Churches of Israel: The Monastery of Saint John in the Wilderness
The living history of the Bible is what makes the Holy Land so exciting. Having a chance to see, touch, and feel a real connection to the life of Christ and countless events and persons mentioned in the Bible is why Israel is so important to Christians around the world – both as a historical record and a spiritual wellspring. The Monastery of Saint John in the Wilderness is one of those places. Commemorating the childhood of John the Baptist, the monastery provides us with a direct connection to one of the most important figures in the Bible.
Located just north of Even Sapir, the site is located very close to Ein Kerem, St. John’s birthplace. The gospel of Luke describes John’s childhood, saying "The child grew and became strong in spirit, and he was in the desert until the day of his manifestation to Israel.” (Luke 1,80). Looking at the Monastery, you would be forgiven for doing a double take!
Indeed, the Monastery is not located in a desolate dune or craggy mountain range like you might imagine when you think of the word "desert.” Quite the contrary, the Monastery of Saint John in the Wilderness is surrounded by abundant lush green trees. Crystal springs dot the area as do other natural pools and groves. The local ecology enjoys a rich variety of animal life drawn to the bounty of the springs and the protection afforded by these shaded groves.
The difference between reality and what we imagine here can be chalked up to a translation difference. The biblical name for uncultivated land is "midbar.” This is the word that appears in Luke when discussing John’s childhood. And while this can and often does refer to literal desert, there is some nuance to the phrase. It can just as easily mean "pastureland” which can imply an empty area, or can merely refer to an area undeveloped by human civilization.
However, as surprising as this location might seem if you’ve been picturing John the Baptist contemplating in the sand, it makes a lot of sense. This is a location where John would have been able to live off the land and sustain himself while still possessing the isolation and quiet solitude he required. It’s a wonderful image to think of a young John resting himself against a tree, enjoying the cool breeze coming off a shaded pond, basking in the natural glory God has provided for his children.
The Monastery of Saint John in the Wilderness was built by crusaders over top of a Byzantine ruin which in itself was built over a cave where John is believed to have resided. As is common when you learn about churches and temples in Israel, there are layers of history to shift through and discover. Since then, the Church has fallen into disrepair and been rebuilt several times, the entire history of which has been lost to time.
The monastery contains several points of interest, most prominently are two caves. These caves have important biblical significance with the first containing a spring that was and still is used for baptisms. The second cave traces directly back to John’s childhood and is said to have been the hiding place where his parents hid him during Herod’s attempt to kill the infant Christ by condemning all male infants. To commemorate this piece of history, a fresco has been added depicting this terrifying scramble to safety.
The monastery features some impressive architectural flourishes including a domed roof and several gateways and walls. It feels every bit as ancient as it is with materials and touches from different centuries of renovations coming together to create a unique and textured feel. The monastery also features some truly beautiful springs and water features – perfect for contemplation and thanksgiving.