I have been thinking lately about the prophetic ministry. Particularly, I have been thinking about how this ministry is manifest in the Church. Coming from a Pentecostal background, I have a lot of experience in what the prophetic ministry is not. Prophetic ministry does not include utterances in King James English or ecstatic proclamations preceded by “Thus sayeth the Lord.” Nor is prophetic ministry about prediction. Based on the example of the Old Testament prophets and the ministry of Jesus, prophetic ministry is about being aware and helping others to be aware of God’s presence now.
In the Church, this ministry is often seen in the monastic calling but is not limited to that calling. Monks, at least some of the monks I know and many I have read about, are trained to be aware at all times of God’s presence. This awareness helps them to be sensitive to the inner world where angels and demons are perceived as thoughts (logismoi) and spiritual warfare is a matter of emptying oneself of all that cleaves to what is external so that when the evil one comes he finds nothing in them (c.f. John 14:30). And the evil one comes quite regularly; so emptying, or dying to oneself, is not an episodic experience, but a way of being. This way of being—continual self-emptying and awareness of God’s presence—sometimes makes confessors seem clairvoyant.
Although “clairvoyant” is the word commonly used in Orthodox circles to describe an elder or confessor who seems to know what is going on in your life before you tell him, I am uncomfortable with that word. I have associated that word with fortune telling and the ability to read the minds of others. St. Seraphim of Sarov (and other “clairvoyant” elders) have describe their experience of this phenomenon not as a reading of the mind or heart of the other, but as an awareness of what the Spirit of God is saying or doing (as perceived and discerned as thoughts in the Saint’s mind/heart/nous) at that moment. The clairvoyant word of the elder is not something he perceives outside himself (by reading your mind, for example), but merely a continuation of what he does all the time: being aware of the presence of God right now.
Furthermore, and here I get to the heart of what I want to say, without self-emptying love, the whole process quickly becomes a sham. I say this because it is common in some circles (circles I orbit), to label as prophetic ministry the pointing out of the sins of society, organizations, governments and powerful people in general. While clairvoyant elders may point out the sins of others, their ability to see those sins clearly comes from their deep awareness of their own sin and their ongoing struggle to repent of their complicity in the very sin they are pointing out. (btw, for convenience sake, I am using the word “elder” to refer to the one exercising prophetic ministry, but it is possible that grandmothers, parish council chairmen, priests, monks, little children, college students, or even corporate executives and government officials could speak prophetically.)
My favorite biblical example of prophetic ministry is Jeremiah, the weeping prophet. Jeremiah condemns the sins of a nation, a corrupted government and religious establishment, and a compliant populace eager for gain at the expense of others. But Jeremiah’s words are the words of a man with a broken heart, a man who so identifies with his people that he refuses to escape the very judgment that he is warning them about. Jeremiah does not condemn the sinners from a mountain top (literal or mental) but from the bottom of a muddy well in the king’s prison court (both literally and mentally—he is in the middle of it, accepting whatever punishments are thrown his way out of love for his neighbor and awareness of God’s presence everywhere: “I called on your name, O Lord, from the lowest pit and you heard my voice” Lam. 55,56.) Even when the siege is over and Jeremiah’s word is vindicated and Nebuzaradan offers Jeremiah his freedom, Jeremiah chooses to return to Jerusalem eventually to be taken to Egypt by the rebellious remnant to experience with his people yet another siege by the Babylonians, the very thing he said would happen if they went to Egypt.
The point here is that seeing other’s sins does not make one a prophet. In fact, it is the effect of sin that we so easily see the shortcomings and sins of others and not so easily our own. A film I once saw portrayed this dynamic quite well. A wealthy suffragette in the early twentieth century mercilessly abused her domestic workers, yet wondered why no one seemed to take her passion for her just cause seriously. One of her domestics (behind her back, of course) speculated that her motivation was boredom, and the conviction that she could run the show better than her inattentive husband. Of course no one took her seriously. In some of its grosser forms, this might be called arm-chair quarterbacking: the delight we have in finding fault in those much more powerful (athletically, politically, economically) than we. When we add to this arm-chair quarterbacking phenomenon the dimension of personal loss, or potential personal loss—in the form of a job or a freedom or an opportunity or a resource—then we convince ourselves that the emotional response within us is nothing other than righteous indignation. But it is more likely just regular anger motivated by self righteousness and selfishness.
Indeed, the loss, or potential loss (or sometimes merely the loss of an ideal), may be due to sin and injustice of others. But to clearly hear within ourselves what God may be saying about the situation and the actions of others, we must first be trained and disciplined in hearing what God is saying to ourselves. Furthermore, to speak in such a way that we may be heard—if God gives us words to speak—we must be well practiced in speaking to ourselves (and hearing those who speak to us) and practicing these words through repentance.