Glory to God for All Things

In the Secret Place

MonkPrayerFollowing up on the previous article’s discussion of shame and envy – I offer this reprint of an early piece which looks at the right role of the “secret” and “hidden” things of the liturgy. Of all the places and spaces to which we should attend – this article names the most important. I suspect that our failure to recognize holy space in the physical surroundings of our lives contributes to our inability to find the holy place within our own heart. I am not sure which must come first – but I think we must know both. Without a proper regard for the ‘secret place of the Most High God’ and the secret place that is our own true heart – then we will know neither God nor our own selves.

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He that dwelleth in the secret place of the most High shall abide under the shadow of the Almighty. Psalm 91:1

There aren’t many secrets anymore. I live in a city that is known as the “Secret City,” because in the Second World War it was one of the main sites of the Manhattan Project where the atom bomb, or elements of it, were developed. I have lived here for over 20 years and have come to take the name as a comonplace. But secrets are all too commonplace. During the war this city held nearly 100,000 people, most of whom had no idea what they were working on. Those who lived around the town had no idea at all.

It is obvious to me that secrets can be kept. But it is also obvious to me that, for whatever reason, secrets are being kept less and less. For some, the word “secret,” is synonymous with something nefarious and evil. Things that are secret must be bad or we would let everyone know.

There is another place for secrets. Psychologists would place them in the category of “boundaries.” In theology we would see them as an essential part of what it means to be a Person.

It is important, it seems to me, that Scripture uses the phrase “Secret Place” to describe the most intimate of places where we can be with God. It is secret because I cannot share it, I cannot find words to speak of it. I am in it only because I was invited and once there (having removed my shoes) I am on holy ground and the “secret” is nothing evil, but the very Good Himself.

What do I do with the Secret? When I stand in the Secret Place of the Most High, I can worship. Anything less would be sacrilege. I can adore the Most High God, even if I can find no words to give voice to my praise.

Every human being has a “secret place” – that within them that is most intimate – that is beyond words – that is made for God. Learning to enter this place is a very difficult thing and only comes with time and practice. Our culture, the world where the most secret things in our lives are shouted from the rooftops, tells us to profane even our secrets and shout them to the world as well. And thus we lose something at the very core of our Personhood. Violated, every man and woman becomes a harlot.

The Church, particularly the Orthodox Church, has a very different attitude towards the Secret. It is not to protect the evil or to create a conspiracy – it is to honor the most holy within each of us. Thus we learn to approach the Secret Place with great reverence, even in silence and awe. Many modern Americans visit an Orthodox Church and find it offensive that the altar is occasionally hidden from their sight behind closed doors and a drawn curtain. It is an offense to their ingrained sense of democracy (a sentiment which has no place in the Presence of God). Where the Church would seek to teach them that there is such a thing as the “Secret Place,” that there are things before which they should be silent and into which not all can enter – we seek in our Promethian madness to democratize everything, defiling every secret place we can find, including the secret place within ourselves. [n.b. You will find some variation of doors, curtains, silence, in Orthodox Churches, including some whose doors stand open for the whole service, etc.]

The Church would bid us come to a very secret place – to come and discover that place within ourselves. Standing before the icon of Christ in the presence of His priest, we enter the secret place of our heart and speak what should often be spoken to no one else, and confess our sins. There is no legal exchange taking place (God’s forgiveness for your contrition). Here the priest only listens - he is forbidden to judge (though he may offer advice if it seems to help – it is nevertheless considered a great sin for a priest to judge the confession of someone repenting before God). The priest stands beside the penitent “only as a witness” as the prayers of confession make clear. He will speak the words of forgiveness when all is said as God’s representative, and then all that he has heard will be wrapped in silence, hidden in the Secret Place of the Most High, where God will purge and destroy our sins and make us new. The Fathers of the Church called the sacrment of confession, “a second baptism.”

It is also learning to recover our hearts, our secret place. The priest will never speak of it (on pain of being deposed). Indeed, it is normally understood that the penitent should not speak to others of what he or she has said in confession. Unless there is forgiveness of others that needs to be sought, all is done.

There is much in Orthodox worship and life that seeks to teach humanity of the Secret Place of the Most High and of the secret place that lies within our own heart. The lack of such knowledge robs us of our ability to worship God, of our ability to fully understand our own Personhood, of our ability to love others rightly, and of our right mind. Only a crazy world would destroy the secret places. Without them, we become human beings who have no center. Violated by the presence of others where we should be alone, we become mad with the madness of Legion.

Many visit, as I have noted, in an Orthodox Church and are offended at its practice of secret things, of the hiddeness of God. Some draw back at doors and curtains, others draw back at the exclusivity of the altar. I am asked, “Why can only men be priests?” And I respond, “It is not ‘only men’ who can priests, but only a few men.” Some few are set aside to stand in that most Secret Place and offer the Holy Oblation. Democracy and equality stop at its doors because before God no one is justified, no one is worthy, no one may make a claim. We come only as we are bidden. And those who have been bidden to stand in that place at the altar and to hold in their hand the Most Holy Body of our Lord, God and Savior, do so with trembling if they do so rightly. For they stand in the Secret Place of the Most High God.

