"The Voice from the Desert":
Reflections on John the Baptist and the spirituality of withdrawal
by Fr. Ian Dalgleish


As soon as you are really alone you are with God
- Thomas Merton
Walk the dark ways of faith and you will attain the vision of God
- St. Augustine of Hippo
John the Baptist makes several, albeit brief, appearances throughout the gospel story and it would be difficult to overestimate the importance of his role as the herald of Jesus' ministry.
The authors of the gospels acknowledge this. In St. Luke's version the events surrounding Christ's birth are paralleled by a series of earlier occurrences around John's (Lk 1). St. Matthew highlights John's uniqueness in a speech by Jesus where he praises him as "more than a prophet" and another Elijah (Mt 11: 7-15). For the author of the fourth gospel John was the messenger called to bear witness to the light of Christ dawning amid the world's darkness (Jn 1: 6-8).
John's significance is reflected in the Church's liturgical calendar. He figures prominently during the season of Advent and appears in the gospel reading on several Sundays in Ordinary Time. In addition he has two feasts of his own, commemorating his birth (24th June) and his death by beheading (29th August). Naturally he plays a major part on the feast of the Baptism of the Lord.
Over the centuries Christian artists have striven to express different aspects of John's life-work. He has been portrayed thousands of times, alone in the wilderness, sometimes serene, sometimes anguished; baptising in the river Jordan; imprisoned; beheaded. He has been the subject of many hymns and poems.
John: mystic and prophet
To my mind the gospels and Christian Tradition present two main images of John the Baptist.
On the one hand he appears as a solitary mystic, avidly searching for traces of God in the silence of the desert. On the other he is a fierce prophet of repentance, appearing in the marketplace to denounce lax faith and summon his fellow believers to a greater devotion to God. In fact the images are complementary, two facets of a single vocation. The message John proclaimed aloud took shape during his periods of solitary reflection. Inspired speech grew out of profound silence.
The gospels tell us very little about the "hidden years" of Jesus' childhood and youth and even less about John's. With the hindsight that arose from the experience of Christ's death and resurrection he was cast as someone marked out before birth for the unique role of herald - the voice announcing, from the wilderness, the imminent arrival of the Saviour (Mk 1:2-3). We are told nothing about the process by which this vocation became clear in his own mind and nothing about the influences which drove him into the desert.
In the absence of detailed biographical information I think we can safely assume that John spent the hidden years of his own youth and early adulthood carefully discerning the vocation which led him to break with society and to retreat into the wilderness.
Certainly the early desert fathers and the pioneers of Christian monastic life viewed John as someone who exemplified their own spirituality of withdrawal. The term monos from which we derive our English words "monk", "monastery" etc., means "the one", "alone", and St. John easily came to be seen as the original Christian monos. Relying on his portrayal in the gospels these early contemplatives readily interpreted John as the embodiment of the "call of the desert", a mentor and exemplar of their own motives and purposes.
The desert fathers were right to attribute such significance to John. As they abandoned "the world" to seek immersion in the mystery of God they looked above all to the image of the Baptist for encouragement. In the same way today, just as in the third and fourth centuries - perhaps more so - this mysterious, solitary, rather forbidding figure can help us recover essential aspects of Christian spiritual life which we have perhaps been too apt to forget.
The stature of waiting
Withdrawal to the desert as symbolised by John always begins with an intuition of the mystery of God, however vague or indefinable. God discloses himself to us but he remains above and beyond our ordinary perceptions or experience. At present we see him, as St. Paul says, only dimly, as in a faulty mirror (1 Cor. 13:12). God cannot be grasped and contained by purely rational thought or reduced to manageable human categories, yet he reveals himself to us and draws us into close communion with him.
All leanings towards mysticism surely begin with these two convictions, which seem at first to run in opposite directions: God is invisible, intangible, unfathomable, absolute, yet he can be found and known by us. Indeed as religious people we would claim that there is something in our nature, an innate sense of the supernatural, which impels us to search for God, to orientate ourselves to him and join ourselves more closely to him.
Like all men and women who experience this sort of intuition John felt compelled to withdraw from the noise and distraction of human society into the silence and solitude of the desert. The desert was bleak and inhospitable. More, it was seen in biblical tradition as the dwelling-place of monsters and evil spirits. But the silence and stillness of this austere wilderness constituted the ideal environment for John's task of searching, listening and waiting for God - a God who does not force his presence on anyone, but must be willingly sought and reached-out to.
