The Hidden and the Manifest Revisited

These two terms–“The Hidden” and “The Manifest”–are exceedingly important in spirituality, mysticism, and theology. However they are also very little understood, very little appreciated and almost exceedingly unknown. Most all of the spiritual life can be delineated between these two poles; most all of theistic mysticism requires that we take account of these two terms: “The Hidden” and “The Manifest.” Their meaning and significance is not apparent from the everyday usage of these terms. They are lost in a vortex of paradoxes that can make one dizzy if you try to rationally “unravel” their meaning. Consider: in the human–divine encounter what is most hidden is most manifest, and what is most manifest is most hidden. But one might rightly ask, exactly what is it that is Hidden, and exactly what is it that is made Manifest? Suffice it to say for now that these two terms refer primarily and most of all to that Absolute Mystery which we call God, and secondarily they refer then to the Divine-human interaction and Divine-human life. Let us reflect a bit on this–and here of course we are concentrating on the theistic traditions (Christianity, Islam–especially the Sufis– and Jewish mysticism, which we have hardly ever touched upon in this blog). We will not reference either Buddhism or Hinduism to keep things from getting too complicated. There is one other tradition, however, that might help us a lot in appreciating “The Hidden” and “The Manifest,” and that is ancient Taoism but I will leave that for another time.


In Catholic circles, years ago, life in the cloister for monks and nuns was commonly called a “hidden life.” The individual person kind of did vanish inside these religious communities, at least as regard to normal social interactions in society. And there were some truly holy and remarkable people within this “hiddenness”–there was also a lot of pretending and play-acting a role that was, alas, only that, a role, a pious mask that one put over one’s ego self. But these institutions, the monasteries, were themselves hardly a hidden reality within traditional Catholic culture. They were held up for communal and ecclesial admiration and approbation—“the Special Forces of Catholicism!!” The monasteries did not hesitate to play this up and use it for fund raising purposes! Nevertheless, given all this, you could still see within this whole complex picture the iconic nature of that life as it gave a hint–and I use that word deliberately because that is all I can attribute to that life in its institutional nature–a hint of “The Absolute Hidden,” and the “The Absolute Manifest.” Truly, like I said, there were individuals who could go very, very deep within these institutions, who were truly “hidden in God,” and who had intimate knowledge of “The Hidden” and “The Manifest.” But the institutions as a whole were only feeble icons of this great Mystery, and yet in a very ironic way they still managed to “hide” and to “make manifest” what it is they were suppose to be all about. But as we write all this we are still at the most external periphery of this Great Mystery.


Among the Russian Orthodox there is this incredible and beautiful tradition of the “fools for Christ.” How I love these people!! These are people who hide their intimacy with God (and one could say that they at the same time by this hiddenness “actualize” that intimacy) by putting on a “mask” of “foolishness,” “dumbness,” “irrationality,” yes, even madness. They are further clothed in profound poverty, homelessness and a solitude that is difficult to articulate. Certainly they are not beacons of religious formalism, of a well-ordered religious life, of social or religious respectability. (By the way, during the peak of Russian Orthodoxy in the 19th Century some have estimated that these “fools” numbered in the hundreds of thousands over the vast expanse of Russia. Compare that to current USA where there may be up to ten thousand contemplative religious, and that includes all the informal and experimental groups that have sprung up in recent decades.) The chief virtue of the “fool” and his/her most apparent posture is that of an unspeakably deep humility, a humility that itself is a form of hiddenness and manifestation. To all rebukes, to all curses, to all rejection, to all meanness, their one and only response would be a profound prostration and in the spirit of Dostoyevsky’s Father Zosima they would ask forgiveness from their assailant and for their assailant, for as Fr. Zosima said, the essence of the divine life in us is to always in every circumstance forgive and seek forgiveness even from those who hurt us. What madness, the world will say! Here we are not in the world of logic or of rational connections! And these “fools” were found everywhere: yes, in the monasteries, but also in the streets of the large cities; on country roads, in villages, and even as wild hermits in the great forests. But the essence of their hiddenness was never one of location or social setting, a kind of institutionalized hiddenness; but rather it was a radical inversion, a turning upside down of the usual ego attempt to establish a “fortress” of social identity, even a religious identity, and by this inversion transforming that whole process into a kind of non-identity which we witness as a profoundly deep humility. True, within Russian culture the “fool” seemed to have an accepted place that other people at least thought they recognized; but also at the very same time, the “fool for Christ” was a person with no-place at all. And in our culture this notion of the “fool for Christ” is totally incomprehensible and inconceivable–so this reality goes “underground” and reappears in ways that will be equally bewildering but perhaps even more hidden in its religious significance.


