Prophetic Life and Authority in the Church
Archimandrite Zacharias (of St. John the Baptist Monastery, Essex)
Reprinted with permission from Bishop Basil of Wichita
The gift of prophecy in the life of the Church is a more or less constant state in the believer which confirms the eternal truth of Christ’s words. It ascribes justice to God the Saviour and acknowledges the shamefulness of man’s fall and his ingratitude. In the New Testament, a prophet is not so much one who foretells future events, as one who knows the mystery of the way of salvation for every soul. He utters words in the Spirit of the everlasting and unchanging truth which Christ, Who has come and Who will come again, revealed.
The great Apostle Paul declares that all the gifts of the Holy Spirit flow from Christ’s descent into the lower parts of the earth and His ascent above the heavens. He rightly wonders at, and places greater emphasis on, the Lord of glory’s descent. This is His principal way which leads to truth and to an ‘abundance’ of life. In triumphant and poetic fashion he declares, ‘When Christ ascended up on high, he led captivity captive, and gave gifts unto men. Now that he ascended, what is it but that he also descended first into the lower parts of the earth? He that descended is the same also that ascended up far above all heavens, that he might fill all things’(1) with the grace of salvation. His descent into hell and His ascension into heaven is the basis for every spiritual gift, including the gift of prophecy, about which we wish to speak today.
‘God resisteth the proud, and giveth grace to the humble’(2). According to the chief Apostle Peter, the grace of the Holy Spirit is ‘manifold'(3). It is transmitted ‘in the rich pastures of gifts’, of which each member of the Body of Christ has a share. One of the most important gifts of the Holy Spirit is the gift of prophecy. Moreover, we know from the other chief Apostle Paul that humility is the main characteristic of the spirit of a prophet. This is what attracts the grace of God to him, enabling him to fulfil the two great commandments of love for God and for one’s neighbour. He confirms this when he says, ‘the spirits of the prophets are subject to the prophets’(4). The true prophet humbly knows how to tame his spirit so that he does not usurp the spiritual space of others, including that of the divine Other, the Lord, and that of each one of his brethren.
The prophet places himself on the humble downward way of the Lord, the only true way that leads to salvation. Christ Himself said, ‘I am the way, the truth, and the life’(5). Consequently, having placed himself on the way of the Lord, the prophet finds that he has the Lord as his fellow-traveller, as was the case with Luke and Cleopas on their journey to Emmaus. He attaches himself to Him, and the Lord imparts His state to him, making him a partaker of His gifts. The risen Lord, Who holds the ‘key of David’(6), unlocks the prophet’s heart by His messianic power so as to accommodate the knowledge of the Great Mystery of piety. He bestows on him the humble spirit of His way. The Lord then inspires in him love for His Second Coming, and this divine and prophetic inspiration fills his life. We will now look at the main characteristics of this prophetic state.
When the fragrant traces of God the Word which accumulate in his heart, reach a certain measure, the heart opens up, and the holy of Holies comes to make His abode in it. Then the greatest miracle known to the created world takes place: man’s heart is united with the Spirit of the Eternal God. Man is completely regenerated by the incorruptible seed of the word of God. He becomes a temple not made by the hands man, but by the Holy Spirit, the Comforter, and can not only conceive the divine word of God within himself but can also impart it in an authentic way, so that it informs the hearts of those who hear him pronounce it with divine grace. He receives the gift of prophecy and becomes a servant of the Word.
The prophet does not put his trust in himself but in God Who raises even the dead. He is deeply conscious that salvation is not something he has earned but is a pure ‘gift of God’(7). He reproaches himself with regard to everything and thus sets out on the way of the Lord’s voluntary Passion, holding fast to the ‘promise of the life that now is, and of that which is to come’(8). He bears in mind the Lord’s words: ‘When ye shall have done all those things which are commanded you, say, we are unprofitable servants: we have done that which was our duty to do’(9). This leads him to the humility of counting himself as nothing which is suitable material for his refashioning. This is what the God of Christians creates from.
When we reproach ourselves for the misery of our fall and embark upon the downward journey, the proud spirit of the enemy is unable to follow us. Thus we are freed from his power. By self-reproach and journeying downwards, we confess the universal truth that ‘all have sinned, and come short of the glory of God’(10). Then are we true and attract the Spirit of truth. The practice of self-reproach leads us to having an ever-increasing number of humble thoughts which have the effect of rekindling in us the grace of repentance, thus increasing our inspiration for salvation. The grace-filled prophet places himself below everyone so that he may impart, be it only to a few souls, something of the deep knowledge of the Mystery of God which he himself has received. His knowledge is supernatural while his humility brings those that hear him to a sense of honour and they accept the witness of his experience. The humble prophet places a transformer of divine love within him which converts every kind of energy he encounters in his life, whether positive or negative, into an energy of prayer and dialogue with God. With this transformation, enduring ‘the fiery trial which is to try’ him(11) and bearing the reproach ‘for the name of Christ’(12) cause the spirit of God(13) to find repose in the heart of the faithful struggler. ‘Suffering wrongfully’(14) is truly blessed in that it is acceptable to God(15), and the believer rejoices ‘with joy unspeakable and full of glory’(16), having tasted of the saving hope of the salvation to come. To taste of voluntary death for the sake of the Lord’s commandment is to begin to overcome and blot out the involuntary death to which mortal man has become subject because of sin.
