VOICE LESSONS – in the Desert: Birth of St. John the Baptist

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Birth of St John the Baptist
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I share these reflections for the Birth of John the Baptist from a monastery of contemplative Dominican nuns in Spain – just one of the many monasteries of our nuns around the world that my present ministry takes me to.  It is always curious that one of the questions that people frequently ask me is, “How can the Dominicans, an Order of Preachers, have contemplative, cloistered nuns in it?  Isn’t that a contradiction?  Cloistered nuns in a preaching Order?!”

Well, I actually think that it isn’t a contradiction, but in order to answer the question, I’d like to look at today’s liturgy and readings, because I think that the question that people ask about the nuns is really a question about our life as disciples of Jesus in general.

Isaiah, the prophet says in today’s first reading, “The Lord called me from birth, from my mother’s womb God gave me my name.”  A mother’s womb is an enclosed space of deep silence. Today’s scriptures speak about our being formed and called – in God’s mysterious plan – while we are still immersed in this deep, maternal silence.  The mystics would go even further and say that this period of silent gestation happens in the very womb of God. The Psalmist sings, “Truly you have formed my inmost being; you knit me in my mother’s womb. I give you thanks that I am fearfully, wonderfully made; wonderful are your works.”

John the Baptist, the great, fiery prophet and preacher, was prepared for his preaching mission in the silence of his mother’s womb, but that silence was made even more radical when his father, Zechariah, was struck mute during the nine months of pregnancy.  That’s a lot of silence!  Dare we say that the words of a real prophet can only be born from a place of silent gestation?  John himself goes into the arid silence of the desert to listen to God, to discover the Word deep within – the final step in the preparation for his prophetic ministry. 

In a famous sermon of St. Augustine, we hear these words: “John is the voice, but the Christ is the Word … John is the voice that lasts for a time … Christ is the Word who lives forever.  Take away the Word … and what is the voice? … only a meaningless sound. The voice without the Word strikes the ear but does not build up the heart.”[i]

Could we not also say that John is the silence and Christ the Word … that John the Baptist discovers his prophetic voice in the silence of the desert?  Isn’t it true that many of the great prophets and mystics – Etty Hillesum and Martin Luther King, Jr being a couple of examples – found and clarified their prophetic voices in the silent desert of prison cells? 

Take away the maternal silence where God’s Word takes root in us – and what Good News will we be able to speak?  Even St. Paul says that we can say lots of fancy words, but if those words are not rooted in the love of God, they’re not much more than a resounding gong or a clashing cymbal (1 Cor 13:1).  Maybe a lot of our God-talk is just noise sprinkled with holy water!  And add that to all the political and commercial clamor that bombards us everyday, and we live in a pretty noisy world!  Our Dominican brother, Timothy Radcliffe, said in a talk several years ago:

Only if we learn to remain in the silence of God will we be able to discover the right words, words that are neither arrogant nor empty, words that are both true and humble. Only if the center of our lives is the silence of God himself, will we know the when language ends and when silence begins, when to proclaim and when to be silent.[ii]

Now back to the question concerning the contemplative Dominican nuns that I visit around the world. “How can an Order of Preachers have contemplative, cloistered nuns in it?  Isn’t that a contradiction?”  My answer is: How can we not?  As I said earlier, “A mother’s womb is an enclosed space of deep silence.”  We need those who care for the silence, who tend it like a fire that brings us life.  What will happen when the silence disappears?  What will we preach then?  How will we learn to say, “I love you”, “I forgive you”, “Peace be with you” if there is no more silence?  Maybe it’s time for all of us to take a stroll through the desert or a Sabbath rest from busy-ness so that we can learn again to speak the language of God.

-Brian J. Pierce, OP



[i] This reading on the birth of John the Baptists is from a sermon of St. Augustine (Sermo 293, 1-3; PL 38, 1327-1328) which is included in the Roman Office of Readings for June 24, the Solemnity of the Birth of John the Baptist.

[ii] Timothy Radcliffe, OP, (Misión en un Mundo Desbocado: Futuros Ciudadanos del Reino, Rome: Assembly of SEDOS, 5 December, 2000).