Then there are the Sufis. These are the true masters of “The Hidden” and “The Manifest.” Their tradition is replete with holy figures whose holiness and intimacy with God is profoundly hidden and most often hidden by everyday life, perhaps the deepest kind of hiddenness. On the outward surface of things they might be engaged in all kinds of usual human activities, like trade, crafts, etc.; they could even be married; but in the depths they are people of great silence, deep humility, of intimate knowledge of that Absolute Mystery within the Heart and focused on THAT with unspeakable intensity.  They also have their “fools,” and very often their holy figures have also in common with Western monks and holy people, a kinship with deep poverty. Two words associated with the Sufis have their root meaning in a total poverty (like Francis of Asissi): “fakir” in Arabic; and “dervish” in Persian. To illustrate that this poverty is not ordinary and not a matter simply of subtracting items from one’s belongings, consider that there were several Sufi holy men who were men of great wealth and power(rare cases, but still there), but they held these positions as if they owned nothing, with not a trace of these realities leaving even a fingerprint of possession on their hearts. They were totally transparent and impervious to the lures of such things but simply exercised a certain responsibility of stewardship. When you witness in monastic life how monks can get very possessive over a favorite item or book, well, then you begin to appreciate the nature of this hiddenness.


In Jewish mysticism, among the Hasidim, there are the legendary Zaddikim, the 36 hidden holy men in the world, whose holiness keeps the cosmos together. This is close to the Sufi ideal above in that these figures are hidden in ordinary life–one could be a butcher, another a merchant, etc. What’s extra special here is that in some cases the hiddenness is of such depth and profundity that the person himself is not aware that he is doing anything special. In fact, he may be bothered by some possible character flaw or shortcoming. In other words he is even hidden from his own eyes! He has not chosen the path of hiddenness, but is totally on it due to the Divine Reality itself.


Now we begin to get into some very deep waters! And that brings us then to this new level of hiddenness–this is where “The Hidden” is not so much a choice on our part but something that God bestows on us–you might say that it is God who does the hiding! It is certainly not the equivalent of a choice in lifestyle or way of life.   And this applies then not only to these secret Zaddikim, but also to the Sufis, the “fools,” Christian monks, and so many other holy people in ordinary life, among all of whom there are these profound icons of God’s Presence even as they might be thoroughly hidden in a “cloud” that only at rare moments one has the privilege of seeing into. I think each of us has on occasion run into some such figure, on a street corner, in a monastery, at home even, wherever….I think there are certainly more than 36 such figures but it is they who truly hold this universe together. Their holiness is not something that can ever be put on display because it is the Divine Reality which conceals them.


Time to get a bit theological. Earlier I had raised the question: what is this “Hiddenness” and what is this “Manifest” stuff? There is a primary meaning to these terms and a secondary meaning; and it was the secondary that I have been discussing. By looking at some very special examples of very special people, we begin to see that what is both Hidden and Manifest is their holiness if you will. There is a very profound paradox here. What is most truly and deeply hidden concerning the holiness of these people is also the most manifest; but access to that which is truly manifest about their holiness is only available to one who enters their profound hiddenness. The “two” are not two “stages” in life, or two “aspects” of life, or anything of that sort; no, they are both one and the same Reality in which the Heart abides, sometimes by choice, sometimes by realization that THAT is who they are, sometimes even without knowing anything at all….


