In the Secret Place of the Most High God

This article first appeared in 2007. It speaks of one of the most essential elements of our spiritual life – the secret place. I have not written often on the topic – but it bears repeating. 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. Fr. Meletios Webber (Bread & Water, Wine & Oil) writes about the ‘ego’ and describes it as a narrative we develop over the years woven from the wants and fears of our lives (the logismoi). Into such madness only a mad religion can take root, itself becoming part of our human disease. The faith of Christ (rather than madness) must take root in the heart, the secret place of the Most High. From there we can begin to find healing and quiet for the incessant chatter of our sin. I highly recommend Fr. Meletios book. You’ll read it and give thanks.

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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

refusing confession by RepinThere 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 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 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. 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 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 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.

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 Person, 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!

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

  1. Karen Says:

    Dear Father, bless! Wise words I hope to take more keenly to heart. Thank you.

  2. Sinikka Says:

    I see engaging in the “culture wars”, which some people/churches/shepherds and authorities think synonymous with the prayer petition “Thy Kingdom come on earth…” and in the process end up trampling on the “Secret Places” of those under their care.

    I am not saying that the Church shouldn’t be speak Truth and refrain from calling an evil thing evil.

    But the end of all this effort, attention, and the resulting enmity (as if there wasn’t enough already) created between the Church and culture may result in a society that superficially appears more “Godly”… to materially superimpose a template ethos of the “Kingdom” World, that is just a veneer…kind of like, what was the expression “lipstick on a pig”…..and then sit back because things “look” more “kingdom of god” but in truth has made the soil of mens heart even less fertile for the seeds of the Gospel because they mistake the visible for the invisible…because the only place the Kingdom can come is through the hearts, in the “Secret Place” that have been changed, given and reclaimed by God.

    IF it was just another benign example of man mistaking what is right in his own eyes as the will of God, it would just be same ole, same ole….but I think this a more serious error….and you only need to look at what Satan tempted Christ with to see that this way of bringing the Kingdom of heaven to earth is anti-Gospel.

    This political, some say “moral” activism seems to be replacing the Gospel in large segments of the Church; as if conforming culture to God’s Law is a more EXPEDIENT way to make the soil of men’s hearts more fertile places to spread the seeds of the Gospel.

    So what does this have to do with the “Secret Place”…..your meditation here clarified something that disturbed me, but couldn’t quite put into words….a comment made by a Shepherd, leader of the Church (not Orthodox Church, but I don’t want to get into any my church vs your church thing, and it is really is the temptation Satan held up to Christ, and I am the Church is constantly tempted with the same offer……expediency…the easy way…turn the whole world back over to God in just a few easy steps)

    The remark was to the effect that “abortion was a worse sin than child abuse”.
    I tried to be generous in not seeing as just deflecting the attention away from the sins of the Church, priests, at at time when it is all over the Media again….and it does sound like, common sense…..

    ….at least in the one case the person is STILL ALIVE and where there is life, there is always hope….but it still didn’t seem to fit anything I know or have learned in the way God saves us.
    It feeds into the dualism that what is done to the body can’t touch the soul, that the life of the body and soul can be separated…that one can live without the other.

    Anyone willing to listen to those who have endured this abuse (and if it is perpetrated by a priest/in the church does not make any difference…the result seems to be the same…which makes all the grandstanding about the statistics of how much worse or not worse it is in the secular institutions isn’t important more worthless banter).

    I think that statement ignores what essentially this abuse IS….it’s a direct violation into the “Secret Place”, not just of the body, but of the soul of that child(for a Christian, that statement of violating the body and soul should be redundancy) ….it’s a desecration of the the DWELLING PLACE OF THE MOST HIGH, place in the soul that is meant only for God….and one needs only look at the lives of those who have been violated in this way to know that something essential has been destroyed….

    and, no, nothing is impossible for God to heal, however, there are some things that man can do to create a “stumbling block” that GOD HIMSELF, HAS LET US KNOW, THROUGH THE WORDS OF CHRIST makes it ALMOST impossible…..

    Again, you give more insight into why Christ chose to specifically warn about this; that one person can damage another to the point that causes them to fall,
    the very thing, THE PLACE THAT HOUSES THE ONE AND ALL THE GRACE AND MERCY HE GIVES that allows us to rise again, that Secret Place is if not destroyed, but so damaged it can no longer hold what it was meant to hold;, that damage almost makes it worse than murder…..because they then become a kind of the living dead…

    I know this is way off on a tangent, but as important as it is to know how we should treat this “Secret Place” in ourselves, we cannot ignore that the same “Secret Place” in others need to be respected, and it’s worth and role in God’s Salvation should in no way be taken lightly, nor discounted in the name of expediency.

