On living prophethood. Part I: a fire shut up in my bones.

To Bonnie Thurston, a beautiful hermit, a tremendous theologian, and a thought-bending poet—for reminding me of the things I must say, and for saying things better than I could. You are one of God’s better prophets.


The world is glorious. It is brimming with beauty and flowing in peace, it is soaked, it is drenched in love.

The world is a mess. It is murderous, lonely, and frightening, dizzied by uncertainty and mortally wounded by despair.

The world is a glorious mess.

The world is in God. God is of the world.

God is the glorious mess.

spider 334 cropped

A year ago I gazed at an ant and knew something God meant for me to know, and I called the little critter a prophet: a deliverer of divine message. (See “On prophethood, predation, and the difference between nice and good.”) Since then I’ve been thinking a lot about our hesitancy to use the word “prophet” toward ourselves and each other, and toward the Godhead’s other, nonhuman agents. Why? More often than not, we seem to confine the term to the biblical preachers and miracle workers, sometimes to the great, dead leaders of souls—larger-than-life figures. Are we afraid to be presumptuous of the authority of our words? I don’t think we should be. A prophet is a conduit of Divinity, one who sees with God’s eyes, speaks with God’s voice, and we all fit the definition, for we are not separate from the Breath and Source and Fabric of reality, which creates and sustains us. God is the author of life, and God is life. Vishnu and lotus flower. We are one with Him-Her-It in the duality of our nature. All it takes is the longing to listen, high and deep, to our Truth—and the courage to speak. To speak out, to speak for. To speak against.

“The prophet is an iconoclast, challenging the apparently holy, revered, and awesome,” wrote Abraham Heschel in The Prophets. “Beliefs cherished as certainties, institutions endowed with supreme sanctity, he exposes as scandalous pretensions.” Bonnie Thurston alluded to this last week in her lecture at St. John’s Abbey and added this: Prophets speak against because they love. They love, and they see that something is amiss.

The world is glorious—created to be divinely so—and we are God’s prophets in it, through whom both Love and Truth must flow, so we cannot be afraid. Each of us has some gift or several, some unique place in the universe, some unique perspective—it is God, through us, looking at the world, saying something to the world—and if we do not speak, it will be lost. We are preachers. Can you not feel the Message burning a hole in your heart?

“Frightful is the agony of man; no human voice can convey its full terror. Prophecy is the voice that God has lent to the silent agony, a voice to the plundered poor, to the profaned riches of the world. It is a form of living, a crossing point of God and man. God is raging in the prophet’s words.”

—Abraham Heschel, The Prophets

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When it comes to my unique perspective, God has done something curious: The circumstances of my life forced me to taste the plight of many—one afflicted group after another—and then let me off the hook, and gave me a voice.

  • I am a Jew born in Russia, where I’ve known persecution subtle and overt, verbal and physical, institutional and popular, from where I fled for safety, losing home and everything I’d ever loved—but now I’ve found an adopted home in America where I can “pass” because here, I am “white.”
  • I am an immigrant, who experienced the mistreatment of the poor, clueless, and speaking in broken English—whose family still lives that reality—but who became bilingual and bicultural and now moves freely among America’s native-speaking children.
  • I am a bisexual woman who has struggled with acceptance and identity inside both straight and gay communities, but I’ve realized I am called to celibacy, so I can comfortably hide from this part of me now because it’s not a daily pressure on my lifestyle, and my Church approves of me.
  • I have shared the disdain and distrust directed at atheists in this country for nearly two decades, but I am now a Christian—I am now mainstream—and so from this, too, I could comfortably hide. If I wished. If the still, small voice of God would let me and not burn clean through my chest.

But none who listen can keep silent for long, for the fire inside roars and demands to light the world and needs air to breathe. I know, my friends, that you know the feeling.

Whenever I speak, I cry out
proclaiming violence and destruction.
So the word of the Lord has brought me
insult and reproach all day long.
But if I say, “I will not mention his word
or speak anymore in his name,”
his word is in my heart like a fire,
a fire shut up in my bones

—Jeremiah 20:8–9 (NIV)

And so I come, declaring: Here I am, Lord, a voice in your immense prophetic chorus. A drop in the river of Truth.

Before I was born the Lord called me;
from my mother’s womb he has spoken my name.
He made my mouth like a sharpened sword,
in the shadow of his hand he hid me;
he made me into a polished arrow
and concealed me in his quiver.
He said to me, “You are my servant,
Israel, in whom I will display my splendor.”

—Isaiah 49:1–3 (NIV)

And the Voice says to me: Speak. But be afraid. The Truth of God is not all puppies and flowers.

It’s puppies, and flowers, and fire.

I suppose, if you fan the fire, you can’t complain when it burns the forest down. (See “On unregulated grace.”)

forest fire

We lament the flight of Catholics from the Church, especially the young, and we blame some of the sadder realities of our time—poor education, short attention span, abundance of distractions, overwhelmingly skewed priorities toward the pursuit of vain and material goals—but we also know that the seed of the reason lies with the Church herself. People today crave meaning and seek spiritual fulfilment no more and no less than ever. Yes, attention span has grown shorter, but in our infamously “twitterfied” age, the internet is virtually littered with 140-character gems of wisdom on faith and prayer, campaigns of activism, and shared media on charity, meditation, scripture, and spiritual reflection. One sentence from Pope Francis about compassion or refusal to judge is enough to set off a millions-strong wave of ecstasy and adoration around the globe.

