In the Secret Place of the Most High God

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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 18 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 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 by 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. But our culture, the world where the most secret things in our lives are shouted from the rooftops, tells us to profane our secrets and to shout them to the world. 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 thing within each of us. Thus we learn to approach the Secret Place with great reverence, even in silence and awe. Many modern Americans visit in 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 one 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 realize 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 occurs as the curtains are opened along with the doors and the Deacon cries out: “In the fear of God and with faith 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.

I live in a city that is nicknamed “the Secret City,” but I long for the true, Secret City, that is known only to God and to those to whom He reveals it. Interestingly, one of my parishioners is a native of Nagasaki, Japan. My joy is that in Christ she and I can meet in Christ’s Secret City and know that in that place, all are safe for God will not violate nor harm any. Even He, the Most High God, will enter our own secret place only at our invitation. Such is His humility and love. Such is His respect for our Personhood, a reflection of His own Personhood: Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

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 (as is too often done). 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!

40 Responses to “In the Secret Place of the Most High God”

  1. dpc+ Says:

    As many Western Christians prepare for the Incarnation and the Coming of Christ, this is a very helpful meditation on Truth. Only as the Truth is made known are we set free. And so I must repent of those “secret” things which are my undoing when left in darkness. I must bring everything to the Light. Thank you, Father, for this great reminder.

  2. T Says:

    Wow. There is so much good stuff in this post. If I were to respond to every point I liked, my post would be very, very long. So, I’ll leave it at that.

    I also enjoyed the “short exhortation” at the end. So so true. So very very true. The internet is truly a desecration to our secrets.

  3. dpc+ Says:

    Forgive me. Western Christians are preparing for ‘Advent.’ Of course, all Christians are preparing for the Incarnation and the Coming of Christ…

  4. fatherstephen Says:

    I appreciate comments and links to this post. I will likely leave it as the primary post through Tuesday. Sometimes a post needs to remain stable long enough to be read – and I would like this to be read widely.

  5. Meg Says:

    Eastern Christians have been in the season of “Advent” for two weeks already… 😉

    I especially appreciated this post because of a flap several years ago on the Orthodox Psalm list about the “secret prayers” of the priest. These are often read aloud now, and while they are very beautiful, I always feel as if I’m overhearing a very private conversation between the priest and his God. When I made note that the secret prayers should remain secret — WOW, did I touch a nerve!! But your post expresses exactly what I was trying to get at.

  6. Margaret Says:

    Fr. Stephen, this is so beautiful and so necessary an encouragement, thank you for posting! God has shown me so much, healed me so much through private prayer and confession with His Priest. Sometimes I have gone to confession thinking that God knows everything about me, what could it possibly matter to confess to His Priest, but hen after I do so, My Lord enlightens my heart to His Presence even more. God be praised! The same has also happened through prayer and meditation, of which I do not do enough. When My Lord instructs, loves and heals me, there is No Other and I believe I am a little closer to being where and whom I was made to be.

    Concerning telling secrets and sharing very private, personal affairs I believe that it is often controlling. Once something is said or written to another human being, it is defined/outlined in a particular way. It is removed from the essence of being solely with God. This may be allowed with a Priest of the Church as blessed by God, beyond that, well, I keep thinking the devil used words to tempt Eve, so expression should always be suspect.

  7. Anon Logger Says:

    I’ve never before heard this idea of a huamn being’s spiritual secret place which ought to be reserved for God. No wonder Christians value chastity if it’s the extomorphion of such an important spiritual discipline.

    The harlot analogy is apt. What does a morally compromised woman do when she sees that she is despised? She sells herself ever more cheaply trying to gain the love she lacks. I wonder how many harlots and secret-tellers alike appear from among the Unloved, the Self-Haters, and the Guilty.

    Thank you for this warning.

  8. Alice C. Linsley Says:

    Rich food for thought here, Father. This living in our secret place runs against the blithering, murmuring, and gossiping that surrounds us and invades our homes on the television. On the other hand, keeping quiet sometimes seems to draw attention. Especially when people expect you to say something.

    I agree with your exhortation at the end. If there is a reason to share more personal matters, do so face to face or by email, but never on a blog.

  9. Fatherstephen Says:

    There are deep issues of integrity (which literally means “wholeness,” that are tied up in the health of our secret place. It is not for nothing that torture frequently seeks to break such a place down – for it demeans us. Tragically, we are being taught to share what should not be shared where it should not be shared and given some idea that this is a virtue. In no way, by encouraging proper regard for the secret place do I mean to encourage dishonesty or anything like that, but recognizing that everything about me is not public nor the business of anyone other than God and my spiritual father.

