“The Path of the Prophet” with Rev. Christine Kell
The Path of the Prophet, the path Sr. Joan Chittister calls prophetic spirituality, creates space within the self where love and compassion can take root and flower in an outward expression of activism. It is not an easy path. Do we have the courage to step out and take up our spiritual responsibility to make the world a better place for all?
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A revised transcript of this week’s talk is provided below for the Deaf and hard of hearing, including prayers, readings and songs.
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For cities and towns, factories and farms, flowers and trees, sea and sky—Adapted from a prayer of the Jewish tradition
We give thanks for the world and its beauty.
For family and friends, neighbors and cousins—
We give thanks for friendship and love.
For kind hearts, smiling faces, and helping hands—
We give thanks for those who care for others.
For wisdom that teaches us how to live—
We give thanks for those who help us to understand how to live in peace and wholeness.
And for making us one family on earth, the children of One God—
We give thanks to God, who made all people different, yet alike.
A Prayer for Humility
Loving God, journey with us through these times so that we may feel your presence, abide in your forgiveness, grow in your strength, and dwell in your love. Give us an open heart, an open mind, and open eyes so that we may sing your praise and follow your path always, and everywhere.
Based upon a Prayer by Rev. Larry J. Peacock, in his book Openings
“The Path of the Prophet” with Rev. Christine Kell
Good morning. Thank you all for tuning in to One World.
This morning I am going to continue with my talk from two weeks ago about “Prophecy in the Modern Age” by taking a look at “The Path of the Prophet.” Last time, I presented what I think are the characteristics of today’s political prophets, the necessity for activist prophets who are more in tune with the sacredness of humanity and the Earth, and why it is so important for us to be willing to answer the call of the activist prophet.
Today, I am going to talk about prophetic spirituality, the term Sr. Joan Chittister uses to name the process by which we create sacred space within ourselves, a space where love and compassion can take root and flower in an outward expression. But first, I want to take just a few minutes to talk about how we can determine who is, and is not, a true prophet. Who should we listen to, and who can we trust?
As mentioned before, ancient prophets were concerned with establishing the belief in and worship of one God, in eliminating idolatry, and instituting a moral code for their people; they spoke out about injustice and exploitation.
Contemporary prophets also respond to the unfair and excessive realities of the world around us, and they, too, speak out about injustice and exploitation. However, no matter how farsighted or accurate they are, no prophet can predict the future for certain. Yet, true prophets of any age are able to see what is clearly in front of them: unless and until society changes, humanity as a whole will suffer.
Two key elements of prophecy are wisdom and discernment
Two key elements of prophecy are wisdom and discernment. Wisdom is a Divine gift, one that we develop through both knowledge and experience. Yet, often we mistake knowledge for wisdom, and then trust so much in the surety of our own knowledge that we override or dismiss messages that require a measure of faith, even those that come to us from the same Divine Source as wisdom. That is why discernment, our perception of true spiritual guidance and understanding, is so important.
In her personal observations, Sr. Joan has seen that people’s spiritual lives are in such disorder that we are no longer listening for those messages that come directly from Source. However, when we get our spiritual lives back in order through contemplative prayer, meditation, and study, we are able to once again listen for Divine guidance. Spirit can once again reveal to us what is true. And when that revelation comes to us through another person in a direct way, it is a part of what the Biblical authors meant by “prophecy”.
Today, there are oracular voices on almost every issue, sometimes on both sides of every issue. So how do we know which voices to listen to, and how do we trust our own perception of truth? How can we judge true prophets from false, and discern the path of prophetic spirituality for ourselves?
“Four Ways to Tell a True Prophet From a Political Puppet.”
The Rev. Thomas Reese is a Jesuit priest and Senior Analyst at Religion News Service, a nonprofit media organization that provides nonsectarian news and commentary. He offers “Four Ways to Tell a True Prophet From a Political Puppet.”
First, he says, follow the money. No prophet in the Scriptures was ever rich. “What did you go out to the desert to see?” Jesus asks John the Baptist. “Someone dressed in fine garments? Those who dress luxuriously and live sumptuously are found in royal palaces.” In other words, a true prophet does not get rich speaking for God.
