to be seen in public, and we are considered to be using them for a positive purpose; but when someone cultivates illusions or exaggerations about his ego, then his shadow is somewhat out of order.

In fact someone who harbours illusions about himself looks for every possible means to bluff and show off in a ridiculous fashion; unconsciously he represses all his negative side and his limits, to create a fine image of himself or impress someone else. But if the person makes a false move the truth will break out. Nothing artificial is stable.

Sincere answers to these questions will easily permit us to recognise our shadow.

Coming to terms with the shadow

In his work Journey to Freedom (The Path to Self-Esteem for the Priesthood and Religious Life) James E. Sullivan discusses the forms of punishment which one can inflict on oneself. In reality it is easier for us to pardon oneself than to pardon others, to reconcile us with our selves than with other people. This shows that it is not easy for us to face up to our shadow and to reconcile ourselves with it. To achieve this we must pass with courage and patience through three stages.

Assume the existence of the shadow

Normally we all wear a mask to ‘produce ourselves’ on the stage of life; that is why the acceptance or negation of our shadow is easy to understand. In the life of a religious community everything is directed towards good and holy traditions. However, human nature still carries the stain of original sin and the old man is constantly pursuing humanity. It is difficult for religious to escape the internal tug-of-war and the double way of life, ‘adult-child, saint-monster, good-evil’, of which Pope Francis speaks in ‘The Fifteen Sicknesses of the Roman Curia’. If one has a sophisticated mask one manages to conceal one’s shadow subtly. But the moment will come when, accustomed to dissimulation, one falls asleep in one’s illusions and runs the risk of forgetting one’s shadow. In order to begin the process of reconciliation with the shadow it is necessary above all and before all to accept the existence of the shadow as an integral part of one’s life. This requires that each individual undergo an interior conversion and have a supernatural dimension to life. With the help of God’s grace we discover the obstacles which slow our spiritual journey. The shadow is enemy number one which influences and dominates negatively our ideal of perfection.

Identification and naming

With these suggestions it becomes an easy matter to identify and name the enemy, especially when we have assumed this shadow to be an integral part of our life. This is a great step forward. If we consider the shadow under the aspect of a mask it is enough to determine the illusions which we nourish in ourselves and the excessive choices in our lives. For example, the lazy and egoistical part of the shadow that we want to hide shows itself before the religious community under the image of a generous and zealous member (serving in a devoted way in certain circumstances). In fact this shadow is camouflaged in different ways. In considering the shadow under the aspect of a projection we will identify and name it as the charges we make against others. It is easy to identify and name the shadow projected on someone else when this occurs on a grand scale and at great depth.


Reconciliation is the final step towards total unification of life, body and soul, darkness and light, defect and quality of any person in a religious community. To reach this point it is necessary to put down on paper the strong and weak points observed in one’s shadow. For example, what are the advantages and disadvantages for oneself and for the community of dissimulation and of tendencies to egoism? Compare the results with the practical needs of the community.

A comment: all spiritual journeying must occur progressively to avoid the condition of a ‘temporary integration’ caused by an insufficient conviction in its practical application. In addition, every religious must study, assimilate and integrate gradually into his or her life the ideals of the state of life, following the wisdom and grace of God. In this way we can perhaps diminish the number of masks and slim down the shadows of the consecrated life and achieve a certain equilibrium on the three levels, physical, psychological and spiritual (cf. C. Jung, Collected Works, Vol.17).


The ‘Nights’ of the consecrated Life

‘Anyone who has left houses, brothers, sisters, father, mother, children, land for the sake of my name will receive a hundredfold and will have eternal life for a heritage’ (Matthew 19.29).

A hundredfold, yes, but not without passing through plenty of ‘tribulations’ (Acts 14.22). In reality the religious who enters upon this narrow way to reach the fullness of the consecrated life of living out a religious vocation which deserves the name must make plenty of efforts on several levels and pass through highs and lows, joy and agony and many sufferings. On some days he will think he is living through a hell on earth. Why? Because he shares in the lot of all humanity, even after having been consecrated by religious profession and perhaps ordination. Thus the consecrated life includes also ‘nights’, and there are even many of these. What are they? The longest night of all is without doubt the passions which always nibble away around religious. As an ordinary mortal, a religious cannot escape temptation and the envies which sometimes attain an unheard of intensity because he has to renounce self at several levels. This is like the days of fasting and abstinence when hunger makes itself felt more acutely and desire for food becomes stronger.

