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Prophetic Imagination

Prophetic Imagination

Saturday, March 27, 2021

Week Twelve Summary and Practice

March 21—March 26, 2021

Sunday
Moses had the prescience and courage to move the place of hearing God outside and at a distance from the court of common religious and civic opinion—this was the original genius that inspired the entire Jewish prophetic tradition.

Monday
The prophet’s path is of descent and is never popular or easy. It is about letting go of illusion and toppling false gods.

Tuesday
The prophets are people who are imbued with God’s love for creation and consequent passion for justice. —Rabbi Nahum Ward-Lev

Wednesday
Like a poet, the prophet is endowed with sensibility, enthusiasm, and tenderness, and, above all, with a way of thinking imaginatively. Prophecy is the product of poetic imagination. —Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel

Thursday
A moral imagination is nothing other than the hope of black faith. Such hope trusts that the arc of God’s universe does in fact bend toward justice. —Reverend Dr. Kelly Brown Douglas

Friday
The prophetic tradition sustains the eternal Word of God while the world spins around it, making God’s Word—Love—the center, the axle, the standard of everything the faithful do in the midst of the storm of change that engulfs us as we go. —Sister Joan Chittister

 

Deepening Our Centering Prayer Practice

David Frenette is a spiritual director and longtime teacher of centering prayer, as well as a longtime friend and advisor of Father Thomas Keating. In today’s practice, we share several of his suggestions to help us deepen our centering prayer practice:

There is a way you can renew the intention behind [your] sacred word so that your motivation for continuing on the spiritual path deepens when your relationship with God changes. Recall how the first of centering prayer’s basic guidelines says that the sacred word is sacred because it expresses your intention to consent to God’s presence and action. When your prayer no longer feels sacred, one thing you can do as a longtime practitioner is utilize the preparatory time before formally beginning centering prayer by taking a moment to renew your intention, the why of your practice. . . .

Here are three possible ways that renewing your intention in centering prayer might take shape for you, depending on the way your contemplative prayer is developing:

  • Before the time of centering prayer, you reflect on who or what God is for you at this time of your spiritual journey. Then, with this sense of meaning in your conscious mind, you let your sacred symbol come to you as a nonreflective way of consenting to this more personal sense of God’s presence.
  • Your reflections may show you that at this time God is a mystery whom you do not or cannot consciously know. That’s not a problem for practice. As you realize or remember that God is an unknowable mystery and join this realization in your mind with your sacred word, you infuse your practice with an intention that expresses the truth of your relationship with God. Your intention becomes opening to mystery itself.
  • Perhaps when you reflect on who or what God is, you find that you are spiritually dry and resistant even to opening to a mystery you no can no longer conceive of. This is still not necessarily a problem when your intention is vast and nuanced. For in these situations, your intention can be to simply surrender yourself to the unknown. Remember, in centering prayer you are saying yes both to God’s presence and God’s action. God’s action includes the purification and transformation of your idea of who God is, your felt ability to say yes to God, and sometimes even your capacity to pray. In the unknowing, the pure consent and the surrender of your ability to pray, you are brought to deep receptivity, so that the Spirit prays in you.

I have had many experiences of what the mystics call “dryness” in my prayer life. Like many people, when it first happened in my early journey, I thought I must be doing something wrong, which was very hard for me since I like to do everything right!  With time, persistence, and helpful techniques like the ones David Frenette shares above, we come to realize that our feelings are far less important than the ever-deepening commitment we make to God through our practice.

Experience a version of this practice through video and sound.

Reference:
David Frenette, The Path of Centering Prayer: Deepening Your Experience of God (Sounds True: 2012), 13-14.

Image credit: Dorothea Lange, Tractored Out (detail), 1938, photograph, public domain.
Image inspiration: A lonely house on barren, tilled earth may tell us hard truths of what has been, what is, and what is to come.
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Prophetic Imagination

Joining the Prophetic Chorus
Friday, March 26, 2021

While the most well-known Hebrew prophets are presumably male, such as Jeremiah, Isaiah, and Ezekiel, the Bible also contains little-known women prophets such as Deborah (Judges 4:4–5), Huldah (2 Kings 22) and Anna (mentioned in Luke 2:36). Rabbi Tikva Frymer-Kensky shares one example of this historical reality:

Unlike priests, generals, judges, and governors, a prophet does not have to be appointed by superiors, and a prophet’s status does not depend on advancement within a hierarchy or on completion of a course of study. As Amos and again Jeremiah inform us, God tells the prophet to speak. Prophecy is a “gift of the Spirit,” offered to whomever God wills, and societies can accept women as recipients of the gift and value them as prophets even as they deny women roles in the official hierarchies of religion and polity. Toward the end of Israel’s history, King Josiah sent his men to see a female prophet, Huldah, to validate the discovery of a scroll in the Temple that called for Israel to behave in ways it had not been observing . . . (see 2 Kings 22:12–14).

