As a new priest, I am careful to follow the liturgical rubrics in the prayer book as well as those that exist as a matter of local custom: bow here, make the sign of the cross now, kneel during this part of the service, extend arms in orans for this prayer, lay hands upon the bread and cup – or hold them – at this point in the Prayer of Consecration, and so on. I’m not paranoid about it, not fearful of making a mistake; I just like to “do” liturgy well and beautifully and to present no distractions to my fellow worshipers through either clumsiness or forgetfulness.
These manual actions matter when others are watching; they are the choreography of the liturgy, the physical manifestations of the spoken word, the cues of emphasis and meaning for the faithful. But what if no one is present? Do they matter then?
One Sunday morning each month a priest or deacon from our parish offers the Service of Holy Communion at a local residential care facility. Early that morning I take bread and wine downstairs to our small chapel/prayer-room, place it on the altar, and consecrate it for that use. I am always alone, save for God, high and lifted up and holy, and angels and archangels and all the company of heaven. And I always follow the rubrics, even though no one is watching and no one will ever know whether I bowed or knelt or laid hands upon anything at all. It is a thing done in secret. Does it matter? Why?
Each Wednesday morning a member of the Altar Guild reverently disposes of a bowl of holy water located at the entrance to the nave and then refills it with tap water. Shortly afterwards, and before anyone else is present for the Wednesday Service of Healing, a priest conducts A Form of Blessing for Holy Water, praying:
Almighty God, who through the water of baptism has raised us from sin into new life, and by the power of your life-giving Spirit ever cleanses and sanctifies your people: +Bless, we pray you, this water for the service of your holy Church; and grant that it may be a sign of the cleansing and refreshment of your grace; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
No one sees him sign the water with the cross; no one knows whether he has offered the blessing. It is a thing done in secret. Does it matter? Why?
Examples are easy to multiply – things done in secret. Do they matter? Why?
As a priest, I live at the intersection of two worlds: at the corner of seen and unseen, at the juncture of things in heaven and things on earth. So do you; so do we all. Yet, even this language is fraught with difficulty; it doesn’t get it quite right. It is too conditioned by Enlightenment dualism. There is, after all, only one world, not two – a single world containing both that which we see with our eyes and touch with our hands and that which we know only through revelation and perceive only by faith.
Things done in secret matter insofar as they reveal and partake of this unified world in which God is everywhere present and filling all things, a world in which water can actually become holy, a world in which bread and wine are actually consecrated by word and Holy Spirit and by prayer and touch, a world in which a bow is worship and the sign of the cross banishes demons. If this is, in fact, the kind of world we live in, then yes, things done in secret matter as much as things done in plain sight. I believe this is the kind of world we live in. If I am wrong about this, then seen or unseen, none of this matters.
I feel the need to clarify language yet again. There really are no things done in secret. As Ronald Knox observed in his poem, God is always in the Quad. God is ever the Observer and, even more, God is ever the Participant who gives being to all that exists and breath to all that lives. Those things done in secret – humanly speaking – are seen and honored by God. He accepts the worship of our bow. He makes water holy through a man’s prayer and the sign of the cross. He consecrates the bread we hold and the cup we touch. These things matter – seen or unseen – because God chooses to act in and through them to make his presence known and to fill this one world with grace and glory.
I have stood in the emergency room with a grieving family after the doctors did all they could and have offered the Litany at the Time of Death. Those prayers mattered to the family struggling to grasp the need to say goodbye. And I’ve said those same prayers all alone late at night, in the flickering candlelight of my prayer room – a thing done in secret. They also mattered: to God, to me, and, I believe, to the one for whom I prayed.
Tomorrow, I plan to mail a small reproduction of Rublev’s icon of the Holy Trinity (the Hospitality of Abram) to a minister of hospitality in Denver who opened her home and heart to my wife and me recently. The icon was on the altar the last time I consecrated bread and wine for the monthly Eucharist. I offered the prayer of Blessing of an Icon, dipped my finger in holy water and traced the sign of the cross on the back. No one saw any of this; it was a thing done in secret. Did it matter? Yes, I believe it did. Whether done in plain sight or done in secret, it all matters.
Photo by John Roop.