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THE PROPHETIC DIMENSION AND THE WITNESS OF COMMUNITY LIFE IN CONTEMPORARY SOCIETY: POSSIBILITY OR UTOPIA?! (Sr. Iuliana Neculai)

29/07/2010: General House - Rome

  1. Introduction.

 

 

For some minutes, spontaneous:

 

 

Name a person you consider a prophet in today’s world, and why?

 

 

 

How does one know if someone is a prophet?

In the Apostolic Constitution Humanis Salutis of 25thDecember 1961, Pope John XXIII announced that the Church needed a council. Many considered this a prophetic action on the part of the Pope.

If the definition prophet is used everywhere and for no matter what, in the end it’s hard to tell exactly what prophets are.

 

  1. General notions.

We use different words in Hebrew:

  • nābȋ(passive form) - someone who has been called to predict. It refers to individuals or groups who are authorised to communicate divine words, to exhort, transmit prayers, act as intermediaries. The passive form reveals a dependence on God. The nābȋ speaks because someone has spoken before him.
  • rōeh– he who sees, seer;
  • hōseh – related to seeing, seer;

(rōeh andhōseh, can be translated into the same word, given that they are sometimes used in parallel, but have nothing in common).

  • ish elohim- man of God;
  •  

In Greek the words are translated with prophētēs, in Greek exists also a term for the false prophet, pseudo prophētēs, but this do not exists in Hebrew. In our languages, the word comes from Greek and is indicating a person who reveals, makes known, acts almost as a herald and an interpreter, closer to a poet; a man of pro-clamation, more than of pre-diction.  

To equate a prophet simply to someone who foretells the future would constitute an undue limitation, given that the preposition can be considered:

  • in terms of place - someone who speaks in front of;
  • in terms of time – someone who foretells;
  • in terms of a substitution – someone who speaks in place of someone else (on behalf of);
  •  
  • What characterises a prophet?

Many people wonder: “Where are the prophets?” This question is especially significant when it is posed to a community. Can a community/an Institution – be prophetic? Very probably the answer is here, among you, among us. But what characterises or defines a prophet? What does the Bible say about prophets?

Dt 18:17-19: Then Yahweh said to me, "What they have said is well said. From their own brothers I shall raise up a prophet like yourself; I shall put my words into his mouth and he will tell them everything I command him. Anyone who refuses to listen to my words, spoken by him in my name, will have to render an account to me."

Jer 1:7 has a explicit reference to the text of the Deut. “for you must go to all to whom I send you and say whatever I command you”. This reference to Deut 18 implies that Jeremiah is recognized as a prophet similar to Moses.

 

Prophet definition.

We might say that a prophet is someone who:

  • is called by God (passive form of nābȋ );
  • speaks to others in God’s name (as suggested by the active form of  nābȋ and by the meaning of substitution of the preposition in Greek);
  • can take action in view of his/her intimate relationship with God (ish elohim);
  • speaks of things that others do not see or see less clearly (from the words rōeh andhōseh );

 

A prophet:

  • SEES with God’s eyes;
  • HEARS with God’s ears;
  • FEELS with God’s heart;
  • SPEAKS God’s words;

Through his actions, a prophet:

  • PURIFIES traditions;
  • HIGHLIGHTS people’s responsibilities in connection with the gift they have received;
  • REDISCOVERS God’s authentic face;
  • TRANSMITS the new message;

 

There are authors that compare the prophets with poets because the poet and the prophet are linked in their ability to be”seers”. ”Those whom the ancient Israelites called prophets, the equally ancient Greeks called poets. The word "poet" comes from the Greek word "to make" (poiesis / a ”making”), and we are all poets as we make the world our own by listening and saying, thinking and seeing.

Lawrence Cunningham uses the phrase, in order to define the poets, as "makers of extraordinary possibilities." If we say that the prophet and the poet are in some way linked, therefore, we can say as well as for the prophet, "maker of extraordinary possibilities", by the ability to "see" the extraordinary in the ordinary, and thus may offer an alternative vision of possibility and hope. The poet and the prophet call us to a "future... made by love and hope. It was William Blake who wrote some wonderful lines about seeing the extraordinary in the ordinary in a poem entitled, "Auguries of Innocence."

To see a world in a grain of sand

And a Heaven in a wild flower,
Hold infinity in the palm of your hand
And Eternity in an hour
        

 

We do go now back to the question: How does one know if someone is a prophet?

