- Andrews Amrithraj
A Path to Intimacy with God - Week IV
John the Baptist: Create Your Own Desert
The previous article focused on the importance of passing through the Temple into the Desert to deepen our relationship with God. This article, continuing with the theme of the desert in our spiritual life, will highlight the need to create a desert in our life. For this, John the Baptist stands out as a shining example.
John Prefers the Desert
John the Baptist comes across as a fiery prophet, a voice crying out in the wilderness preparing the way for Jesus. This is true but have we ever perceived him as a contemplative (the vocation of a contemplative is to be a prophet) who inspires us in our deep longing for God? Zechariah, John’s father, was a priest of the division of Abijaha and as son of a priest John grew up in the vicinity of the temple.
Growing up in the Temple John would have participated in the temple sacrifices, its festivals, and listened to Sadducees and Pharisees interpreting the Mosaic Law and imposing it on people. John, belonging to the tribe of priests, could have continued his father’s profession and lived a comfortable life without any major economic concerns. But where do we find him? In the desert. John, probably got disgusted with what he witnessed in the Temple. John 2: 13-17 gives an indication of that. He must have also witnessed people especially the poor becoming victims of both the Secular and the Temple aristocracy.
It will not be a farfetched idea to claim that for John spiritual discontentment in the Temple was probably one of the major reasons why he left the temple and its alluring priestly profession to go into the desert. John, after receiving what he could receive in the Temple passed through the Temple to the Desert to deepen his life in God (which the Temple could not give him). Belonging to The Temple, however grand and ancient it is, will not save an individual but it is one’s life and relationship with God (of course it begins in the Temple but doesn’t end here).
Recall the words of Jesus: “… You see all these, do you not? Truly, I say to you, there will not be left here one stone upon another that will not be thrown down?” (Mt 24: 2). It is self-fulfilling to be proud and to find solace in one’s religious institution but it is not the mere fact of belonging to the institution that will save us. An institution and a structure can be destroyed but not one’s personal relationship with God. We need to move into the desert.
In the Desert
Why do we need to seek the desert? Is it not possible to live a spiritual life without entering the desert? Yes, it is possible but the desert with its silence and stillness creates the ambiance for the seeker to listen to God whose language is silence. At times with all that is going on in the Temple and in the city it is so difficult to listen to the voice of God. It is in the silence of the desert, that is by entering into the cave of the heart that God becomes an experience. Obviously the seeker living in the city is confronted with lots of distractions and disturbances (at times even sacred distractions). Life is hustle and bustle, filled with activities and noise pollution. Desert becomes an indispensable reality in the life of the seeker. Jesus daily retreats to hills and deserts to be alone with the Alone. If I am his disciple then the call to enter into the desert is indispensable to being his disciple.
John’s Life Was Simple
John’s simple life style is a reminder to us that there is a deeper meaning to life than mere materialism and consumerism. In this rat race when is enough really enough? Our life seems to be determined by wants rather than needs. The greatest challenge while living in the city is not to be victimized by one’s very possessions. Even in the midst of wealth one can have a pure and a spiritual heart – a heart that is compassionate to reach out to those who are suffering. How beautiful life is when it is simple: it becomes fulfilling and contented. A desert experience, living with the minimum enables us to reach the spiritual truth that all that we need is the ‘Presence’ to be blissful. A desert experience detaches us from our material addictions and to be attached to God alone.
Give it a try and experience it for yourself. Why Did People Seek Out John? What did people find in John that they could not get from their priests and the Pharisees in the Temple? John was not a Rabbi, a Sadducee or a Pharisee. Yet, people from different walks of life went to listen to him. Jesus like John did not claim to be a rabbi, or an expert on Mosaic laws, nor did he impose laws as a burden on people. He did not credit himself with a degree from a reputed educational institution of his time but people flocked to him to listen to his revelations of God. For Jesus his authority came not from any human source but from God above. Jesus spoke out of his direct experience of God. Even in other religious traditions we find people flocking to spiritual masters who were drunk with God rather than to the one who is full of information about God.
Sri Ramakrishna Paramahamsa dropped out of school at the age of twelve, Ramana Maharishi discontinued his education at the age of sixteen, Nisargadatta Maharaj was a simple farmer, Kabir the mystic was a weaver… these and many others were intoxicated with love for God. When they spoke about God it came from their own personal experience of God.
I am not downplaying the importance of religious education; education can give information, sharpen our minds, and enable us to think logically and critically. Knowledge can only bring us to the threshold of God but beyond that it is silence and stillness that opens the door to the divine who is ever present within us. How much of God is your own experience and not a borrowed knowledge from others?
The call to conversion is to change the mind, to refocus on our priorities. It is not a question of dropping one’s mind or to drop all thoughts. But to let the mind be illumined by the presence of God that is ever present in us. To let our thoughts be qualified by God. In the words of Swami Sarva Priyananda: to move from the monkey mind to the monk mind. Recall the words of St. Paul: “Do not be conformed to this world but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that you may prove what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect” (Rom 12:2).
They Returned to the City
John did not ask those who came to listen to him to remain with him in the desert. Spiritual life is not giving up one’s responsibilities for the family or the world. To enter the desert is not to escape the busyness of the city and its life. The challenge is to return to our daily life with a purified, compassionate, and a selfless mind and heart. A Zen master was asked what enlightenment meant for him. He said, “Before enlightenment I was depressed and after enlightenment I still get depressed.” “Then what is the purpose of enlightenment?” demanded the disciples. The master replied, “Now I am aware.” Problems of life do not disappear because one seeks a spiritual path but one is aware now without identifying oneself with the problems and in awareness one chooses to respond and not react. We retreat in order to spring forth. If God is with us who can be against us?
Create Your Own Desert
The ideal would be to retreat into the desert for a few days. To be in the desert is to take some time off for a retreat or go to a quiet place. It is not a bad idea to give your spouse a gift of a retreat. Just to be alone with the Alone is the best gift that one can give to another. It is a gift that will benefit not only the individual but also others. We spent so much of our resources, time, and energy on entertaining ourselves and others which is needed. Don’t we spend quite a bit of money on a cruise or going on a vacation to exotic places? Yes we need a vacation to ‘get away’ to rest and relax our tired bodies but what about our minds and spirits? When it comes to spending on a retreat we hesitate. Probably it is because we don’t feel the need to go beyond the Temple or we are satisfied with what the clergy gives us. We have become so ‘clergy dependent’ that we fail to realize that they can only point the moon and not give the moon on a platter. God is given to us so easily that we don’t harken the call of Jesus, “Come and See.”
Just being alone before the presence of God for ten to twenty minutes a day is our desert experience. We can afford this much for our spiritual life, isn’t it true? Spending ten to twenty minutes a day with God is our investment; both for the present and the future and never a waste of time.
Be free from social media for a day. We live in a culture of mass information and how much of it is really helpful for a happy and a fulfilling life? If more information from different social media is the secret to a contented life than we should be happier than our predecessors. But is that really true? That’s not the story. So much of our precious time is consumed by media. Try to be free from it for a day and just be with life in all its simplicity.
Try to get into the practice of Contemplative Prayer which will take us into the cave of our hearts where God is ever present as the ever shining light.
Be part of a Contemplative Group that meets periodically.