In the desert John cultivated the necessary disposition of receptivity to the action of God, which is like the action of sunlight on a budding plant. Over the months and years God revealed himself more fully to him and took root more firmly within him. He drew John more deeply into the mystery of his own life and increasingly sustained him by it. And as Christian history shows, this has also been the experience, one way or another, of those who came after John and resolved to follow his example.
This is the first lesson which John can teach us today. If we want to find God in any but the most superficial sense we too have no choice but to withdraw from the chatter and wordiness of our environment - including very often, sadly, our modern church environment - and create some kind of desert space where we can wait for God, open ourselves to him, and greet his inevitable approach.
Confronting the demons
Besides this positive motive - a desire to seek God out and to enter more closely into his life - many who have responded to the call of the desert have done so in reaction to the shallowness and corruption of the society around them.
Some have recoiled from the deep dishonesty and injustice they encountered. Some have found the horizon of purely worldly ambitions and pleasures inadequate and alienating. Others have simply grown weary of the pretensions and fictions of a materialistic, status-obsessed culture. While most men and women have always been able to adapt, to varying degrees, to these fairly constant features of social life there has always been a minority less willing to stifle the insistent voice of the spirit, who have resisted conformity and compromise.
This was true, for example, of the first Christian solitaries and monks, men and women of all classes who, in the third and fourth centuries, fled to the wilderness amid the collapsing culture of their time. Their assessment of the moral state of society was that of a crew in a sinking ship: they judged that the time had come to abandon the larger vessel and launch the lifeboats instead. In a later age we might consider the example of St. Bruno, the founder of the Carthusians, who propelled himself into a life of solitary contemplation out of disgust at the corruption of the Church.
For people like Bruno and the desert fathers their sense of alienation from society and their subsequent flight to the periphery had a penitential dimension. Their spirit of over-all detachment from things constituted an appeal to others to repent and re-order their values. In this regard too it was natural for them to turn to John the Baptist as a fitting image and apt patron of their way of life.
Nor was their renunciation solely a matter of detachment from possessions and material wealth. Overcoming the vice of avarice was only the most obvious precondition for a contemplative search for God. Monasticism also recognised that for well-meaning religious people there were - and are - other, less obvious demons which have to be exorcised: the demon of "busyness" and ostensibly praiseworthy activism, which can actually divert us from a true acquaintance with God; and the desire to exercise power over others, which often assumes very subtle and deceptive shapes.
Some forty or so years ago, as his own desire for a life of solitude increased, Thomas Merton complained that even a monastic community, dedicated to the contemplative life, could quickly become a "busy village" where life was "as organised, as noisy and as fussy as anywhere else". The individual monk could convince himself that he was leading a contemplative life when in reality, Merton said, he was "jostling along in a small agitated crowd".
Today, influenced by a similar tendency to resist stillness and seek diversion, most parishes appear to have become the centre not of any earnest spiritual endeavour but the focus of a fraught and nervy activism, with a babel of conflicting opinions, endless schemes of innovation and change, and all the spiralling pressures generated by the latest, supposedly indispensable, means of communication: e-mail, fax and mobile phone.
No doubt religious people have always been tempted to forget that faith is ultimately something we receive, gratuitously, from God. It is not primarily something we create or "build" from our own resources.
But whatever the precise explanation it certainly seems that today especially many Christians have simply lost touch with their own spiritual roots. Instead they cast church life in the mould of our dominant commerical culture with its mania for change and "upgrading" and its flashy surface belying the emptiness at the core.
Would a pilgrim arriving in any of our communities today, for example, find a deep well of prayer, spiritual maturity and concrete Christian living or would he be more likely to encounter a whirl of self-important but fruitless bustle? In many ways it seems we have come to judge the quality of our personal and communal faith according to a secular standard whereby "busy" equals "important" and "valuable". Lacking contemplative depth we have lost a true Christian order of priorities and a sense of direction.
An additional danger in our present milieu is the scope which it affords to the will to power, "that extraordinary pleasure of ordering others", as the hermit Fr. Basili Girbau of Montserrat has called it.
In the contemporary church this power-motive and the desire to impose one's will is routinely obscured behind an ideology of de-clericalisation and lay "empowerment". Further, such is the commitment to institutional survival at all costs, that both the diseased motive and its divisive effects are met with wilful blindness and untruthfulness on the part of church leaders.
For their part John and his later imitators recognised the demonic element in this temptation and repudiated it. Integral to their retreat into silence and solitude was a determination to embrace humility, insignificance and powerlessness. Negatively speaking it was a renunciation of the impulse - from which religious people are by no means immune - to coerce or manipulate others. They had learned from personal experience that morally good ends can never be achieved by means of domination. They took to the desert in order to deepen in themselves the spirit of Christ's own humiliation and self-emptying.
