Craig Bartholomew, who has been a friend and mentor to many of us younger Christian scholars, often repeats the admonition: “pursue obscurity.” It is not enough simply to accept obscurity, if it happens to be our lot. Rather, there is virtue in positively pursuing obscurity, in seeking anonymity and nonrecognition. I have thought about this proverbial advice a lot over the years. In fact, it has become a kind of life code, even if it often remains more aspirational than actual. I think about it especially in terms of our Lord’s warning in the Sermon not to practice “your righteousness before other people in order to be seen by them,” but rather to practice our spiritual disciplines — fasting and praying and giving — in secret, where only our Father can see and reward.
The upcoming Feast of St. Nicholas (December 6) offers a useful (if legendary) reminder of the power of self-giving anonymity. I once heard Donald Miller, who was once a best-selling Christian author, explain why he stopped posting about his faith on social media by appealing to Jesus’ teaching on practicing our righteousness in secret. I know Miller’s work was controversial at the time, and I am not passing judgment on it nor on his subsequent work in the self-help and business marketing space, but his response always stuck with me. It still gives me pause every time I have tweeted or written about my faith in public.
But I don’t think the point about obscurity has to be taken in such absolute terms. There are some things, after all, that are not meant to be obscure but to be shouted from the rooftops, namely, the public proclamation of the gospel of Jesus Christ and the demand it places upon the world. Further, some Christians are called to the public ministry of the word, through preaching, teaching, or writing. To pursue obscurity need not mean radio silence or social media deletion or monastic retreat (though it may for some). To pursue obscurity is simply to resist the magnetic pull of self-promotion and platform building and “influence” that plagues so much of the contemporary culture, including the contemporary Christian culture.
In any event, with his help I finally tracked down Craig’s source for the admonition. It comes from Sister Wendy Beckett, a British religious, who ironically became something of a celebrity in the 1990s through her television documentaries on the history of art. The relevant quotation is from her writings on prayer. After reflecting on the ways that prayer places us, helpless and exposed, before the presence of God, Beckett writes,
Normally, as we grow older, we become progressively skilled in coping with life. In most departments, we acquire techniques on which we can fall back when interest and attention wilt. It is part of maturity that there is always some reserve we can tap. But this is not so in prayer. It is the only human activity that depends totally and solely on its intrinsic truth. We are there before God, or rather, to the degree that we are there before God, we are exposed to all that He is, and He can neither deceive nor be deceived. It is not that we want to deceive, whether God or anybody else, but with other people we cannot help our human condition of obscurity. We are not wholly there for them, nor they for us. We are simply not able to be so. Nor should we be. No human occasion calls for our total presence, even were it within our power to offer it. But prayer calls for it. Prayer is prayer if we want it to be.
The larger point is about how prayer fully exposes us before the presence of God, but the kernel of the proverb on pursuing obscurity is found in the line, “Nor should we be. No human occasion calls for our total presence, even were it within our power to offer it.” Obscurity, some prudential veiling of our deepest selves, is unavoidable and even advisable, according to Sister Wendy. Wisdom requires that some “reserve” be kept on tap in our relationships with others. This is not, as I understand it, an argument against honesty and authenticity in our closest relationships; far less is it an excuse for duplicity or dissembling. Instead, it is simply an acknowledgment that our true selves lie open, not to others, nor even to ourselves, but only to God. “You are closer to me than I am to myself,” St Augustine prayed. Authenticity does not require us to be fully present to everyone all of the time. Again, to be clear, we should not hide our sin, but rather our virtue. The better part of righteousness lies, as our Lord reminded us, precisely in its hiddenness and secrecy before our heavenly Father.
The quest to be fully present to everyone all of the time is, of course, only amplified by social media. We can’t let a single thought go unTweeted, a single experience unInstagrammed, or a single life update unFacebooked. But what is lost in this perpetual need to be seen, this constant pull toward public exposure, this chasing of personal platforms? Is it really so hard to discern the ways that our souls shrivel when their doors never close for privacy, rest, and contemplation? Surely there is wisdom in resisting what Robert Cardinal Sarah calls the dictatorship of noise. Surely there is wisdom in keeping some reserve on tap, as Sister Wendy reminds us. Surely there is wisdom in accepting and even seeking obscurity and preserving those most intimate moments for our prayer closets rather than our social media timelines.