The five faces of temptation can be resumed in five words: love, monotony, money, authority, liberty.

As every human being, a person who embraces the consecrated life is part of the common human lot and even of the more normal among them. But such a person has to face up to a good number of needs and the requirements of a normal human being, for he is in the world though not of it; he must, in a word, swim against the tide. This ‘long night’ constituted by the passions works against the religious to get control of him. It must be admitted that a good number of religious have experienced this ‘long night’ and have not come out unaffected. In a good number of communities, as in a good number of other people, this ‘night of the religious life’ is heavily camouflaged: ‘the children of this world are more cunning than the children of light’ (Luke 16.8).


‘Life without love is no life.’ It cannot be denied that the tendency to secularisation in the religious life is alarming. The religious embraces evangelical celibacy, a state of life which is considered abnormal. He lives in an era of information technology which has revolutionised our way of thinking and acting; he enjoys better material conditions and an environment more favourable to the expression of personal liberty than previous generations. Through lack of vigilance religious are tempted by this facility, by a life according to natural ways of behaving and emotional inclinations and thus can slip little by little into a vicious circle from which it is hard to escape. Obviously he does not reveal what is going on and tries to disguise it as much as possible. Correspondingly he does not dare to share the stories of his private life, with the result that he marks time and cannot get out.


Monotony leads easily to routine and discouragement. It also constitutes a ‘night of the religious life’. To use an image, one can say that the religious life is like a play repeated every day. The daily activities of a religious are identical, unchanged from day to day, at the same times and places: the wake-up, the Eucharist, the liturgy of the hours, meals, work, study. The same scenario repeats itself every day of our religious life. This monotony can impel some religious to look for an unusual menu or to fantasise. Sometimes the religious is overcome by lassitude at work or in the life of the community or in the life of prayer. Reality shows that some young people these days are not capable of putting up with this state of affairs when they come to have a taste of religious life. If their vocation does not have a solid motivation and if God is not ‘the sole object of their love’ they are easily carried away by worldly cares.


Another ‘night’ of the religious life is found in abuse of authority by some priests and religious. In practice, once they have attained their objective, that is, the priesthood or final profession, their life after ordination or final vows is in contradiction to what they have learnt and to which they have been formed. From the psychological point of view such cases are particularly dangerous, especially for people who live with their failures or who put up with all restrictions during their formation without trying to free themselves from internal contradictions and repressions. They thrust them to the bottom of their subconscious without attempting to resolve them correctly. When the desired moment arrives or they attain the required objective, that is, the promotion to a post and the exercise of authority (no matter how slight) they allow all their subconscious to go free and become authoritarian. However, there are some people who know and master themselves sufficiently to counter these evil tendencies rising from the subconscious. They have reached a true maturity and a real conviction of their vocation. ‘Anyone who wants to be great among you will be your servant’ (Mark 10.43). There is no lack of people among those responsible for formation who are too fussy and severe towards their brothers and sisters in religion and tend unconsciously to ‘seek out the little beast’.


Avarice also constitutes as ‘night’, not all that rare in the consecrated life prone to the assaults of secularisation. ‘Human avarice is a bottomless pit.’ Such is the practical experience of human society. A person is never satisfied with what he has and always seeks to have more. The consecrated life makes no exception. A certain number of religious betray their promises to God, deny their brothers and sisters for the sake of money and so go to perdition. They know only how to receive and not how to give. In practical life those who come from poor families are often demanding and have a tendency to accumulate possessions. This can be a form of compensation. Money has no heart! For this reason it is wise not to allow a religious to deal with money or exercise authority for too long.


A good number of young religious these days invoke respect and individual liberty to live as they like. The tendency to freewheel is lying in wait for us all. Do not forget that in this world liberty cannot be free of all restraint. Rules are signposts rather than chains, the difference being that signposts lead on and chains hold back. Liberty is like a two-edged sword: its usefulness depends on the way it is handled.

Self-knowledge helps us behave correctly, reasonably and appropriately.