THUS SAYS GOD... I AM THE LORD, THAT IS MY NAME, MY GLORY I GIVE TO NO OTHER(Isaiah 42: 5... 8). Repeatedly God raised up chosen men to speak in his name to his people who had grown weak in faith or even fallen away altogether from observance of his law. These men were often recognized to be inspired by God, at least by some of those to whom they spoke. Others resisted or simply ignored their words; some, who had political power or religious authority, persecuted, even killed them. The writings of a number of these prophets have come down to us in the Bible precisely because they had been acknowledged to be authoritative. They were believed to represent a true word of God spoken through a human person who was inspired. Prophetic activity in Israel taken in the strict sense was particularly marked over a period of about 200 years and is evidenced in such striking figures as Amos, Micah, Isaiah, Ezechiel, Jere miah, Joel. But there was a broader concept too of what constituted a prophet so that persons such as Moses, Aaron, Elijah, Elishah, Nathan and others are known as "the former prophets." This broader view defines prophetism as that interpretation of human events that sees them as expression of God's purposes and take place through his participation (Cf. The Interpreters Dic tionary of the Bible, 3, 896 s.v. Prophet, Prophetism). The prominence of this term in O.T. religion is suggested by the fact tht the word prophet occurs some 300 times in the Hebrew Bible.
Prophecy had died out for some time by the time that Jesus came into the world. This was felt as a deprivation and even as a sign of God's displeasure. Still the written record of the classical prophets was well preserved and their words were read, studied and formed a part of the Synagogue service. Jesus was raised in the traditions of his people and received the word of these prophets as speaking for his Father in heaven. He studied and prayerfully meditated on them. As he did so he came to realize that some of their saying referred to his person and his mission. He stated this explicitly after his resurrection: "It is necessary that all that is written in the Law of Moses and the prophets and the Psalms concerning me be fulfilled (Luke 24:44)." There is good reason to think his consciousness of the nature of his mission and even his own true iden tity grew out of his reflection and prayer over the prophetic texts. After his Ascension his disci ples were filled with the Holy Spirit and were inspired by the Spirit in their preaching and teaching. Some of these followers of the Lord wrote letters and books under that influence. A number of these writings were gradually understood to be intended as normative for the whole Church. Eventually the New Testament Canon was formed and joined to that of the Old Testament so that the Catholic Church taught with assurance that these texts represented the word of God revealed through human agency. While all the essential truths of faith had been revealed by the time of the death of the last Apostle, yet the gift of prophecy did not die out. The written inspired word maintains a unique role in the Church. But God's dealings with his people did not cease at the end of the apostolic age. He continues to speak through inspired men and women among his chosen people. St. Paul gives us assurance that among the gifts of the Spirit are in cluded prophets, that is persons who speak in the Lord's name. "God has appointed in the Church first apostles, second prophets, third teachers... (1Cor 12: 28)." In writing to the Thessalonians he expressed his concern that they pay due regard to this gift: "Do not quench the Spirit; do not hold prophecy in contempt.", he exhorts them (1Th. 5: 19). When the apostles handed on the gift of the Holy Spirit to others among them were those who in turn became pro phets, as we learn from The Acts and find later on in The Didache.
As the prophets played an important role in Israel and in the Church of apostolic times, so the Church kept their memory and their message alive in the liturgy. Advent is a season that gives especial prominence to prophetic witness which prepared the way for the Lord's coming. The great prophet of Advent is Isaiah who spoke many times of a coming redemption and described with a fullness of detail the impressive virtues of the future deliverer of God's people. We know now, to be sure, that the book of the prophet Isaiah contains writings from at least three different inspired representatives of God. All three preached messages announcing the intervention of God in a special way through a chosen one who is to bring renewed life and hope to the people.
