Friday, June 15, 2007
“The child grew and became strong in spirit, and he was in the wilderness until the day he appeared publicly to Israel.” (Luke 1:80)
“SOUL-SURFING” – June 24, 2007
The Birth of John the Baptist
(Isaiah 49:1-6; Luke 1:57-66, 80)
Fr. Robert deLeon, CSC
“Viewer Discretion Advised” warns the ominous voice as across the TV screen the warning is displayed in large letters. And I know, as I settle in for another weekly episode of the medical drama “House,” that the warning is prelude to blood-and-guts reality perhaps too much for some viewers to handle. Well might a recent cinematic presentation have been introduced with the same ominous warning. “Viewer Discretion Advised” would have been a wise prelude to the movie “Into Great Silence,” a masterfully artistic portrayal of life within La Grande Chartreuse, motherhouse of the Carthusian Order, hidden away in an isolated crevice of the French Alps. “Viewer Discretion Advised” would have been a kind introduction to the stark reality of the spiritual life laid bone-bare before us viewers who sat for almost three hours in near total silence. Indeed, at least for those 162 minutes, we viewers became cell-bound Carthusian monks, forced to examine our values, forced to compare our world-weary lives with those of French Alpine monks. The thing is, they knowingly chose to live this way. We, innocent consumers of the cinematic offering, found ourselves taken captive. “View Discretion Advised” would have been a merciful prelude.
Author and reviewer Nancy Klein Maguire sets the stage for what viewers of “Into Great Silence” experienced: “In 1084, St. Bruno initiated an order of hermits who lived in community. He was serious about the hermit part. While not exactly unfriendly, these hermits do not have hospitality or public relations on their agenda. Historically, the order is so protective of its privacy that it is even averse to canonizing its members. Their standard response to visitors is to momentarily slide back the grill in their entrance door, saying: ‘We do not allow visitors.’ The Carthusian order has been so reclusive that few people, even the most devout Catholics, have heard of them.” (“National Catholic Reporter,” April 6, 2007)
From my own study, I’ve learned that following Vatican Council II, when all religious orders in the church were mandated to reform their way of life, returning to the original spirit of their founders, the Carthusian Order alone was exempt. Why? Amazingly, they had never strayed from the original spirit and rule of St. Bruno; having never been deformed, they did not need to reform. And to this day, 923 years since their foundation, it’s pretty much the same. Perhaps for that reason it’s not surprising that, according to church statistics, today they number just 360 members. Few could endure such a narrowly-focused, austere life.
Today the church celebrates the birth of John the Baptist, who, like those Carthusian monks, proved to be a man out-of-sorts with popular culture, out-of-step with contemporary values, out-of-his mind, according to the religious leaders of his day. In the gospel passage recounting his birth and early life, we hear that, “The child grew and became strong in spirit, and he was in the wilderness until the day he appeared publicly to Israel.” (Luke 1:80) Indeed, John’s was an extraordinary life from the moment of his conception, his aged parents Zachary and Elizabeth dumbstruck at what God had done. Then, when his public ministry began, more extraordinary still did his life become. Robed in camel hair and subsisting on grasshoppers and wild honey, John preached the need of repentance and the necessity of baptism, for God’s coming to his people was imminent. Indeed, John was a beacon in a world grown dark.
The first reading assigned to today’s liturgy, a passage from the Prophet Isaiah, almost seems a personal reflection offered by John the Baptist himself. As if explaining to the transfixed crowds what he is about, John asserts, “The Lord called me before I was born, while I was in my mother’s womb he named me. And he said to me, ‘You are my servant in whom I will be glorified. I will give you as a light to the nations that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth.’” (Isaiah 49:1, 3, 6)
And if the ministry of John was to bring light into the world, the Carthusian monks depicted in the film see themselves as no less. Ms. Maguire continues her review: “In a conversation with [the film maker], the reverend father [of the community] referred to the Carthusian mission as that of a lighthouse. The monastery is an essential dialectical element in Christianity. We therefore need it out there like a navigational buoy at sea in order to see where we are.”
John the Baptist, a light to the nations; Carthusian monks, a navigational buoy at sea: each poses the challenge: have we walked by God’s light? Have our lives as professed Christians made a positive difference in the world? Have we left in the wake of our words and actions light, warmth and love? This is the present challenge John the Baptist leaves us, as also does a small group of austere monks hidden in a crevice of the French Alps. Have I made a difference? And if I haven’t yet, will I resolve to begin? Can I make Isaiah’s confession my own when he said, “I have labored in vain, I have spent my strength for nothing and vanity; yet surely my cause is with the Lord, and my reward with my God.” (Isaiah 49:4)
Yes, it would have been the kindly thing to preclude “Into Great Silence” with the disclaimer “Viewer Discretion Advised.” Had I been warned, I’d not have looked into the faces of those monks and seen my own yearning for a peace far from earth. I’d not now be scouring my life for ways to live more simply and with greater intentionality. I’d not have a thirst for the things of heaven left so unquenched. I should have been warned.
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