There is much emphasis on notoriety and fame in our society. Our newspapers and television keep giving us the message: What counts is to be known, praised, and admired, whether you are a writer, an actor, a musician, or a politician.
Still, real greatness is often hidden, humble, simple, and unobtrusive. It is not easy to trust ourselves and our actions without public affirmation. We must have strong self-confidence combined with deep humility. Some of the greatest works of art and the most important works of peace were created by people who had no need for the limelight. They knew that what they were doing was their call, and they did it with great patience, perseverance, and love.
Henri Nouwen, from Bread for the Journey
I think this is something we truly need to get hold of, now more than ever. Hiddenness is so alien to our culture, and yet I often think that nothing lasting can really be achieved in the spiritual life without its being hidden from the harsh lights of publicity. At times, it needs to be hidden even from ourselves - as Jesus said, “But when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your giving may be in secret. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.” (Matthew 6.3-4 NIV)
This is one of the things that gives me such an appetite for the solitary life. To pray, to study, with no possibility of reward, no reputation... I wrote a while ago: “I feel an intense hunger for hiddenness; I long to be like a wren, living out its life deep in an ivied hedgebank, hardly seen among the dense leaves and underscrub. Somehow all this has to do with the heart, too: mine is too full to accomplish anything outwardly, still less to write more for the time being…”
It's difficult to achieve this, too. Our brother St Francis struggled with his longing for solitude and contemplation, and his vocation to preach the Gospel—which inevitably drew him into the public eye, and away from his peace with God.
Elsewhere in the text I’ve quoted at the head of this post, Henri Nouwen wrote:
If indeed the spiritual life is essentially a hidden life, how do we protect this hiddenness in the midst of a very public life? The two most important ways to protect our hiddenness are solitude and poverty. Solitude allows us to be alone with God. There we experience that we belong not to people, not even to those who love us and care for us, but to God and God alone. Poverty is where we experience our own and other people's weakness, limitations, and need for support. To be poor is to be without success, without fame, and without power. But there God chooses to show us God’s love.
Both solitude and poverty protect the hiddenness of our lives.
As always, I struggle with this. It is hard, as I wrote the other day, to balance living a life surrendered to God in prayer with living “in the world”—and yet this balance seems to lie at the heart of the Tertiary vocation. Paul's words keep coming back to me:
So if you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth, for you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. When Christ who is your life is revealed, then you also will be revealed with him in glory.