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 letter to the editor in my local Tennessee newspaper requested that letters mentioning religion be removed to somewhere other than the editorial page, since the newspaper is “secular.” Little wonder that wearing a cross is increasingly forbidden in the work place.
The enforced “neutrality” of secularism asks Christians to become invisible. Christians are the new pariahs. Invisibility is not a difficult request for modern Christians. Our religion is often enough invisible to us as well. Some will even argue that this is as it should be – Christianity belongs in the closet (Matt. 6:6).
Man is not meant to live a closeted life. If we are the light of the world, then the light will burn a hole in our secularized baskets and burn the closet down! But this is to describe what should be rather than what is. Modern experience teaches us that baskets and closets simply snuff the light. We go into our closets and pretend to be the light of the world.
The context of Christianity in the modern world differs significantly from the context of first-century Palestine. Our context is the fantasy world of secularism. Our struggle is not against the false public piety of the Pharisees but against the false humility of invisible Christianity. Religion should be understood as a set of practices. Religion or spirituality as a set of ideas is a fiction of secular thought: “keep your religion in the closet of your head.” How we eat, how we speak, how we marry, how we die, how we mourn, how we order our time, how we dress, how we manage our money – all of these and similar “folkways” rightly involve practices that are identifiably religious. For the modern invisible Christian – folkways are largely indistinguishable from those of the surrounding culture.
To live as the light of the world is to be a transforming presence. We do not transform the world by coercion – we transform the world by our Christian existence. Much of our culture, even in its secular form, owes its shape to the transforming presence of Christians. That the world today has a concept of human rights is the direct result of Christian Trinitarian thought and its understanding of personhood.
However, the offspring of Christendom has learned to reject its history and to imagine itself to be self-invented. Christians cannot agree to this myth and pretend that we have not lived within the world for 2,000 years. We are locked in a struggle.
The primary weapons of that struggle remain the inner life of prayer and the purification of the heart. We will not be the light of the world if our hearts are filled with darkness. Christians do well to be confident and hopeful within their daily lives – for “greater is He that is in you than he that is in the world.” Despair and anger are the tools of darkness and have nothing to do with light.
By the same token, Christians should not be fearful of the growing aggression of radical secularism. We should not abandon Christian folkways (where they exist). The return to traditional Christianity (as opposed to secularized market-based Christianity) should include embracing a transformed life expressed in public as well as private. If we are the light of the world, we need not fear the darkness.
I beseech you therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God, that you present your bodies a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable to God, which is your reasonable service. And do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, that you may prove what is that good and acceptable and perfect will of God (Romans 12:1-2).
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