Beware of practising your piety before others in order to be seen by them; for then you have no reward from your Father in heaven. So whenever you give alms, do not sound a trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, so that they may be praised by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But when you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your alms may be done in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you. "And whenever you pray, do not be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, so that they may be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you. "And whenever you fast, do not look dismal, like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces so as to show others that they are fasting. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, so that your fasting may be seen not by others but by your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.
We used to be exhorted long ago “to give good example.” The distinction between this and hypocrisy wasn’t always clear. It was not the clear wisdom of the ages. An anonymous early Christian writer has this: “What is done to be seen by others is poured into the wind.… What is human praise but the sound of the whistling winds?”
Reading today’s gospel passage we are left in no doubt that a deep truthful interiority is essential to a Christian life. A tree has to sink its roots deep into the ground, otherwise it comes down in the first storm (or perhaps it doesn't, because it has never been able to raise itself up). If you project your imagination down into the ground where the roots are, you find a strange world of darkness, silence and stillness. This is the opposite of the world above ground; there you have light, noise, movement. We are like trees in that respect. If we identify our life with the public part, the part ‘above ground’, we will not be able to withstand the storms of life, and we will have no profound resources for growth. Our actions, our lives, like trees, emerge from a rich darkness, silence and stillness. You could arrange today’s gospel reading in two columns; at the head of one, you could write IN SECRET, and at the head of the other TO BE SEEN. Read the passage again and see this for yourself.
But we need to remember that the inner is not an escape from the outer. Thomas Merton was convinced that many ‘contemplatives’ are not really contemplatives at all but only introspective people, or people in flight from the pain and complexity of ordinary life. Real contemplatives know the urgency not only of going in but also of going out. Meister Eckhart said, “Not that one should give up or neglect or reject one's inner life, but in it and with it and from it one should learn to act in such a way as to let the inward break into activity and draw the activity into inwardness, and thereby train oneself to act in freedom. For one should turn one's eyes to this inner work and act therefrom, whether it be in reading, praying or outward work. But if the outward work tends to destroy the inward, one should follow the inward. But if both can be as one, that is best, then one is co-operating with God.”
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