It is not surprising to find . . . Huldah accepted as [a] professional prophet. Unlike priests, kings, judges, or administrators, prophets were not born to their role or appointed by a hierarchy. There were cadres of professional prophets, but there were also lone mavericks, called by the spirit of God. . . . In Israel, where God often works through the marginal and brings the peripheral to the center, women appeared as the harbingers of history. [1]

We might know the names of only a few prophets, memorialized in the scriptures and by history, but by the gift of the Spirit, we can all think and act prophetically. We can pay attention to what isn’t right in the world around us and speak and act out of faith and love to change it.  Benedictine Sister Joan Chittister, a prophetic voice in our day, encourages us to do just that:

These prophetic people, people just like us, simple and sincere, eager and inspired—these sheep herders like Amos and small-business people like Hosea, these simple country farmers or priests like Jeremiah, these thinkers and writers and dreamers like Isaiah and Ezekiel, these struggling lovers and suffering witnesses like Micah, these brave and independent judges and leaders, like Deborah and Miriam, made no small choices. They chose courage. They chose the expansion of the soul. They chose to stake their lives on what must be rather than stake their comfort, their security, the direction of their lives, on what was.

It is that steadfast, unyielding, courageous commitment to the eternal Will of God for Creation—whatever the cost to themselves—that is the prophetic tradition. It sustains the eternal Word of God while the world spins around it, making God’s Word—Love—the center, the axle, the standard of everything the faithful do in the midst of the storm of change that engulfs us as we go. [2]

References:
[1] Tikva Frymer-Kensky, Reading the Women of the Bible (Schocken Books: 2002), 324, 328, 330.

[2] Joan Chittister, The Time Is Now: A Call to Uncommon Courage (Convergent: 2019), 17–18, www.joanchittister.org.

Story from Our Community:
I start every day with reading and studying [Richard Rohr’s] daily teachings. Is my life changed? No. I have only one unique life that God gave me, but now the life has a SENSE. It is easier? No, but now my life has a PURPOSE. We still struggle every day, but now we have reinforcement; we are not alone. —Roman P.

Image credit: Dorothea Lange, Tractored Out (detail), 1938, photograph, public domain.
Image inspiration: A lonely house on barren, tilled earth may tell us hard truths of what has been, what is, and what is to come.
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Prophetic Imagination

Envisioning a New World
Thursday, March 25, 2021

One of the most prominent prophets in recent American history is Martin Luther King Jr. Like the prophets of Israel, he saw not just what was wrong with his nation, but how it might be restored to the promise upon which it was founded. The Reverend Dr. Kelly Brown Douglas writes about King’s prophetic vision for racial justice, suggesting that it was made possible by the “moral imagination” he learned through the Black church and faith. She writes:

A moral imagination is grounded in the absolute belief that the world can be better. A moral imagination envisions Isaiah’s “new heaven and new earth,” where the “wolf and the lamb shall feed together,” and trusts that it will be made real (Isaiah 65). What is certain, a moral imagination disrupts the notion that the world as it is reflects God’s intentions. . . . [It] is nothing other than the hope of black faith. Such hope trusts that the arc of God’s universe does in fact bend toward justice. [1]

In his famous “I Have a Dream” speech in 1963, King’s prophetic, moral imagination is on full display:

Even though we must face the difficulties of today and tomorrow, I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed—we hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal. . . .

I have a dream my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character. I have a dream today!

I have a dream that one day, down in Alabama, with its vicious racists, with its governor having his lips dripping with the words of interposition and nullification, that one day, right there in Alabama, little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers. I have a dream today!

I have a dream that one day every valley shall be exalted, every hill and mountain shall be made low, the rough places shall be made plain, and the crooked places shall be made straight and the glory of the Lord will be revealed and all flesh shall see it together. . . .

With this faith we will be able to hew out of the mountain of despair a stone of hope. With this faith we will be able to transform the jangling discords of our nation into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood.

With this faith we will be able to work together, to pray together, to struggle together, to go to jail together, to stand up for freedom together, knowing that we will be free one day. [2]

References:
[1] Kelly Brown Douglas, Stand Your Ground: Black Bodies and the Justice of God (Orbis Books: 2015), 225, 226. Italics mine.

