With these points established, we can now move forward and define an “ecclesial hermeneutic” of the prophetic mission of religious in the contemporary world. As noted earlier, the essence of prophecy is the conveyance of a message, and message requires knowledge. Thus, Thomas Aquinas will define prophecy as ‘a kind of knowledge’; not just any knowledge, but a knowledge about things which are revealed by God, even if some of them could be known by reason alone.21 The analogy of the prophetic nature of religious life must also then be a knowledge, but a knowledge of what? The knowledge cannot be merely a ‘content’, but, as previously noted, it involves knowledge in relation to. I will argue that this relation is both multi-faceted and intertwined with a threefold knowledge.
The relation both precedes and is concomitant with knowledge: the religious, like the prophet, does not speak or act for the self, but on behalf of another, and therefore must remain in constant relation to the other. For the Greeks, this communication was not necessarily direct, but could occur within the natural structure of the world – thus one could read nature and interpret the flight of the eagle or the entrails of the ox. Judeo-Christian prophecy did not negate nature, but included communication with a personal God who used the prophet to reveal his message to His people. With Judaism and God’s stepping into history as a personal God, the notion of “divine intimacy” changed. The prophet continued in his or her role of interpreter of oracles – of hidden things, but he was now a prophet not of various gods, but of the one true God. The Jewish prophet was a representative of “the absolute, the man who lives in the intimacy of God, who communicates his desires, his orders, his blessings and his revelations” (cf. Amos 3:7).22 Implicit within this concept of relation, is the notion of humility – a humility which enables the prophet to recognize that there is another, greater than he or she, to whom the prophet must submit as an active instrument. This relation therefore implies a twofold knowledge: of self, and of the other who is God.
Self-Knowledge and the Knowledge of God
We see this double knowledge in the call of the Old Testament prophets. Isaiah sees a vision of God, and responds with a reference to himself: “Woe is me! I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips” (Is 6:5); Jeremiah responds in a similar manner, crying out, “Ah, Lord GOD! Truly I do not know how to speak, for I am only a youth” (Jer 1:6). Both respond to the other by looking first at themselves, aware that they were incapable of fulfilling the mission. In response, they are sent forth in spite of their weakness with assurance that the Lord will be with them. Knowledge of personal weakness alone was insufficient. It was knowledge of the Lord’s strength and their trust in him that enable them to take on the mission. 9 But what of the prophet Jonah? When he hears God’s command to go to Nineveh, he immediately run as fast as he can in the opposite direction, boards a ship, and sails for Tarshish (cf. Johah 1:2- 3). One might think that Jonah had a great deal of self-knowledge and little knowledge of God, but the American poet Robert Frost disagrees. He claims the book of Jonah is the first in history whose entire focus is mercy, not only towards the people of Nineveh, but towards Jonah himself. Frost opines that Jonah runs because he does know something of God. When commanded to preach to a people repugnant to him, Jonah is so convinced of God’s mercy that he knows God will let him down and have mercy on the sinners of Nineveh. Fr. Paul Murray goes so far as to call Jonah a ‘religious bigot’, of “strong will, but of narrow intelligence, a staunchly religious man, who simply could not bear the idea that God might extend his kindness” to people who were not Jews and even worse, serious sinners. Frost adds that Jonah cannot trust God to be unmerciful. “You can trust God to be anything but unmerciful. So [Jonah] ran away and – and got into a whale. That’s the point of that,” Frost says, “and nobody notices it. They miss it.” God won out in the end, and Jonah reluctantly responded, gaining knowledge about himself and about God along the way.