    Thank you for helping me clarify this, and forgive me for going way off topic…

    May the Lord have Mercy on us all, for we truly do not know what we do, or the harm we may cause when it comes to our brothers and sisters, all children of God and made only for Him.

  3. David Says:

    I suppose the most toxic form of my vainglory is at the root exhibitionism. It’s a two-fold violation and a lie. The violations are in trying to put a person in the place meant for God and the necessary assault on their person required to drag them in the door (or break down theirs).

    But it’s also a lie, because they cannot sit in that throne. It is simply madness. Sometimes we are trying to find a substitute for God, but some other secret place we violate might be meant for a friend, a family member, a wife.

    I’ve noticed that much that I should have made time to speak with my spiritual father, I post on other priests’ blogs in the comment section.🙂

  4. fatherstephen Says:

    The relative anonymity of a blog or the internet (which is an illusion) lulls us into a false confessional sense. I suspect that the very public sharing of very non-public things is a substitute for the absence of privacy and the proper boundaries of a “secret place.”

    I am fairly adamant about the importance of the “developed” shape of Orthodox temples. There are some who for historical and other theological reasons argue for a more “open” temple than is common in Orthodoxy – especially noting that the highly developed Iconostas is just that – a development.

    But historical circumstances change the meaning of things. An open space in a culture in which the “secret place” was far more functional in human interactions (at “the doors the doors” the catechumens had to actually leave the assembly not to mention the “disciplina arcana”) is far different than an open space in a democratized culture which has few if any psychological boundaries.

    I believe that it is spiritually healthy for us to have things we cannot touch, places we cannot go, words we do not say – if only because these things are so “unnatural” in modern culture.

    Recent studies (or so I heard) have pointed to numerous disastrous personal results for those participating in “reality” shows, in which the greatest reality is the wholesale violation of privacy. Marriages cannot stand such stress – some individuals suddenly thrust into the limelight cannot bear up. Indeed, the destruction of individuals by the cult of publicity is a Hollywood cliche (cf. “A Star is Born”).

    Considering all this – I wonder if it means that we are governed by people who are almost inherently damaged goods?

    It also says much to me about how clergy should take care for their souls. The public disintegration of many high-profile clergy (as well as other public figures) speaks volumes about the destructive character of the public eye when combined with very porous to non-existent boundaries.

    We need Holy space – both within ourselves and in the world around us.

  5. David Says:

    Perhaps it is wrong for the laity to make public figures of clergy. Perhaps one of our proper functions is to hide them. My natural instinct is to want everyone I know to meet my spiritual father. But perhaps he is too valuable to be so flagrantly exposed.

    I’ve seen, even in my short time, so many differently gifted clergy. Perhaps some of them should be standing in front of the alter with the royal doors closed and not at a symposium or even at the local homeless shelter. It is not that these things are not good, but rather, not appropriate.

    My wife is a tremendous gift, but I have learned that gift is ruined when I expect her to join my socially extroverted dance. I sometimes become frustrated because I know of her great blessing in my life, but it is simply not one that can be shared.

    So then, not just Holy space, but Holy people as well.

  6. Cheryl Says:

    Thank you, Father, an important and convicting post.

  7. Yudi Kris Says:

    Thanks for this Father! Very beautiful article!

  8. Deb Seeger Says:

    Thank you for this reposting. I, too, become so emotionally involved with daily living that I unfortunately forget about being still and knowing that HE is God, which is when He invites me into that secret place. I am humbled, to see how easily distracted I can become nonetheless your guiding has helped reposition my focus. I even investigates logismoi and and contemplating the thoughts which separate me from an distracted, stillness before him. Thank you!!!

  9. Karen Says:

    Dear Father, bless (again)!

    One clarification: when you write that the Priest will never speak of it on pain of being deposed, I assume you are still discussing what he hears in Confession?

    Your comments here (about the iconostasis, etc.), are very helpful, too. This strikes me as a profound subject.

    Another thing that I think drives people to become too public with their inner lives is sheer loneliness. Despite, and perhaps because of, the plethora of (distracting) information that proliferates in our modern culture, the true knowledge of intimacy is very scarce, and a terrible barren solitude is the result. The antidote is surely the holy and spiritually fecund solitude where Christ is present.

