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Disciples, Prophets, and Mystics
Disciples, Prophets, and Mystics

Speaking Out

Monday, March 16, 2020

Disciples, Prophets, and Mystics

Speaking Out
Monday, March 16

Prophets must first be true disciples of their faith. In fact, it is their deep love for their tradition that allows them to criticize it at the same time. This is almost always the hallmark of a prophet. Their deepest motivation is not negative but profoundly positive. The dualistic mind presumes that if you criticize something, you don’t love it, but I would say just the opposite. There is a major difference between negative criticism and positive critique. The first stems from the need for power; the second flows from love.

Institutions prefer loyalists and “company men” to prophets, even if they are mature institutions. We’re uncomfortable with people who point out our shortcomings or imperfections, but human consciousness does not emerge at any depth except through struggling with our shadow and contradictions. It is in the struggle with our shadow self, with failure, or with wounding that we are transformed and break into higher levels of consciousness. People who learn to expose, name, and still thrive inside of a world filled with contradictions are what I would call prophets. They are both faithful and critical.

Albert Nolan is a Dominican priest from South Africa and the author of several books that challenge us to consider what it means to be a disciple and follower of Jesus. Today, he describes the role of a prophet and how Jesus fulfilled it.

Prophets are people who speak out when others remain silent. They criticize their own society, their own country, or their own religious institutions. . . . This leads inevitably to tension and even some measure of conflict between the prophet and the establishment. In the Hebrew Scriptures we see how the prophets clashed with kings and sometimes priests too. Jesus was painfully aware of this tension or conflict in the traditions of the prophets. “Blessed are you when people hate you, and when they exclude you, revile you, and defame you . . . for that is what their ancestors did to the prophets” (Luke 6:22-23). Jesus saw those who killed the prophets in the past as the ancestors or predecessors of the scribes and Pharisees (Matthew 23:29-35).

The tension or conflict is between authority and experience. True prophets are not part of the authority structure of their society or their religious institution. Unlike priests and kings, prophets are never appointed, ordained, or anointed by the religious establishment. They experience a special calling that comes directly from God, and their message comes from their experience of God: “Thus says the Lord God.”

We have seen how boldly and radically Jesus spoke out against the assumptions and practices of the social and religious establishment of his time. He turned their world upside down. The conflict that this created became so intense that in the end they killed him to keep him quiet.

Any attempt to practice the same spirituality as Jesus would entail learning to speak truth to power as he did—and facing the consequences. [1]

[1] Albert Nolan, Jesus Today: A Spirituality of Radical Freedom (Orbis Books: 2006) 63-64.

Adapted from Richard Rohr, Way of the Prophet (Center for Action and Contemplation: 1994), audio, no longer available;

Prophets Then, Prophets Now (Center for Action and Contemplation: 2006), MP3 download; and

“Rebuilding from the Bottom Up: A Reflection Following the Election” (November 11, 2016),

Image credit: Santa Teresa de Jesús (St. Teresa of Ávila) (detail), José Alcázar Tejedor, 1884, Museo del Prado, Madrid, España (currently at the Universidad de Santiago de Compostela, Galicia, España).
Inspiration for this week’s banner image: [A] notable characteristic of the mystical tradition has been the very large number of women who feature prominently in it, women who wrote extensively about their mystical experiences and acted as advisers and counselors to men and women of all kinds. —Richard Rohr
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