    Meg,

    No doubt there are opinions out there about minor liturgical matters such as what the priest does with the “secret prayers.” They are said silently in my parish, with the exception of the Anaphora (the Prayer of Consecration) which my Archbishop prefers to have said aloud. In our missionary context it is the richest theological expression in the Liturgy and probably needs to be heard. But I personally also like a modicum of “secrecy” or “silent prayers” in the service, just as I like a full iconostasis and doors and curtain. I am aware of all the liturgical discussion and things – and do not wish to discuss them on the blog (I do not find such discussions to be helpful or interesting). My joy is to serve liturgy in the manner which my Bishop prefers. It sets me free.

    But some of the prayers are literally between the celebrant and God and are not written for others to hear – those particularly I like to say quietly. But I’ve probably said too much already. Sorry if you found a nerve when you wrote about it. Peace to all who read my comments on the subject.

  10. fatherstephen Says:

    Anon Logger,

    I have used this imagery in teaching young people about chastity. It seems to be an image they understand so that it doesn’t just sound like an adult trying to keep them from having fun. It is indeed the very heart of chastity, and we do chastity a disservice when we teach it in a legal manner. This, if you will, goes far more to the heart of the matter. If that’s a pun, forgive me.

  11. beinganddoing Says:

    Fr. Bless.

    Nine year ago at this moment I was watching my young wife die of lung cancer. Our children were 2 and 4 years old. She was diagnosed on November 22 with a mass on her lung, and within six and a half weeks she died. In those days of pain, confusion, and despair; this psalm of “dwelling in the secrete place of the most high” became a precious comfort to me. The situation was so totally out of my control and there was nothing I could do, but go to our Lord.

    There were times when I thought I must be losing my mind as I felt a deep sense of God’s presence and a peace that was unmerited. How could I feel peace like that in the midst of such pain? For months I read this Psalm daily and wondered at the depth of its truth. None of this made the pain go away, and life was not easy. But I realized God was present.

    Father your “homily” reminded me once again of the beauty and depth of this psalm. Thanks for sharing it with us.

    Peace,

    Leon

  12. handmaidmaryleah Says:

    Speaking of prayer – when praying for others, I have noticed and recently been told, that in Holy Orthodoxy – we do not really identify a person’s circumstances of need with a person’s name when praying for them.
    These are, in essence, kept private and the name is listed but not what they need. The exceptions are only the reposed and the pregnant, which everyone knows about because they are obvious.
    At the Divine Liturgy the names are listed and the litanies cover the needs…
    It is enough to say “pray for me..”
    Protecting each other from an occasion for sin.

  13. Alice C. Linsley Says:

    Make no apologies, Father. You are speaking truth. Thank you.

  14. Petra Says:

    Father, your post is very timely for me. I attend a ROCOR parish with a full iconostasis, and today I attended the chrismation of some friends at a Western Rite parish (Glory to God!). This parish has no barrier besides the low railing. Even so, when the priest was preparing the Eucharist, two men on either side held up his cloak (pls forgive my ignorance w/ terminology) to hide the altar. I was somewhat surprised and, actually quite relieved to see them do this.

    The way you’ve explained the importance and beauty of having a Secret Place has helped me tremendously, especially as it gives me a way of talking about it with my non-Orthodox friends and family. I often *feel* the importance and necessity of things, but I have trouble rationally explaining it.

  15. nancy Says:

    IIt seems to me that one of the ways, especially for converts, to truly understand the “secret places” of the heart is to read and conttemplate books written by (or about) monks, (Optina Elders, contemporary writings by monks from the Holy Mountain) who truly lead a life of prayer. One can witness their struggles in their writings and in their faces when one meets a monk, tested in fire– even in their photographs which reveal those secret struggles involving a lifetime of prayer.

    Americans in this 21st century who are seeking to live in the Orthodox manner are impatient. They expect to have “visions,” (delusion or prelest), they want instant results, they want to converse with the world about their new found “faith.” As a convert, I understand this impatience and desire to live the holy life, and I plead guilty. But insights from holy people who live the “secret life” of prayer and humility and do not have access to blogs reveal to me that there is no easy way to live this kind of life, except through silence, prayer and the gradual acquisition of humility which truly takes a lifetime.

    God forgive me, a sinner.

  16. fatherstephen Says:

    David,

    I took the liberty of removing your comment and my response and adding a small edit to the post that covered what you encountered in your experience. It seemed cleaner for those who will read today. Thanks for your patience and forgive me,

  17. Anon Logger Says:

    Fr. Stephen, not at all. Again, thank you.

