Thoughts on the Hidden Life, by Father Matthew Russell

"How is it that you sought Me? Did you not know that I must be about My Father's business?" These questions recall to our minds a very remarkable and instructive passage in the life of our Divine Redeemer. That portion of the second chapter of Saint John's Gospel tells us how our Lord and Saviour, Jesus Christ, when he was about twelve years of age, parted for three days from his Blessed Mother and Saint Joseph, for this reason, amongst others, that He might show us that even the holiest human ties must yield to the higher, the supreme claims of God. Nothing whatever must stand in the way of God's will; nothing must hinder us from being about the business of our Heavenly Father. "Why is it that you sought Me? Did you not know that I must be about My Father's business?"

As a fact, these are the first recorded words of the Incarnate Word of God. He had spoken many words before this, and of course first of all to Her to whom also these words are addressed. The Babe of Bethlehem conformed Himself to all the pathetic feebleness of infancy. He made Himself like to us in everything except sin; and He was like to us in the gradual external development of His faculties, and, among the rest, of this most wondrous faculty of human speech. One might dwell in devout imagination on the earliest articulate syllables that may have been formed by the lips of the Child Jesus His first words spoken no doubt to His Blessed Mother, like the first words of an ordinary Hebrew child or child of any other race. But all this is hidden from us. None of His words are preserved in the Sacred Scriptures till this conversation in the Temple; and it is with His Immaculate Mother that it is held. "Why is it that you sought Me? Did you not know that I must be about My Father's business?"

Simple words, yet strong with a Divine strength which has wrought many a prodigy since that day in the Temple when they first fell from the lips of our youthful Redeemer; words which ought to be often on our lips, and the spirit of them always in our hearts. In many a trial and temptation, in many an emergency small or great, these plain questions would overcome every difficulty and settle every perplexity. To evil thoughts, or to thoughts which, though not in themselves wrong, come to us at the wrong time, we may address the rebuke: "Why do you seek Me? Do you not know that I must be about My Father's business?" If bad companions whom we have given up, if dangerous occasions which we are trying to avoid, if amusement, wicked or foolish, which we have denied ourselves if these or any other sources of temptation pursue us and find us out and complain of us for having deserted them, we are to repel them with the same Divine words: "Why do you seek Me? Do you not know that I must be about My Father's business?"

But, above all, this incident in the life of our Life is the typical tribute and homage to the supremacy of the Divine claims over all bonds of human affection, however pure and sacred. Never were human ties so sacred as those which bound, and which bind, our Lord Jesus Christ to His Blessed Mother; yet here He teaches us that all human ties, no matter how sacred, must give way to the one supreme obligation which binds the creature to the Creator, whose will alone is the sovereign, paramount, ultimate, and absolute end and aim of our being, of all that we do and say and suffer, and feel and think and are.

In particular, this question of our Lord, which we have already repeated so often, places the independent, absolute, and supreme rights of God sharply in contrast with the dependent, conditional, and subordinate rights which God has given to some of His creatures over certain of their fellow-creatures with whom He has linked their lots in various ways. In our Lord's example here, the best reproof is administered to that idolatry of the domestic affections which pervades alike the world's most innocent romances and its grave treatises of morality. These all imply too often that the duties of creatures are limited to creatures, and that the end of man is nothing higher than man. Christ's answer to His Immaculate Mother is the best answer to the charges of heartlessness and cruelty brought against the Catholic doctrine of vocation the heretical outcry against the whole system of religious life.

"Ah! your Saints have cruel hearts."

No, but it is your sinners that have the cruel hearts. The selfish worldling, the libertine, the sensualist, the gambler, the idle spendthrift, the drunkard these have cruel hearts, starving often their little ones, sacrificing everything to self, breaking the hearts that have sacrificed everything for their sake. Nay, many who think themselves fond and devoted parents, render themselves liable to the reproach of selfishness and want of true feeling; while they who love not only well but wisely, who do not ignore the claims of God, but love those whom they love in God and for God, loving God above them all these have the tenderest and truest and most loving of hearts, because their hearts are most like to the Heart of Jesus.