Growth in Self-Knowledge
Many religious are like Jonah; they want to choose their mission, to choose the people they will serve; and sometimes they can, to a degree, that is, if in accord with their vow of obedience, which implies a being sent out by the community. Obedience means I cannot always choose. As to the whale, Jonah found himself in a place where he couldn’t be disturbed – by anything but himself. He was forced to face himself and God – to be alone with God. There is a lot of silence in the belly of a whale, and silence is a prerequisite for growth in self-knowledge. Today we face so many distractions that sometimes a fish belly doesn’t sound too bad … no meetings, no emails, no texts, phone calls, or other people. Silence is difficult today, even for religious. It is much easier to be active – on the move – and ‘in touch’ with the world. This is necessary. The physical and spiritual needs of the people religious serve demand this, but these efforts will not bear fruit unless there is a source greater than oneself. Nemo dat quod non habet… one cannot give what one does not possess. The prophets first withdrew to receive from the Lord. The life and mission of religious life demands a contemplative foundation, whereby one comes to know oneself in God. Self-knowledge is an ancient concept. Roughly two thousand years ago a pagan pilgrim passing through Delphi noted the inscription ‘know thyself’ (γνωθι σεαυτόν) in the court of the temple of Apollo.25 The Dominican expert on self-knowledge is St. Catherine of Siena, and although her emphasis on self-knowledge applies to all Christians, such knowledge is particularly necessary for religious; the prophet becomes a witness through by means of an intimate relationship with Christ.
Self-knowledge is not a one-time event. It is a process with various stages, and though it begins with self, it cannot stop there; that would mean isolation, confusion, and neurosis. True selfknowledge requires silence, reflection, and relation; only in relation with others is any false image of self stripped away. But if I can trick myself, so too can I trick others. The only one immune to my manipulation and lies, the only one who can truly help me to know my deepest self is one who knit me in my mother’s womb.
Silence, reflection, and relation are all discovered in what Catherine calls the ‘cell of selfknowledge’. This cell is not a physical place but an interior cell, a spiritual manner of living in the presence of God, in spite of the confusion and noise which surrounds me. Consider just one passage from Catherine on relation and self-knowledge:
I long to see you truly espoused to truth, a lover and follower of that truth. But I don’t see how we can experience and live this truth unless we get to know ourselves. For when we know ourselves in truth, we know that we are not, but find our being in God, seeing that God created us in his image and likeness [. . .] You must, then, come to know truth so that you will want to be espoused to truth. Where? In the house of self-knowledge, recognizing that you have your being from God – gratuitously, and not because it was your due.
Once inside the cell we must lock the door from the inside and never leave. So though a religious is active in the apostolate and ministry, he or she must have silence within – a place of peace in which one can remain in the presence of God. This is not easy – especially in our noisy world where it is so easy to be in relation with everything and everyone, except God. Oftentimes, we leave the cell so silently that we do not even notice. We wake up to find ourselves caught up in the busyness of the apostolate, or work, or family. We find ourselves complacent, comfortable in life and its routine; we are established, capable in our apostolate. But religious, just like any other man or woman, sometimes wake up to find themselves in the ranks of the new ‘addicts’, shackled to their smart phones, unable to turn off the outside world, and unable to even conceive of the prophet’s desert. Such failings offer opportunities for growth in humility and self-knowledge. The Father told Catherine, “The source of humility […] is the soul’s true knowledge of herself and of my goodness… only when discernment is rooted in humility is it virtuous, producing life-giving fruit and willingly yielding what is due to everyone.” This virtuous humility requires that one be, in the words of Pope Francis, “fearlessly open to the working of the Holy Spirit.” One does not acquire self-knowledge, knowledge of truth, and fearlessness in the Spirit by one’s own power, but through daily prayer, reading of the Scriptures, and adoration of the Eucharist. This is Catherine’s message, that in prayer—in knowing God and myself before God—I realize what it means to be human, a creature made by a God who is a ‘Mad Lover’, crazy in love with what he has made; a man created by a God who is ‘drunk with desire for [our] salvation’. This was the fire behind Catherine’s prophetic life – the fire of the Holy Spirit who helped her to understand God’s incredible love for her. This knowledge impelled her to help others know the same fire of love. Do religious today have this fire?
Knowledge of the Word
We already noted that relation requires a second knowledge – of God. This knowledge ensures objectivity. The message is not about what I want, or what I think and feel. The content of the Christian message is not words, but the Word, and one comes to know the Word, not merely through study, but in silence. Entering into the prophetic mission of the Church begins with contemplation of the Word. Only there will the religious discover that his or her study, preaching, and apostolate are not mere duties and obligations, not merely ‘teaching’, but participation in a much larger mission.
