In Catholic circles the term “hidden life” usually refers to the life of someone like a Carthusian monk or a cloistered nun. Basically these people leave normal social existence and enter into a way of life that is totally oriented to the Divine Reality (at least so it is said), and their life is formally and institutionally supported by the Church. They become “unknown” as it were in the larger social world, only known by their families and maybe some close friends. It can be a profoundly holy life—and I have seen it in the eyes of a Carthusian lay brother who had that smile that Ramana Maharshi had that seemed to emanate from a transcendent place; but that term “hidden” has a lot more packed in it than that.
I find that term “hidden life” very fascinating. It can take on a variety of colorations and a whole panoply of embodiments. However, my point is that, whatever be its concrete “manifestation”(and here we already encounter our first paradox for how can something “hidden” be “manifest”), it is a very important element of anyone’s spiritual life if they are serious about the Reality of God. Truly it can even be said that the “hidden life” is “what it’s all about”!
If we don’t freeze our view of the hidden life on the two institutional figures above, we will see a remarkable range of embodiments of this “hiddenness.” Consider within the Catholic tradition the example of a Joseph Benedict Labre who was rejected by all monastic groups and lived as a beggar in the streets of Rome; consider the Zen master who left his monastery and lived as a tea peddler in the streets of Kyoto; consider the Sufi dervish whose poverty and rags conceals his intimacy with God, or conversely the Sufi who is ensconced in a palace but lets not one possession take hold of his soul. Consider the many stories in Jewish mysticism of the hidden zaddik who might be a butcher or a shoemaker, etc. Consider the unknown hermits who populate various landscapes and are totally unknown by any institution and in fact may not even be able to explain their way of life to anyone. And so on, and so on. Do we detect a certain trajectory and a certain dynamic in this “hiddenness”? Perhaps a few words from Abhishiktananda will help us even more–here he has been discussing the luminous figure of Ramana Maharshi (and someone like St. Francis) whose luminosity is an exception and paradoxically not only not the sign of his holiness but actually hiding the essence of his holinesss; and so this should not fool us into thinking that this is how God works among us and within us:
“Most of the greatest [holy people] he keeps hidden in his ‘secret garden’, allowing no one even to guess the secret of their intimacy with him. An English monk can wander through India ‘in search of a yogi’, going from pilgrimage to pilgrimage, from ashram to ashram, questioning to right and left …then come back home and publicize his disappointment. He will in fact have met only those whose reputations have been blown up by propaganda or who confidently introduce themselves as saviours of mankind. India certainly is not without other souls as great as was Ramana Maharshi, but their greatness generally goes unsuspected, especially when they are met by chance by foreigners or by those who are merely curious. Very often these great souls escape to the outward solitude of forests and mountains in order to conserve the solitude within–always supposing, that is, that they have not chosen to hide themselves more surely still in the midst of the crowd.”
First of all, in order to clarify something that Abhishiktananda mixes up a bit, it is good to distinguish the “hiddenness” that we choose as it were, like entering a monastery or some other choice; and to distinguish that from the “hiddenness” that is simply and totally the work of God in us and around us. Yes, in a real sense these two are “one,” but for the sake of discussion, reflection and clarity, it will help if we keep them separate. And what I want to point to most of all is that “hiddenness” which is the work of God, God’s doing as it were–not our project, not our doing, not something that we planned, not something that we wanted all along, indeed might be something that we really don’t want at all!
There is a beautiful line from Genesis (5:24): “Enoch walked with God; then he was no more, for God took him.” For many this is merely a circumlocution for the fact of Enoch’s death. But for Merton (who loved this line) and for many others this line points to something else. Let’s cut to the heart of this whole thing: the essence of the hidden life is getting lost in the Mystery of God. It is not so much the physical situation but the heart that totally surrenders to the Mystery of God, gets lost in it, and in the process uncovers the abyss and mystery of its own identity as it is found in the Mystery of God.
The Gospel speaks of a treasure hidden, buried in a field. One who is aware of that treasure needs to “give all” to take hold of the field that holds that treasure. This “all” is not a numerical “all”, a sum of things, but the sense of who one is, that “I” that constitutes one’s phenomenal identity of daily life. One has to surrender that to the Mystery of God in order to uncover the mystery of one’s own identity, which is a treasure far beyond anything conceivable in the phenomenal world.
Modern society has as one of its foundational principles a kind of cult of personality. There are many complex factors involved in this development, some of them good, some not so good, others very bad. As an example, the development of the value of the human individual person has been one of the good things. But along with that came an enormous obfuscation of our true identity. In fact, identity itself became problematic. In modern society it is based on “credentials”—something I have discussed previously in various postings. So you go around saying, “I am this person,” or “I am that person,” and so on. So now you are almost no more than the sum of your credentials. Or the person with “more” “valued credentials” is more valued, more happy, more this, more that—ultimately it is their identity. This obscures a person’s true identity to an astonishing degree. The pursuit of credentials becomes the point of life—at times measured by money, power, sex, etc.—even matters of religion can become credentials, and all the more toxic because they are so subtle and so seemingly “right.” All the time a person’s true identity is the hidden secret of their life. It is never something that the person can see or grasp or get hold of in any way for manipulation or “to use it” for some purpose—in other words it CANNOT become another credential. Every person’s secret identity is lost in the abyss of God, and it is only by plunging into THAT abyss that we “become who we are”—to use a modern pop psychology phrase that has so much unintended meaning! This is the real “hidden life” that begins for every person once they have some inkling of their real identity. A person’s real identity is hidden, is a secret that they do not have ready access to unless they are willing to “lose” all their credentials. In fact, in death that is exactly what happens. Then you see who you really are and your oneness with God.
A person’s real identity is so hidden that it is not available to the “brutalities of the will”—a Merton phrase. One cannot “use it”—it will seem like a “nothingness,” like a no-person, like no-thing, etc. If you get the inclination to say, “Ah, there is the ‘hidden life’” — or even worse, “Now I am living the ‘hidden life’”—trust me, that is not it. The “hidden life” is not some generic life that has certain characterisitics. It is either YOUR “hidden life” or it is nothing because it means the essence of YOUR identity which is hidden in the Mystery of God. THAT you will not be able to point to and sit back and admire and turn into another credential. No more than you can do with the very reality of God.
Do not try to name the secret Name that is at the center of your being. There are many things that it is good to try and figure out, but this is not one of them. When Adam the first human encounters all the creatures God has made he is called upon to name them. But it is God himself who names you at the core of your being, calls you by that secret name which is buried in the abyss of that Mystery which we call God. Now the next step is simple: Be that Mystery. You are that Mystery….to echo our Hindu advaitists. The hidden life.
To understand the story of St. Francis entitled, “Perfect Joy,” you need a sense of the meaning of the hidden life. To understand the sayings of the Desert Fathers you need the same. To truly see what the Sermon on the Mount is all about, you need a sense of the hidden life. Otherwise there will be serious distortions.
Again invoking our beloved Sufi friends and that great quote which I have used so many times: It is one thing to know God when the veil is lifted. It is quite another to know God in the veil itself. The hidden life.
God’s life and presence is the most truly hidden life. So the hidden life is an icon of the Presence and Mystery of God. And where else is this hiddenness most manifest than with Jesus on the cross? How can God be more hidden than that? And yet how manifest is God at that moment for those with eyes to see that….