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Radical Conformity: The Wild Faith of John the Baptist

June 24, 2020


It is the paradox of history that each generation is converted by the saint who contradicts it most.
—G.K. Chesterton

When one surveys the masterful artwork of Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio, it is striking how often he painted St. John the Baptist. We see him as a toddler, as a young boy, and as a brooding young man. He is reclining, drinking from a fountain, caressing a lamb, standing with the Holy Family, and even in the act of being beheaded. Invariably, his countenance is dark. His eyes are shadowed by an intensely furrowed brow. Instead of (or in addition to) his camel’s hair and leather belt, the Baptist is draped in a crimson cloak that eerily looks like the copiously spilled blood of martyrdom. In total, Caravaggio painted the wild saint at least thirteen times, and more than almost any other subject save Christ. Given the wildness and inevitably short and violent life of Caravaggio the artist, it seems apropos that so much of his genius would be devoted to the wild, abbreviated life of St. John the Baptist.

Like Caravaggio, I too have a devotion to this wildest of saints. There is something otherworldly about him. Plunked down in the Judean desert, adorned in skins, and munching on locusts, he was an affront to civilization. You can almost hear polite society whisper to him, “There are customs, John. There are ways of doing things. Surely, your life can be a bit easier if you simply go along a bit. Clean yourself up. Wait your turn. Soften your message. We’ll introduce you to the right people. And in time, John—in time—you’ll earn credibility and people will begin to listen to you and even admire you. Now, wouldn’t that be nice, John? Wouldn’t that be easier?” Honeyed words, like those whispered to Christ.

But John the Baptist didn’t care. He didn’t care about fashion or fancy friends. He didn’t need high cuisine or sophisticated small talk. The man was ratty and dirty. He smelled and had bad teeth. It wasn’t that John was an eccentric vainly adopting an odd affectation. Nor was he a scowling misanthrope spitting at his visitors. Not at all. In fact, he earnestly loved the motley rabble who listened to his prophecies and ambled to his river baptisms. He pitied them. But he had no time for the quibbling superficialities or hollow platitudes of daily life. John the Baptist didn’t care about anything—anything but the Truth.

John the Baptist was his own man. Not cowed by Pharisees or soldiers, townsfolk, or even King Herod Antipas; he told uncomfortable truths and rubbed people the wrong way. He stared too long and spoke too sharp. In a way, four centuries of pent-up prophetic silence since Malachi were released in the thundering God-ordained declarations made by this seemingly feral man. Justice is here. Make straight! Prepare! Repent! Here is the winnowing fan! Here the unquenchable fire! But so is mercy. The rough will be made smooth! The kingdom is at hand! And with it fullness and grace!

He was an inveterate Truth-teller—defiantly scrappy until the axe cleaved his head clean off his body. John the Baptist was his own man, except that he was God’s.

John the Baptist was jarringly clear-eyed. He wasn’t simply a wild-eyed howling figure barking from some lone rock in the dusty outskirts of Jerusalem. He could see what others couldn’t—what others needed, even unwittingly craved for their fulfillment, for their salvation, for their peace. And his propensity for yelling was simply a matter of urgency. It was like screaming “Fire!” in the middle of the night as the family you would die for sleeps soundly amidst the suffocating smoke and encroaching flames. Or as Flannery O’Connor said, “To the hard of hearing you shout, and for the almost-blind you draw large and startling figures.”

But what is most striking about this saint is not his recalcitrant nonconformity to the norms and styles of the day, but rather his radical conformity to God. While everyone else was breaking faith, he was keeping it. Notwithstanding his fiery admonitions, he did not seek to destroy. He sought only to build. In all of this saint’s lack of domestication, in all of his alien starkness, we miss how utterly obedient, how truly servile, and how unquestionably deferential John the Baptist was to the will of God. He was a revolutionary who followed all the rules.

The troubled Caravaggio saw something remarkable in this troubling saint. And so do I. In an age of rage and destruction, indifference and uncertainty, we need St. John the Baptist. We need to be shaken from our self-importance and shocked out of our self-indulgence. We need to be arrested in our needless destruction and pried from our self-serving narratives. We must listen and hear. “Wake up! The kingdom is at hand! The kingdom of Christ—the Prince of Peace, the Saver of Souls, the God-man comes to bathe you in truth and grace. For God’s sake, wake up!”

St. John the Baptist, in all of your wildness and penetrating sight, pray for us.