Moreover, the prophet’s desire to be pleasing to God through self-denial and surrender to the divine will produces an effervescence in his spirit which inspires him with love and gratitude for his Lord and Benefactor. The more man’s gratitude and thankfulness towards God increases, the more does God bestow even greater gifts on him according to His lovingkindness. Even more fervently does he then give thanks for the gifts of all the Saints, and especially for the great things the Almighty has done for His All-holy Mother for the salvation of the world. He arrives at the point of being thankful for every breath of air given by the Creator to every living creature.
Thanking the Lord his Benefactor more and more, man realises that ‘God is greater than our heart’(17). This in turn humbles and crushes him, and in his affliction he begins to repent, for he has gained a new awareness of how far he falls short of thanking God as he ought. And, as our Fathers say, there is no end to repentance that is born of gratitude.
However, enduring reproaches, insults and assaults, injustice and mocking, being set at naught and injustice, all help to acquire the prophetic gift of the supernatural and indescribable humility of Christ. These things reveal the secret passions and expose the ‘hideous face’ of our heart. Patience in dishonour heals the wounds of the soul and reflects its progress. Saint John of the Ladder says, ‘I once saw three monks receive the same injury at the same time. One felt the sting of this and was troubled, but kept silent; the second rejoiced at his injury for the reward it would bring him, but was sorry for the wrongdoer; and the third, thinking of the harm his erring neighbour was suffering, wept fervently. And fear, reward and love were to be seen at work’(18).
From what has been said above, it becomes clear why the Fathers used to say that we have need of humility above all, for this is the essence of the nobility of the disciple of Christ. Of course there is ascetic humility, which is the fruit of the athlete’s lawful struggle and effort. But there is also the indescribable grace-given humility, which arises in the soul from the vision of the Countenance of Christ.
One of the primary ways in which monastics acquire the prophetic gift is to live according to a single thought that Christ the Lord might be magnified in their spirit, soul and body and in all their life. They will consider themselves to be unworthy servants, but their whole life will be dedicated to being completely reconciled to Christ, so that nothing can separate them from Him. This way of life with a single thought is realised when the faithful pray with the ‘monologistic’ or one-word prayer of the Name of the Lord Jesus, when they confess, when they converse, and above all when they repent before God. No one can weep from his heart in his search for the Face of the Lord if he persists as the servant of two (or more) thoughts in his mind. But through mourning with one thought, Christians find the way of tears. This heals and unifies their whole nature, so that in turn they direct it completely to God. Then they can stand steadfastly in His holy Presence and accomplish their complete sanctification. For this reason, in their encounters with holy Elders monks have but one request: ‘Father, give me a word’. With this word they direct their whole life before God and in the world.
Obedience, however, contributes more than anything else to the prophetic character of the monastic way. The monk receives the Elder’s word with faith as the will of God. He casts aside his earthly judgment and his will. Thus he enters into the privilege, without distractions and reasoning, of ascending to the level of the only will of God, and thus he acquires integrity and purity of mind. This prepares him for pure prayer in which, according to the experience of Saint Silouan and Elder Sophrony, a divine state is communicated to him. When he prays he is unaware whether he is in the body or outside the body. He is completely immersed in the Spirit of God Who leads and guides him.
Apart from the way of self-accusation, which is based on the mystery of Christ’s descent into the lower parts of the earth, and the way of monasticism which aims to emulate the example of self-emptying of Him Who had ‘not where to lay his head’(19), there is also the spiritual place of the Divine Liturgy, where the gift of prophecy is cultivated and preserved for all the faithful.
The Liturgy is a prophetic assembly. In apostolic times, each member of this assembly possessed his own prophetic gift, which was his contribution to the communion of the grace of God, which is the deep nature of the Church.