It is hard when a good father and mother look round, and, like Joseph and Mary, find the child of their love no longer in their company. Her place at home is vacant; they have lost her. But let them, like the parents of Jesus, seek her in the Temple. She has found Him whom her soul loves; Jesus has drawn her into His sanctuary, away from a world that was not worthy of her. And when a tender mother rebukes her meekly, "My child, why hast thou done so to us?" she may indeed dwell on the security, the usefulness, the peacefulness, the quiet happiness, even as the days pass by, of the holy calling for which God in His goodness has given her sufficient aptitude and a strong inclination; and she may even contrast all this with the uncertainties, the sad possibilities, of other conditions which the world without a murmur would have allowed her to accept; but to the upbraidings and remonstrances of nature in her own heart, and in the hearts that she now loves better than ever, the answer of grace will still be the same question, the sternness of which the brave young novice may soften by a loving smile and an upward glance to Heaven: "Why did you seek Me? Did you not know that I must be about My Father's business?"

But let us go back to the actual scene in which these words were spoken first, and let us think a little more of the bearing of this question upon the conduct of our Lord Himself. The Evangelist tells us in the next sentence that, immediately after saying these words, Jesus went down to Nazareth with Mary and Joseph, and buried Himself again still deeper in the Hidden Life from which He had for a day emerged hid Himself, not merely for another twelve years, but for almost the entire term of His short mortal life on earth.

What! Has He not this moment told us that He must be about His Father's business? Yes; and this is His Father's business. The work which the Eternal Father had given Him to do was the salvation and sanctification of the lost and sinful human race; and among the most potent means are the lessons taught by the Hidden Life. These are practical lessons which regard us all, for they help to make us understand the greatness and holiness of such daily homely duties as form the staple of our lives. Saint Paul tells us that every true Christian life is, as Saint Joseph's was in a more touchingly literal sense, "hidden with Christ in God."

It was for this reason that our Lord spent so long a time in teaching those lessons. If we were not acquainted with the chief details of our Lord's life, but only knew in general that He was to live on earth for but thirty-three years in all; and if we knew, besides, that this work was to convert the world through the ministry principally of poor fishermen who were to be slowly and painfully trained into apostles if, with these facts only before us, we were asked to divide the years of our Lord's earthly pilgrimage between His private and His public life, we should be sure to assign to the latter all the years of his manhood. Yet His youth passed, and His maturity came, and still Jesus lingered on in the obscurity of Nazareth for eighteen years after He had asked the question: "Did you not know that I must be about My Father's business?" And all the years of His life before He put that question to Mary belonged likewise to His Hidden Life, nay, much also of what we call His Public Life, after He had in reality, not as at His first parting, parted at last from His Blessed Mother. Three hours were enough for His Agony upon the Cross, three days for all the mysteries of the Passion; three years, only three years, for the whole work of His Public Life but ten times three years were given to teach us the lessons of the Hidden Life.

What are those lessons? The first lesson may be drawn from the very name by which we describe this portion of our Lord's career, calling it, as we have done so often already, His Hidden Life a life hidden from the world, a life of lowliness and obscurity. Our Lord's example points to such a life as holy and blessed.

One part of God's creation often bears curious analogies to the other parts higher or lower; and one of these analogies is this that of everything that is great much must be hidden. The spire that soars high into the air must rest on a strong foundation that sinks deep down beneath the surface of the earth. The ship with its huge tapering masts how much of her is concealed under the sea over whose surface she seems to glide with such easy stateliness. And, as in material things, so also in things in which the spiritual nature comes into play. The man who would excel in any department of art and science what a tedious apprenticeship of patient drudgery must first train his mind or his hand or his voice to the skill which seems in the end mere instinct or inspiration! The master of eloquent words has toiled long and painfully to acquire the perfect music that in the end flows almost spontaneously from his lips or his pen.

