Spirituality Office


The prophetic spirit

The eternal icon of the prophet occupies the corner of my desk. The gaunt, wisp of a figure, arms thrown wide, head up and shouting to the sky, looks to the casual observer to be made of heavy lead. I thought so, too—until one day I picked it up. As impossible as it may seem, the statue was almost weightless. It lay in my hand as quietly as a piece of cardboard—and may well have been made of it, for all I knew. Whatever the substance—lead or papier-mâché—there was nothing to it. The figure was empty. And then I understood. So, too, is the prophetic spirit empty of everything but the Word of God, of everything but what it means to be true to the coming of the will of God for creation.

First and foremost, a real follower of Jesus the Prophet is faithful, forever endures. No new idea, however right, however much the essence of goodness, overgrows old ideas easily or quickly. It took over two hundred years to abolish slavery; more years to abrogate segregation; and now, it seems, even more years to extinguish the racism that is at our historical roots. Nevertheless, the prophetic promise of a world of equals never died out. The hopes of the human heart were impossible to extinguish. Generation after generation of prophetic people rose up century after century to speak a word of justice. The fact is that in our own time, we must do the same.

Second, the prophet does more than denounce evil. Instead, prophetic spirituality envisions a world in which justice and equality, peace and community are the norm rather than the struggle. It is the prophet of our time who leads the way to the development of an alternative vision of life by imagining a new normal. Today’s prophets prepare for the reconstruction of society by imagining the achievable and drawing others to see it as well. Vision is the first step toward change. Or as the poet e. e. cummings put it, “The first act of creation is destruction.” The old order—decaying and disturbing—must go in order to make room for the new.

Prophetic spirituality comes with the grace of boldness. Prophets do not tiptoe around truth nor do they distort it or exaggerate it or embellish it for the sake of being heard. The truth itself is enough. The truth itself commits us all to something better. Bold witnesses do not set out to create the public peace when the peace is bogus. They simply challenge the establishment with the bare truth. Then, if the system defends itself or if the system makes no response at all, prophets gather new groups with new ideas to plant the seeds that will supplant the old. They strike out to create what seems to some to be the very antithesis of peace. They do not shrink from opening the conversation. They are the spiritual gadflies of societies built on inequity and the voice of peoples trying to be heard. Their sound echoes off all the mountains on the planet.

Finally, they do not despair. They know that God’s time is not our time. They understand that change comes in seasons. Saint Paul is a realist. Some of us plant, he says. Then, the next generation waters. All of us hope that the harvest is soon. But in the course of its long, slow coming we do not fail in our faith that the Spirit of God is with us and God’s time is near.

           —from The Time Is Now: A Call to Uncommon Courage(Penguin Random House) by Joan Chittister