  • through fulfilment of a prophecy: Dt 18:21-22; 2 Sam 7:13;
  • adherence to tradition: Dt 13:1-4; Gal 1:8-9;
  • must be sent by God: Ger 28:15;
  • through the prophet’s personal life: Is 6:7; Ger 23:11;
  • the voice of conscience: Mt 7:15-20

'Beware of false prophets (pseudo-prophetes) who come to you disguised as sheep but underneath are ravenous wolves. You will be able to tell them by their fruits. Can people pick grapes from thorns, or figs from thistles? In the same way, a sound tree produces good fruit but a rotten tree bad fruit. A sound tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor a rotten tree bear good fruit. Any tree that does not produce good fruit is cut down and thrown on the fire. I repeat, you will be able to tell them by their fruits.

 

How long does it take for a tree to bear fruit? Who decides who is good and who isn’t? Once a tree has been cut down, you can see if the lumber is good or not.

Acts 5:38-39What I suggest, therefore, is that you leave these men alone and let them go. If this enterprise, this movement of theirs, is of human origin it will break up of its own accord; but if it does in fact come from God you will be unable to destroy them. Take care not to find yourselves fighting against God.' His advice was accepted.

History alone can judge. What do we do while waiting for the end of history? What do we do in the meantime? We have to take a stand in the present. Once we have listened, we have to discern and take a stand. The Hebrew Bible do not have a term to say false or true prophet, they are not called in advance true or false, the discernment remain to be done.

 

The poet\prophet challenges our set ways of seeing things by seeing them differently, and expressing this new way of seeing in such a way that shakes our habitual way. There is a saying in the Talmud: "You don’t see things as they are, you see things as you are." To see things differently, one must be differently. A change in consciousness leads to a change in perception. Inner work is the key. "The first step in the interior life...is unlearning our wrong ways of seeing, tasting, feeling, and so forth, and acquiring a few of the right ones”. 

 

4.         Reflexion in groups: 1 Corinthians 14:1-5

Make love your aim; but be eager, too, for spiritual gifts, and especially for prophesying.  2(FOR) Those who speak in a tongue speak to God, but not to other people, because nobody understands them; they are speaking in the Spirit and the meaning is hidden.  3On the other hand, someone who prophesies speaks to other people, building them up and giving them encouragement and reassurance.  4Those who speak in a tongue may build themselves up, but those who prophesy build up the community.  5While I should like you all to speak in tongues, I would much rather you could prophesy; since those who prophesy are of greater importance than those who speak in tongues, unless they can interpret what they say so that the church is built up by it.

 

  1. Prophecy as a gift from the Spirit for the whole people.
    1. In history.

In the Judaism of the days of Jesus and the early Christian communities, prophecy was viewed as a feature of times past that had left its indelible imprint on the Scriptures that continued to nourish the life of the people. It was felt, however, that the Spirit of God, bound to the prophecy, had been extinguished by the death of the last prophets. On the other hand, at the side of and within the institutionalised community, another perspective continued to survive, based on the prophetic texts that suggested, announced and, in a way, anticipated a different future, revived by the Spirit of prophecy – Joel 3,1-2 “And it shall come to pass afterward, that I will pour out my spirit upon all flesh; and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, your old men shall dream dreams, your young men shall see visions”.  The text of Joel, is especially significant in that it announces the gift of the Spirit to the whole faithful people.

The gifts of the Spirit are not bound to a single element in the community, they extend to all. Prophecy in 1Cor 12 is set in a more organised and diversified framework than other gifts like the word, mercy, solidarity and the guidance and government that contribute to the growth of the community and to the announcement of the Lord resurrected.

The gifts of tongues and prophecy are easily lost in the larger cluster of gifts enumerated in 12:4–10 and 12:28–30. By the time Paul has carried forward his argument through chapter 13, the list of gifts has shrunk so that tongues and prophecy are a bit more prominent (cf. 13:1–3, 8–12). With chapter 14, however, there can be no doubt that Paul is now ready to focus intently on the gifts of tongues and prophecy. When one looks at the issue of prophecy in ch. 14 the evidence is stark. The verb “to prophesy” (προφητεύω, prophēteuō) occurs eleven times in 1 Corinthians with eight of these found in chapter 14.

In this chapter Paul is dealing with the misuse of these two gifts in the congregational setting of the church at Corinth. A clear indication of this is the increase in the frequency of the Greek word ἐκκλησία(ekklēsia) in 1 Cor 14, a word which points to a congregational assembly. This word occurs three times in ch. 11, once in ch. 12, no occurrences in ch. 13, and nine occurrences in ch. 14.As a specific gift, in the framework of other gifts, prophecy is distinct in that it is a Word inspired by the Spirit in connection with the circumstances in which the community lives. It discerns the value of the current moment, suggests practical solutions. There is, also, the awareness that the prophetic gift is destined to the community and it is the community that accepts and gives it value, in both discernment and acceptance.            