If these first practitioners of monasticism sought any form of "power" it was the persuasive power of word and example arising from their pursuit of holiness. By participating in God's own life they hoped to become channels of his grace, radiating some of God's life-giving influence to others.
The crowds listened uncomplainingly to John's accusatory words because he spoke with the authority of one who lived his own penitential message. He knew that "preparing the way of the Lord" could only occur through prayer, openness to the divine, and the inner transformation that follows. Conversely, genuine spiritual seekers realise that God's Kingdom cannot be established, either within themselves, or in the community at large, by human management or technique, however efficient or well-intentioned.
"Go and sit in your cell"
One of the desert fathers famously extolled the value of quiet and solitude to one of his disciples. "Go and sit in your cell," he said, "and your cell will teach you everything". At the present historical juncture I believe the whole Catholic community would benefit from following this simple but challenging instruction.
Forty years ago forward-looking Catholics were keen to lower the drawbridge of our mediaeval fortress. They meant well but the consequences have not been as predicted. Today the Catholic Church in Britain, far from having achieved any grand new evangelisation, or even a discernible measure of internal renewal, has absorbed all the shallowness, decadence and confusion of the culture at large. As a body we have lost the intellectual strength, the depth of faith and the coherent moral vision which would enable us to contribute to the revitalisation our society urgently needs.
Unsurprisingly it is precisely when we have most lost our bearings that the volume of empty chatter is greatest. Much current Catholic spiritual writing, for example, is slight, ephemeral, and repetitive. One is conscious that religious book-publishing operates under the same pressures as any other profit-making concern.
Statements and interventions by church leaders - responding, uncritically as ever, to the demands of the "information culture" and its appetite for punditry and opinion - are often embarrassing in the poverty of their underlying reflection.
The burgeoning departments of the Bishops' Conference spew out pamphlets, reports and press releases, but most lack any originality or profundity. They are often couched in a jargon so bland and noncommittal as to be comical. "Some people are worried about society's problems but others see many hopeful signs too" is scarcely a caricature of both the style and the content of such documents.
The reality is that despite worthy efforts during the conciliar era to establish common ground with "modern secular man" things have moved on. Catholicism in Britain is a minority belief more widely disparaged now than ever. (To be fair, the optimistic projections of secular humanism have not fared much better, either.) The stream of clergy scandals has certainly damaged the Church's credibility. But even apart from all that, genuine Christian faith cannot sit comfortably with the spirit of the present age. At this particular juncture, and for various reasons, a revised understanding of our relationship to society at large is called for.
Such a revised understanding would have to be drawn generally along the following lines.
The Christian community has a duty to proclaim the gospel message, but different circumstances demand different methods and strategies. Our first allegiance is to Christ and God's Kingdom. It is not our task to help to prop up a culture which rejects Christian ideas about the purpose of life in favour of the spiritual squalor we see around us today. Rather, in such circumstances attempts to exert influence and cling to historical privileges involve us in compromises which actually hamper our ability to announce our real message.
In an earlier age the desert fathers felt no compunction in abandoning a society which had repudiated God and spiritual values. They concluded that it was futile to remain within such a society and the way of life which they adopted functioned as a wordless call to others to repent. At the same time, as far as their unlavish circumstances allowed, they showed hospitality and Christ-like care towards those who sought them out.
With this ideal in mind I would argue that in our country today one of the most effective ways the Church can witness to its faith is to withdraw to the margins and engage in forms of discreet, humble service among the poorest and weakest.
Then, as previously, our silence, our simplicity and our disavowal of worldly influence would be itself a proclamation of the gospel, a sign of the Kingdom "not of this world" and an unspoken appeal to repentance and faith. In fact some movement along these lines may prove to be the only way of removing the obstacles which cause people today to dismiss the Church and its message so readily.
The whole Christian faithful would benefit if we were willing to withdraw into silence for a time and refocus on basic priorities. We would all benefit if, as a body, we concentrated on recovering a deeper habit of prayer, trusting and waiting patiently for God to shape and strengthen us in his image, personally and communally. The fruits of such a withdrawal would appear in due time. But if we believe we have a duty to preach in the public square like John, then we must first, like him, find God in the silence of the desert.
(Thomas Merton comments in "Christian Solitude" in Solitude and Love of the World, Burns and Oates, 1997; interview with Fr. Basili Girbau at http://www.hermitary.com/articles/interview2.html.)