The Hidden Life

There were two sides to the life of our Lord. To those who saw Him in His public ministry during the last three years of His life, it seemed one of constant and unceasing labour. He 'went about doing good.' (Acts 10:38) He was ever at the call of any who needed Him; He gave Himself no rest, so that He had not so much time as to eat bread. As we read the Gospels, we read of days crowded with work of the most trying kind, dealing constantly with all sorts of people, addressing crowds and then meeting the needs of individuals, and never apparently alone, the Apostles always with Him. His life was almost lived in public. Almost the whole Gospel is taken up with the events of about three years. To those who saw Him and heard Him, it was as if His life seemed to be without rest, a life of unsparing energy and toil.

But there was another side which they could not see - the hidden life. His public life was built upon and rested upon a life of thirty years of hiddenness and preparation. For every year in public there were ten years in private. In the solitude and retirement of Nazareth He grew up; there His human character formed and developed, far from the noise and excitement of the world; thirty years out of thirty-three He lived there, almost His whole life. What does three years count for in many a man's life? And He spent His whole life except three years at Nazareth.

And even after that long period of preparation, He retired into deeper solitude before His public ministry began. He spent forty days in the wilderness in absolute solitude, except for the presence of visitors from the world of spirits. And again and again we read of His withdrawing in the midst of His life of active work for prayer. 'In the morning, rising up a great while before day, He went out and departed into a solitary place, and there prayed.' (Mark 2:35)

Yes, there was the hidden life from which the public life gained all its power. All His actions were rooted in God; He never forgot Himself, never got carried away by the interest or excitement of the multitudes with whom He had to deal, never swerved from the purpose and Will of God.

The hidden life is hidden, we know almost nothing about it; if it were known, and could be described, it would not be hidden. Now and again, in the thick and pressure of His work, the veil is lifted for a moment, and we are allowed to see those nights of prayer; but men could feel and see the mysterious power in His words and acts and bearing that were the outward manifestations of that inner life, but that was all. His life - that out of which all this public life grew - was hidden.

It is the same with the Body of Christ - the Church. It has its public life; we read of it in history, we see it today. The Church, everywhere in all the world's busiest places, teaching, mingling with all the thought and interests of the day, struggling against opposition, dealing with sin and suffering and misery, never resting, pressing forward into new fields of conquest, beset with temporal needs which have to be met. How is it to live and grow in such scenes? How, amidst the strain and pressure that is upon it on all sides, is it to keep true to God? There are so many inducements to compromise and to advance by worldly methods; so little time to collect itself and to meet the requirements of a new age. What is to support it? What gives it that power so far beyond its number and the influence of its individual members? It, too, must have its hidden life upon which it rests, from which it draws its succours, by which it preserves its strength.

It is now, like our Lord, in its public life pressed and driven, and beset, like Him, by the needy multitude and by its many antagonists; but its life is not merely what is seen and heard: it has another life which cannot be seen nor measured, but upon which it depends for all its power, from which it draws all the secret of its strange influence. The Church, if it is to live, must have its hidden life of prayer and fasting and solitude.

The Church is one Body composed of many members. All men are bound to one another by the tie of a common nature, but Christians are bound by a twofold tie, the tie of a common nature and of membership in Christ: 'For by one Spirit are we all baptized into one Body.' (1 Corinthians 12:13) And it follows that the Church can live one part of her life through some of her members and another part through others, for so closely are all the members bound together in one Body that, as Saint Paul says, 'if one member suffer, all the members suffer with it; or one member be honoured, all the members rejoice with it.' (1 Corinthians 12:26)

Therefore, as the different members of the body have their different functions and work for the edification of the body, so in the Body of Christ all have not the same office; there is a division of labour amongst the members, but it is for the life of the Body. Thus the Church goes forth into the world through some; through others she keeps up that hidden life which is her strength. The work of some is seen and heard and attracts notice; it is done, as our Lord's works in His ministry were done, before the world. The work of others is not seen, it is only felt.

Just as in the natural body we can see a man working and hear him speak, but we cannot see the processes by which the body is nourished and life preserved, for all the work of preserving and strengthening the life is unseen. So in the Body of Christ, the development of its inner strength, the preservation and growth of its life, is hidden. Behind all the movements of its activity is the hidden life from which it draws its power. 'Are all apostles, are all prophets, are all teachers; do all speak with tongues?' (1 Corinthians 12:29) There are all over the world, many, of whom men know little or nothing, who are the fountains of the Church's strength. How strange they are, those lives of constant suffering: men and women who seem cast aside and useless, tied down to sick-beds, it may be with bodies paralyzed or enfeebled so that they cannot work; some strong man stricken down in his prime and doomed to years of lingering illness and wasting strength. What use can such lives be except to try the patience of those who have to tend them? But no; they little know themselves that it is upon such lives as theirs that the Church depends for power to bear up against the world and to prosecute her missionary labours. If on one side there is a great putting forth of strength, there must be on the other a proportionate building up and nourishment, or the life will be soon exhausted.

