Love, Empathy, and the Cultural Honor/Shame Paradigm

Chaplains, whether in lay ministry, hospitals, prisons, military, corporations, or even on sports teams are committed to spiritual care. Spiritual care is service, love, and commitment to empathy with others as they suffer and celebrate in this life. 

At the core of chaplaincy is the service of listening. When doing their finest work, chaplains listen without judgment, and are present with others in their suffering and joys. Emotional intelligence requires intuition and empathy. Through the cross and resurrection, Jesus not only conquered death but demonstrated immeasurable empathy with humankind in his act of loving sacrifice. The Trinity, then, is love, and within love sits empathy.

“Cognitive empathy is being able to understand another person’s perspective, reflecting on their situation, and considering the events or the forces that may be acting upon them.” Richard Davidson’s foundational definition of cognitive empathy may help our church community begin to dismantle any honor/shame paradigm that could influence it. 

Culturally, our community within the Orthodox church is often influenced by an honor/shame paradigm found within many Middle Eastern cultures. An honor/shame paradigm gives a community cohesion by holding one another to a strict standard of behavior. Though perhaps initially useful in encouraging righteous behavior, over time the honor/shame paradigm lives up to its name and creates a culture in which people feel compelled to hide their suffering, flaws, mistakes, pain, and struggles. When we hide our experiences, it is because we do not trust one another to hold our fragilities. A lack of trust creates a community in which gossip and fear rule its order. By offering each other empathy when we suffer and celebrate, our Orthodox community can come to love rightly and communicate beyond its cultural honor/shame paradigm. As a starting point, we can consider how we approach the sacrament of confession. If we come to our fathers of confession without judgment, in the same way, we should be able to come to our neighbors and friends with our troubles and suffering, our joys, and our successes in safety and security, without fear of judgment. By exercising empathy, we will be able to come together as a community, trusting in one another. 

St. Paul tells us to “rejoice with those who rejoice, and weep with those who weep,” in his epistle to the Romans. Paul’s notation of this act is the epitome of human empathy. As chaplains exercise this empathy, our ancient and modern fathers and mothers also model this sort of empathy for us:

“God in His goodness has arranged things perfectly, so that with our gifts, we can help each other, and with our faults, we can be humbled by each other. For every person has some gifts; but everyone also has some faults which one must struggle to overcome.” St Paisios of Mount Athos

“He who busies himself with the sins of others, or judges his brother on suspicion, has not yet even begun to repent or to examine himself so as to discover his own sins.” St. Maximos the Confessor

“Never condemn each other. We condemn others only because we shun knowing ourselves.” St. Seraphim of Sarov

“God wants us to praise Him, to serve Him and to perform acts of love with others. But without such acts, praising and glorifying Him are of no value. It is useless to pray and fast without putting up with other people.” Mother Irini

As individuals, if we commit ourselves to empathic love, we will begin to become like the saints gone before us. Love in its purest form is as St. Paul writes to the church in Corinth: it does not boast, it is kind, and it keeps no record of wrongs. (1 Cor. 13:4-7) When we love this way, we embody the perichoretic dance of the love within the Trinity. It is self-giving, self-emptying. Community relationships which mirror Trinitarian eucharistic love are those which will be most inclusive, kind, and humble. The strongest relationships should be bound by empathy and communication, not mired in judgment and secretiveness.

Chaplains have the privilege of being present with others as they experience life, and so too do members of our church community. Choosing to embody empathy means guiding our inner reins to love rightly, with kindness, humility, trust, and vulnerability. Choosing a life of empathy as individuals will create a community guided by Trinitarian love. 

This is part of Agora’s Trinitarian Love theme for the Symposium in 2020. Please join us in continuing this conversation on February 14 & 15.

You can find out more information and purchase your ticket here


Richard J. Davidson, “Empathy: A Brain Science Perspective,” in Building Blocks of Emotional Intelligence: Empathy, A Primer, (Florence, MA: More Than Sound, LLC, 2017), 27.

Saba Soomekh, From the Shahs to Los Angeles: Three Generations of Iranian Jewish Women Between Religion and Culture, (Albany: State University of New York Press, 2012), 146. This portion of Soomekh’s book discusses gossip as a form of social cohesion and accountability, a concept I believe fits well within an honor/shame paradigm, because fear of being the target of gossip. Gossip encourages judgment of others without empathy or truth.