[2] Martin Luther King Jr., “I Have a Dream,” A Testament of Hope: The Essential Writings and Speeches of Martin Luther King, Jr., ed. James Melvin Washington (HarperCollins: 1991, 1986), 219.

Story from Our Community:
I start every day with reading and studying [Richard Rohr’s] daily teachings. Is my life changed? No. I have only one unique life that God gave me, but now the life has a SENSE. It is easier? No, but now my life has a PURPOSE. We still struggle every day, but now we have reinforcement; we are not alone. —Roman P.

Image credit: Dorothea Lange, Tractored Out (detail), 1938, photograph, public domain.
Image inspiration: A lonely house on barren, tilled earth may tell us hard truths of what has been, what is, and what is to come.
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Prophetic Imagination

Prophets as Poets
Wednesday, March 24, 2021

One of the great scholars of the Jewish scriptures was Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel (1907–1972). In his in-depth study of the Hebrew prophets, he included this description of the prophets which is really rather surprising. We often think of prophets as scolds, rather judgmental and cranky, but Heschel reminds us of their essential gifts of creativity and imagination:

The prophet is a poet. His experience is one known to the poets. What the poets know as poetic inspiration, the prophets call divine revelation. . . . The inspiration of the artist is what is meant by “the hand of the Lord which rests upon the prophet.”

What makes the difference between the prophet and the ordinary person is the possession of a heightened and unified awareness of certain aspects of life. Like a poet, he is endowed with sensibility, enthusiasm, and tenderness, and above all, with a way of thinking imaginatively. Prophecy is the product of poetic imagination. Prophecy is poetry, and in poetry everything is possible, [such as] for the trees to celebrate a birthday, and for God to speak to [humans]. The statement “God’s word came to me” was employed by the prophet as a figure of speech, as a poetic image. [1]

One of the most recent encounters I’ve had with “poetic prophecy” occurred when Amanda Gorman, a young Catholic woman and United States Youth Poet Laureate, wrote and performed a poem for the recent Presidential Inauguration. It seems to me that many of her words connect deeply with words from the Hebrew prophets.

She begins her poem “The Hill We Climb” by asking in the style of the psalms of lamentation, “When day comes we ask ourselves, where can we find light in this never-ending shade?” She then references the sign of the reluctant prophet Jonah: “We’ve braved the belly of the beast; we’ve learned that quiet isn’t always peace.”

She transforms the seemingly unjust decree of Exodus 34:7 that God will “visit the iniquities of the fathers on the children and the children’s children, to the third and fourth generation,” no longer holding God responsible for intergenerational trauma. Like the prophets of old, she holds us accountable for our actions: “we know our inaction and inertia will be the inheritance of the next generation. . . . Our blunders become their burdens” (emphasis mine).

Like the prophet Micah, Gorman reminds us of God’s desire for mercy (see 6:8): “But one thing is certain. If we merge mercy with might, and might with right, then love becomes our legacy, and change our children’s birthright.” With the prophet Zechariah, she envisions a time of peace and plenty when “everyone shall sit under their own vine and fig tree and no one shall make them afraid” (3:10). I encourage you to read and ponder the whole text of her poem. [2]

I know not everyone appreciates or even understands poetry. I will admit it needs to be wrestled with sometimes, but I hope poetry can help us learn to appreciate the creative envisioning the prophets undertake through their relationship with God.

References:
[1] Abraham J. Heschel, The Prophets (Harper & Row: 1962), 367–368.

[2] Amanda Gorman, The Hill We Climb: An Inaugural Poem for the Country (Viking Books: 2021), available March 30, 2021.

Story from Our Community:
I was raised to be the obedient one. Most often that meant blind obedience. It took me many years to cultivate the integrity to speak my truth to power. I am still a reluctant prophet, often mistrusting my truth. I remain so deeply grateful for new mentors who teach me to listen to my inner voices and who give me some tools to discern the worth of them. —Ann W.

Image credit: Dorothea Lange, Tractored Out (detail), 1938, photograph, public domain.
Image inspiration: A lonely house on barren, tilled earth may tell us hard truths of what has been, what is, and what is to come.
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Prophetic Imagination

A Positive Vision
Tuesday, March 23, 2021

The starting point for the prophets’ imagination is an amazing, positive experience of God. Their divine encounter fills their heart not with cynicism, not with sarcasm, not with negativity, not with opposition, but with an ecstasy that has to be shared. That one experience of the Absolute is so absolutizing that it effectively relativizes everything else, including the religious trappings of the Temple, the priesthood, and even sacred texts. Rabbi Nahum Ward-Lev describes the experience of one of the earliest Hebrew prophets:

God also gave Amos a positive vision, an instruction for how the people can preserve themselves and their communal life:

Seek the Living Presence and you shall live. . . . Seek [God] who made the Pleiades and Orion and turns the deep darkness into morning and makes the day darken into night. . . . Seek good and not evil, that you may live. . . . Hate the evil and love the good and establish justice in the gate (Amos 5:6, 8, 14, 15).

