Everybody Loves a Secret

It’s not often I take the time to recommend a book I haven’t written, but this one is too much fun for me to hold its authorship against it: Secret Places, Hidden Sanctuaries: Uncovering Mysterious Sights, Symbols, and Societies, by Stephen Klimczuk and Gerald Warner. I can see how the writers sold this deeply Catholic book to a mainstream, secular publisher. Any house that envies the success of titles like The DaVinci Code and Angels and Demons would be drawn to a book that explores

obscure religious legends,
mysterious shrines,
sites that claim to house the Holy Grail,
ruined Nazi castles,
the private haunts of modern knights,

accursed caverns,
English “priest-holes,”
Area 51 and classified U.S. nuclear facilities,
treasure islands,
ancient monasteries,
legendary talismans,
elite European private banks,
secretive brotherhoods like Yale’s Skull and Bones and German dueling clubs,
and high society British clubs.

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Are you sold yet, gents?
I said gents because this impulse to dig for mysteries is more deep-seated in the male of the species, in part because, as the great Catholic psychologist Karl Stern once observed, each woman is herself mysterious. The greater psychic complexity women enjoy or endure, their fleshly impulse for self-surrender and cyclical primal drives mean that a healthy, self-conscious woman needn’t go out in search of enigmas to decode. She is one. No wonder we men can’t quite ever kick the habit of searching out dark, hidden places where secret things happen; our urge is partly erotic. Designed by God to pursue, be puzzled by, and venerate the Feminine, we’re always in some sense searching for the “veiled” side of existence — and then, when we find it, we feel the urge to once more draw the veil, to protect the secret we found from prying eyes.
And there’s a paradox that extends to both sexes: We all crave the mysterious, and hope to have its secrets opened to us, yet we wish it to keep its numinous quality intact. When our religious impulse has not been thwarted or cheapened, we want our tabernacles crafted of marble and gold, wrapped in silk, and surrounded by angels that veil their faces — but we also need a priest who will open the thing, and deposit on our tongues what is inexpressibly precious, so we can digest it as we drive home in our Hondas. To speak of another sacrament, we need in the marital bond both intimacy and mystery — and we strive to share what is hidden from the world, the bodily and the bawdy, without making it mundane. That is why romance of the boudoir, as of the basilica, should ever be attended by roses and silk, red wine and whispers, hope of heaven and fear of hell.
The narratives in this book are gracefully told, and it skips right along, playing like a skilled, old-fashioned magician with our craving for secret knowledge, without either endorsing egregious nonsense or crassly debunking the stories. The authors’ extensive, scrupulous research means that the book is rich with real stories of heroic, conspiratorial, or just plain bizarre behavior — and need not rely on breathless speculations. Reality, the authors plainly believe, is sufficiently fascinating; no need to smoke up the mirrors. Mystery authors who venerated the real Mysteries, like G. K. Chesterton, Ronald Knox, and Russell Kirk, would surely have approved.
Like their works, Secret Places, Hidden Sanctuaries is full of subtle “cultural apologetics” for the Faith. It gently but firmly draws lines between the merely obscurantist and the obscure — the flickering light of eternal verities glimpsed through the smoked glass of human history. It also does a fine job of shining the light of day on mystificationists like Dan Brown — who steal the sacred vessels of other people’s faith, only to fill them up with Diet Sprite. The authors’ analysis reminds me of Umberto Eco’s masterful parody of conspiracy lit, Foucault’s Pendulum — where, after hundreds of pages of labyrinthine paths that power-hungry occultists follow to their destruction, the narrator points to the one real Mystery that mankind has never mastered: the Madonna and Child.
Avoiding sensationalism, Klimczuk and Warner tap into a deep-seated human drive: to dig up secrets, to unseal ancient scrolls in search of forgotten lore; to paw at the locked gates of haughty, exclusive places; to puzzle over codes; to decipher moldy gravestones and ferret out “the inside story” behind historical persons or events. Closely related to this impulse is the drive we feel to join exclusive groups, to seclude ourselves from the mass of men and form little coteries, to dress up our social impulses in rituals and costumes — sometimes to the point of elaborate initiation rituals or, sadly, dangerous hazing.
As the authors make sternly clear — for instance, in their chapter on the morbid anti-sacraments crafted by the Nazi SS — there is a dark side to our attraction to the shadows: Mix it (in a glass beaker, in the laboratory of Drs. Faustus or Frankenstein) with the fallen human appetite for power, and the chemical reaction emits a wide variety of toxins:

Gnosticism, which whispers that salvation comes not through humbly subjecting yourself to the Mysteries but by using “secret knowledge” to master them. This urge appears in its modern form among dismissive biblical scholars who pore through fragmentary manuscripts of sacred texts, the better to explain them away. Thus can even shabbily educated pastors and RCIA instructors join the “elect” that elevates itself above the superstitious herd. 

Occultism, which clouds the skeptical intellect with vaporous claims, appealing to the ego with promises of power over the uninitiated. I know of one former Latin Mass seminarian who kept dabbling in dark conspiracy theories and lurid accounts of “spiritualism” until he abandoned his dusty theology books for the squalid rituals of the Satanist Aleister Crowley. More “progressive” religious types are likelier to stumble into the pathless meanderings of the spiritualist Carl Jung.  

Pseudo-elitism, which poisons the wholesome human hankering to form small groups of people you’ve learned to respect and trust, and exclude all others — and turns that impulse to something sinister and cruel. C. S. Lewis’s analysis of this phenomenon can’t be bettered, but the tendency reasserts itself everywhere: from the cliquishness of teenagers to the snobbery that infects even pious circles: “I don’t date girls who go to the Novus Ordo.” “Those aren’t real homeschoolers.” “Those people with too many/not enough kids are crackpots/contraceptors.” As Lewis sums up this temptation, the “Inner Ring exists for exclusion. There’d be no fun if there were no outsiders. The invisible line would have no meaning unless most people were on the wrong side of it. Exclusion is no accident; it is the essence.” Of course, if there’s one thing worse than an elitist who forms such clubs, it’s an Envious outsider who tries to outlaw them, but that’s for another day.

There’s more to take away here than quirky anecdotes and cautionary tales. We aren’t here dealing with scolds or dreary debunkers keen on spraying Lysol all through a ruined castle. Indeed, the authors themselves are clearly Romantics who love a good legend — especially one that’s true and points the reader toward the Truth. Their chapters on the Holy Grail, on monastic orders of Crusaders, and the hidden places of the Vatican betray their fascination with the misty and the numinous — the very qualities that drew the likes of Tolkien and Lewis to search among the mythologies for clues to man’s deepest yearnings, and the One Who satisfied them all.

  • John Zmirak

    John Zmirak is the author, most recently, of The Bad Catholic’s Guide to the Seven Deadly Sins (Crossroad). He served from October 2011 to February 2012 as editor of Crisis.

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