  18. Handmaid Anna Says:

    Nancy,
    Well said. As a recent convert I have embarrassed myself and others many times over with my impatience to share with the world about new found “secret places”. I love Fredricka Matthewes-Green’s recent comment on this very topic and she said that if she could find a cure for this in converts that she would let us know!
    Always in His mercy,
    Anna

  19. Irving Says:

    A really beautiful post, filled with reverence and humility. Thank you so much for posting it 🙂

    Peace and Many Blessings!

  20. Michael Bauman Says:

    One of the really pernicious aspects of “sharing secrets” is that even if a spiritual experience is real, the power of it is dispated within our souls if shared inappropriately.

    I came to the Church from a cult-like group in which “spiritual experience” was a proof of “spiritual attainment”–99% of which was bogus, even delusion. Nevertheless, I found it stange at first that in the Church when the priest simply refused to talk about their experiences in the altar. Their experiences are not imporatant to me, only Jesus Christ is.

    As far as the tendency to babble that many seem to have (including me), I have found obedience to the parish priest is a good place to start. If something really is important for others, he will be able to discern that better than I can.

  21. nancy Says:

    Dear Handmaiden Anna,

    Thank you for your comments. I think all converts are so happy to finally find a home in Orthodoxy that they want to shout it to the world. But then reality sets in as they struggle to live an Orthodox life. That is one reason why increasingly, I (a bookish person) have turned to the lives of saints and the testimony of monks who can teach us humility. It seems to me that what converts ultimately discover is that it IS a struggle, a never ending struggle, and lives of holy people teach us all that they, more than anyone else I can think of, always consider themselves to be the worst of sinners. They struggle each day, fall short and get up the next day to continue that struggle. If anyone who becomes Orthodox thinks it’s an easy path, they are deluded. It’s the most difficult, but ultimately the most rewarding, of all paths, but it is never easy.

    It seems to me that the value and power of this blog is to help us all see our true failings and to constantly examine our motives in participating in this dialogue. I have found Fr. Stephen’s comments to be most helpful in this self-examination.

  22. fatherstephen Says:

    Nancy,

    Thank you for your forthright statements and for your kind thoughts about this blog. I want to present the truth of the Orthodox Faith, which I believe to nothing other than the Truth of Christ. But, as you note, the way of Christ is straight and narrow, always fraught with difficulties. This difficulty of the way is not to be found in Christ Himself, nor even in the Way, but in the fact that we really need healing – not an organization nor even a religion in the weak sense of that word – but we need the truth of Christ and a relationship with the true and living God. That relationship is always difficult. Thus the difficulty of the Orthodox faith is simply the difficulty of Christianity. Christianity without the difficulty is not the Gospel of Christ but something ersatz and false. Of course, difficulty for the sake of difficulty would be just as false. It is God Whom we want and nothing else.

  23. T Says:

    And actually Nancy brings up a good point. I’ve been doing my researching and reading of the Orthodox church, but I understand now that one can only truly experience the fullness by actually GOING to Liturgy or Vespers or whatever else, and that it’s not about figuring it all out in your head, you just gotta go. So now I’ve told myself that the only books I need to read now, before joining and obviously going through catechumen classes, are the books on lives of Saints. I’m a very “heady” person as well. I’m a theologian, a thinker. But as I’ve learned at this blog, thank GOD, is our faith is holistic, not a Westminster Catechism.

  24. Hartmut Says:

    Obviously like in the relationship between a man and his wife also in the relationship between man and god there are things that are not to be shared with others.
    But: when there is the urge for sharing my experiences with God with other people then this can either be good or bad. Or am I wrong?
    It can be good in order to give thanks and praise to the lord before the gathered congregation – like in many psalms there is the promise of the prayer to do so.
    It can be bad if it tempts me to be proud of my experiences.
    It can be good if it uplifts and encourages the other.
    It can be bad if it puts the other to shame or makes him look small.
    It is good if it makes God great.
    It is bad if it makes me great.
    What a balancing act.
    Last night, when I thought about the secret place, I remembered that Jesus said in his sermon on the mount: “But you, when you pray, go into your room, 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.”
    I shall be perfect, just as my Father in heaven is perfect, I shall let my light shine before men, that they see my good works and glorify my Father in heaven. But on the other hand my charitable deed shall be in secret, I shall not put my piety on display.
    Again: what a balancing act, to make god great before the people but not make me great.

  25. Rdr. Lucas Says:

    “I’m a very “heady” person as well. I’m a theologian, a thinker.”

    “A Theologian is one who truly prays. One who truly prays is a Theologian.” -Evagrius of Pontus

    Telling is the fact that the Church has only given the title of Theologian to three men in her 2,000 year history.

