Post 293

Seven Steps: Reflections on Being a Prophet

Here’s my WikiHow guide to being a prophet, inspired by the readings for tomorrow, the Fourteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time. Without intending it, I’ve got seven steps on the seventh day of the seventh month.

Step One
There is no step one. There is no reliable way to be ‘prepared.’ You never know when God might call you. More importantly, you never know how. By that, I mean that God’s plans for you will very likely run in a direction quite opposite to the one you thought you were going. When he calls you, he may ask you to begin doing something that you didn’t think you would ever do. Moses viewed himself as someone unable to speak well, yet he was called to speak to the Egyptian pharaoh, and he spoke many, many times after that, to all of the people of Israel. David was a shepherd boy when he was anointed king. St. Joan of Arc was thirteen years old, standing in her father’s garden, when she received visions of angels. There are so many examples. Furthermore, only God will know whether you are the type of person he wants for a particular mission. You may not think you are good enough, but he has plans for everyone.

So carry on. Do whatever you are doing. Preferably, do what you’re supposed to be doing, but God may still call you to be his prophet even if you’re doing what you’re not supposed to be doing — just ask St. Paul.

Oh, and another thing. Know that God calls everyone for something. He may not call you to be a prophet in the specific Jonah-in-the-streets type of way, but there are many job openings in God’s business, and he is always hiring. Wherever there is a scrap of good will, God will use it. You are mistaken if you believe that you are ready to do God’s will, but that he hasn’t yet noticed. He knows, and he will use you to your full potential.

Step Two
Receive the invitation. In the first reading for tomorrow, God says to Ezekial, “I send you to the people of Israel, to a nation of rebels, who have rebelled against me; they and their fathers have transgressed against me to this very day. The people also are impudent and stubborn.” (Ezekial 2:3) God is complaining that his love for his people has not been returned, that everything has been entirely one-sided. He is, in many ways, a lonely God. He confides in the one he sends.

The invitation may have supernatural qualities. (Generally, the more unusual the mission, the more likely that it will be accompanied by supernatural elements.) You may be shown a vision of something or you may hear God’s voice. When you have a vision, it can be that you picture it vividly in your mind, the way you can picture something in your imagination when you want. The difference is that when you imagine something, you are the artist; you are the director. You decide what elements to include and exclude. You make it the way you want. When God gives you a vision, you do not choose what the elements are. It appears before you as if you are watching a story. As a result, you don’t always know the context. You don’t know the context because you didn’t build the scenes. Most significantly, there is no date-stamp on visions. You almost never know when these things will happen. Indeed, a vision can include information about something that has happened, is happening now somewhere you cannot humanly see it, or something that will happen if certain other things do or do not happen. A vision is mysterious in the sense that it signifies more than can be understood by the recipient. Like a poem, some of the meaning is obvious and other parts are perplexing, but complete understanding is elusive, and may not come for quite a long time. Moving on to the idea of a voice, sometimes called “interior locution,” God’s voice is usually not audible on the ‘outside,’ through the sense of hearing. Yet it is best understood as hearing because usually there are words. These words could, in theory, be written down as they are received. However, sometimes the meaning is made clear, but in order to write it down, you would have to choose your own words to reflect the meaning. For this reason, you will see that the saints will use phrases like, “I was made to understand.” It’s a way of expressing that God revealed or explained something, but that the words are your own.

The reason that God uses supernatural signs and wonders to begin a mission is that they signify, in a memorable way, an alteration of the normal course of events. They serve as a way to strengthen and prepare the one he has chosen, and over the course of time, the memory of the supernatural invitation can serve as a comfort when things become more difficult.

Step Three
Follow the instructions that God gives. These instructions may be quite specific, but they may also be open-ended. He may set you loose upon the world to do what seems to you to be right to do. He may even reassure you that your own preferences and instincts (for lack of a better word), are in keeping with his will, along the theme of “love and do what you will.” Both styles of mission, the specific and the general, have their challenges.