When I use the word “holiness” here, I am afraid it sounds a bit abstract or some quality of personhood that one can somehow achieve or produce. Nothing of the sort. Let us backup a bit. Recall that the Bible tells us that only God is holy. When we attribute holiness to a person, it is not as if he/she gets somekind of character stamp or merit badge. No, holiness in the real sense is the very Presence of that Absolute Mystery which we call God. And when we call someone “holy” all we really mean, or should mean, is that this person conveys to us something of that Absolute Mystery. It is the very Reality of God that is present.


Now this Reality is both concealed and unconcealed within the same dynamism of Presence–and I say “dynamism” because that Reality is never a static presence. As Aquinas termed God: Pure Act. It is as if God enjoys, so to speak, in concealing Himself so that we go looking for Him, so to speak.   This is the basis of the erotic language of the Song of Songs in the Bible and the language of various western mystics. And furthermore God so enjoys manifesting Who He Is that we have all of creation for that. The Sufi mystical theologians speak of all creation as a true self-manifestation of the Absolute Self of God which is truly and also absolutely unknowable in itself. Like one of our hymns proclaims: All the earth proclaims the Lord. Indeed, but this “proclaims” is not like the proverbial finger pointing at the moon; no, it is like the Russian icon, a bearer of the reality which it speaks of.


So the Reality of God is both concealed and unconcealed in everything! Take a pebble, a beautiful little flower springing up wild, the twinkle in a dog’s eyes as you hold a tasty treat, the lovely smile of a child, the hearty laugh of a friend, a compassionate gesture, the act of sex, a whisper of wind, the loud boom of thunder, etc., etc…..all these hold within themselves The Hidden and The Manifest. But the Sufis push this even to greater depths(naturally!). What if a disease strikes you; or you are financially ruined; betrayed by someone you trusted; slandered by someone; what if your child dies due to an accident or disease, etc., etc. Is God concealed and unconcealed in all this? Many of the Sufi mystics would say, most certainly. But this is not something that one should take upon oneself to say to another in some casual, superficial spirit. It is a Reality that is beyond ordinary discourse and rational concepts and not for the “casual observer.” The Sufi mystics’ approach is something like this: they have a saying that goes along this line: It is one thing when the veil is lifted to behold the Divine Reality; it is quite another to behold the Divine Reality within the very veil. Indeed! One has to be blessed with a very special eye for that!!


And where this does come to a remarkable focus, at least for Christian theology and mysticism, is in the person of Jesus Christ. The Absolute Mystery is most hidden, you might say, in this person: after all he is a Jewish male living in a backwater country where nothing important is going on, far off from our modern world–serious limitations, one could say, to “manifesting” anything much less the Divine Reality. Even in the words of the Gospels he is only a carpenter’s son, from Nazareth, not much of anything significant comes from there; he does not even have the proper credentials within his own religious culture to be a significant religious personage. Go figure!   But Christian faith and theology also claims that this person of Jesus Christ is also the most complete manifestation of the Absolute Mystery (which by the way he called “Father,” which in itself leads to another dose of paradox upon paradox in this round of hiddenness and manifestation). The Gospels then are this textual interplay of concealing the Divine Mystery and unconcealing it, all in the person of Jesus Christ. And where this comes to a crescendo is, of course, on the cross–the crucifix, not just the empty cross, the most remarkable symbol, in my opinion, in all of human culture. In that moment of crucifixion, one of the most horrible events anyone could ever witness, we find the Divine Reality most hidden, most concealed. Who could ever see it there? Yet, and this is almost too much for words and language, and yet, paradox upon unspeakable paradox, it is there that the Divine Reality is most manifest. Blessed are you truly who have seen what you have seen……