Nor is it in the beginnings only, or in the training and preparation. In every calling in life, in every position even the most eminent, and often in those highest places most of all, the soul has need of the strengthening, soothing, and purifying influences of the Hidden Life. Even worldly wisdom itself scorns and ridicules the weak natures who are fond of strutting before the gaze of the world, and who live on the breath of their poor fellow-creatures; and a pagan, a very pagan writer, Sallust, sums up his praise of Cato by saying that he chose to be good rather than seem to be good, and that the more he fled from glory the more glory followed him. One of the wisest of men, or at least one who has said the wisest things, makes one of his characters say

"I love the people,
But do not like to stage me to their eyes.
Though it do well, I do not relish well
Their loud applause and aves vehement,
Nor do I hold the man of safe discretion
That doth affect it." - Measure for Measure

And a famous statesman who flourished a little later than Shakespeare, Lord Clarendon, put over the door of his room in his place of concealment and exile in Jersey, in which, instead of fretting idly over his change of fortune, he employed his enforced leisure in writing the History of his Own Time, which has done most for his fame - "he has lived well who has lain well concealed."

If this be the case, then, with regard to human and natural things, how much more in things super natural and Divine. Ama nesciri is the almost inspired counsel. Believing in God and in our relations to God for time and eternity, the wonder is that we have any difficulty in sinking down into the hidden life of faith, in realising practically with Saint Francis of Assisi, that "what we are in the sight of God, that we are and nothing more."

Ay, nothing more, and indeed nothing less also, for this last point is almost as important as the other namely, our duty of recognising not only our worthlessness but our worth, not only our degradation but our dignity. For God loves us. Dilexit me. The wonder, as I said, is that we are allowed to think of any other motive except this, to look to any eye but God's. Yet it is of the Hidden Life itself that the words are written: "And Jesus increased in wisdom and age and grace with God and men."

But He was God, and in Him, even as man, the fullness of wisdom abode: how could He increase in wisdom? He increased, as the sun increases in brightness from dawn to noon the same sun, the same light-giving substance, yet so different in the effects of light and heat that it produces. The Incarnate God, "the hidden God, the Saviour" (Isaiah 45:15) manifested more and more of His Divine attributes as He advanced through the years of His Hidden Life.

Like Him, we too must increase in wisdom and grace, as in age. In age ah yes, certainly, whether we will or not; and so, too, must we advance in wisdom and grace, and this not only before God but before men. Not before men only, for God forbid we should be hypocrites, our grace and wisdom must be true and real "before God who reads the heart, that God who seeth in secret may repay us." Nor yet before God only, for God Himself, who forbids us to let our left hand know what our right hand does, orders us, nevertheless, to let our light shine before men.

A great deal might be said about the proper manner of reconciling precepts like these which seem to clash with one another, but which of course harmonise perfectly. But we must hasten to an end, and there are two other characteristics of the Hidden Life besides its hiddenness, on which our minds must rest a little while before coming to an end.

Thus, in the second place, the Hidden Life of Jesus was a life of poverty and labour. In the eighty-eighth Psalm, which refers prophetically to Christ, He is made to say, "I am poor and in labours from My youth." Laborious poverty was His lot during His Hidden Life, which stretched far beyond His youth into His manhood; and when He emerged from the Hidden Life, poverty and labour were with Him still. He had chosen poverty from the first, and He was consistent to the last.

But the poverty which God loves, the poverty of the first beatitude, the poverty of the Hidden Life, was not the poverty of sloth or idleness, but the poverty of hard and constant toil. Some may, without any fault of their own, be reduced to such a state of untoiling poverty as is sometimes branded as pauper ism, and we must not judge harshly even of those who make mendicancy a trade; yet it is true that God's blessing falls on poverty, not pauperism: it does not fall on the poverty of drunkenness, and not so much on the poverty of beggary or of the poorhouse, as on the decent, high-spirited poverty of honest hard work.