  10. fatherstephen Says:

    Yes, I was speaking of confession’s secrecy.

    I agree with your observations on loneliness. There was a famous sociological study some years ago (early 50’s) called The Lonely Crowd, that began to look at how modern people lived and identified loneliness as a major component of modern life.

  11. zoe Says:

    Dear Father, Bless.

    Thank you for another illuminating post. Among the thoughts that is making me grieve lately is the realization that our modern culture has vulgarized everything that is sacred and is continually doing so in all forms of media. Lord have mercy on us.

  12. Tim Says:

    Fr. Stephen,

    This blog entry reminds me of some thoughts I had regarding the Pentacostal practice of “speaking in tongues” (manifested as making nonsensical noises).

    I have a few close friends who are Pentcostals. My first classic Pentacostal experience (before I became Orthodox) absolutely terrified me, but the explanation of “speaking in tongues” that really helped me is that a person who is legitimately “speaking in tongues” is calling to God in a manner beyond words. I have heard them describe it as a “personal prayer language” that develops between the participant and God.

    It seems to me like this might be some people’s “Secret Place of the Most High God”. I do not engage in this practice and am not planning on it, but do you think that this is a legitimate way of thinking about this practice?

    Tim

  13. fatherstephen Says:

    I am not sure. There is a variety of thoughts among Orthodox spiritual authorities on this modern phenomenon. Some of it seems delusional – while other aspects do not. I cannot say.

  14. Mrs. Mutton Says:

    All I know about “speaking in tongues” is that my mother, who was a Catholic charismatic, engaged in it frequently — and died looking terrified, as if she were being pursued by all the demons in hades, screaming that she wanted to “go home.” I’ve been at a few deaths, and I’ve never seen anyone else die like that. You couldn’t *pay* me to engage in that practice, after that experience.

  15. fatherstephen Says:

    I know the experience – I went through a time with Charismatics (when I was about 17-21) and off and on during my Episcopal Church years. My personal take was mixed. I stopped it as a prayer practice long before I became Orthodox and preferred the tradition, safety and wisdom of the Jesus Prayer. There’s so little true spiritual insight into experience out there – apart from the living Tradition in Orthodoxy, there is very little that is any deeper than the latest book someone read.

    If you listen to the testimony of some of the Romanian hermits I have in my vodpod (video) side bar, you can hear the depth of the faith. I prefer that.

  16. wpatrick Says:

    Fr. John Romanides wrote this about “speaking in tongues:”

    “…[The Holy Spirit] transfers the prayers and psalms of the intellect to the human spirit in the heart when it is purified of all thoughts, both good and bad. At this point one’s own spirit empowered by the Holy Spirit does nothing else but pray and recite psalms unceasingly while the intellect engages in its normal daily activities liberated from happiness-seeking self-centeredness. Thus one prays with one’s spirit in the heart unceasingly and one prays with the intellect at given times. This is what Paul means when he writes, “I will pray with the spirit, but I will also pray with the intellect. I will recite psalms with the spirit, but I will also recite psalms with the intellect” (1 Cor. 14:15).

    Paul has just told us that praying by means of other tongues than one’s own includes Old Testament psalms. He is, therefore, not speaking about incomprehensible audible prayers since the psalms were familiar to all. Paul is speaking about the prayers of one’s spirit in the heart which are audible only to those with this same charisma of “kinds of tongues”. Those who did not yet have this gift could not hear the prayers and psalms in the hearts of those who did have this gift.”

    Fr. John Romanides seems to be speaking about this same secret place, too.

  17. fatherstephen Says:

    Though I think his explanation is a intellectual (not the nous) interpretation of the passage – not inspired nor authoritative. I do not engage in the pentecostal practice, but I do not desire to find a Scriptural reason to condemn it. It’s not an Orthodox concern particularly. I think Romanides makes assumptions, eg. that psallo here means “to recite psalms” when it just as easily mean to “sing,” its most common English translation. His assumption makes for weak interpretation here. That “tongues” is simply not part of the inherited spiritual practice within the Tradition is enough for me. No need to engage Pentecostals in a Bible battle. It’s not how the Orthodox need to settle a question.

