Telling Secrets

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And this is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light, because their deeds were evil. For all who do evil hate the light, and do not come to the light, so that their deeds may not be exposed. But those who do what is true come to the light, that it may be clearly seen that their deeds have been done in God.

John 3: 19-21

In his book Telling Secrets, Frederick Buechner writes:

I not only have my secrets, I am my secrets. And you are yours. Our secrets are human secrets, and our trusting each other enough to share them with each other has much to do with the secret of what it means to be human.

In today’s gospel reading from John, we hear Jesus speak of judgment. He tells us that he and the One who sent him do not judge but, rather, that we judge ourselves when we love “darkness rather than light.” One way we see our preference for darkness rather than light is in the secrets we keep. Frederick Buechner reminds us that as we begin to share our secrets with each other, we come together into the light. The community of the Risen Jesus is a gathering of those who trust each other enough to share their secrets, for the sharing of our secrets is our openness to reformation and transformation. Our secrecy is our holding on to the very darkness by which we judge ourselves.

St Paul says that finally “we shall come to know fully as we are fully known”(1 Cor. 13:12). The intimacy we crave is to know ourselves as God knows us and to be known by others, if not fully, at least honestly. As a result, those secrets we keep from others and even from ourselves we experience as judgment and as painful fear and isolation. We can never fully know another or even ourselves, but we can dare to be honest with ourselves and with others.

For most of us, we learn to keep secrets very young. In almost all families there are aspects of life, real or imagined, that must be kept from others. This becomes such a habitual mode of being that we tend to live it out pre-reflectively throughout our lives. Some years ago I realized at a certain moment that I was withholding the truth for no reason. Even in a relatively harmless situation or circumstance, I was being duplicitous for no reason other than the habit of secrecy I had developed as a child. Thus, it is possible over a lifetime to develop an increased sense of shame and isolation unrelated to the truth of God’s love for us and of who we are as God knows us.

The notion of God’s judgment can be so fearful for us because of our unending judgment of ourselves. One way to begin a process of reformation of our shaming and judging dispositions is to gently open our hearts and our mouths, to begin to share our secrets and receive those of others. Easter time is a call to practice ways of trusting, as the disciples did when Jesus appeared to them. They were almost always fearful at first, but slowly, within their own unique capacities, they opened up to and communicated with this stranger in their midst. As we attempt to do the same, we will discover that our secrets are not shameful but are rather the manifestations of our own deeper life and Divine originality.

And now, on the other hand, let us contrast such a temper of mind, which loves to walk in the light, with that of the merely professing Christian, or, in Scripture language, of the hypocrite. Such are they who have two ends which they pursue, religion and the world; and hence St. James calls them “double-minded.” Hence, too, our Lord, speaking of the Pharisees who were hypocrites, says, “Ye cannot serve God and mammon” (Luke 16:13) A double-minded person, then, as having two ends in view, dare not come to God, lest he should be discovered; for “all things that are reproved are made manifest by the light” (Eph 5: 13). Thus, whereas the Prodigal Son “rose and came to his father,” on the contrary, Adam hid himself among the trees of the garden. It was not simple dread of God, but dread joined to an unwillingness to be restored to God. He had a secret in his heart which he kept from God. He felt—towards God,—as it would seem, or at least his descendants so feel,—as one man often feels towards another in the intercourse of life. You sometimes say of a man, “he is friendly, or courteous, or respectful, or considerate, or communicative; but, after all, there is something, perhaps without his knowing it, in the background. He professes to be agreed with me; he almost displays his agreement; he says he pursues the same objects as I; but still, I do not know him, I do not make progress with him, I have no confidence in him, I do not know him better than the first time I saw him.” Such is the way in which the double-minded approach the Most High,—they have a something private, a hidden self at bottom. They look on themselves, as it were, as independent parties, treating with Almighty God as one of their fellows. Hence, so far from seeking God, they hardly like to be sought by Him. They would rather keep their position and stand where they are,—on earth, and so make terms with God in heaven; whereas, “he that doeth truth, cometh to the light, that his deeds may be made manifest that they are wrought in God” (Jn 3: 21). 

John Henry Newman, Sermon XVI, Sincerity and Hypocrisy

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