So in one way or another God will surely call people to the life of retirement and prayer or suffering in proportion as the demands upon the Church become more exacting. The call may take many forms, and perhaps different forms in different ages, but such calls are surely given. Sometimes it may be in a most unobtrusive way. A person is kept back time after time from the opportunity of doing active work. How often has a young woman in her own home looked forward to devoting herself to some work, perhaps she has had it in her mind for years, and believed God was calling her to it; but every time, just as the opportunity seemed to come, the door was closed in her face: some clear call of duty, sickness, the care of those who depended upon her, one thing or another always stopped the way and threw her back. It seemed to her a puzzle that God should appear to call and not give the power to correspond; but it may be, though she felt the call, she mistook its meaning, and God was leading her on unconsciously to fulfill it. She was thrown back upon prayer; her longing to help others needed some vent, and she found it in intercession; then she passed on from intercessory prayers to intercessory acts, till her life was one of constant sacrifice for those whom she was apparently held back from helping. Her vocation was to the hidden life; no one ever noticed it, least of all herself. For 'her life was hidden with Christ in God.' (Colossians 3:3)

Or it may be a priest, full of zeal for souls, and with great missionary gifts, struck down a few years after his ordination, and, as people said, a most promising and useful life put an end to. And yet, as years went by, those who knew him best saw another life grow and spring up amidst the ruins of the old one; as one sees the bud form under the dead leaf of autumn; none of the zeal had been lost, none of the love for souls, none of the sacerdotal spirit, but it had been purified and redirected into the offering of a better sacrifice than service, the sacrifice of himself. He had grasped more and more the mystery of vicarious suffering, and his life went up in one unending sacrifice and oblation for those whom in act he was prevented from helping.

Or again, that multitude of lives in no way marked, which as time goes on get mellowed and softened by age, and perhaps by the ordinary disappointments of life, from whom most of the world's attractions has long since passed, and in their place has come a growing love to God and a desire to do something for others before they die to atone for a selfish, aimless life. From how many such there goes up before God a constant stream of prayer and acts, many of them enforced acts of self-denial, and often intense inward suffering borne with fortitude and in silence; the world has gone from them and heaven has not come, the remnants of old worldly ways still cling to them which they hate, causing them bitter humiliations, their place in very truth knows them no more, and still with all there is a pathetic effort to lay hold on God with minds dulled and heavy, and to keep up their interest in the world by praying for it. Surely such lives have power, and such prayers, joyless strugglings after an unseen God, are not rejected; and truly such lives are hidden, for few are sufficiently interested in them to remark them.

But, above all, the hidden life of the Church is to be found in the cloister, amongst those whose vocation is primarily - in many cases only- to a life of prayer. Behind all the active life of the Church stand those great religious orders devoted to prayer and penitence, witnessing to the world that Christianity is not merely a philanthropic society, but that it is devotion to a Person. These men and women devote themselves not to active work for their brethren - in many cases they shut themselves out from the possibility of any such work - but believing that the closer they are to God the more real help they can bring to the world, they give up everything else that they may draw ever closer to Him. As they approach Him, and their lives are more united to Him, their sympathies become enlarged, for their hearts are close to the Heart of the world's Redeemer. All interests but His die out, but all that is dear to Him becomes the absorbing passion of their souls. They are able to enter as few others into His sympathies, to long with His longing for the salvation of souls, to enter with opening vision into the mystery of the atonement and redemption till they yearn to partake in some measure of His sufferings, to suffer with Him for others' sins. They realise something of the reality of the unity of the Body of Christ and of the power of vicarious suffering. Who can tell of the power that from age to age has gone forth from these unknown lives? men and women literally buried out of the world's sight and knowledge, who, while the world has gone on its way and enjoyed itself, and often sneered at the selfish lives of those who fled from it to save their own souls, little knew that they were the world's saviours, whose lives are a living sacrifice for their brethren.

Yes, the Church has her hidden life, the secret of her power, the unseen fountains of her strength. If the Church's life were only what men gauged it by and applauded it for - what they could see and measure by results gained and assured - if that were all, that must soon exhaust itself and fail. But there is another side, its true strength, which many count as waste of strength, 'All that the world's coarse thumb and finger cannot plumb' the life hidden with Christ in God.