Second, ask yourself, “Who are the prophet’s friends?” A true prophet is friends with the poor and the powerless. A false prophet keeps company with the rich and powerful. “Put no trust in princes,” says the speaker in Psalm 146. Prophets should not get in bed with politicians.
Third, for whom does the prophet speak? The job of the prophet is to comfort the afflicted – and afflict the comfortable. False prophets tell their congregations what they want to hear. A prophet who ignores the sins of his friends is a prophet for the powerful, not for God.
And lastly, how does he, or she, speak? The words of a prophet can ring with righteous anger but not with hate. The prophet must condemn exploitation but have compassion for sinners. If there is no love in the prophet’s voice, then that one does not speak with the voice of God. A true prophet speaks only after listening and praying.
True Prophets Know That Peace is Essential
The prophets of our time, like the Biblical prophets before us, know that peace is essential. They believe justice is achievable and refuse to be silent. They do not come to condemn those who think differently about a thing; they come to warn, to persuade, to enlighten. And they do not come to win by any means available. The prophet’s call is to unite the world in an honest understanding of the sacredness of the Earth and its people.
Activists with a prophet’s heart do not lead militant armies. They lead compassionate hearts and thoughtful minds. Prophetic spirituality is an attitude of soul. It is not a set of spiritual practices or a collection of dogmas. The person with the soul of a prophet sees what the rest of the world cannot see or does not want to see, and uses that vision as a compass through life.
But each one of us must do more than criticize and denounce what we do not like, be more than bystanders cheering the messenger. We must teach the truth, the why of injustice, the downsides of present practices and circumstances as well as their spiritual and social implications. We must encourage and sustain what is working; repair or replace what is not.
We Come to a Crossroad
And so we come to a crossroad: do we suffer the status quo to continue and thereby perhaps risk the future of our children and our world? Or do we find the faith and courage to step out on the Path of the Prophet?
From Amos to Moses, from Jesus to Joan of Arc, to more examples than I have time to mention, we can find many instances throughout history of people who chose to accept the role and responsibility of being a prophet to their people. Yet, one example I do want to recall today is an activist named Daniel Berrigan. Maybe some of you will recall Fr. Berrigan, an American Jesuit priest, poet, author, Christian pacifist, and anti-war activist.
Fr. Berrigan, an American Jesuit priest, Poet, Author, Christian Pacifist, and Anti-War Activist.
Fr. Berrigan was ordained a priest in 1952, and began traveling in France where he was influenced by the worker-priest movement. Upon his return to the United States he started teaching in universities such as Yale and Cornell. He also wrote poetry which became a way to express his growing concerns about American war-making. During those years he became friends with social activists like Dorothy Day, Thomas Merton, and William Stringfellow.
Daniel Berrigan’s adult life was punctuated with bold acts of nonviolent social action. He marched with his friend Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. in Selma, Alabama. During the 1960s, when the United States was tearing itself apart over civil rights and the war in Southeast Asia, he was emerging as an intellectual star of the Catholic Church and a champion of the view that racism and poverty, militarism and capitalist greed were interconnected pieces of the same big problem: an unjust society. He and his brother Philip, a decorated hero of World War II turned activist priest, took their case from the classroom to the streets with rising disregard for the law or their personal safety. In the minds of a great many Americans, Fr. Berrigan was a radical traitor; yet for many others, he exemplified ultra-resistance to war and militarism.
Fr. Berrigan reached a defining point during the Vietnam War, six weeks after the murder of his friend Rev. King and the outbreak of riots in dozens of cities. Nine activists, led by Daniel and Philip Berrigan, seized hundreds of draft records and set them on fire with homemade napalm. The subsequent trial of the so-called Catonsville Nine inspired an escalation of protests across the country; there were marches, sit-ins, draft card burnings, and other acts of civil disobedience.
“The Prophet Is One Who Speaks the Truth to a Culture of Lies.”
Berrigan was tried and sentenced to three years in prison. He refused to surrender himself and went underground for several months living with supporters and surfacing periodically at anti-war rallies. Listed on the FBI’s Ten Most Wanted calendar, he eventually was apprehended and spent 18 months in prison.
