Why convert? – secretum meum mihi

-by Br Philip Nolan, OP

“When St John Henry Newman sat down to write a defense of his decision to enter the Catholic Church, he said, “the words, ‘Secretum meum mihi,’ keep ringing in my ears.” “Secretum meum mihi”—“My secret is my own.” Who was he to share the details of his long, confusing, and often painful path to Rome? His account of the quiet prompts, of the reasoning and intuitions, that he eventually knew to be God’s work in his life would necessarily fall short of the reality. Thankfully, despite these concerns, Newman decided it prudent to publish the defense, though not without a certain trepidation.

“My secret is my own.” The quotation comes from Isaiah 24:16 in the Vulgate, rendered “a finibus terrae laudes audivimus gloriam iusti et dixi secretum meum mihi secretum meum mihi vae mihi praevaricantes praevaricati sunt et praevaricatione transgressorum praevaricati sunt”.  In modern English translations it is rendered, “From the ends of the earth we hear singing: “Glory to the Righteous One.” But I said, “I waste away, I waste away! Woe to me! The treacherous betray! With treachery the treacherous betray!” (Ed.My leanness, my leanness – Or, my secret; so the Vulgate, Montanus, and the old MS; רזן razan has this meaning in Chaldee; but in Hebrew it signifies to make lean, to waste.”)

It has been repeated by a number of saints. Newman’s patron, St. Philip Neri, according to his early biographer, “constantly repeated to himself the phrase, “my secret is my own, my secret is my own.”  St. Philip “was well aware in himself of the gifts that God had given him, but wanted to keep them hidden from anyone else, for he remembered what St Gregory said, that anyone who carries his treasure about openly in the streets is asking to be robbed.” Those who flaunt spiritual treasures are like the Pharisee praying on the street corner—in most cases they are seeking worldly glory in place of true, heavenly treasure. St. Philip knew at least a portion of what God was sharing with him in his soul. But the saint knew not to attempt to express many of the spiritual delights and trials he received.

Edith Stein repeated the same words. When a friend asked why she converted to Catholicism, the future saint reportedly gave the answer: “Secretum meum mihi.” Reluctant to share her innermost thoughts, she allowed the inexpressible to remain unexpressed.

To say and mean these words, to pray them, we must know two things—that we have a secret, and that it’s ours, uniquely ours. What is the secret? Simply by existing, we fulfill a part of God’s plan that no one else can take. More technically, this is referred to as the incommunicability of the human person. Each person is unique and distinct from everything else that is. God does not make mistakes in creation—each of us has an irreplaceable role in His plan.

For those raised to friendship with God in grace, each of us has a relationship with Him that is unlike anyone else’s friendship with God. While close friends might list attributes that they appreciate in each other, the core of their friendship can only be experienced, not expressed. Their relationship is uniquely theirs.

When we live in grace, rely on the sacraments, and respond to God’s requests that we abandon ourselves to His plans, we receive “grace upon grace.” These graces form us and elevate us to be more like Jesus and bring us into union with God in a way that only we can be. We can each say, “the Almighty has done great things for me, and holy is His Name” (Lk. 1:49). This is friendship with God. This friendship—its shape, its contours, its times of joy and trial—is the secret God gives to each of us, and it is uniquely ours. Our secrets are our own, and together we praise the God Who shares with us the inexpressible sweetness of His life.”

Love, secretum meum mihi,