When I was a stay-at-home mom and our daughter was almost three, she loved to play hide-and-seek. One time in Mountain View, California, she and I were playing hide-and-seek, just the two of us, on the dusty, shaded playground a short walk from our rented townhouse. School had just let out, so we had the playground mostly to ourselves. I hid first, and she found me fairly easily. Various anatomical parts of me stuck out from behind a skinny pine tree.
“Your turn to hide!” I sang out, and off she dashed with that nervous look that is the excitement of possibly “being found.” I just saw her back as she pumped her arms and scampered off, head down, searching for shelter.
I’m a stickler for following rules, and, as the oldest of four siblings, I always have been; so I turned my back to my toddler and dutifully counted slowly to twenty, out loud. Then I turned around and started searching. I was serious about the search, too. I looked behind the slide, behind the skinny pine tree, behind the bushes, and just as I started across the playground, still searching, out dashed Kate yelling, “Surprise! Here I am! I found you!”
Huh? I said to myself and started to explain to her that that is NOT how the game works, when I stopped and thought, In this surprise is some spiritual lesson, but I’m not sure what. We played several more times, with her “hiding,” only to jump out sooner each time, shouting, “I found you!”
A decade later, I think back on this hide-and-seek game with my then toddler. By temperament, I am a rules follower, someone who prefers order, but over the years that preference has given way (often whether I’ve wanted it to or not) in the face of life as it is truly lived. My natural temperament that yearns for routine and schedule and predictability has eroded in the waves of living and loving imperfectly, as a wife and as a mom and later as a professor, writer, and speaker, and the sand of my once seemingly ordered life has been carried out to sea.
I turn to the Bible for nourishment as I always have. It is the lighthouse on the rocky part of the shore, faithfully there no matter the weather.
Over time, I forgot those playground games with my daughter. Then, one day not too long ago, I found myself translating the fourteenth-century classic on Bible meditation and contemplative prayer, The Cloud of Unknowing. In Chapter 46, I read words that reminded me of those hide-and-seek games with our daughter:
And don’t be hard on yourself. By that, I mean don’t overtax yourself emotionally or physically. Choose to be enthusiastic instead. This discipline [of Bible meditation and contemplative prayer] doesn’t require brute strength, but joy. As you increase the joy in your contemplative work, you also increase its humility and genuine spirituality, but if you force it, your efforts sink into a crude physicality. So beware. Remember that anyone approaching the high mountain of contemplation with a beastly heart will be driven away with stones. . . . That’s why you should be careful. Instead of being stubborn as a mule, learn to love with gentleness and joy, kindness and good manners. Cultivate self-control of body and soul. Accept the will of our Lord gracefully. Never lunge for it like a hungry dog. Even if you’re starving, don’t be a greedy greyhound. Don’t grab. Let me suggest how you can do this. I’m going to advise you to play a sort of game with God, seriously. Pretend you don’t want what you want as much as you want it. When you feel that beast, desire, stirring inside you with tremendous power, restrain it. Act as if you don’t want God to find out how much you long to see him, know him, and feel him. Hide all that. Perhaps I sound like a child making up a game, but I mean it. I’m confident that anyone with the grace to put my advice into practice will eventually experience the joy of God’s playfulness. God will come to you, the way an earthly father plays with his child, kissing and hugging, making everything alright. (105-106)
“God will come to you, the way an earthly father [or mother, I say] plays with his [or her] child, kissing and hugging, making everything alright” — this wise observation reminded me that my two-year-old daughter was so confident I would find her that she didn’t even try to hide well. To her, the joy was in not quite hiding and then bursting on me as soon as I began searching. She has always loved to surprise me with her unique presence. Would that I were that child with God my Father, I thought.
In devotional literature, it’s not unusual to find this hide-and-seek image. Often ancient Christian writers use diction and description to suggest that our relationship with God is not unlike a game of hide-and-seek between parent and child, which ends with the parent’s “finding” the child and covering him or her with kisses and hugs.
In the thirteenth-century spiritual guidebook, Ancrene Riwle, another anonymous author writes, Ure Louerd plaieth mid us, ase the moder mid hire junge deorlinge. (“Our Lord plays with us as the mother with her young darling.”) The Ancrene Riwle passage then describes a hide-and-seek game in which God our Mother hides. Her child cries out, “Mother! Mother!” and God jumps out with open arms and cluppeth and cusseth and wipeth (“hugs and kisses and wipes”) our eyes. The Ancrene Riwle author uses this image to describe the experience of how God withdraws or “hides” His grace from us for a time, before returning to “find” us. *
The hide-and-seek image is used, perhaps, because it suggests the intimacy of those who play this child’s game. In the classic The Spirituality of Imperfection, Ernest Kurtz and Katherine Ketcham tell a story that helps me understand this experience:
The Medzibozer’s grandson, Yechiel Michael, was playing hide and seek with another child. He hid himself for some time, but his playmate did not look for him. Little Yechiel ran to Rabbi Baruch and said amid tears: “He did not look for me!”
The Rabbi said: “This is also God’s complaint, that we seek Him not.” (107)
But perhaps this next story from The Spirituality of Imperfection best helps me understand those games of hide-and-seek with my daughter and also my own dark, difficult, and despairing life experiences where I felt that God was “hiding” from me.
The story is told of a young girl who loves to wander in the nearby forest and one evening becomes lost. Her frantic parents gather their friends and search for her. She herself has become very anxious, after trying several different paths to return home to no avail, and she eventually falls asleep in a clearing. The searchers as well become exhausted and many stop looking. Her father, though, continues searching through the night.
Early in the morning, the father came to the clearing where the girl had lain to sleep. He suddenly saw his little girl and ran toward her, yelling and making a great noise on the dry branches which awoke the girl.
The little girl saw her father, and with a great shout of joy she exclaimed, “Daddy, I found you!” (108)
Kurtz and Ketcham write, “[W]e find what we are looking for only by being looked for” (108).
As we played together those many years ago, my toddler daughter found what she was looking for, the assurance of my searching for her, by jumping out and surprising me, upturning the “rules” of hide-and-seek because she could count on my being right there.
Sometimes, when I feel in hard times that Christ’s face is turned from me, that God who is my best friend is “hiding” from me, what jumps out at me is often my husband’s listening, a hug or a kiss from my children, a Bible verse, a loving friend, a kind stranger, a deliberately intentional wise comment, my spontaneous wonder before a newly white dogwood or a poignant sermon, and God says, “Surprise! I found you!”
Or maybe I say, “Father, I found you!”
Sometimes, in mutually loving relationships, it is almost impossible to tell who does the finding and who is the found.
So I keep praying that I embrace the grace to keep on seeking. Is the seeking the finding and the being found?
I pray to live in the middle place of Christ’s enduring, loving mystery where grace and seeking meet.
* For this passage, see Nicholas Watson’s Anchoritic Spirituality (Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 1991, page 132).
“Hide-and-Seek God” has been adapted from Carmen’s blog, Carmen’s Chatter.