The apostle’s preference throughout this chapter is for the priority of prophecy. The apostle will explain his overriding preference for prophecy and his displeasure with the Corinthian tongue speakers. The use of the word “for” (γάρ, gar) leads into one such explanation. Since corporate worship is an important and natural part of the life of believers, Paul is sensitive to the horizontal dimension of activities in the assembly of the saints. Since tongue speaking is vertically directed to God rather than horizontally addressed to men, it is totally inappropriate for ekklēsia(assembly) worship.

By contrast v. 3, the prophet directs his message toward other people at assembly and thereby contributes to their strengthening, encouragement, and comfort. Of the three items which Paul lists as coming from the words of the prophet, the first is the most dominant in 1 Corinthians. The concept of strengthening found in different translations (literrary ”bilding them up” – New Jerusalem Bible)  is based upon the Greek term οἰκοδομή(oikodomē) and its cognates, which occurs seven times in this chapter (vv. 3, 4 [2×], 5, 12, 17, 26). While this concept has a variety of usages in the Pauline letters, in this setting it is tightly related to an ethical consideration. Encouragement is mentioned numerous times in 2 Corinthians as an attribute and activity of God (noun παράκλησις, paraklēsis, 2 Cor 1:3–7), while the verb form (παρακαλέω, parakaleō) is used of prophetic activity in 1 Cor 14:31. The term for “comfort” (παραμυθία, paramythia) is found only here in the New Testament.

Paul acknowledges that a form of edification occurs during unacceptable tongue speaking. Lamentably, this is self-edification which is of no value for the whole. Once again the prophetic ministry is preferable in this setting since it seeks the good of others and edifies the assembly.

This Spirit of prophecy is not associated only with the early Christian communities. It has never been extinguished and is constantly at work, inspiring people, movements and institutions that renew, admonish and provide guidance. Religious life constitutes one such fruitful manifestation of the presence of the Spirit in ecclesial communities over the centuries.

Stirred by the Spirit, numerous founders have set out to listen at all times and they have answered with generosity, founding communities of disciples, both men and women, that have yielded abundant fruits in terms of living testimonies worldwide.

 

  1. In the present.

What of today? Should we spend our time simply contemplating and nostalgically narrating the glorious events of the past? Will our times be more difficult that those of our founders and of people over the centuries? Has per chance the Spirit of God lost its power? Or is our society worse than the generations that preceded it? And if this were to be the case, wouldn’t it be one more reason for a new commitment in terms of a living testimony and a space in which to affirm the prophetic dimension?

Why then do people so often express defeatist and discouraging views, above all with regard to religious life? Is it because nowadays there are fewer of us? But when has Jesus ever measured the success of a mission in numbers? This is the time we have been given to live in. I do not believe that society in the days of Jesus, of the early Christian communities or of our founders, was any better! We live in a time of rapid change, where is difficult to fit in, adjust, discern the meaning of things. As consecrated people, we belong to this world; we belong to it in order to be signs of light and hope. We are called to be ”makers of extraordinary possibilities”.

 

  1. Listening – the primary dimension of prophecy.

Today the Spirit continues to give generously, it is alive and effective among us and it leads us in the pursuit of new pathways of fidelity and service. Like all those who have preceded us, we need above all to realise that we are not alone. LISTENING to the Spirit - this is the first dimension of prophecy because without listening to God, you cannot speak on God’s behalf.

As to the prophecy, can it be promoted? Can it be learnt? Can we develop a programme for a prophetic development of our communities? Is it not a free gift of the Spirit that bestows it in the manner and to whom it chooses? Paul says that one must at least desire it 1Cor 14:1.

It is obvious that a prophecy is a gift from the Spirit and one can only ask for it and accept with joy and humility. But it travels, also, the pathway of incarnation: it becomes word, a gesture, an attitude, a life. The Spirit speaks but, for a communication, there has to be someone who listens.

 

  1. The pair prophecy-love, a criterion for discernment of a real prophecy.

Paul has obviously designated prophecy as the ethical high ground since it is the prescribed manifestation of the pursuit of love (esp. 14:1). Based upon Lev 19:18, Pauline theology sets love of neighbor at center stage (cf. Rom 13:8–10) and realizes that a concrete manifestation of this love of neighbor (cf. 1 Cor 13:7) promotes the strengthening of the community. The connection between oikodomēand love for others is made clear by the use of oikodomēin particular ethical situations among believers such as those depicted in Rom 14:19 and 15:2. Therefore a prophecy must be able to accept with faith and hope all the tension, conflict and sin, without becoming discouraged by a lack of results.