The interplay between prophetic inspiration and response is a complex and subtle process. Al ready by the time of the book of Deuteronomy the issue arose. How could a person be sure that a message was truly inspired by the Spirit of God? Directives for dealing with pseudo- prophets were given in chapter 13: 2-6. If the prophet preaches the worship of false gods he is to be put to death. Again in chapter 18: 20 it is written that should someone claim to be sent by the Lord yet has not really truly been commissioned he is also to be killed. The test that demonstrates his credentials will strike many of us as oversimplified. It is this: if the prophet made a prediction and it did not come true he is to be considered false; the people are not to be shaken by his warn ings. This practical rule can be effective in instances where the predictions are definite and their fulfillment due in the near future, at any rate. Jeremiah makes a helpful distinction. He recom mends that only the prophets who predict peace need to be examined for proof (28: 8). The fulfillment of their predictions alone provides adequate evidence to justify them. Those who, like himself, foretell disaster and preach hard things, are, as it seems, in his eyes authenticated by their very message.
The vast majority of prophetic utterances were calls to repentance, accusations of guilt, promises or predictions of events the date of whose fulfillment remained rather imprecise. Most of Jesus' preaching dealt with just such calls to conversion, to taking on new attitudes to God's law, living a life of virtue. When he predicted the destruction of the temple, he assigned it no specific date. Thus the traditional norms did not provide adequate guidance in his case and in regard to many of his followers through the centuries. When he worked miracles and signs, when he opensly showed favor to the poor and the needy, when he spoke with authority to the common people as well as to the doctors and scribes, many came to believe he was truly a prophet. The most convincing evidence was the person of Jesus himself, his charity, humility and courageous witness to God's mercy. His great prophecy that was indeed fulfilled as he predicted was that of his death and resurrection. Jesus himself made the point that it is the poor or spirit and the clean of heart who truly seek to know God's plan so as to carry out his will who put their faith in him.
The canon resulted in the early centuries, not from any official declaration, but from a spontaneous consensus. There grew among the people and religious leaders in Israel, and then later in the Church, the conviction that a particular author spoke authoritatively in Gods name The broad agreement, as expressed explicitly at times, and indirectly by other learned and committed faithful, sufficed to give assurance concerning the writers of the canonical books. It is noteworthy that the need to make such an official declaration was not felt until the Catholic canon was ques tioned by Luther. The official list of inspired books of the Bible was not formally put forth until the Council of Trent issued its decree in the 16th century.
The canon, to be sure, did not mean that God would cease to communicate directly with his chosen witnesses. Every generation since the apostles has seen men, and women as well at times, who were believed to be specially guided by the Spirit of God in certain of their words, written and/or spoken. A number of these were oracles for their times and came to be considered doctors of the Church. St. Athanasius, St. Augustine, St. Basil, St. Jerome St. John Chrysostom and St. Gregory the Great are the best known of them. Later on others were acclaimed prophets in their lifetime. Among these was St. Bernard, the authority of whose teaching was often corroborated by striking miracles, was one of the greatest. Others in his days claimed falsely to speak in God's name and caused much confusion and damage to the Church.
That prophecy has to be judged so as to ascertain its validity remains the case even after Pentecost. The Church as a whole possessed the truth and spoke for God, as Jesus had promised, but not all who claimed in good faith to be inspired by the Spirit were genuine. Thus the impordiscernment. The function of this virtue is to distinguish the radical nature of a message or an impulse so as to determine whether it comes from God, from nature of from the devil. St. Athanasius tells us that St. Antony considered this virtue of discretion, as he calls it, the most important acquisition the monk can possess. Without it one is in danger of going astray, not through malice but through deception. Often enough we deceive ourselves. We may do so un der the influence of passion, self-interest, sheer ignorance, insensitivity, pride or too lively an imagination. The devil can makes use of circumstances to intensify any of these tendencies. We must be alert always for he can lead us astray not only through excessive zeal but even on the occasion of spiritual progress. As Evagrius well understood: "When the spirit prays purely with out being led astray then the demons no longer come upon it from the left side but from the right (Chapters on Prayer, 72)."