And as with our Lord and His Body, so with the individual soul. Everyone has the outer life and the inner life, the life which is lived before the world and the life which none can see but God. To some the outer life is the main thing; they think little of the hidden life, they would gladly not think of it at all. To others the hidden life is the first, the chief consideration of all; it is that for which they live, it is from its springs that they draw their strength, it is for its sake that the most real sacrifices are made. Yet the most hopelessly superficial person has his hidden life - that inner life of compromises with conscience, of breaking down barriers that God has set up between the soul and sin; of secrets that it has with itself, which none shall ever know of, things done which it will not allow even itself to face and to acknowledge; of memories driven off into dark corners of the soul which come out at night like ghosts and haunt it; of a deepening sense of dissatisfaction and of unfulfilled possibilities - of a noble ideal of life that once was possible, but now only returns to waken remorse and bitterness. And then there is the growing feeling which always comes to such people sooner or later, that matters are passing out of their own hands, that currents are setting in one direction so fast that they cannot be controlled, that life has taken things into its own hands since the will has not taken the trouble to control them, and that all real liberty is gone. Yes, the most superficial, the most utterly frivolous person, who seems to have no higher thought than the enjoyment of the moment's pleasure, has a hidden life, and I do not think it would be true to call it shallow; it has, indeed, an infinite depth, it is the beginning of the thirst that shall never be quenched.

Such is possibly the inner state of many who do not cultivate the hidden life. For it needs to be cultivated. The tendency of most natures is to begin by turning outwards. The life of the infant begins with the senses, the claims of duty constantly call us out, the pressure of the outer life is enormous. A firm exercise of the will is needed to call the soul back into itself, that it may dwell within rather than without. It has but to let itself go, to take no trouble with itself, to practise no self-discipline, and it will drift further and further into the life of the senses, and get ever more entangled in external things.

But the true hidden life is not a mere holding back of the powers of the soul. No life is mere repression. It is possible to have one's life turned inward to its own destruction. There is the danger of self-absorption and self-contemplation which has to be constantly-guarded against, for a soul whose inner life is merely or mostly self-contemplation, is in a far worse state than one which lives a wholly external life. The hidden life is not to be a life of self-analysis and self-torturing, but the very reverse - a life that is deeply interior, yet with an entire self-forgetfulness.

What, then, is the source and meaning of the hidden life of the Christian? It is based upon those words of Saint Paul, 'I live, yet not I, but Christ liveth in me;' (Galatians 2:20) 'Christ in you, the hope of glory.' (Colossians 1:27) It is rooted in the soul's union with Christ. It grows out of the fact that in baptism we are 'made members of his Body,' (Ephesians 5:30) that 'all our fresh-springs henceforth are to be in Him. (Psalm 87:7) The soul which is striving to develop the hidden life turns inward, not in self-contemplation but to contemplate and to develop its union with Christ. It bears about this sacred Presence with it wherever it goes; it becomes increasingly conscious of a power within that is not its own, yet that is wholly at its disposal. It feels a growing strength, not the strength of its own natural gifts, but quite apart from all that it has naturally; it understands the meaning of Saint Paul's paradox, 'When I am weak, then am I strong'; (2 Corinthians 12:10) it perceives its own weakness only too clearly, but it finds a power not its own which flows into it as it throws itself more and more upon the indwelling Presence of Christ.

This Presence then, within each baptized Christian, is the source of its hidden life; upon this it is built; the practise of the hidden life depends upon the development of all that results from it, the using of the powers that flow from it. For though we have, every one of us, this great gift, its action depends upon our faith and upon our will. To many it is but a treasure hidden in the field; they weary themselves in the ploughing and harrowing and sowing upon the surface of their nature, while the true source of their riches lies buried deep down within them.

If we would avoid the danger on the one hand of living wholly external lives and wasting our strength, and on the other hand of becoming self-centred or morbidly introspective, we must strive to live the hidden life, to find the roots of our life running down into His, from whom comes our strength. All that helps towards this will be in the end a blessing. Temptations that we have fought and failed to overcome for years may at last drive us to the one true source of power, drive us into ourselves to seek the power hidden there. Prayers that never seem to bring us nearer to God may at last lead us, if I may use such an expression, not so much to pray ourselves as to be silent and listen to Christ praying within us. The hopelessness that comes from the memory of past sins and wasted years, and gifts undeveloped, may drive us, not to look to a Mediator upon the throne of God merely, but to the realisation that we need more, more than One standing at God's right hand to intercede for us, even the Presence of that Mediatorial life within ourselves, our own living membership in Him who is the Mediator. Yes, and if God is merciful to us, we shall feel the spring and movements of that new life amidst the decay and death of the old, rising up like a fountain and fertilising the barren soil, and making the wilderness to blossom as the rose; out of the despair of nature will spring the dawn of the hope of grace, out of weakness strength.

This is the secret of the saints, this was the source of their power, this it was that puzzled men as they watched them: they could not see the source of that strength by which they were enabled to overcome the world, their power was so far in excess of their natural gifts; no, for 'their life was hidden with Christ in God.'

- text taken from Some Principles and Practices of the Spiritual Life, by Father Basil William Maturin