Amos, animated by the grave understanding that the present order cannot stand, also bears an alternative vision for the future: seek the Living Presence, seek good and not evil that you may live. Burdened and energized, he leaves his flock behind and sets out for Beth El to bring God’s word. The shepherd of Tekoa heads north in the name of the Shepherd of Israel.

Amos embodies the qualities found in all the writing prophets in the Hebrew Bible. The prophets are people who are imbued with God’s love for creation and consequent passion for justice. The encounter with this love and concern brings forth from the prophet the courage to face what others turn away from—the unsustainability of a society that oppresses the poor. At the same time, the soaring possibilities present in God’s loving attention to the world fires the prophet with the imaginative power to present the people with an alternative, life-giving future. Engagement with divine love, courage to condemn oppression, and imagination to envision an alternative future are three qualities that define the prophetic experience.

The work of the prophets is not done, nor will it ever be, but the example of Jesus and the experience of Christ in our midst empowers us to be prophets in our own time. Rabbi Nahum, who leads a multi-faith sacred community in nearby Santa Fe, New Mexico, urges us to find our own prophetic work:

While most of us are not yet prophets, we also know the presence of a great love, a love that includes the entire world. Awakened by that love, we too are aggrieved in the face of human oppression. A voice within us calls out, “This is wrong and cannot stand.” We yearn for a world in which all can flourish. Fueled by our own particular yearning, we occasionally entertain visions for how some small part of our world can be liberated into greater possibility.

Reference:
Nahum Ward-Lev, The Liberating Path of the Hebrew Prophets: Then and Now (Orbis Books: 2019), 4–5, 11.

Story from Our Community:
I was raised to be the obedient one. Most often that meant blind obedience. It took me many years to cultivate the integrity to speak my truth to power. I am still a reluctant prophet, often mistrusting my truth. I remain so deeply grateful for new mentors who teach me to listen to my inner voices and who give me some tools to discern the worth of them. —Ann W.

Image credit: Dorothea Lange, Tractored Out (detail), 1938, photograph, public domain.
Image inspiration: A lonely house on barren, tilled earth may tell us hard truths of what has been, what is, and what is to come.
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Prophetic Imagination

The Path of the Fall
Monday, March 22, 2021

In spirituality, there are basically two paths, what I’ve called the path of the fall and the path of the return. The path of return has been the message of the priestly class. True priests talk of religion, communion, love, transcendence, connecting this world with the next, and generally offering a coherent world of meaning. In contrast, the path of the fall is directed and legitimated by the prophets, who teach us how to go into our shadows creatively and how to lose gracefully. They teach us how to let go and let things fall apart without fear.

The role of the prophet is to lead us on an individual and collective level through the necessary deconstruction of what I would call the false self. The prophet’s path is of descent and is never popular or easy. It is about letting go of illusion and toppling false gods. People usually like priests, which is why they are established and comfortable in almost all cultures, but the prophets are almost always killed.

The prophets are disrupters of the social consensus. What everybody is saying, whatever the glib agreement is, prophets say, “it’s not true.” They do this primarily by exposing and toppling what the Hebrew Scriptures called idols, things that are made absolute that are not absolute. The tendency of religion is to absolutize. I’m sure it comes from a deep psychological need for some solid ground to stand on, but the prophets remind us that God is the only absolute. And don’t try to make the institutions of God absolutes either! Jeremiah said, “The Temple, the Temple, the Temple, don’t you get tired of talking about the Temple?” (see Jeremiah 7:4) This was a good Jewish man who surely loved the Temple but recognized that it, too, had become an idol.

Through Jeremiah, God reminded them: “In speaking to your ancestors on the day I brought them out of the land of Egypt, I gave them no command concerning burnt offering or sacrifice [in the Temple]. This is rather what I commanded them: Listen to my voice; then I will be your God and you shall be my people. Walk exactly in the way I command you, so that you may prosper” (Jeremiah 7:22–23).