    The fact that tongues as we know it today is generally speaking about 100 years old is sufficient reason to question it. Pentecostalism has a number of “revivalist” eschatologies to explain its own existence and the practice of tongues. Just being around revivals and watching people being taught to “speak in tongues” provided ample argument as to the weakness of this spiritual practice. But, again, I do not think we need to argue proof texts.

  18. Tim Says:

    Thank you for you responses. Thank God for spiritual fathers and the Orthodox Church!

    I have been trying to come to terms with how I should relate to my Charismatic friends in this area. I do not feel that I need to battle them over the issue (though there was a time that I did). I hope that there is spiritual benefit for them in the practices that they do have. Perhaps they will outgrow these practices and it has all been for the benefit of their souls.

    May God grant me the grace to pray for them as much as they have for me.

    Tim

  19. omorphia Says:

    Whether or not the “speaking in tongues” is biblical, could it still not be that when someone prays like this, perhaps not finding the words they need, they still pray in a way; putting those feelings they cannot express into some random sound?

    “historical circumstances change the meaning of things. An open space in a culture in which the “secret place” was far more functional in human interactions (at “the doors the doors” the catechumens had to actually leave the assembly not to mention the “disciplina arcana”) is far different than an open space in a democratized culture which has few if any psychological boundaries.”

    A great comment. I wonder if we cannot apply this (“historical circumstances”) to other areas as well. (obviously, I do not mean in the same way as liberal theologians do)

    I really liked this articel. You find ways to express things that I myself can “recognise”, but never been able to express.

  20. Justin Says:

    Being a product of modern American culture for the past 18 years, this entire thing confuses me. I am told that, psychologically, it is better and healthier for me to let things out and expose them and not keep them held hostage inside of me to eat me alive.

    Sometimes we feel lonely and isolated. With the modern usage of the internet, and the modern “lack of a secret place” as you say, we realize we aren’t alone. We realize that others struggle with the same things we struggle with, and we are able to connect to one another that way.

    A website I go to every week, http://www.postsecret.com, has even saved lives. People mail in secrets (sometimes funny, but sometimes very grave) and it lets it off their chest. Other people find out, “Hey! I am not alone!” and it feels like a weight is lifted from you. The website has helped many out of depression and suicidal ideation.

    So I am curious about all of this… because the Church says one thing, yet psychology and actual statistics of people bettered by moderj psychological aid differ.

  21. fatherstephen Says:

    We live in a culture where many of the most basic and fundamental things of human existence are incredibly distorted. Of course people need help and support. The tragedy is that such support comes in distorted ways. Nevertheless, people do what they have to do to survive. But internet as therapy is not finally going to produce a healthy balanced person, much less a saint.

    The teaching of the Church requires patience and practice. You won’t get all of it at 18. I certainly didn’t. The secret place within us – is not the same thing as the place we hide our shame and pain and damage. It is something different. I glad for anything that helps with suicide prevention – I’ve worked on suicide prevention hotlines before. But hotlines – whether online or on the phone, etc. are not the same thing as the path to spiritual wholeness. You can’t compare the two. But if there are secrets people feel they need to post on the internet – I would suggest they need to find a better form of therapy.

  22. Damaris Says:

    Justin —
    Psychology says many things, some of them contradictory. Several studies, with Nazi concentration camp survivors, widows, etc., have shown that the people who generally keep quiet and do not let their grief out heal faster and better than those who often talk about it. This has proven true with veterans as well. There is a place for proper confession, to ease the burdens of our souls, but the pop psychology suggestion of “just let it all out” doesn’t seem scientifically to lead to health.

    We can always talk to God, who is never shocked and will never betray us.

  23. Steeping in Orthodoxy « Journeying Home Says:

    […] about my minimal experiences as a new Orthodox Christian, I’m aware of the need for caution. Heeding Fr. Stephen Freeman’s words, I desire to guard the Secret Place by not turning my blog into a vehicle of full self-disclosure. […]

  24. On the question of the secret place « Paths Through the Desert Says:

    […] a great article on this topic on his blog, Glory to God For All Things blogsite.  It is titled In the Secret Place of the Most High God.  Although he is making a different point, and does not directly address the question I raised on […]

  25. The Experience of Prayer « Glory to God for All Things Says:

    […] quiet presence of person we may know in prayer is not a public thing – it is an intimate matter of the heart and does not belong in the public converse of our lives (just as other intimate parts of our lives […]

  26. Lihle Says:

    Thank you for such an informative message on the Secret Place, i am so blessed.

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