From the time I was six years old until I was around ten, my family lived in a great, sprawling farmhouse with a covered front porch and two huge oak trees in the front yard. There was a garden and barns made for exploring. If you read The Day the Angels Fell, it’s basically the setting for that novel. Every autumn, my father raked all the beautiful, brittle leaves into piles and we ran the path his rake made and we laughed and threw colors around. As the sun set in similar fashion somewhere over the hill, he lit the piles on fire, and the flames danced like savages.
In many ways, I was hidden from the world in those years, living so removed from other people. I went to a tiny school that had tiny problems. My closest friends were, for the most part, my cousins, or the three boys I met in first grade. Whenever I could sneak away from the house, I’d be down at the creek or riding my bike on back-country roads, not a soul in sight.
It was about that time in my life when I took to sleeping under the bed. I’m sure this gives you some kind of psychological magnifying glass with which to view my life. There were three doors in my room: one went into my parents’ room; one opened into a huge closet that didn’t seem to have a back; the third led into the neighboring house (the farmhouse we lived in was split into two separate dwellings). Maybe it was the confluence of all these doors, or the wide windows that opened up onto the porch roof, or the deep-red carpet, but something caused me to crave security, and I found it in the tight space beneath my bed.
I hid away down there, blocking myself in with boxes and pillows and an old blanket I had since my birth. I slept well in that sealed off darkness. I breathed easier.
* * * * *
One of the reasons that hiddenness is such an important aspect of the spiritual life is that it keeps us focused on God. In hiddenness we do not receive human acclamation, admiration, support, or encouragement. In hiddenness we have to go to God with our sorrows and joys and trust that God will give us what we most need.
In our society we are inclined to avoid hiddenness. We want to be seen and acknowledged. We want to be useful to others and influence the course of events. But as we become visible and popular, we quickly grow dependent on people and their responses and easily lose touch with God, the true source of our being. Hiddenness is the place of purification. In hiddenness we find our true selves.
This piece by Henri Nouwen has upended me, as good writing often does. I think about how much of my writing life is spent seeking acclamation, admiration, support, or encouragement. And while I do not believe those things are negative in and of themselves, I do believe that there is also something blessed to receive when we live in the lack of them, when we are forced to find our approval and identity somewhere deeper.
Do I ever leave room for hiddenness? Or must all of my joys and heartaches immediately be shared with the world?
Nouwen talks about the dependency these things create within us. What at first feels like encouragement or support can all too quickly turn into that which my creativity depends on. What does it look like when a writer begins trying to please everyone in an attempt to relive, over and over again, those moments of acclamation? How can one possibly navigate the minefield that is the approval or disapproval of hundreds or thousands of people?
And what, then, will we do with a rush that craves more and more, is never satisfied? How far will we go in our pursuit of the like and the share?
Hiddenness, it seems, in some form, is the answer. But I’m left with more questions than answers.
What does it mean for me, a writer in this particular age, to seek out hiddenness? My word processor underlines “hiddenness” in a scribbly red, as if to negate it, as if encouraging me to delete it from my vocabulary.
“This is not a word,” It says. “Hiddenness is not a thing. Where you do find it, delete it. Replace it with something else. Something in our culture’s vocabulary.”
But hiddenness is a thing, no matter what spell check says. I experienced it sleeping under the bed when I was a child, and it was glorious, that sense of security, of safety. That sense that no one else in the entire world knew where I was or what I was about. Hiddenness is a safe space. It is a place full of truth, a place where God dwells, waiting to commune with us. And while it may be empty of certain, valuable things, I’m quite sure it is full of many others.
Maybe that’s what I’m looking for: a new set of values.
Can we find the courage to hide in a world that only values that which has been found?