Yesterday the Church remembered and celebrated the birth of St. John the Baptist, who was crazy.
He lived in the desert, which is a sweltering stretch of HOT SAND and SCORPIONS with little water and lots of wild animals, in addition to the scorpions. He had a huge, ZZ Top, bird's nest of a beard. He ate bugs and wore camel hair, which I imagine was a wee bit abrasive on the flesh. St. John the Baptist was a wild man. He was crazy.
And yet, people flocked to him. Beyond those exterior and eccentric markings, there must have been a deep well of peace, and a truly magnetic personality. What else could have drawn not only the carnival curious but the learned, the leadership, the local government, heck, everybody living in an enemy-occupied land and longing for the freedom that this crazy man seemed to be swimming in down by the Jordan?
Something must have shone through those ragged clothes, that behemoth beard. Some fire burned out from his spirit that illumined every act and action of this wild man of southern Palestine. They say "clothes make the man." But the man also makes the clothes. The body of the Baptist, like our bodies, was the outward sign of the invisible reality of his person. It's like a sacrament; well, it is a sacrament. The body is the first marriage made by God of the spiritual and the physical, heaven and earth, and we perceive and encounter spiritual realities through the physical sign of the flesh. Wow.
So what is this wild man saying with his body? What truth is revealed in and through the radical posture of his personality?
A Totally Intentional Digression...
I was in Manhattan last Saturday giving a talk to engaged couples on the Theology of the Body. At the end of the day we discovered that there was a ton of leftovers from lunch. Probably 100 little sandwiches, chips, soda. So we loaded up the car and drove up to the Bronx to drop off the food at the Franciscan Friars house, knowing the boys in the hoods would know plenty of hungry bellies to fill. I drove through an amazing microcosm of humanity on the way to the Bronx; faces from all over the world, clustered together, crammed into row homes, bustling through the streets, music from three continents playing from windowsills and cars and little corner shops. When the door of Our Lady of the Angels Friary opened, I kid you not, the scent of incense poured out and over me like a river, like the odor of sanctity! The Holy One was in the heart of the city. Isn't He always at the heart of things?
A young friar named Brother Joachim greeted me in bare feet, gray robe, a huge ZZ Top bird's nest of a beard, and a smile that said peace in the midst of all the noise and haste. We brought the boxes of sandwiches into the friary and set them on a massive wooden table in the dining room, beneath a beautiful crucifix and shelves of books. The exchange was simple and then I was on the road, heading back to Philly, left thinking of the Wild Men that lived in that wilderness of concrete and glass and noise, and of the Wild Women, living in cloisters and convents, serving the poor, taking radical vows of poverty and chastity and obedience in the midst of a culture too often bent on amassing wealth, indulging lust, and breaking the rules whenever the rules try to break us.
What are these Wild Ones saying in and through their bodies for the Church and the world at large? Some thoughts....
THE BEARD: Vanity of vanities, all is vanity. A crazy beard says I am not consumed with how polished I look, I am consumed by the Mystery of the Living God.
THE BARE FEET: Feel the earth, walk in simplicity, suffer the chill and the heat, and remember from whence you came. Thanks St. Francis!
THE ROBE: It's penitential, it's poverty, it's simplicity (and it has cool pockets in the sleeves)
THE ROPE: Wild men and women are bound to the Heart of God with three promises of poverty, chastity and obedience, and the rope holds three knots to remind them of this every day.
THE SUFFERING: The radical life of the Wild Ones brings many disparaging looks. Why are they so different? Why are they giving their lives to what can't be seen or touched? (so they think). And hasn't the experiment of Christianity been tried and failed? In the words of G.K. Chesterton, "Christianity has not been tried and found wanting; it has been found too difficult and not tried."
Thank God for the Wild Men and Women of the Church! May they continue to be a sign of contradiction for us all, a sign pointing to Something More beyond the circles of this world! They inspire and encourage us all to be that voice crying out in the wilderness "Prepare the Way of the Lord!"
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