In all healthy people there’s a natural reticence about revealing too much of themselves and a concomitant need to keep certain things secret. Too often we judge this as an unhealthy shyness or, worse, as hiding something bad. But reticence and secrecy can be as much virtue as fault because, as James Hillman puts it, when we’re healthy we will normally “show the piety of shame before the mystery of life.”
When are secrets healthy and when are they not? When is it healthy to “cast our pearl” before others and when is it not? This is often answered too simplistically on both sides.
No doubt secrets can be dangerous. From Scripture, from spirituality in every tradition, from what’s best in psychology, and, not least, from the various “12-step programs” that today help so many people back to health, we learn that keeping secrets can be dangerous, that what’s dark, obsessive, and hidden within us has to be brought to light, confessed, shared with someone, and owned in openness or we can never be healthy.
Scripture tells us that the truth will set us free, that we will be healthy only if we confess our sins, and that our dark secrets will fester in us and ultimately corrupt us if we keep them hidden. Alcoholics Anonymous submits that we are as sick as our sickest secret. Psychology tells us that our psychic health depends upon our capacity to share our thoughts, feelings, and failings openly with others and that it’s dangerous to keep things bottled up inside ourselves. That’s right. That’s wise.
There are secrets that are wrongly kept, like the dark secrets we keep when we betray, or the secrets a young child clutches to as an exercise in power. Such secrets fester in the soul and keep us wrongly apart. What’s hidden must be brought into the light. We should be wary of secrets.
But, as is the case with most everything else, there’s another side to this, a delicate balance that needs to be struck. Just as it can be bad to keep secrets, we can also be too loose in sharing ourselves. We can lack proper reticence. We can trivialize what’s precious inside us. We can open ourselves in ways that takes away our mystery and makes us inept subjects for romance. We can lose our depth in ways that makes it difficult for us to be creative or to pray. We can lack “the piety of shame before the mystery of life.” We all need to keep some secrets.
Etymologically to keep a secret means to keep something apart from others. And we need to do that in healthy ways because a certain amount of honest privacy is necessary for us to nurture our individuality, for us to come to know our own souls. All of us need to keep some secrets, healthy secrets. What this does, apart from helping us know more deeply our individuality, is that secrets protect our mystery and depth by shielding them under a certain mystique, from which we can more richly offer our individuality to others.
We derive both the words mystery and mystic from the Greek word myein, which is a word used to describe what we are left looking at when a flower closes its petals or a person closes his or her eyelids. Something’s hidden then, something of beauty, of intelligence, of wit, of love. Its depths are partially closed off and so that individual flower or person takes on a certain mystique, which triggers a desire within us to want to uncover those depths. Romance has its origins here, as does creativity, prayer, and contemplation.
It’s no accident that when artists paint persons at prayer, normally they are depicted with their eyelids closed. Our souls need to be protected from over-exposure. Just as our eyes need to be closed at times for sleep, so too our souls. They need time away from the madding crowd, time alone with themselves, time to healthily deepen their individuality so as to make them richer for romance.
Some years ago in an American television sitcom, a mother issued this warning to her teenage daughter just as this young person was leaving for a party with friends: “Now remember your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit — not a public amusement park!” Inside that wit, there’s wisdom. The mother’s warning is about properly guarding one’s body, but the body is connected to the soul and, like the body, the soul too shouldn’t be trivialized and become fodder for recreation.
Jesus warns us to not give to the dogs what’s sacred, or throw pearls to swine. That’s strong talk, but what he’s warning us about merits strong language. Soul is a precious commodity that needs to be properly cherished and guarded. Soul is also a sacred commodity that needs to be accorded its proper reverence. We protect that preciousness and sacredness when we confess openly our sick secrets and then properly guard our healthy ones.
Rolheiser, theologian, teacher and award-winning author, is president of the Oblate School of Theology in San Antonio, Texas.