But you, when you pray, go into your closet, and when you have shut your door, pray to your Father who is in the secret place; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you openly (Matt. 6:6).
You are the light of the world. A city that is set on a hill cannot be hidden. Nor do they light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on a lampstand, and it gives light to all who are in the house. Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works and glorify your Father in heaven (Matt. 5:14-16).
Blessed is he who is not offended because of Me. (Matt. 11:6)
There is an invisible side of the Christian faith, known only to God and the believer. St. Matthew’s gospel refers to this as the secret place. It is not only intended to be secret, but exists only in secret. If we refuse to protect the secret then we will find its door closed to us as well.
Our faith also has a very public aspect and cannot normatively be practiced solely in secret. I say, “normatively,” recognizing that circumstances of persecution make the public confession of the faith difficult. However, as the lives of the martyrs attest, even under persecution, the Christian life maintains a public aspect – unto death if need be. Our modern culture frequently asks us to hold these matters in reverse. We speak of secret things and hide those which should be public.
In the liturgical discipline of the early Church, the mysteries (today often called “sacraments”), were indeed mysteries: they were not open to public view. The catechumens, those who were preparing to be baptized, were dismissed from the service to attend other prayers and instruction, while the faithful, alone, remained for the celebration of the mysteries. In Orthodox liturgies, the dismissal of the catechumens remains, at least in word. The mysteries of Baptism and Eucharist are now open for public attendance, though the mystery of the Eucharist may only be received by the faithful.
In our larger culture, many things that should remain “secret” are open for public knowledge and scrutiny. The most sordid details of private lives are openly discussed before audiences on our screens. Magazine covers of relatively innocuous magazines promise “how-to’s” of great sex. I need say nothing about environs of the internet.
Secret matters of the religious life are often treated in a very public manner. St. Paul only obliquely refers to a man who was “caught up to the third level of heaven.” Most scholars agree that he is referring to himself – but such speech would have been deemed inappropriate. His oblique reference skates up to the very edge of acceptability.
Today, Christians often boast about their innermost experiences – we would seem to be a civilization of mystics. It is very difficult to find a balance in our lives.
The secularity of our culture constructs a false world-view for us, creating confusion within the spiritual life. Secularity presumes that there is such a thing as “neutral” territory. The world exists as a vast, neutral ground, inherently objective with no loyalties one way or another. People who subscribe to various versions of secularism see religion as an import, something which does not naturally belong to the order of things. It is not that secularism sees the world as “atheistic”: the world is simply nothing one way or another.
The “natural” spirituality of secularism is indifference. If you want to think about God, that is your business. If I don’t want to think about God, that is my business. But nothing in the world should make me or anyone else inherently think about God. The world and all of its stuff – is indifferent. The expression of the world is thus found in its neutrality. All expressions that deny this neutrality are disruptive. T-shirts and crosses, “Tebows” in the end zone, a creche in the public square – all are disruptive of the neutrality of the secular order.
Those who have been born to this order, those who are the children of the modern world, find that their inner lives are as “naturally” neutral as the world around them appears to be. Reading about the lives of saints creates a longing, a homesickness for a land that is as foreign as any fantasy. Do people actually see angels? Can bread truly be more than bread? Do waters part? Do voices speak from fiery clouds? Even the quiet efforts of prayer and the best intentions within the liturgy can be experienced with an emptiness that mocks our attempts at piety. No convert from ancient paganism ever suffered the numbing lassitude of neutrality’s temptations.
The “neutrality” of nature has moved beyond perception in contemporary society – it has now become a positive value. Thus, the disruptions of religious actions are seen as distractions and disturbances to the way things “ought” to be. They are unnatural and unwelcome. A reader of the blog relates public rebukes (in Greece!) for simply saying, “Thank God.” Of course, I am certain that oaths and curses invoking God receive no such rebuke! Here in the Bible belt of America, a friend relates being publicly attacked for offering the traditional English “God bless you!” when someone sneezed. A recent let