This is a term with several meanings and references. Important not to conflate or confuse these meanings, but there is a significant relationship among the various resonances this term has.
Within the Catholic tradition the hidden life has often referred to a cloistered life both for men and women. Like the Carthusians, Carmelites, Poor Clares, etc. Here the individual is “hidden away” in an institution which itself is meant to be like a “light on a hilltop”–most visible. There is much good that can be said about such a witness to the reality of God, and there are and have been many men and women of heroic sanctity who have lived such a life. However, there are also numerous questions, problems and critiques pertaining to such institutions.
Another possible meaning to this term is simply the life of solitude wherever lived. The hermit is the “hidden one” par excellance. His/her “not thereness” is of special significance, but the actual experience of solitude is to become lost in the very ordinariness of everyday life: “chopping wood and carrying water”.
But there is another much more interesting and significant reference that the “hidden life” has. Within practically all spiritual traditions there is a story of a person living a very deep and intense spiritual life without anyone around them being aware of it. This person’s spiritual depths are invisible to others–perhaps because they don’t know what to look for. Recall that marvellous Sufi adage: When a pickpocket looks at a saint, all he sees is pockets. So it is, and this is the true “hidden life.” In Sufism there is a tradition of wandering beggars and derelicts who are actually very advanced spiritual masters. In Jewish mysticism, among the Hasidim, there are stories of hidden zaddiks–like a butcher who runs a meat shop by day and prays all night in the presence of God. The Hasidim held that there were these secret holy men in the world, and it is they who held the world together by their holiness and prayer. Even in Zen there is the historical story of a zen master who lived under a bridge in Kyoto for almost 2 decades before he “came out of the closet.” And there is perhaps Zen’s greatest patriarch, Hui-Neng, who for many years was what we would call a simple laybrother in a Buddhist monastery–he was not a priest, and his whole job was to clean and ground grain. Finally, among the Christian Desert Fathers there were stories of city dwellers who had achieved a purity of heart and a level of prayer much higher than the desert monks. And within the Russian tradition there is also the phenomenon of the “fool for Christ.” But here there is a clear cultural “read” of the person and so he/she is not so much “hidden” but has a clear cultural role. But even here there are some very amazing cases.
When this whole thing becomes most interesting and most intense is when the person in question is him/herself blind to their own holiness or spiritual depth. In other words, they are not aware that they are living in any special way. In fact they may even consider themselves “failures” or too lowly to be spiritual, etc. These are the truly hidden ones. It is these who hold the cosmos together as they are God’s “special ones.”
What is the real foundation of the hidden life? From the Christian perspective it is the very hiddenness of God. In a sense God is the most obvious reality–for those who have eyes to see it, and that’s saying quite a lot. In another sense, God is the most hidden reality–so, the Mystery of God–but as we mentioned in a previous posting, God is a mystery but not as a puzzle that we can solve given enough time and resources. But perhaps it would be better to say that God is the most transparent reality. And we can also say that God is a kind of lock to which we have no key–but we can pick this lock through poverty, humility, compassion. And when the “lock” opens, we ourselves enter into the transparency of God–the true hidden life.
If we listen carefully with our heart, we will hear God’s whisper to us every moment: “Partake of the sacrament of secrecy, and I will be your heart.” “But when you pray go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.” (Matthew 6: 6)
God is the most hidden reality. God is most truly hidden in the personhood of Jesus–who can really find God there? We don’t mean in the usual Christian pious way or in a way that simply makes Jesus a kind of almighty magician who can pull rabbits out of the hat of life. But that was why he was rejected–who could see God there? And then he was crucified. Who can find God hidden in the crucified one? More than most Christians, the great Sufi mystic al-Hallaj glimpsed something of this hiddenness and so was ecstatic when he himself was condemned to be crucified.
The hidden life remains hidden.