Over the years until well into his 80s, Fr. Berrigan participated in many more demonstrations, including protesting the Gulf War, the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan, and the Iraq war. He was arrested time and again for greater or lesser offenses. Altogether, he spent a total of nearly seven years in prison
In addition to his public activism, Fr. Berrigan had a long career of writing and teaching at Fordham and other universities, where he published an abundance of activist essays, poems, and, on average, a book a year for a total of 50 books. And while he was known for his wry wit, there was a darkness in much of what Father Berrigan wrote, the gist of which was that one had to keep trying to do the right thing regardless of the near certainty that it would make no difference. What made it bearable, he said, was a belief in God as the key to sanity and survival.
There is so much more that can be said about Daniel Berrigan, who, when asked on his 80th birthday how long he planned to go on, replied: “The day after I’m embalmed, that’s when I’ll give it up.”
Fr. Berrigan understood the role of the prophet, saying, “The prophet is one who speaks the truth to a culture of lies.” And he willingly accepted the consequences of answering the call to walk the path of prophecy. About his life Fr. Berrigan once wrote: “I lost my aura; more grievously, I lost a home. Henceforth I would be a wanderer on the earth, here and there an overnight dwelling.” Fr. Daniel Berrigan’s long life ended in 2016 at the age of 94. He was a prophet in our times.
Some Common Ways Prophecy is Expressed
Now, we can’t all be like Fr. Berrigan. However, taking the path of prophetic spirituality can teach, motivate, and prod every one of us to do more, to do better – to be better. But . . . how can busy people with family and lives to live possibly take on the additional work of social activists? According to St. Joan, it helps to be aware of some common ways prophecy is expressed by folks like us, and to have confidence in the big and little ways of responding to prophetic messages. Here are some key points from Sr. Joan to consider:
Number 1: to be spiritually mature, we must each be about something greater than ourselves. To own the implications of prophetic spirituality, we must think beyond our own small world to the effects everyday issues have on our communities and make a response to them – with others or alone.
2. Prophetic spirituality requires us to think about and study causes as well as consequences. We refuse to take news reports, rumors, and unconfirmed information as the whole truth and begin to look for real answers instead.
3. Today’s prophets identify with the issues. They become lay experts on the questions and concerns of the people with whom they or the community come in contact. They cry out for action as did the prophets of old.
4. People who understand the place of prophetic spirituality in progressive activism speak out and spread the word so that others become comfortable and knowledgeable about the issues.
5. Prophetic spirituality leads us to recognize our own role as messengers. Today’s prophets take it as their responsibility to help others understand what’s going on so we can all act together.
6. The people who recognize the richness of prophetic spirituality are willing to change their own lives and habits, at least in small ways.
7. Spiritual prophets become the messengers of Divine justice for the poor and oppressed by writing about it, speaking about it, and leading discussions about current issues and problems.
8. Today’s spiritual activists are advocates for groups of “new Americans” and encourage them to talk about their lives and hopes and dreams with local people. They create a solid connection between old and new that promotes acceptance and prevents barriers that emphasize differences.
Stop Hiding Behind a Life of Prayer
And finally, number 9. Prophetic spirituality requires us to stop hiding behind a life of prayer as an excuse to do nothing about anything.
Prophetic spirituality can be a difficult charismatic gift to understand. The key is to combine daily prayer with a humble obedience to the prophetic word that God has chosen to reveal to us. And I believe that word is being spoken, indeed shouted out, by social activists like Daniel and Phillip Berrigan, Marianne Williamson, Bill Gates, Mirabai Starr, and so many others – the prophets of our own time.
I’m wrapping up today’s talk with a story I read in the book American Prophets, written by national religion reporter Jack Jenkins. Jenkins was listening to a speech by Cory Booker at a memorial for nine parishioners who were shot and killed in 2015 at the Mother Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, SC. This is the story from his perspective, and he writes:
I looked over my shoulder and noticed a small group of men. I walked over and asked if any of them had listened to the speech. Only one said yes, a man named Melvin Graham. Awkward at first, he explained that not only was he a member of the church, but also that he’d lost his sister, Cynthia Graham Hurd, in the shooting. I asked him if he appreciated Booker’s references to faith. He offered an enthusiastic yes, insisting that he found spiritual resonance in the senator’s activism-minded approach to religion. Then his voice began to waver.