Step Four
Enjoy the interaction with God. In this one verse, at 2 Corinthians 12:7, St. Paul twice wrote the word “elated,” when describing how it felt to receive “the abundance of revelations.” While it is true that people can pray and try to understand what God is saying in response, often this is difficult. Personally, I used to regularly consult people who I felt were wise and holy. It was comforting to be able to question someone in person. I believe that it was a good practice and supplement to prayer, and I am thankful that God used those people in my life as a source of advice. When you approach someone with good faith, hoping that God will speak through them and enlighten you, then it is unlikely that you will be disappointed. In any case, prayer is, for most people, hard work, because you have to concentrate on what you are trying to say to God, and when you think that you know what God wants, you may still question whether your understanding is correct. We perceive a ‘divider’ between us and the supernatural God — you could call it a veil or a lattice. What a change, then, when this veil is moved aside somewhat, for just a moment or on several occasions. What a change to be able to converse with God in an easier way, where answers are more distinct. Of course St. Paul is elated.

Step Five
Experience the suffering. When people talk of the suffering of a prophet, they refer to the idea of being kicked out of town, or generally hated. We’ll get to that, but right now I want to explain something else. In the same way that there are supernatural gifts, there are supernatural sufferings. God does not give supernatural gifts without a counterbalancing component of supernatural suffering. This suffering is not the typical kind, that we all receive as we live out our lives. These are sufferings which are hidden and painful for an entirely different set of reasons. As an example of a type of supernatural suffering, I could give the example of heightened sensitivity to sin and evil — supernatural vision, if you will. That may not sound too bad, but here’s my analogy. When I was a child, I once asked my father whether he thought it would be neat if we could see (with our unaided eye) germs (bacteria, viruses). He said no. And indeed, if you stop and picture it for a moment, you can see that it would be horrible. But you see, sins are like germs, and being able to see them more clearly can be a kind of supernatural suffering. But there are many other types of supernatural suffering. St. Paul refers to the way that he suffers, and the following words have caused a lot of speculation: “And to keep me from being too elated by the abundance of revelations, a thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan, to harass me, to keep me from being too elated. Three times I besought the Lord about this, that it should leave me (2 Corinthians 12:7-8).” People wonder what kind of suffering he had. They have latched on to the word “flesh,” and said that probably St. Paul suffered from some type of lustful temptation. That’s not it. Lust is a normal temptation, along with greed and envy and all the other germs. It’s normal to be tempted by lust. I think for a man, hormones produce an almost-constant background noise, and for a woman, hormones produce a powerful cyclical gift/problem. St. Paul was not referring to this. The word “flesh,” is there to show you how close the problem is to him, and how painful it is. He’s making an analogy for something which is so difficult to express: “A thorn was given me in the flesh” is something that people can understand, even if they cannot understand the spiritual version of it. Who wants to have a thorn in the flesh? Being pricked by a rose thorn is painful; imagine if the thorn stayed there for any length of time. St. Paul is referring to a kind of spiritual suffering, and I think it is the constant harassment of a spiritually evil being, a demon who is given permission to harass and annoy with all manner of methods. The description that St. Paul uses is, “a messenger of Satan.” I don’t know what type of harassment he received from this being, but it was bad enough that he asked God, three times, to remove this suffering.