How many brothers and sisters have abandoned everything, arguing that they had not been understood, that the community wasn’t a success, and that the Church was opposed to change! And all this is often true. The Church and Religious Life are not perfect, they are constantly under construction. Real prophecy, on its part, is not the result of something that already exists, but rather of the strength of the Spirit in developing of new situations.

The great paradox in the call of the prophet to be "makers of new possibilities," is that the call includes becoming "un-makers" as well- un-makers of old patterns and layers that keep new possibilities in check. This is the prophetic challenge of the prophet.

And, the paradox continues because the new possibilities are not so new, but emerge from the original ground. The extraordinary possibility is living connected to this old/new.

Above all, a prophet understands, like Paul, that the goal and the zenith of prophecy is love (1 Cor 13; Rm 12: 9-21). The pair prophecy-love is important in discerning a true prophecy and building a community.

 

  1. The possibility of a prophetic gift through desire of it.

The gift of prophecy, Paul says, should at least be desired -1 Cor 14:1. The personal calling is destined to all of us, hence the POSSIBILITY for each person to desire it and become a prophet. This calling always comes within a community. Therefore, experiencing a prophetic dimension at community level is possible in view of the personal calling to each of us. Why then, going from the individual to the many, is it more difficult? Why is the hope of a prophetic community often a utopia? We often hear people say “had I known it was so difficult I would not have started, I would not have joined, I would not ...”. We are people who live at a time when “doing overshadows being, excessive haste overshadows time, productivity overshadows rest, knowledge of God overshadows faith in God”.

 

  1. ”Testimony” as a sign of a prophetic community’s credibility.

 

A prophecy is directed to the heart of the community of believers who accept that someone may speak in God’s name (Cf. 1 Cor 14:22 - So then, strange languages are significant not for believers, but for unbelievers; whereas on the other hand, prophesying is not for unbelievers, but for believers).As to the people outside the community, we should instead speak of testimony or of signs that inspire consideration and give credibility to the announcement made by the community. In this testimony, the individual indication of faith and of a life lived as a believer is important, but the testimony of the community as a whole is equally important given that a calling does not claim to be an individual pathway of salvation leading to heaven, but rather a proposal that also implies a transformation within society and especially in relations among people.

Describing the first community in Jerusalem, Luke pointed out that a brotherly and sisterhood life based on listening to the word, prayer, breaking bread and sharing goods, constituted a sign of credibility that could inspire new believers to join and gave greater ascendancy to the apostles who announced the Lord Jesus (At 2:42-47). Creating a community in communion, is our primary task and will give meaning to all that we do, just as the disciples’ life with Jesus, preceded and defined their mission, in which no one spoke for himself; a mission is always a commitment made by a community inspired by the Spirit.

 To encourage people to listen to the Spirit means giving them, within the community, an opportunity and the freedom for sharing the God’s word. Then, the Spirit will always rouse the prophetic voice of the brothers and sisters who will give a new interpretation of the Scriptures, of the founder’s charisma, of our rules and traditions, suggesting new ways and ideas by which to renew our life and mission, taking into account our world’s rapid transformations. Therefore, a prophetic community needs to be open to the world around it, to adopt a listening attitude, dialogue, discernment and solidarity. But living in communities which are always less than perfect, efforts to remain faithful to the Spirit will inevitably be made amid a variety of visions, tensions and misunderstandings, even if we acknowledge that all actions are inspired by the best intentions. We all listen to the Spirit in our own personal way and this presents the great advantage of enhancing its power and gifts.

It is beyond doubt that the Spirit speaks in our times, as it has spoken in the past. It is a question of learning to listen, to live/speak according to its voice.

 

  1. A prophetic community in the contemporary world: possibility or utopia!!!???

 

  1. The challenges posed by today’s world.

Our culture encourages us to identify with the false self, to walk around ourselves, like the phrase of Alan Watts is saying "skin encapsulated egos", feeling separate from one another, and attempting to fill up our emptiness through the consumption of objects. With the help of the perspective of the prophet, it becomes possible to by-pass or penetrate this humanly constructed "cramp of consciousness", to show it as illusory, to call this reality into question.

It is essential to identify challenges in order to provide solutions. Challenges like: the current democratisation process; the importance attached to the individual; social and political emancipation, awareness of cultural roots; growing secularisation; new and old poverty; the quest for meaning; etc...

