Of the many memorials here in Washington, DC, the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier is especially notable. Commemorating those soldiers whose fates we do not know, it pays tribute to sacrifices hidden from the sight of men. Yet it recognizes that no sacrifice, no deed, is unknown to God, bearing an inscription reading:
Here rests in honored glory an American soldier known but to God
In a certain sense, this qualification of unknown—“known but to God”—isn’t exactly a subtle exception. Once we acknowledge the reality of God’s omnipotence then it immediately follows that nothing can be absolutely unknown, but rather that, at most, things can only remain unknown to men. This is an important distinction to make because it directly affects how we live as Christians, since Christ has given us a warning:
Take heed that you do not your justice before men, to be seen by them … And when thou shalt pray, enter into thy chamber, and having shut the door, pray to thy Father in secret: and thy Father who seeth in secret will repay thee. (Mt 6:1-4)
When we give alms we are not even to let one hand know what the other is doing. In an age of Instagram and Twitter, where we let our every thought be known to the world, this prescription seems particularly foreign. Why did Christ instruct us so? Because those hypocrites who pray or give alms or do penance in public in order to be seen “have received their reward,” namely, the praise of men. But as Christians, we ought to desire to please, or fear to displease, no one but the Lord our God.
Christ’s prescription to hide our works from the sight of men is a precaution against pride, that all-invasive vice that can poison even the best deed. St. Augustine notes in his Rule that “every other vice produces evil deeds with a view to doing evil, but pride sets a trap for good deeds as well with a view to destroying them.” It is worth hiding our just works from men in order to avoid the trap of pride.
However, we do not hide our deeds only to protect against pride, as worthy a reason as that may be. It has a positive character as well. We hide our prayer, our almsgiving, our penances, because they are acts we do for God—because they are in some way our gifts to Him. And gifts given out of love are intimate, demanding privacy. That privacy is obvious in human relationships—between spouses, brothers, friends—and acts of love within these relationships are cheapened if made public. That’s why declarations of love posted on Facebook are somewhat meaningless expressions, however genuine the feeling may be. And if privacy is demanded among us on earth, how much more between us and our God, who knows us better than ourselves?
Yet, it is never quite so simple. Our God is a God of light, not darkness, and Christ again tells us:
He that doeth the truth, cometh to the light, that his works may be made manifest, because they are done in God. (Jn 3:20)
We are instructed to hide our works so thoroughly that even our left hand does not know what the right is doing, and at the same time to come to the light that our works may be made manifest. Just as a candle is not hidden under a basket, so our works should be a sign to men that they may see and glorify God through them. But importantly, it is God who may choose to reveal our works, for our doing so could lead to pride. We are told to keep our works unknown to men, and if God so chooses He will make those works manifest, as He has done for so many of His saints.
Ultimately, all will be made known, “for there is not any thing secret that shall not be made manifest, nor hidden that shall not be made known and come abroad” (Lk 8:17). Until then, when we pray, when we give alms, when we do penance, we keep our works hidden, “known but to God.”