When I used to come to the door at my granddaughter Emma’s house, she’d hide, usually behind the legs of her mother or father, peeping out on one side or the other.
Soon, she’d be over her shyness and getting down to the business of playing, whether with her stuffed Purple Bear or with letters she’d fit into slots on a board or turning the pages of the Brown Bear book or, well, you know, she was two and had lots and lots of interests.
Every once in a while, I’d realize that she wasn’t anywhere evident. And, sure enough, when I’d look around, I’d see a door ajar or maybe some blond curls just visible over the edge of the couch arm.
I’d go to investigate, and there she’d be, big smile on her face as she ducked out of sight. Often, she’d add a narration to this game: “Hiding! Hiding!” she’d say.
Both of these sorts of hiding were endearing. And both of them reminded me of how God acts.
“I’m in a tiger!”
I know I’m a besotted grandfather, and I’m not sure Thomas Aquinas or Augustine ever compared God to a two-year-old (who’s now a very mature four-year-old), but let me explain:
Emma was still learning how to be a person. She was very mobile but still getting used to her feet and legs and body. She loved learning new words and understanding them. She talked in sentences. When she was wearing a tiger robe and saw herself in the mirror, she giggled, “I’m in a tiger!”
The learning that Emma was doing wasn’t just about how to use her body or how to build up her understanding of the world and how to communicate that understanding. She was also learning how to deal with emotions.
She’s always been a pretty tranquil kid. She is intensely curious about life and seems to be open to letting it unfold in front of her. She’s not easily irritated, and she seems to like people. In fact, I think she’s got a lot of love inside her.
God’s love for us
I think what would happen when I walked in the door — or when my wife Cathy did or Emma’s other grandparents or her aunts or uncles — was that this love in two-year-old Emma would well up within her and fill her, and she wasn’t sure what to do with these large feelings.
This welling-up of love is something that adults experience, such as at the start of a romance or at a random moment in a long marriage or upon seeing a loved one after a long absence. But adults know what’s happening, and they know the mix of pleasure and pain in such feelings — the excitement, the joy, the affection — and, even so, they may say feel so filled with emotions as if to burst.
I think Emma felt these large feelings and just needed a moment to look away to collect herself.
My sense is that something like that happens to God all the time. That God sees me or you or any other person and wells up with love for us.
In God’s case, the hiding isn’t to take time to figure out how to handle the feelings. In God’s case, I think, it is about protecting me or you or any other person from being overwhelmed, bowled over, drowned by this divine love. I’m thinking that, if God’s love for me were expressed in its fullness, I would be frozen in place, dumbstruck, unable to live my life.
“A still small voice”
I think God is also like Emma or any other two-year-old. God likes to play. God likes to play hide-and-seek with me, and, like Emma, even tips off what’s going on by saying, “Hiding! Hiding!” to get my attention.
I’m a big fan of the story of Elijah from the first book of Kings. Elijah is holed up in his mountain cave, and he’s told by God to go outside “for the Lord is about to pass by.”
First comes a strong wind, but God isn’t in the wind. Then, an earthquake, but God isn’t in the earthquake. Then, a fire, but God isn’t in the fire.
Instead, Elijah finds God in “a gentle whisper.” That’s according to some translations. Others say it was “a gentle blowing” or “a whispering of gentle air” or the one I’ve always liked, “a still small voice.”
We tend to think of God as transcendent, omniscient, omnipotent — as larger and wider and deeper than the Universe and everything in it. As bigger than big. Yet, with Elijah, God is a still small voice, a whisper of gentleness. Sounds, to me, like God is hiding.
God is doing this, I think, to protect Elijah from being overwhelmed by the great love that God has for him. But God is also doing something else.
God, I think, is playing hide-and-seek with Elijah. It’s as if God is saying: Am I in this wind, Elijah? How about in this earthquake? In this storm? Can you find me?
Emma would have mercy on her grandfather, tipping me off that she was playing the game and inviting me to join her. “Hiding! Hiding!”
God, I think, is also inviting me to play, to be silly, to be goofy — to be such a fool that I endorse a faith that runs counter to our mainstream self-oriented, fear-infused culture.
And to live that faith. What a laugh! How silly can I get?
Yeah, I think that’s what God’s asking: How silly can I get?
Patrick T. Reardon
A much shorter version of this essay was published by National Catholic Reporter on 8.19.23