The prophetic gift in its more public and striking forms has always been limited to a relatively few individuals. These persons were usually uncommonly gifted in other ways as well as enjoy ing a special inspiration of the Spirit. Isaiah was a great poet, a man of penetrating intellect with high connections at court; Elijah too was a man of tremendous energy and outstanding character. In Christian times, Gregory the Great, whose works were considered to be inspired by the Spirit, exercised his gifts in the public forum. The same was true of Bernard of Clairvaux, so that Father Vallery Radot entitled the second volume of his biography of Bernard The Prophet of the West. Today there are many who consider that Thomas Merton was a prophet whose message continues to have social and even political as well as spiritual influence in society.
But already in early times there were also prophetic figures whose role in the Church was more ordinary and, while not hidden, yet restricted to a relatively small circle. We observe this phe nomenon especially in the monastic circles of Egypt in the fourth to seventh centuries. Younger monks who found themselves subject to perplexities or disturbing temptations regularly sought a word of counsel or encouragement from an elder of acknowledge holiness. Often enough they were persuaded that these men were passing on a word they received directly from the Spirit in view of their spiritual good. This would seem to be in many instances a form of prophecy. That the monks of that period were persuaded this was case resulted in these responses being col lected and preserved in writing under the title of "Sayings of the Fathers."
Certainly not all the stories and sayings gathered in these collections are prophetic but a good number were so considered and with good reason. No doubt many other spiritual fathers, abbots and hermits spoke and advised others under the influence of the prophetic charism that has never been lacking to the Church. Few of us would lay claim to such a gift, of course, but it would seem that any believer can be inspired in a particular instance by the Holy Spirit in the same way the prophets were, in view of carrying out the mission assigned them by God. Parents in dealing with their children, teachers with their pupils, preachers with their congregations and others who represent God to those whose care they bear benefit at times with such divinely inspired words.
Merton was persuaded that bearing witness to the transcendent God by their manner of life is the major role of the monk in today's world. Whether that is a gift of prophecy or of wisdom can be disputed perhaps, but communicating the need for repentance and faith and a life lived according to God's law, which is the message given by monastic life, is precisely the kind of office undertaken by the prophets in Israel and in the early Church. After all, the greatest of O.T. prophets, John the Baptist, was viewed as a monk in his manner of life and is the patron of monks. Merton in a poem refers to John as "the first Cistercian and the greatest Trappist (Man in a Di vided Sea, 102)." Just a few weeks before his death, in Calcutta, Merton gave a talk the conclusion of which in his notes includes the following statement.It is the peculiar office of the monk in the modern world to keep alive the contemplative experience and to keep the way open for modern technological man to recover the integ rity of his own inner depths (The Asian Journal, 317).
A monastery that witnesses to God's revelation and proclaims by its life of faith that Christ even now lives and sanctifies for himself and the Father a people set apart is a form of prophetic message to its time. Like the prophets of old, such monks cannot expect always to be listened to and their example followed. But some, a remnant perhaps, do hear and take to heart the need for conversion so as to prepare the way of the Lord. Only a small number of monks have the prophetic gift; however, as a community united and fervent in its dedication to seeking and praising God, a particular group of monks may exercise a far-reaching, decisive influence on others. Not only on those who come as visitors and retreatants, but also on those who learn of their way of life through those who have had direct contact.
Advent, then, is a prophetic season in that it confronts us with the essence of all prophetic messages: "be converted, the kingdom of God is at hand. Purify your hands and your hearts by good deeds and prayer from a holy heart." Our Cistercian Fathers understood well this prophetic aspect of Advent and saw that it had a special relevance for monks who are called upon to listen to God's word and contemplate him in his dealings with our race. Advent invites us to grow in love by reflecting on his great love and mercy in becoming one with us through his Incarnation and birth of the Virgin Mary. In the end, it is love and desire that prepares us best to receive him.
Abbot John Eudes Bamberger
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