The most profound moment in all of the Liturgy (if I dare say such a thing) occurs as the curtains are opened along with the doors and the Deacon cries out: “In the fear of God and with faith and love draw near!” And the faithful come forward to receive the Body and Blood of God. That which is Most Holy, which lies in the Most Secret Place, is now brought forward as a gift to the believer who receives in joy, in faith, in repentance, and in a renewed knowledge of the God Who dwells in the Secret Place, and Who now enters into our most secret place.

Behold, I stand at the door, and knock: if any man hear my voice, and open the door, I will come in to him, and will sup with him, and he with me. (Rev. 3:20)

I will offer a short exhortation: if you keep a website or a blog, do not make it a place for your secrets or the secrets of others (as is too often done in both cases). There is no virtue in this, but only sin. Bring your secrets to God and stand next to His priest. There you will find love and respect, not judgment. And you will find a balm for your soul. This most public of all places (the internet) hates your secrets and would only use them to destroy you. Learn to be silent and speak to God in your heart. I offer this begging…if you have posted your secrets – remove them! Close the doors, draw the curtain and stand in secret before the Most High God!

11 Responses to “In the Secret Place”

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  1. For you have died and your life is now hidden with Christ in God. Col 3:3

  2. drewster2000 says:

    Fr. Stephen,

    Where DO you find all these great pictures? You come up with some great ones!

  3. Jane says:

    Thank you, Father. Two verses immediately came to mind when I read this: the lines and melody from the Ikos (following the Kontakion) at the Nativity Vigil: “We have found joy in a secret place. Come let us seize Paradise hidden in the cave!” and Psalm 25.13 which goes, “The friendship of the Lord is for those who fear him,” but which in my Scottish Book of Common Prayer has a lovely variant translation: “The secret of the Lord is among them that fear him.”

  4. Eric says:

    Thank you, Father.
    The equating of the secret place with the heart (please forgive me if I misunderstand) is so very helpful. That is where we stand before Him, yes?
    Also I love what you have written here about confession. The second baptism I had not heard of, but immediately I read it I sensed it was a truthful description.

    May he bless your going out and your coming in, from this day forward and for evermore

  5. davidp says:

    Fr, you have beautifully put…the secret place to describe the most intimate of places were we can be with God. It is secret because I cannot share it, I cannot find words to speak of it. I am in it because I was invited… And later on in the article…it is found within the heart.

    This where I found this peace and communion. Not in the organ itself, but in what this heart means..the center of one´s purpose and life in Christ. Blessings.

  6. mary benton says:

    Father Stephen,

    I found this article helpful but felt confused at the end with your advice regarding websites and blogs. In the this and the previous post, you wrote of secrets, some relating to shame and others relating to the sacred.

    I am a believer in healthy boundaries but I also believe that there are times when sharing one’s experiences (shameful or sacred) may be helpful to others. Certainly one must consider this carefully before a public sharing – to have a sense of the implications for self and others of so doing.

    As a blog-writer myself (of small audience), I would find it helpful it you could explain a bit more what you intended in your exhortation. Thanks.

  7. fatherstephen says:

    Mary,
    The second post is a reprint – whose advice stood by itself – but certainly might use more comment now. Thanks.

    Obviously, I would want to draw a distinction between appropriate and inappropriate sharing. What should remain intimate in our lives and what public? There was a time that such a question would hardly need to be asked. I consider the content of one’s sexual life (for instance) to be a secret that should not be shared – though it is by many. Much of the content of our spiritual lives would properly belong private (or certainly limited). For instance, the content of confession should normally not be a matter of subsequent discussion with others by a penitent – unless it is a matter of making restitution or amends, etc.. Of course the secrecy maintained by a confessor is absolute.

    There are things to be discussed with a spiritual father, appropriately, concerning spiritual experiences. Orthodoxy considers such things to be intimate and considers it to be a serious lack of sobriety to share them beyond a spiritual father. The common practice among some groups to tell great stories about their spiritual experiences would be an example of crossing such a boundary.

    There can be a great sense of intimacy created in conversation – particularly in the comments section of a blog. I have to remind myself that everything here (for example) is read by around 2-3000 people a day – and that I should not forget that things on the internet are “front page” for someone – and that publishing on the internet is a form of shouting from the rooftop.

    A temptation by us as writers – is the subtlety we have in our “need” to be heard. I care about what I write – but it isn’t clear to me how much part of my writing is my need for people to “read” me. It obviously has to be part of the equation. A spiritual discipline is to consider what it would mean if I never wrote again – and to make peace with it. To write simply “out of need” seems to me to somehow be driven in a perverse direction. It’s a troubling thought. A saving discipline that I practice is to write in obedience. As a priest, I serve a bishop. I only write with my bishop’s blessing. Without it, I will stop. It troubles me to say it – but that “troubling” tells me that it is for my health.

    For a Christian writer – I would suggest getting a blessing to write – even if it is only by some honest friends (if you have no priest). Christians need to live responsible to their community.

    Hope that helps.

  8. Rhonda says:

    Mary, thank you for your question as I had been wondering the same thing. Please send me the link to your blog if you are willing: d-r-dodson@sbcglobal.net

    Fr. Stephen, thank you for your answer as to the application of your exhortation at the end.

  9. mary benton says:

    Thank you, Father Stephen, this is very helpful. I will ponder your wise words.

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