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public vs. private

Photo by Jeff Gynane (
This fall I am facilitating a spiritual formation course based on the book "The Good and Beautiful Life" by James Bryan Smith. Each week there are what the author calls "soul training" exercises: simple tasks to explore and practice the week's topic. This past week we read a chapter titled "Learning to Live Without Vainglory." The task was to perform five secret acts of service. That sounds pretty easy, right? Do five things to help other people? Well, it proved to be a bit more challenging than I thought. The first thing I did was to make special preparations in my home for some guests; really, I went way beyond what I normally do.  When Dean came home, I pointed it out to him: "Hey, do you see all the extra decorations?" And while I was speaking, I realized what I was doing. Service: yes. Secret: no. Fail.

The next day I decided to get a special treat for my love. I found something I thought he would really like and I brought it home and put it where he was sure to find it. When he called me from work that afternoon, I mentioned that there was a surprise waiting for him at home.  And once again, as I said the words, I realized that I had failed. In trying to build anticipation and heighten the surprise, I had taken away any aspect of secrecy. Man, this was proving to be harder than I thought.  And it also made me think about why I feel the need to share things with Dean or a friend or the world of facebook or even this blog. Yes, I get excited about helping others and that's good, but part of me also wants to be noticed, to have someone affirm that I am indeed a good person, that my actions are pointing my life in the right direction. Because I often doubt myself and the decisions I make, and the encouragement of others goes a long way.

This wee exercise showed me a few things, some good and some not so good. First, the good. I realised that I do have a heart to serve others and am not quite as self-centred as I sometimes accuse myself of being. Second, I am very blessed to be part of a community that values kindness, goodness, and loving service for others. This community is very encouraging to me, and I have learned much from them, especially how to love better. On the not so good end, I seem to have an internal narrative that believes my actions need to acknowledged in order to be valid or effective. Part of the reason is because I don't always trust my judgment in matters dealing with interpersonal relationships or large-scale vision. I have made errors in both areas and there is definitely a time and place for others to give helpful feedback and input. However, there is also a time and place when it is just between me and God.

I want to cultivate a profound and rich spiritual life which does not need constant outside validation. In my experience, this inner life flourishes when I plunge my face into the fountain of Life and drink deeply, not by constantly asking others if I am close enough to the water. In any intimate relationship, certain matters are not for public consumption. The more significant the friendship, the more exclusive are the conversations, the experiences, and the communication.  The little intimacies of lovers demonstrate vulnerability, trust, and a certain amount of sacrifice. In order to protect the integrity of an intimate relationship, these precious moments must not be flaunted in front of the world, must not be the subject of boasting or coarse jesting, must not be used as a measuring stick of comparison, must not end up as an illustration or anecdote, and must not be made to serve as a stepping stone for a greater purpose.  Because this depth of spirit, this intimacy, is the greater purpose. And it needs no advertising or applause to validate it. What it does need is gentle tending and diligent protection against becoming a means to a self-serving end.

Take care! Don't do your good deeds publicly, to be admired, for then you will lose the reward from your Father in heaven. When you give a gift to a beggar, don't shout about it as the hypocrites do - blowing trumpets in the synagogues and streets to call attention to their acts of charity! I tell you in all earnestness, they have received all the reward they will ever get. But when you do a kindness to someone, do it secretly - don't tell your left hand what your right hand is doing. And your Father, who knows all secrets, will reward you. And now about prayer. When you pray, don't be like the hypocrites who pretend piety by praying publicly on street corners and in the synagogues where everyone can see them. Truly, that is all the reward they will ever get. But when you pray, go away by yourself, all alone, and shut the door behind you and pray to your Father secretly, and your Father, who knows your secrets, will reward you. - Matthew 6, The Living Bible


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