I am going to break my own cardinal rule of spiritual writing and be somewhat vague and detail-avoidant. You’ll understand why.
This past weekend, we found ourselves at a speakeasy.
Of course, in Baltimore in the year 2023, bars are plentiful, and prohibition is a thing of the distant past. It’s not because of the beverages served at this establishment that we considered it a speakeasy; it was because the place itself was completely concealed from the casual observer.
It was a mysterious bar hidden in plain sight, housed in another building, a downtown business even. People came and went knowing nothing of the secrets hidden just out of reach. Pretty cool, right?
“Am I going to know how to get in?” I texted my friend.
She assured me that I wouldn’t have a clue. “I can text you the instructions.”
Suffice it to say, the instructions involved a basement, an empty hallway, unused coins, a retro machine and — the biggest plot twist of all — the necessity of a reservation. When my wife and I arrived at the right spot and performed all the tasks in the right order, an unassuming panel just behind us quietly swung open, revealing a dark passage and the slight hum of subdued conversation.
“Whoa,” I said.
“Whoa,” my wife said.
“Do you have a reservation?” asked the hostess. The woman had suddenly appeared in front of us. She smiled, holding up a pad and pen, completely defusing the mystery of the moment. She was leaning against what was now abundantly clear to us to be the door to the kitchen. “You have to have a reservation, I’m afraid.”
“We do,” I stammered. “Clayton.”
Her eyes scrolled down her list. The secret door closed.
“Were you just waiting there?” I asked.
“Yeah — we’re busy tonight, so I have to check people in.”
“At a secret bar?” my wife asked.
The hostess nodded, shrugged. “I can bring you around through the kitchen or you can…” She gestured toward where the door had been and the collection of odds and ends we’d needed to open it once more.
“Yeah, I’ll give it a shot this time,” my wife said.
“Then I’ll see you in there!” The hostess was all smiles as she headed back into the not-at-all hidden kitchen door.
“Kind of ruins the speakeasy vibe, no?” I whispered. My wife shrugged, and the secret panel swung open again.
I don’t think it’s uncommon to be enchanted by secrets. They set us apart, give us some hidden power. We like to think they give us the upper hand. I know something you don’t…
But what we’re really saying is, I’m better than you because of it.
We’re tempted, too, to treat religion and the spiritual life in this way. We pretend they give us power over others, that the life of faith is a life that justifies looking down on those who are different, who understand God in ways foreign to us.
We imagine church on Sunday to be akin to that speakeasy: Those of us who know the tricks get in. Those of us with the secret knowledge find the door. Those of us who have been chosen get to enjoy the fun.
But God is like that hostess. Just when we think we’ve found some corner of the spiritual life that sets us apart from others, God shows up smiling, glad to see us. God diffuses that aura of secrecy and replaces it with one of hospitality and welcome.
The funny thing about the speakeasy we found last weekend is that it’s not really a secret. Like I said, I made a reservation. My friend sent me the information I needed to get in. I can invite anyone I want at any time.
It’s a secret if I keep it to myself. It’s an opportunity for fun and fellowship if I share it with others.
Just like the life of faith.
Eric A. Clayton is the award-winning author of Cannonball Moments: Telling Your Story, Deepening Your Faith (Loyola Press) and the deputy director of communications at the Jesuit Conference of Canada and the United States. His essays on spirituality, parenting and pop culture have appeared in America Magazine, National Catholic Reporter, U.S. Catholic, Busted Halo and more, and he is a regular contributor to Give Us This Day, IgnatianSpirituality.com and Dork Side of the Force, where he blogs about Star Wars. His fiction has been published by Black Hare Press, the World of Myth Magazine and more. He lives in Baltimore, MD with his wife, two young daughters and their cat, Sebastian. Sign up for his Substack “Story Scraps” here.