Many of the challenges in today’s world involve a direct questioning on the features which constitute the values of consecrated life:

  • dialogue and a calling to a personal charisma for “self-fulfilment” ( questioning the obedience);
  • the need to adapt to the modern requirements of travel, communications, etc...( questioning the poverty);
  • an extension of selfish behaviour through the media, the diminished value of the family (questioning the chastity);
  • a calling to a personal responsibility in the apostolic mission, the need for “self-fulfilment” (questioning the community life);

Other factors:

- The “ego” as a centre of definition of the ultimate goals within the ideal of self- fulfilment.

It’s fair to speak of a “psychologisation and socialisation of the faith”, which means choosing a community or a faith where one feels at ease. (Except that the authentic religion/community sometimes entails also times of despondency, but this does not mean that we are not faithful).

- “Excessive tolerance”- people expect to be exempt from any criticism. The trend in a secularised society is to introduce the idea that sin does not exist; therefore no one can criticize any kind of behaviour.

If all these images are reflected on religious life too, then, where is the difference? What characterises us today?

Well aware of the difficulties which we ourselves encounter in the construction of a sisterhood in our communities and institutions, of the injustices so often committed in the past in bearing the treasure entrusted to us, we feel empathetic in respect of the tragedies of grief, injustice and poverty which we encounter in this world of ours. And so we also feel that we are aligned with the prophets in taking upon ourselves the burdens and dramas of the multitude.

 

     b) Creating a “HOME” as the community’s prophetic potential.

It is very important to succeed in creating a family, a heart for communion. We live in a world in which home and family are undergoing a major crisis. The family’s traditional model is facing a crisis on all the continents. Everywhere we find a growing anxiety and need to have a home, to feel welcome, to be listened to. For this reason, one of the great signs which consecrated life can offer today is very simply a HOME, an open, welcoming home. The community as a place for sharing takes on a prophetic character.

The call for creating a HOME we find also in the reading from Paul, troughs the use of his vocabulary.

            We do have in our text:

oivkodomh,, h/j, h` sost. v.3      oivkodomei/  verb. v.4 (the term in Greek for house is oikos)

1 Pe 2:5 oivkodomei/sqe oi=koj, ”so that you, too, may be living stones making a spiritual house as a holy priesthood to offer the spiritual sacrifices made acceptable to God through Jesus Christ”.

 

Those who, by action, instruction, exhortation, comfort, promote wisdom of others and help them to live a correspondent life are regarded as taking part in the erection of a HOME, as it is use in the literary translation ”building them up”.This metaphorical use of the verb in Paul, as ethical consideration can derive from the O. T., where "hn"B'with an accusative of the person (to build one up) denote to bless; to prosper; cf. Ps. 28:5; Jer. 13; Prov 24,3).

And what about we, in the discussion here; let us remember briefly the provinces’ reports their hopes for the chapter.

  • stimulate dynamism in community life;
  • encourage the quality of the community so that it may become attractive to others;
  • open up to the Spirit, responding to the world’s needs;
  • encourage the Congregation to believe in its future;
  • ensure that our communities become visible and provide a living testimony to the world, in our context;

I have written down some of these hopes of ours but let us now go back to the start: can we, as a community, live a Prophetic Vocation? What are the challenges in doing this within the Community and as a community?

There is no theoretical answer, only a practical one is possible. It is possible IF and WHEN ...

The challenge is practical, not theoretical: how to become a living prophetic community?

What can be said is that, to be prophets:

  • WE ALL must be people who LISTEN, first and foremost to the Spirit’s guidance.
  • WE ALL must have an attitude characterised by our QUEST.

And there is no prophecy without DISCERNMENT. Hasty and pre-defined conclusions are only the expression of a false prophecy. An apostolic and prophetic community is a community of humble believers, on a constant quest. This means that a prophetic community lives in a state of healthy tension associated with feeling the need to RECEIVE, because the Spirit’s gift is never the outcome of a conquest but is, rather, received with humble gratitude.

When the Spirit reaches our Community, our fears vanish and then we know what God wants from us. Therefore:

  • ALL members are urged to have EYES with which to SEE;
  • ALL members are urged to LISTEN ... to what perhaps  others around them cannot hear;
  • ALL are urged and called to FEEL the pain and suffering of others;
  • ALL are called to DISCERN, DECIDE and use their own HANDS and FEET for action, service and compassion;

Becoming a prophetic community for a shared mission becomes a real possibility and not just utopia, if we are bold enough to meet the challenge and move towards God’s will.