Does God play hide-and-seek?
I had forgotten how loud the sound of a wood pigeon can be, but waking to its insistent cooing is what reminds me that I am in Walsingham. A less digital-sounding alarm I cannot imagine. It invites me to begin a couple of days’ retreat with friends and co-workers from Rachel’s Vineyard and Grief to Grace, ministries which bring deep spiritual psychological healing to those traumatised by abortion, and sexual and emotional abuse. These ministries are run by teams of dedicated volunteers, and an annual time of prayer and reflection together is important to renew us in the conviction that, unless the Lord builds the house, in vain do the builders labour.
We stay with the Community of Our Lady of Walsingham in their newly opened retreat centre, the Dowry House. This is a large, redbrick Georgian house on the High Street, almost opposite the medieval gate of the ancient priory. I remember it from my youth as the Sue Ryder shop. It is the kind of place that would make a child immediately want to play hide-and-seek. It has several staircases, yards of winding corridors, attic rooms in its Dutch-gabled roof and a deep cellar. It has been beautifully refurbished and is light, airy and welcoming, adorned throughout with beautiful statues and reliefs of Our Blessed Lady and the Holy Family.
If playing is engaging in an activity for recreation rather than practical purpose, I suppose one might characterise a couple of days’ retreat as a kind of spiritual hide-and-seek. Indeed, it can often feel so, because even in the emerging awareness that one is in some way hiding from God, one is also asserting the truth that he is looking for me and my deepest desire is to be found. My spiritual child waits breathless for that half-fearful, half-rapturous moment when I am discovered, or else how can the game go on, continuing its recreative purpose?
Similarly, all my long expectation and disappointment, as I seek him in vain in all the places I thought most likely, must be sustained by the certainty that, if I admit defeat, he will reveal himself, for he too has hidden only that I should seek him more eagerly, only so that he may be found.
And so by degrees I do find him, getting warmer and warmer as I walk the Pilgrim Way through the fields in a riot of high summer, where a thousand thousand wheat stalks sway as one movement on the slope of the hillside, a nap of yellow velvet suddenly brushed by a giant unseen hand. I get intimations that he is near in the scent of the wild thyme and spearmint in the heat of the day, the perfume of lime trees or the cow parsley at dusk. I imagine that I glimpse him trailing folds of scarlet poppies and purple-loosestrife.
I fancy that I begin to hear him in the silence of the vast starlit night, or catch his breathing as a passage of Scripture falls open. I feel only a thin veil separating us as I raise the small white Host.
In this context it occurs to me that the intercession of Our Lady of Walsingham is a little like that of a mother who, seeing me struggling and increasingly frustrated after looking in many places, takes pity on my littleness and enters into the game by taking my side and secretly indicating where he, the stronger, is. For she sees that I am weary and she knows where he is hidden, for he also is her Son as I am. She will show me where and how to find him.
For she once hid him, first in her heart and then in her womb, but only to bring him forth. This truth is the history and meaning of Walsingham, England’s Nazareth. In 1061 the Lady Richeldis was told to build a replica of the house where the Annunciation happened. For Mary said to her that she wished that those who came might share in the joy of her angelic salutation.
What is that joy? It is that God was made flesh. He does not wish to be hidden, remote, unknowable. He has entered into humanity’s condition. He has revealed the depth of his love for humanity. He has come to seek us out and to be found by us.
This is the joy of the angelic salutation, “The Lord is with you.” Our joy, like Mary’s, is to be with him in all the moments of our earthly life, living by the faith that he desires to find us even more than we desire to find him.
Pastor Iuventus is a Catholic priest in London
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