People crave spirituality and meaning, good works and trust. At the Monastic Institute in Collegeville, MN last week I was presented with unsurprising but devastating statistics: an overwhelming majority of Catholics leave for Protestant churches because they don’t find their spiritual needs fulfilled. And it’s not because Catholicism is lacking in meaning—I believe the opposite, in fact, and I can expound for weeks on its magnificent, soul-nourishing theology; on its traditions of compassion, hospitality, and learning; on the infinite mysticism of Catholic sacramentality; on its unequaled sense of the aesthetic; on Liberation Theology’s social ideals of the true Gospel; on the progressive hope of Vatican II; on the importance for women of Marian veneration; on the positive influence of the communion of saints upon collectivism, historiography, example-led learning, and respect of elders. I can go on.

There is an inexhaustible well of wondrous meaning in Catholicism, but the past few decades have seen a convergence of circumstances that have obscured that meaning from most of humanity. Modernity has penetrated into every corner of the Western world with information technology, widespread literacy, demand for accountability, quickly deepening understanding of equality and rights, democracy, and portability. It is a good thing, I think: it makes our population, including Catholics, more independently thinking and better informed than we were a century ago, less prejudiced toward “the other” and more involved in dialogue, and it gives us choices and decision-making power. But it also lets us more easily separate from our roots, and we are far less forgiving. And we often approach everything in life as we do shopping, even the things that shouldn’t be shopped for but discovered, lived with, and pondered.

Church the big rockAnd the Church, in the whirlwind of Modernity, hasn’t kept up. It’s a huge rock, this Church of ours, and slow to turn, but in the modern age things happen quickly, are found out and spread wide, demanded an account of. This age demands reaction to the signs of the times. People don’t find it here. More and more each day, the Church is separated from the times its body is living in by a growing chasm, and neither ritual nor threat of hell is enough any longer to keep people in the pews.

People are fleeing the Church because it takes time and trust to discover the meaning and spirituality it offers, and it takes good preaching even given those two prerequisites, but we have few good preachers out there—priests and teachers and leaders and healers—and less and less time, and no more trust at all. The Church has drowned in scandal and corruption, in ghastly crime and decades of cowardice in covering it up and betrayal of her children, in the extravagance of bishops breathing exhaust from luxury cars into the faces of the poor, and—more importantly each day—in a cold and judgmental rejection of the multitudes of Catholics and their neighbors, loved ones and friends, of the folks who are now, in our tortured and turbulent yet increasingly diverse era, by all accounts normal: women leaders, same-sex families, divorced and remarried couples, and the like.

These are the signs of the times. When the Church tells a college junior that in his close-knit group of 20 friends, two are “sinners” because they are planning a wedding, the Church is not keeping this child from bad associations. The Church is losing this child. When we tell a girl that her call to be a nun is a wonderful thing and we’ll help her discern it, and then we tell a girl next to her that her absolute conviction she’s been called to priesthood must be wrong because we don’t ordain women, we don’t gain a nun and set a girl straight. We lose two girls and probably several more.

I know the arguments against women’s ordination and against same-sex unions (for more, see “On a forbidden subject”). I don’t think any of them hold water for any protracted period of time, and I’ve talked about them before and I will again, but now is not the time. It’s not the point. Arguments exist for and against, and we should have argued. We should have battled it out at least a century ago. Because the members of the Church already know this, and the “head” of the Church still doesn’t, and it is not all right, for they are leaving. What good is the beauty, the mystery of Sacrament if no one comes to receive it? What good is the preaching of the Word if no one comes to hear? What a waste is an empty church?

Church the waste of a rock

The world is leaving the Church, and God is in the world. God is leaving the Church, and no amount of ritual is going to fix that.

Do you find me harsh? Listen to this:

I hate, I despise your religious festivals;
your assemblies are a stench to me.
 Even though you bring me burnt offerings and grain offerings,
I will not accept them.
Though you bring choice fellowship offerings,
I will have no regard for them.
Away with the noise of your songs!
I will not listen to the music of your harps.
But let justice roll on like a river,
righteousness like a never-failing stream!

—Amos 5:21 – 24 (NIV)

Twenty-seven centuries, and we are still not hearing the prophet scream at the top of his lungs: Justice not ritual! Compassion not temples!

Loving God is in loving the world God is in.

The vestments will take care of themselves. Turning away from fellowship or from service anyone—anyone!—who doesn’t threaten the community’s safety nullifies every reason and purpose of the existence of the Church. Catholic Mass is sacrifice, but are we sure God wants it today?

To be continued in Part II: “just marriage.”


Permanent link to this article: https://onmounthoreb.com/on-living-prophethood-part-1/


  1. River, you would have loved being one of the 650 (550 sisters) persons who came every Monday night, spring semester, 1968, when Prophet Bernard Haring came from NYC to teach a course on “The Church in the Modern World”–which he helped write. He taught the course at Temple University, and the only place big enough then to hold the weekly crowd was the Baptist Temple. Bernard would also have loved to read and feel the fire in your soul. In the language of the 60s, he would have said: Right on, Sister!

    1. Indeed, I would have loved to be there! But, as good old curmudgeon Qoheleth points out, there’s a good time for everything, and we ought to be where our feet are. There is much to do here and now. Thank you for this sentiment, Len!

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