Wednesday, February 21, 2007

A Voice in the Wilderness

Thursday, February 22
God has ordered that every high mountain and the everlasting hills be made low
and the valleys filled up, to make level ground,
so that Israel may walk safely in the glory of God.
The woods and every fragrant tree
have shaded Israel at God's command.

In a prison cell, shortly before being put to death by the Nazis, Jesuit Father Alfred Delp wrote, “There is perhaps nothing we modern people need more than to be genuinely shaken up. Where life is firm we need to sense its firmness; and where it is unstable and uncertain and has no basis, no foundation, we need to know this too and endure it. . . . Many of the things that are happening today would never have happened if we had been living in that movement and disquiet of heart which results when we are faced with God, the Lord, and when we look clearly at things as they really are. . . .Walking up and down in my cell, three paces this way and three paces that way, with my hands in irons and ahead of me an uncertain fate, I have a new and different understanding of God's promise of redemption and release.” During his confinement, Fr. Delp invited into his cell three companions: the Announcing Angel, the Blessed Mother, and the Voice in the Wilderness. Who the announcing angel is, who the blessed mother is, seem easy for us to grasp, but the third is much harder. Who is the Voice in the Wilderness? What does it mean to Prepare the way of the Lord? To fill valleys and make the mountains low? What does this mean?

Wilderness is traditionally known as a place of emptiness, (indeed the Russian word for wilderness means “empty place”), a place that I, as a human, enter not as owner, but as guest. Wilderness has the capacity to change and surprise me, and the stories about it vary greatly: from Jack London’s snowy waste of savagery and death to Barry Lopez’ encounter with fierce little horned lark on the tundra that made him bow. Some have said that nature is the great theme of American literature and the battle for who controls it may be decisive or divisive to the future of the entire planet. Finally, and you should not be at all surprised, wilderness is where the ancient prophets went to talk with God.

John the Baptist was the Voice in the Wilderness, whose baptism of Jesus sends Jesus on his own wilderness trek. John is also one of the most enigmatic figures in the Bible. Religion scholar Nicholas M. Beasley calls him a cryptic wild man. That is one of the milder descriptions I have heard. If you’ve seen any Bible movies, the Baptist is really frightening: a gaunt, hairy and slightly hysterical creature dressed in skins, standing in the river and shouting “Repent!” like an evangelical nut holding forth in Justin Herman or Sproul Plaza. He is a man made crazy by locusts and wild honey, while Jesus arrives on the scene, gentle, luminous, dressed in white. And yet, I’ve always suspected that this image is not entirely accurate. Would people flock to someone who yelled at them? Would they trust themselves to be baptized by a crazy man? I can’t help but wonder whether it is John who is shrill or whether it is we who are made crazy hearing him.

The wise ones tell us that unless we can hear the voice in the wilderness, unless we are drawn to John the Baptist, we may not have eyes to see the coming of the Christ.

Who is John the Baptist? The following piece of nature writing may bring him better into focus: “The forests seem kindly familiar, and the lakes and meadows and glad singing streams. I should like to dwell with them forever. Here with bread and water I should be content. Even if not allowed to roam and climb, tethered to a stake or tree in some meadow or grove, even then I should be content forever. Bathed in such beauty, watching the expressions ever varying on the faces of the mountains. Watching the stars which here have a glory that the lowlander never dreams of, watching the circling seasons, listening to the songs of the waters and winds and birds, would be endless pleasure. And what glorious cloudlands I should see, storms and calms – a new heaven and a new earth every day, aye, and new inhabitants. I feel sure I should not have one dull moment. And why should this appear extravagant? It is only common sense, a sign of health, genuine, natural, all-awake health. One would be at an endless Godful play, and what speeches and music and acting and scenery and lights! – sun, moon, stars, auroras. Creation just beginning, the morning stars still ‘singing together and all the sons of God shouting for joy.’” Written in the High Sierra, June 23 (eve of John the Baptist)

If you recognized John Muir in this passage, you are quite correct. I suspect he is as close to the Baptist as I will ever come. Muir, like the Baptist, is a man of the waters. He spent a raging spring night behind Yosemite Falls. He wrote odes to water ouzels, the little brown birds of the rapigs. And he went up a tree in a thunderstorm and God came down in all the fury of nature and loved him. To be baptized is to encounter love. The wilderness, hint both our Johns, is where God can love us back.

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