  26. Rdr. Lucas Says:

    T,
    A follow-up to that last: I meant to say that I think you hit the nail on the head when you stated that the Church is experience *in* the Church (ie the Liturgy and Sacramental Life), not reading *about* the Church.

    the sinner,
    Lucas

  27. Chastity « A Mule In The Chapter House Says:

    […] is that part of your life that you keep for yourself, hidden and secret from prying eyes.Father Stephen Freeman has a masterful exposition of the individuating impulse on his blog. Indeed, the Orthodox Church in its liturgy goes a long way in conserving a chastity of […]

  28. handmaidmaryleah Says:

    Matt.5:48 Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect.

    Fr Stephen,
    I read or heard somewhere that the English translation for the word “perfect” is not a good one, that the word is actually closer to the Greek for “whole” or “complete” is that correct?
    I cannot remember where I heard that, but it changes it, nuances it.
    We are called to wholeness and to complete-ness, to fill in the gaps as it were…

  29. Hartmut Says:

    Handmaidmaryleah,
    “perfect” is indeed not so good a translation for the greek “teleios”. I can’t explain it so good in english. In german we say “vollkommen” or “vollendet” and this means, one has accomplished his goal, now there is the wholeness, there is no want for nothing, because the likeness to God is reached.

    By the way, in the greek Septuagint, the greek version of the Old Testament, there it says in psalm 90 not “He that dwelleth in the secret place”, but: “He that dwelleth in the help of …”. If I’m not wrong, than in the hebrew Old Testament the word used there can be translated either as “seclusion” (wich comes near to the “secret place”) or as “help” or “protection”. In german bible translations for the most part you find: “He that dwelleth in the protection of the most High”. I found only one translation that says: “”hiding place”, which comes near to “secret place”, but is understood as a refuge, a secure place where the enemy can’t reach and destroy me, as I think.
    But in the sermon on the mount there Jesus indeed speaks of the “secret place”, in greek “krypto”, which means “hidden” , “consealed”, “secret”.

    But nonetheless, it is there, this secret place, father Stephan speaks of, and it is good to think about it and what it means to our daily life.

  30. Michael Bauman Says:

    Leah, Fr. Anthony Conaris in his book on the Philkalia for lay people makes the point that the Greek actually says “You shall be perfect…”. Fr. Conaris then elaborates on the process of spiritual growth of which Jesus is speaking.

  31. David Says:

    Thank you for removing my post. Covering the sins of another are a blessed thing, never to be apologized for.

  32. T Says:

    Rdr. Lucas,

    Yes, thank you. And actually you revealed the Protestant that still lurks within me, by quoting when I said that I am a theologian; a *thinker*. I have heard the prayer quote you posted, and I agree with it. But boy it’s clear just how deeply ingrained that idea is in me.

    St. John the theologian, St. Simeon the New Theologian, and who is the third one?

  33. Rdr. Lucas Says:

    T,

    The third (or second, if you like) is St. Gregory of Nazianzus, the Theologian (Jan. 25). He is honored as one of the Three Holy Fathers of the Church (with Ss. Basil the Great & John Chrysostom), having defended the Apostolic teaching on the Trinity.

    I am glad I did not put you off with the quote, I almost regretted it once I posted it–but I felt that we are the same as you in this regard (having myself come out of a tradition that held ‘the more I know *about* God, the holier I am’). This text-based form of communication is very dangerous! Nevertheless, pray for me.

    the sinner,
    Lucas

  34. Rdr. Lucas Says:

    Line 6 should read “that we are the same in this regard…”

    no “as you”

  35. The WebElf Report Says:

    […] WISDOM: Let us attend– “I will offer a short exhortation: if you keep a website or a blog, do not make it a place for your secrets (as is too often done). 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!” …. (fatherstephen) […]

  36. Kirk Says:

    WISDOM: “My joy is to serve liturgy in the manner which my Bishop prefers. It sets me free.” (fatherstephen)

    If this simple statement were the only thing for me to learn this day, it would be enough.

  37. T Says:

    Lucas,

    I gotcha, no worries. I took no offense at all.

  38. Risky Business « Glory to God for All Things Says:

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  39. Risky Business - Revisited « Glory to God for All Things Says:

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  40. CHIEF CHIGOZIE CHARLES Says:

    I enjoyed every bit of this reading. However, I have great reservations on the issues of man made secrets in Gods name. The secret place mentioned in the read psalm is more of a spiritual design than physical as practiced by some christians. God the creator chose to creat man in his image and his likeness and thereby giving man the right to practice what HE practices (such as keeping secret places).

    I have my cupboard and other places in my house where I keep things I value so much as my physical secret place being a man. That I could practice because my creator does that too. Gods secret places are places where he hides his very important once against the impediments of his Enemy.

    Let me be hidden in HIS secret place and I will be fine .

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