“We Want Action . . .”
“We don’t want ‘thoughts and prayers’ anymore,” he said, his eyes welling with tears, “we want action. God is good, God is great. God can do all things. But god gave you the power to do some things on your own. Use that power He’s given you. Use that authority He’s given you to make things better. Take those talents He’s given you – don’t bury them in the sand. Use them for good, for justice. Power is not yours to hold on to. Power is there for you to help people, to uplift people.”
Mr. Graham steadied himself. Then he added a fiery addendum, his voice thick with the indignant pain that comes with loss:
“And unless the politicians decide to do what is morally right and not what is politically expedient for themselves, this will continue.”
We have lost the holy gift of awareness of the world’s needs that the prophets before us brought to our attention; we have overlooked what they came to teach us: that the time most relevant to atonement and renewal is right now. And we have ignored, forgotten, or given away our power to be the change we want to see. But we can no longer leave the work of sanctification to others; this is for us – each and every one of us – to do.
It Is Up To Each of Us To Provide the Light
Eldress Antoinette Doolittle of the Shaker faith said:
“Every cycle has its prophets as guiding stars; and they are the burning candles of God to light the spiritual temple on earth, for the time being. When they have done their work, they will pass away; but the candlesticks will remain, and other light will be placed in them.”
We are the candles of today. It is up to each of us to provide the light – be it a little tiny spark or a roaring bonfire that will grow into a guiding light for those who walk the Path of the Prophets.
I began two weeks ago with Sr. Joan, and so I will end today with her as well. She writes:
“What we do and say, see and respond to in our own day is the path laid before us. It is the times we live in that are our call to courage. There is no doubt about it: the purpose of prophecy is to awaken the world, to bring humanity closer to the reign of God one small step at a time. The quality of life we create around us is meant to create new life, new hope, new dynamism, the very essence of a new world community.“
And so it is. Thank you, and good day.
The Time Is Now: A Call to Uncommon Courage by Joan Chittister
American Prophets: The Religious Roots of Progressive Politics and the Ongoing Fight for the Soul of the Country by Jack Jenkins
“Four Ways to Tell a True Prophet from a Political Puppet” by Thomas Reese, Religion News Service, June, 2020
Today’s reading comes from the book American Prophets: The Religious Roots of Progressive Politics and the Ongoing Fight for the Soul of the Country by Jack Jenkins. As part of his research, Mr. Jenkins interviewed Melvin Graham following a memorial ceremony for the victims of the Emmanuel AME Church shooting in 2015. We heard Mr. Graham’s story in this morning’s talk, and the following is Jenkins’ reflection after that interview, written from his personal perspective.
I reflected on the profound power of progressive faith on those who claim it, inspiring action and activism – sometimes boisterous, sometimes quiet – on any number of issues. He reminded me that faith is one of the few things that can, at its best, exist outside the often bleak narratives we journalists paint for the world, inspiring millions to hold fast to hopeful truths in the face of a society that bitterly insists that all is lost.
Pondering Mr. Graham’s words, Jenkins goes on:
. . . his work – which requires him to repeatedly live his own experience of tragic loss – is inspired by his family and his faith, things on which he refuses to compromise.
And that’s precisely why [modern activists] are likely to impact politics for years to come. It draws from a seemingly bottomless well of resilience that is paradoxically adaptable and immutable. It is undeterred by those who mock it, and even if the cameras vanish from the rallies, or the flood of activists slows to a trickle . . . religious communities dedicated to social activism will endure. For they have the audacity to believe in a faith that gives them no other choice but to cry out.
As I chronicled throughout this book, this menagerie of communities, activists, and everyday believers will not always agree with each other, nor will they avoid mistakes. But if you know where to look, you will still find them in the streets, along the picket lines, or even the halls of power.
And sometimes all you have to do is turn around to spot people like Melvin Graham standing in the backs of churches, synagogues, prayer circles, and temples across the country, living out their faith the only way they know how: by doggedly insisting, to anyone who will listen, on a better world . . . just as prophets always have.
“One” – Asha Lightbearer
“When We Stand Together” – Ryan Peake, Chad Kroeger, Mike Kroeger, and Joey Moi
This service originally aired on April 11, 2021.