How poor must Jesus and Mary and Joseph have been, and how hard they must have worked in the Holy House of Nazareth! Before that, what privations the Holy Family must have endured during the exile in Egypt, depending for support on such work and such payment as Saint Joseph received from strangers, the enemies of his race! And after their return they must still have fared very poorly, even while our Blessed Lord helped Saint Joseph at his trade. That He did thus help him that He was thus "poor and in labours from His youth" we are not left to learn from tradition or from mere pious conjecture; for in Saint Matthew's Gospel we read that, after our Lord had begun His public life, the Jews said to one another in surprise, "Is not this the carpenter's Son?" and in Saint Mark they ask more plainly still, "Is not this the Carpenter, the Son of Mary?" We may imagine how rudely His employers often spoke in giving Him their orders for work; we may imagine what privations their scanty and perhaps ill-paid wages left to be endured in Mary's household; and in that modest household itself, besides the toils of the workshop, we may imagine all the humble services which the Son rendered to the Mother day by day.

When the devout mind sets itself to realise in devout contemplation what may have been and what must have been the actual everyday details of our Lord's Hidden Life, it is justified in drawing many necessary conclusions as to His outward demeanour and His internal feelings towards His Heavenly Father, and towards the two who shared with him the Holy Home of Nazareth. There is one feature, how ever, of the Redeemer's conduct during those secret years which the Holy Ghost will not allow us to overlook, inspiring the evangelists to condense the history of by far the largest part of Our Lord's life into the one brief phrase, Erat subditus illis: "He was subject to them." He, the Incarnate God of Wisdom and Power and Majesty, was subject to two of His creatures, the highest and purest indeed of all His creatures, yet still His mere creatures, infinitely beneath Him in dignity and power. Yet because Joseph was the shadow of the Eternal Father, He obeyed him; and the Blessed Virgin Mary He obeyed as His own true and beloved Mother. What a useful lesson for us in all positions and degrees a lesson more necessary perhaps than ever nowadays, when obedience and subordination and the gradations of society seem to be growing more and more irksome to men, and to need still more for their support supernatural motives and a Divine sanction.

Let us, then, study patiently and diligently in the school of Nazareth. Let us try to learn some of this humility and lowliness, this love of poverty and labour, as far as our state of life calls for them or allows them, this spirit of prayer, this obedience and charity, and all the other virtues of the Hidden Life. Jesus, "our hidden God, our Saviour," not only died for us; He lived for us, and each incident of His life has its own lesson for us. Nothing happens by accident in any life, and least of all in this "life of our Life." The External Wisdom "ordered all things in it sweetly from end to end," from the crib to the cross nay, earlier and later than crib and cross, from the womb of the Immaculate Virgin to the tomb hewn out of the virgin rock.

Our Divine Redeemer had special wise ends in view in coming amongst us precisely as He came. In fulfilling His eternal promise, "Behold, I come," He might have come in ways that would have dispensed with the Hidden Life. He might have come in full maturity, in all the power and majesty of perfect manhood transfigured by His Divinity. He might have come as visible King of His own creation. He might have come as a glorious and bloodless Conqueror, some wondrous leader of men, more eloquent than His poor creature Cicero, more intellectual than His poor creature Aristotle, more masterful than His far poorer creature Napoleon. He might have come in the manifest plenitude of all the mental and corporal gifts that are parcelled out amongst the most gifted of the human race. Thus, and in many other conceivable ways, He might have come; but He did not come thus. Ah! if knowing only the fact and the objects of His coming, we had set ourselves to conjecture the circumstances that might accompany it, never should we have been able to guess the manner in which He actually came. He came as the unborn and the newborn Child of Mary, girded round with all those pathetic circumstances of poverty and feebleness on which pious contemplation loves to ponder tenderly with adoring awe; and then He spent thirty years in the lowliness and seeming inaction of the Hidden Life.

"Verily," to repeat for the last time the prophetic exclamation of Isaiah "verily thou art a hidden God, a Saviour." Thou hast hidden Thyself, O Lord, under many disguises in order to be our Saviour; and we must recognise Thee under all Thy disguises, and we must imitate Thy Hidden Life if we would be saved. If we would share in "the revelation of Christ's glory," those other words of Saint Paul to the Colossians must be verified in us also: "You are dead, and your life is hidden with Christ in God "even as Christ's own life, during the years which have here been brought before our minds, was hidden in God with Saint Joseph and the Blessed Virgin Mary.