Once upon a time a pompous nobleman paid a call to the English Embassy in St. Petersburg, Russia. He walked into the office and demanded to see the ambassador immediately. “Pray, take a chair,” said the young attaché, “the ambassador will be here soon.”
The visitor took exception to the off-hand way he had been treated. “Young man, do you know who I am?” he demanded, and recited a list of his many titles and appointments.
The lowly attaché listened, paused and said, “Well then take two chairs.”
Pride, vanity, greed, self-deception, and grandiose illusion are part of the human condition…except, of course, for me.
We are creatures of the wilderness, wanderers and sojourners in time who have here no lasting city to dwell in. And so, as in the legend of the Genesis 11, we come upon the Plain of Shinar…or some other place to settle down and rid ourselves of anxiety…and we settle there as though we could build something permanent that would be a fortress against the uncertainties of the wilderness and the knowledge of ultimate vulnerability and ultimate dependence. We build our own cities and towers of Babel.
Yet there is something about us that still loves a wilderness. Something in us that knows that refusing the nomadic wilderness –“ and as they journeyed, they came upon the Plain of Shinar, and settled there” – is fraught with greater danger and social peril. Something in us knows better than to settle down on the Plain of Shinar to build something impervious to the dangers of the wilderness and time. Something in us knows that the brick and mortar will crumble, that the projects of pride, vanity, and greed will fall of their own weight, and that the high towers we build with the little boxes for God at the top of them are little more than signs of a vast illusion, the vain acts of species grandiosity. For in the Hebrew tale of the tower of Babel with its “top in the heavens,” God has to come down to see their high tower.
Every society and culture has its own version of the city and the tower of Babel. In every society there is at least the memory of the wilderness, a sense of call to recover our deeper selves as mortals who keep traveling beyond the politics and religiosity of pride, vanity, greed, self-deception, and grandiose illusions.
Perhaps that is why John the Baptist heads out to the wilderness – “the voice of one crying in the wilderness” –away from delusions and distractions of the city of Babel. And the people also went out to the wilderness and the Jordan River to go under the muddy Jordan waters to rise to the hope of a fresh beginning on the other side of the formative influences of Babel.
After the authorities have imprisoned John, Jesus asks the crowds what had drawn them to John in the wilderness. “What did you go out to see,” he asks them, “a reed shaken by the wind? A man clothed in soft raiment? No. Those who wear soft clothing live in kings’ houses. What then, did you go out to see?”
Perhaps that is why Jesus begins his ministry in the wilderness. After submitting to John’s baptism, the Spirit grasped him and called him into it – “drove him into the wilderness” – away and apart from all distractions and illusions – back to the place where humankind lives before it “settles” to build the political-economic-religious tower, the impervious fortress and monuments to itsel fn the Plain of Shinar.
Those who wish to follow Jesus and those who would learn the lesson of the legend of the people who settled too early on the Plain of Shinar are called to go out into the wilderness to restart the long spiritual journey that stopped too early.
For the fact we deny is that underneath all our steel, glass, and technology, we are still animals – mortals subject to the most primitive yearnings, vulnerable creatures who possess nothing.
In his poem “The Wilderness” American poet laureate Carl Sandberg realized a great truth long before it came into vogue.
There s a wolf in me … fangs pointed for tearing gashes … a red tongue for raw meat … and the hot lapping of blood—I keep this wolf because the wilderness gave it to me and the wilderness will not let it go.
There is a fox in me … a silver-gray fox … I sniff and guess … I pick things out of the wind and air … I nose in the dark night and take sleepers and eat them and hide the feathers … I circle and loop and double-cross.
There is a hog in me … a snout and a belly … a machinery for eating and grunting … a machinery for sleeping satisfied in the sun—I got this too from the wilderness and the wilderness will not let it go.
There is a fish in me … I know I came from salt blue water-gates … I scurried with shoals of herring … I blew waterspouts with porpoises … before land was … before the water went down … before Noah … before the first chapter of Genesis.
There is a baboon in me … clambering-clawed … dog-faced … yawping a galoot’s hunger … hairy under the armpits … here are the hawk-eyed hankering men … here are the blond and blue-eyed women … here they hide curled asleep waiting … ready to snarl and kill … ready to sing and give milk … waiting—I keep the baboon because the wilderness says so.
There is an eagle in me and a mockingbird … and the eagle flies among the Rocky Mountains of my dreams and fights among the Sierra crags of what I want … and the mockingbird warbles in the early forenoon before the dew is gone, warbles in the underbrush of my Chattanoogas of hope, gushes over the blue Ozark foothills of my wishes—And I got the eagle and the mockingbird from the wilderness.
O, I got a zoo, I got a menagerie, inside my ribs, under my bony head, under my red-valve heart—and I got something else: it is a man-child heart, a woman-child heart: it is a father and mother and lover: it came from God-Knows-Where; it is going to God-Knows-Where—For I am the keeper of the zoo: I say yes and no: I sing and kill and work: I am a pal of the world: I came from the wilderness.
Jesus walked in our wilderness to live authentically and faithfully as a human being with all the beasts that were part of his nature and are part of our nature. When in the wilderness of John he had gone down into the waters of the Jordan and the voice from heaven declared him “my beloved Son in whom I take pleasure,” immediately the spirit drove him into the wilderness. And he was there for forty days among the wild beasts, and angels ministered to him.
By God’s grace and power, may it be so also with us.