An image that captures the essence of this knowledge of the Word is a modern iconic painting of St. Dominic by Sandra Brunetti. Dominic stands full-front, and in his hands stands the Christ child who in turn, holds an open Bible in his hands. Dominic, as the humble servant stands behind the Word in the shadow of the Truth he preaches. It is a Word he has received, not one he creates. But at the same time the religious is actively engaged in the mission. As Jerome Murphy-O’Connor wrote:
The preacher (prophet), then, cannot be a witness who stands aside and points […] He must be vitally involved. The truth he presents must be une vérité vécue, [and] if he points, it must be to himself.
How often today do Catholics and non-Catholics disregard or disparage priests and religious who act like the scribes and Pharisees, preaching a holiness they themselves do not follow. We do well to heed the words of Pope Paul VI, who reminded all Christians that “modern man listens more willingly to witnesses than to teachers, and if he does listen to teachers, it is because they are witnesses.”
The apostle Paul serves as model. Writing to Timothy he speaks of guarding the Word entrusted to him, and of jealousy protecting the ‘standard of sound teaching’. Safeguarding the integrity of the Word demands more than words. It requires becoming another Christ. As Paul told the Corinthians, “be imitators of me.” Paul well knew, just as any religious knows, “if his witness is merely verbal and not existential, if his whole existence is not a living manifestation” of the truth he teaches, “if there is a discrepancy between the preacher’s words and the witness of his life, he will fail.“
Returning to the Brunetti image, behind Dominic one sees his books on the shelf, opened but abandoned. He has studied the truth as a religious and a prophet, but his study leads him beyond the words of treatises. The Christ child stands on Dominic’s left hand and arm, but with his right hand, Dominic grasps the Child—the Word—because this child fulfills the very words of Scripture that he points to in the open book: Et Verbum caro factum est.
Vita Consecrata 84 neatly summarizes these points when it says:
True prophecy is born of God, from friendship with him, from attentive listening to his word in the different circumstances of history. Prophets feel in their hearts a burning desire for the holiness of God and, having heard his word in the dialogue of prayer, they proclaim that word with their lives, with their lips and with their actions, becoming people who speak for God against evil and sin. Prophetic witness requires the constant and passionate search for God’s will, for self-giving, for unfailing communion in the Church, for the practice of spiritual discernment and love of the truth.
The document adds that true prophecy includes “the denunciation of all that is contrary to the divine will and through the exploration of new ways to apply the Gospel in history, in expectation of the coming of God’s Kingdom.” This ‘exploration of new ways… in history’ introduces yet another relation and a third knowledge, without which our mission in the world today will fail.
The Mission: Knowledge of the Recipient
The first two knowledges belong in some sense to every Christian since salvation requires that all must enter into a relationship with God, and this relationship requires at least the most basic principle of this two-fold knowledge: of God as Creator and self as Creature. The specificity then, of the prophet and religious, is that the message they receive includes yet a third knowledge related to a mission to the other.
The religious, like the prophet, is sent on a mission – not to a place, but to a people. Contemplation and silence not only nourish the spiritual life of the individual religious. Contemplation of the Word pushes the religious to preach and to minister to others. In his letter to the Romans, St. Paul identifies preaching’s twofold necessity: that which corresponds to the preacher— “How are they to proclaim unless they are sent?”—but also that which corresponds to the hearer. “How can they believe in him if they have never heard of him?”
This relational principle of preacher and hearer is further developed by Thomas Aquinas. Speaking of the cause of faith in the question six of the Secunda Secundae of the Summa Theologiae, Thomas notes that since man cannot have faith unless something be proposed to him, God has revealed the truths of the faith to man. But since God does not reveal the truths to each man individually, preachers must be sent. “Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations […] teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you.”
Consider again the image of Dominic: after touching the Truth and contemplating its depths which extend beyond reason, Dominic holds Truth in his hands and offers Him to those to whom he is sent. The prophetic mission of the religious begins with the intellectual knowledge but cannot remain there, for the simple reason that, contemplation of the Word opens the preacher to the beauty of God, but also to the beauty of the people and the world around him. Only if one first knows the beauty of God can a preacher discover and preach beauty in a world of suffering, poverty, war, and unrest, where terror and evil seem to multiply faster than the good.