I hope we can sympathize with the people of Israel who so often rejected their prophets. It’s scary whenever we’re offered a new synthesis or paradigm, especially for those who are heavily invested in the old. Opposition will rise, just as it rose around Jesus. People inside the status quo usually have much to lose. They don’t necessarily have ill will; it’s just that they’re living in the only world they’ve ever imagined. Perhaps my favorite understanding of prophets is that they’re lovers of spiritual freedom who keep humanity free for God and God free for humanity. It is harder than you think.

References:
Adapted from Richard Rohr, Prophets Then, Prophets Now, discs 1 and 3 (Center for Action and Contemplation: 2006), MP3 download; and

The Wisdom Pattern: Order, Disorder, Reorder (Franciscan Media: 2020), 195, 196.

Story from Our Community:
When I heard Richard Rohr interviewed by Krista Tippett, my whole being sang. He gave words to what I have always intuitively felt but couldn’t explain. Reading Richard Rohr has led me to others who have also helped me realize that religion is merely a finger pointing to the moon. I would now say that I am an inter-spiritual person who is aware that I must go down in order to go up. This is both frightening and exhilarating. And I am so grateful. —Kael S.

Image credit: Dorothea Lange, Tractored Out (detail), 1938, photograph, public domain.
Image inspiration: A lonely house on barren, tilled earth may tell us hard truths of what has been, what is, and what is to come.
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Prophetic Imagination

On the Edge of the Inside
Sunday, March 21, 2021

In the fall of 2020, I began sending out occasional letters that I called “Letters from Outside the Camp,” a reference to the many usages of “outside the camp” in the Hebrew Bible. It is a prophetic position “on the edge of the inside,” which is described by the early Israelites as “the tent of meeting outside the camp” (Exodus 33:7). Even though this tent is foldable, moveable, and disposable, it is still a meeting place for “the holy,” which is always on the move and out in front of us. The free and graced position found in the tent of meeting is what allowed Jesus and all prophets in his lineage to speak from the privileged minority position. It is always less desirable, compared to the comfortable and enjoyable places at the center and the top; yet it is the Jesus stance, and the place where all Franciscans follow after him.

The prophet exercises his or her imagination from that place of freedom, as my favorite Scripture scholar Walter Brueggemann describes so well: Because the totalism [that is, the system] wants to silence, banish, or eliminate every such unwelcome [prophetic] intrusion, the tricky work is to find standing ground outside the totalism from which to think the unthinkable, to imagine the unimaginable, and to utter the unutterable.”  [1]

The “tent of meeting” is the initial image and metaphor that eventually became our much later notion of “church.” The greatest prophet of the Jewish tradition, Moses, had the prescience and courage to move the place of hearing God outside and at a distance from the court of common religious and civic opinion—this was the original genius that inspired the entire Jewish prophetic tradition. It is quite different than mere liberal and conservative positions, and often even at odds with them. Prophecy and Gospel are rooted in a contemplative and non-dual way of knowing—a way of being in the world that is utterly free and grounded in the compassion of God.

It inspires me to wonder how we might maintain that same sense of prophetic freedom outside the contemporary political and religious “encampments” of our day. For those of us who are sincerely and devotedly trying to camp elsewhere than in any political party or religious denomination, we know full well that we must now avoid the temptation to become our own defended camp.

Somehow our occupation and vocation as believers in this time must be to first restore the Divine Center by holding it and fully occupying it ourselves. If contemplation means anything, it means that we can “safeguard that little piece of You, God, in ourselves” as Etty Hillesum describes it. [2] What other power do we have now?

References:
[1] Walter Brueggemann, Tenacious Solidarity: Biblical Provocations on Race, Religion, Climate, and the Economy (Fortress Press: 2018), 384.

[2] Etty Hillesum, An Interrupted Life: The Diaries, 1941–1943; and, Letters from Westerbork, trans. Arnold J. Pomerans (Henry Holt and Company: 1996), 178.

Adapted from Richard Rohr, “Some Simple but Urgent Guidance,” September 21, 2020; “Letters from Outside the Camp 3,” November 2, 2020; “Letters from Outside the Camp 4,” January 19, 2021.

Story from Our Community:
When I heard Richard Rohr interviewed by Krista Tippett, my whole being sang. He gave words to what I have always intuitively felt but couldn’t explain. Reading Richard Rohr has led me to others who have also helped me realize that religion is merely a finger pointing to the moon. I would now say that I am an inter-spiritual person who is aware that I must go down in order to go up. This is both frightening and exhilarating. And I am so grateful. —Kael S.

Image credit: Dorothea Lange, Tractored Out (detail), 1938, photograph, public domain.
Image inspiration: A lonely house on barren, tilled earth may tell us hard truths of what has been, what is, and what is to come.
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