Step Six
Experience the suffering. And yes, I repeat this intentionally. In addition to supernatural suffering, there is, invariably, suffering which is not viewed as supernatural, because it is familiar. It happens. The life of a human person does involve a lot of suffering — ask Jesus. We too often forget that, as a person, he would have experienced all of those problems that we do. He would have had, at some point, the hiccups, and not known how to get rid of them. He would have sneezed; he would have coughed. He would have gotten cold and had goosebumps. He would have gotten too hot and had beads of sweat on his skin and in his hair. When he drank water, sometimes it would have gone down the wrong way. He sometimes would have stubbed his toe or gotten a pebble in his sandals. He would have dropped things and had things fall on him. He would have been thirsty and he would have been hungry, sometimes. He would have had skin rashes and scrapes. God allowed him to experience all of our weaknesses. But in addition to all this, he suffered all of the hardships associated with being a prophet. He would have suffered all of the rejection referred to by St. Paul: “insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities.” Notice especially the word “contempt,” in the Psalm. Contempt means something more than hating. It suggests hating something that is beneath you. The hater perceives himself or herself as ‘above’ the other. When you feel contempt for someone, then you have no mercy, and you feel that there is no need to show any kind of respect. In Psalm 123, the speaker begs God for an end of this kind of suffering: “Have mercy upon us, O LORD, have mercy upon us, for we have had more than enough of contempt. Too long our soul has been sated with the scorn of those who are at ease, the contempt of the proud.”

In the Gospel, Jesus experiences suffering of this kind. Notice that Jesus “marvels” at how people in his home town reject him. Amazement is also a human experience, and Jesus clearly experienced it sometimes. God is all-knowing, but God did not reveal everything to Jesus all the time. Jesus also experienced the ‘veil’ of separation from God. Jesus was not quite expecting the experience that he had in his home town. Naturally, in addition to being amazed, he was also saddened, both for them and for himself, and would have felt the feelings described in the Psalm. (It is no accident that the Psalm is paired with this Gospel reading.) Jesus was not someone without feelings. He was not untouchable. Both physically and emotionally, Jesus could be hurt.

The people of his home town rejected him because they knew him. They believed that they knew everything that there was to know about him, and so they were confused about the gifts that they saw. Notice that they speak among themselves, and do not ask Jesus their questions. They acknowledge his gifts and his abilities: “And many who heard him were astonished, saying, “Where did this man get all this? What is the wisdom given to him? What mighty works are wrought by his hands!” (Mark 6:2) However, Jesus is spoken about in the third person. They do not speak directly to him, because they do not want to praise him or even interact with him. So their questions remain unanswered. If their hearts were not clouded with jealousy and contempt, they would have seen that there are two possibilities to answer their question. The first is that Jesus had more abilities than they realized, that these gifts had been hidden for many years. The second is that Jesus was called for a special mission.

Exclusion is a powerful tool, and is often immoral. It is, for example, always immoral to banish or forcibly remove someone from their homeland. Our home country is closely tied to our identity, and to require that someone leave the region that he calls home is a violation of human dignity. Exclusion from a group is also serious, and those who exclude wrongly, pleased with their own power, will one day have to account for their actions. It will not go well for them, because, in addition to answering for the suffering they caused the one who has been excluded, they will also need to answer for the gifts and graces which they lost the group as a whole. We are, after all, meant to share our gifts with one another, and those who prevent this from happening will have a great deal to answer for.

