In Praise of Obscurity

And your Father who sees in secret will reward you.
— Matthew 6:4

If it happened, chances are someone somewhere captured the event with their camera. Instagram and Facebook have made everything newsworthy: a trip to the mall, a baby's first steps, last night's meal . . . it really doesn't matter, shoot it and post it.

Photographing our daily lives has become an obsession. Instagram users has topped 1 billion a month, while some 500 people million are considered “daily active users.” YouTube, the video giant, claims 1.8 billion monthly users. Selfies are so common, “selfie deaths” are now a serious topic; the BBC reporting 259 selfie deaths between 2001 and 2017.

Hazards aside, I enjoy these mediums. I like to see photographic journals unfold and it is always a treat to view pictures of our grands. But if there is a dark cloud in this digital sky it is our preoccupation with "my story."

I witnessed a refreshing alternative to “the selfie" reading Mark Noll's Turning Points: Decisive Moments in the History of Christianity. Noll, a Christian and distinguished historian of Christianity and religious history, highlights fourteen key "moments" in the two millennia since Christ.

One of those movements, in the words of Noll, "in many ways the most beneficial -- institutional event in the history of Christianity" was the rise of monasticism. At their best monastics "renounced the comforts of society and sought the spiritual rewards of self-discipline" in their pursuit of Christ. One of the key players in this movement was Benedict who lived in the sixth century.

Noll notes, "It is to Benedict and his famous Rule (regulations for his religious order) that the Christian church owes a series of invaluable gifts" . . .

  • For helping the church avoid the two extremes of fanatical zeal and legalistic denial.

  • For preserving the centrality of Scripture.

  • For championing prayer as central to the heart of the Christian life.

  • For balancing "exalted religious experiences" with the everyday experiences of work, study, eating, and sleeping.

  • For providing an ideal of monastic life that has inspired and encouraged believers for fifteen hundred years.

Pause for just a moment and reflect on the impact of one person. Now consider this, what is so amazing about Benedict is that he is so obscure. Noll writes,

The magnitude of Benedict’s significance in the history of Christianity is not, however, matched by knowledge of his life.

That sentence made me stop reading.

Here was a man who, according to one of the greatest historians of our time, had one of the greatest impacts on Christianity. Despite this, no one even knows for certain the year he was born or died. 

I penned "in praise of obscurity" in the margin of my page.

Benedict was a fresh reminder from God that I don't have to be known or appreciated to make an impact for God. In God’s eyes, "living it" is more important than "posting it." Isn't that the essence of Jesus' words, “Beware of practicing your righteousness before other people in order to be seen by them. . . " (Matthew 6:1).

So if you've been laboring to serve Christ and others and no one is noticing your efforts, that's okay. God notices! And if Benedict is walking that same path of obscurity, well that just means you are in very good company!

And your Father who sees in secret will reward you.

Notes:

  • "in many ways the most beneficial -- institutional event in the history of Christianity" from Mark Noll, Turning Points: Decisive Moments in the History of Christianity. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic. 3rd Edition. 2012. Page 78.

  • "renounced the comforts of society and sought the spiritual rewards of self-discipline" from Church History In Plain Language, by Bruce Shelley.

  • "It is to Benedict and his famous Rule . . . " from Mark Noll, Turning Points: Decisive Moments in the History of Christianity. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic. 3rd Edition. 2012. Page 80.

  • "The magnitude of Benedict's significance . . . " from Noll, page 81.

  • Noll notes that in fact, were it not for Pope Gregory I (served 590-604 A.D.) we would know practically nothing about the man.