The unsettling sound of silence

With good cause, the figurative desert in Christianity has always been associated with ascetical practices in the spiritual life.

This reflection is part of Rev Dr Richard Leonard SJ’s series on the season of Advent. We’ll be posting new reflections each week as we approach Christmas.

In Advent and Lent we hear much about John the Baptist. He is seriously over-exposed. In fact, many preachers run out of creative things to say about him fairly early on. Yet, in the New Testament, he is the figure who points to both the here and now and the yet more to come, so we can see why he is given to us as a central character. His role in the life of Jesus is more complex than some of us were ever taught in grade school.

Some New Testament scholars argue that Jesus did not just go to the desert and pay John the Baptist a visit, but that he was his disciple for a period of time, and later made a break from him. In the Gospels, John the Baptist emerges as a fierce character, opting out of towns and villages and heading to the desert to preach a harsh repentance, fasting, and penance. It was an austere lifestyle.

No matter if Jesus was John’s disciple or if he went to the Jordan for a day-visit, Jesus did not follow John’s lead. He returns to the desert on a needs-only basis. Primarily itinerant, Jesus’ mission was to be in villages and towns proclaiming a repentance of mercy, love, and compassion. I am pleased I follow Jesus.

Throughout Lent and Advent, however, John in the desert is held up to us as the way to go. Given what I said earlier about how, until the 10th – 12th centuries, the Advent season was in fact a later Lent — both five weeks long; both marked by fasting and penance; and both giving the faithful a day off halfway through — we can see why the Church returns to the Baptist in the desert in both seasons.

Have you ever been into a desert, a real one? Nearly seventy percent of Australia is semi-arid or full-on desert. It’s not hard to find a wilderness where I come from. And one of the most religious moments of my life happened there.

In June of 1984, I did a pastoral placement at Quilpie which is 1,029 kilometres (640 miles) inland from the coast. The then pastor, Fr Jeff Scully, was one of the finest priests I have ever met. On Sunday morning, the 24th June, the parish celebrated the feast of the Body and Blood of Christ, and later that day Jeff and I climbed into his truck and set off on his “country run.” This “run” was a 500-kilometre (310-mile) round trip. It took three days, running rough roads to Eromanga, Adavale, Toompine, and Eulo. These places are as outback as they sound. At the Toompine hotel, after the very devout local faithful celebrated their Sunday Mass on Tuesday, we did a Corpus Christi procession around the pub. It was the most moving one I have ever attended. The drinkers in the bar were not actually imagining things that day!

On Wednesday, as we were heading home, we had a flat tyre. It was dusk. Three things hit me in the middle of the desert: with no light pollution, the canopy of the stars was as clear as it was overwhelming; when the new tyre was fitted, Jeff and I just sat out there for ages listening to the sound of silence, and I felt incredibly vulnerable. I was pleased to drive home, back into town.

Maybe that’s why we are encouraged to go to the desert in Advent: for clarity, to listen, to touch our vulnerability. Going to the desert, and all it represents, is a very powerful experience but we need to approach it carefully and knowingly.

With good cause, the figurative desert in Christianity has always been associated with ascetical practices in the spiritual life. These are only ever a means to an end; they are never ends in themselves. Once we lose sight of their purpose we can get lost in the desert of our penance. This is a very dangerous place to be.

In the church these days, some people think our theology and spiritual practices have become too soft, a bit wooly. In some regards they may have a point, but these commando Christians may be following John the Baptist more than Jesus Christ. Truly living a life of mercy, love, and compassion should hold enough tough–love with which to be getting on.

Penitential acts do not change God. God is unchanging. They change us so that we might in turn change our world for the better, so that it reflects the Kingdom that Christ proclaimed.

Even though we have the ancient and venerable Christian tradition and witness of the desert fathers and mothers, St Anthony was very careful about the centrality of moderation, joy, and compassion that should mark the Christian life in an actual or figurative desert. The story is told about a monk who went to Abba Poemen and asked him, “When we see brothers who are falling asleep during the services, should we arouse them so that they will be watchful?” Poemen said, “For my part, when I see a brother falling asleep, I place his head on my knees and let him rest.

In and through our preparations in Advent we have to keep focused on what it is we are actually seeking: to enable the Lord of Life to be re-born in us this Christmas, and that our public lives will mirror the growing freedom of our private prayer. Sometimes for the love and joy of Christmas to flow and flower in us we need to confront the blocks that get in the road of us living the life of grace.

It is good to head to our figurative desert this Advent for clarity, to listen and to touch our vulnerability, but our time there should be marked by encountering God’s mercy and compassion and an assurance of his personal love for us. It should also see us reinvigorated to be sent back with Christ to our figurative city to live and proclaim Christ’s kingdom wherever and however we are.

Originally prepared for ‘A Silver Lining’ from the Parish of Our Lady of the Way, North Sydney.

Rev Dr Richard Leonard SJ is the author of ‘What are we waiting for? Reflections for Advent and Christmas’

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