What I find quite interesting is how painfully OBVIOUS it is to the home town detractors that Jesus is nobody special. They feel that their proof is conclusive: “Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary and brother of James and Joses and Judas and Simon, and are not his sisters here with us?” And they took offense at him.” They are so entirely certain that they’ve got him completely figured out. The fact that they can name his parents, his relatives (incidentally, “brother” in Scripture ≠ “brother” in modern usage), and his occupation translates, for them, into knowing who he is and what he can do and — more importantly — shouldn’t be allowed to do. What arrogance! Who can really know another person? Who can really know how another person is called? By putting Jesus into a box, they put God into a box. In the same way, if we wrongly discredit a prophet, or someone who is called by God for a particular role, judging that they are acting of their own accord, and not in accordance with God’s will, then we limit God. You say, “Certainly God would never choose him; he’s a such-and-such.” You say, “Anyone can see, from such-and-such, that she is sinful,” but you are blind to the truth, and the kingdom of heaven has caught you unawares. Trust me, God can paint with colours you haven’t seen, and speak with words you’ve never heard. Who would have predicted that the rosary would one day include the mysteries we call ‘luminous’? Similarly, maybe one day there will be not just an Old Testament and a New Testament, but also a whole other section, making it a tripartite holy book. I can’t say; I’m just saying that the future is impossible to predict, and God can do what is so unthinkable that we don’t even stop to consider whether such a thing would happen or not. While we’re wondering whether the answer will be A or B, God suddenly brings about Δ. And the corollary to this is that God uses whomever he chooses. When we look at Scripture, or read about the saints, everything seems normal now, and we can tell the Good Guys from the Bad Guys, but when it was happening, everything was far less clear. There was no Voice-Over Narrator or Ominous Music. Events and individuals were not yet unpacked. Nobody knew that the sea would divide, and nobody knew that the girl was going to lead an army. Believe me: God loves the element of surprise, and he loves the element of Right Under Your Nose. He can hide his chosen people in plain view. Bethlehem was bustling the night Jesus was born. When the King of Kings entered the world, who paid attention? And consider Mary, who went about her day without fanfare. The Mother of God had no paparazzi.

Jesus’ words, in the face of rejection and disbelief, were about the plight of the prophet: “And Jesus said to them, ‘A prophet is not without honor, except in his own country, and among his own kin, and in his own house'” (Mark 6:4).

Step Seven
Receive your reward. By “reward,” I do not mean a human reward. There may appear to be no human reward at all. Look at the readings. In the first reading, God says that the people may not listen. He says, “And whether they hear or refuse to hear (for they are a rebellious house) they will know that there has been a prophet among them.” God is no fool; he knows that the people may refuse to hear. In the Psalm, the psalmist talks about receiving contempt over an extended period of time. In the second reading, St. Paul talks about weakness that shows no signs of leaving: “But he said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.’ I will all the more gladly boast of my weaknesses, that the power of Christ may rest upon me. For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities; for when I am weak, then I am strong.” And in the Gospel, Jesus leaves his home town without much in the way of miracles. You would say, in all these cases, that the missions have the appearance of failure.

Yet the prophet is not motivated by a reward. The prophet is motivated by a desire to do the will of the God who sends him. Sometimes God sends his message through angels, sometimes there is a miracle, sometimes people have dreams, and sometimes there is writing on the wall — just ask Belshazzar. And of course, there are more ways; God is not limited to a certain number of styles or formats. Being a prophet is about cooperating with God to say what God wants to say at a particular time to a particular individual or group of people. For the prophet, the message is actually secondary, and so are any of the supernatural benefits or sufferings. The prophet’s focus is on saying or doing whatever God wants said or done. It’s for this reason that St. Paul can write, “I will all the more gladly boast of my weaknesses, that the power of Christ may rest upon me . . . when I am weak, then I am strong.” Living this is difficult, but he knows the proper response.

Nevertheless, God is good, and he doesn’t forget his prophets, who look to him. He doesn’t forget about those who have done his will. Having learned not to put his faith in human beings (I sometimes say, “They’re all bad, but none of them are all bad”), the prophet looks to God for mercy, and hope in God is never misplaced. Despite what appears to be excessive delay, God is eager to help those who look to him. As a matter of fact, he is the generous gift-giver who can hardly wait for the day that you open your gifts.

The Psalm talks about the servant watching and waiting for God to act. The servant here represents the prophet, who attentively watches for any sign that the time has come for his promised reward. Between you and me, I might be tempted to suggest, instead of the word “servant,” the word “dog,” because it would help with the visualization — is there a creature as attentive as the indoor dog, who watches your every move for a sign that it’s time for a walk or a treat? — but the point is that the prophet waits. “Behold, as the eyes of servants look to the hand of their master, as the eyes of a maid to the hand of her mistress, so our eyes look to the LORD our God, till he have mercy upon us.”