For around the first three centuries of Christianity, the Church was persecuted and therefore did not have the freedom and possibility to organise herself externally in relation to the world. For this reason the gift of prophecy, along with the grace of martyrdom, were absolutely essential elements for the life of the Church and her edification. From the testimony of writers of the second century, we discover that the Holy Eucharist was celebrated very simply and in accordance with the prophetic way. St Justin the philosopher and martyr gives us the following outline(20): the Christians would assemble on Sunday evenings. First, there would be readings from the New and Old Testaments. Then a sermon would be delivered by the presiding minister. Afterwards, the faithful would stand for common prayers, as offerings of bread, wine and water were made. The presiding minister would then offer up prayers of thanksgiving ‘according to his strength’ and the people would give their ‘Amen’, and the service would end with the communion of the consecrated gifts. What is of particular importance for us here is the short phrase ‘according to his strength’. In other words, depending on the strength and inspiration of the presiding minister’s prophetic gift.
With the passage of time, whole families of Liturgies came into existence. Eventually, the great Saints and ecumenical teachers of Christianity, St Basil the Great and St John Chrysostom, having in mind the earlier Eucharistic prayers, composed our two outstanding Liturgies which have been served in our Church without any interruption to this day.
Nevertheless, the perfect work of these two liturgical forms did not diminish the prophetic character of the Eucharistic assembly; neither was the ritual aspect promoted at the expense of the communion of grace. On the contrary, the theological perfection and inspiration of this work by the leading spirit of these Saints, delivers the celebrant from the anxiety of human imperfection and from having to improvise his own prayer. He can concentrate completely on celebrating with all due attention, so as to make the prayers as much his as they were of those who bequeathed them to us. There is no longer a need for a ‘spectacular’ manifestation of the various spiritual gifts of the faithful as in the early days of the apostolic gatherings. But all this leads us to ask how the communion of grace, which renews and enriches the faithful with an abundance of life(21), is now expressed in the course of the Liturgy in our own time?
Firstly, the Divine Liturgy will always remain a prophetic event for many reasons. Above all it is the fulfilment of the Lord’s commandment: ‘Take, eat: this is my body ... this do in remembrance of me’(22). Just as in the beginning of creation the Lord spoke once only and His word applies for ever, so also now the fulfilment of His word actualises the Mystery of His Cross and Resurrection. Our ‘remembrance’ of this is not merely psychological, but a grace-filled initiation into His Spirit, accomplished by our human utterance of His word and our invocation of His Name. Everything is sanctified by this Eucharistic prayer. The eternal principle which the great Saint Paul formulated applies here, which is the basis of every liturgical act: ‘for it is sanctified by the word of God and prayer’(23). In the Divine Liturgy the Second Coming of the Lord is commemorated as an event that has already come to pass and now is, because He who has come and will come again, Christ, is Himself present as He ‘Who offers and is offered and given’ to the faithful for food and drink, while the Holy Spirit overshadows the Eucharistic gathering and transforms the holy gifts. How are we to partake rightfully or worthily of the grace of this prophetic event?
The fundamental characteristic of the prophetic spirit is humility. Consequently, participation in the Divine Liturgy requires a similarly humble state of mind. The offering of the gifts should be done with humility. When we prepare bread, wine and water for the holy Mystery, we secretly place in them our whole life: our faith, our secret prayer of repentance. We place in them our thanksgiving for all that God has done for us and for the whole world, for every breath of air He gives us, for the protection and preservation of all creation, and above all for the fact that He is As He Is: no other is like Him Who alone is the all-good and merciful lover of mankind. We also place our humility in them and our confidence in His power and His promises.
These small personal gifts that we gather up as we prepare for the Liturgy in the secret of our contrite hearts will join us to the rest of the Body of Christ, uniting us to the gifts of all the other members whether militant in this life or triumphant in the next, having been made perfect in eternal life. These little gifts we offer as the fruit of our struggles will be the key to our entry into the communion of the wealth of gifts of all the members of the Body. This communion of grace constitutes the essence of the Church. In it even the poor are made rich and are saved by the grace flowing from the Head of the Body and through the prayers of those made perfect in Him, the Saints, who remain humble. The warmth and peace that we accumulate in the hidden ‘closet’ of our heart(24) will accompany us when we assemble for the Divine Liturgy. They will clear a holy and mystical space within us wherein our spirit is enabled to present itself before God. This state will allow us to come before the Lord in all humility, without any need of outward demonstrations of piety, and therefore without usurping the spiritual space of our fellows, as befits prophets. Then our sacrifice will be all the more pleasing to God, as we utter the words: ‘Thine own, of Thine own, we offer unto Thee in all and for all.’ And the Lord will respond by placing His very Life within the holy gifts, and the voice of His goodness will thunder, ‘The holy things unto the holy.’ The great miracle of this most unequal, yet gracious, of exchanges will then take place: That is to say, the Creator and Redeemer will grant us His boundless Life in exchange for our little life. Then we, the New Israel, will sing the song of victory, ‘We have seen the true Light; We have received the heavenly Spirit.’ We do not await the coming of the Lord Jesus passively, but prophetically we run towards that glorious and wondrous encounter, and we ‘hasten unto the coming of the day of God’(25).
The purpose of the gift of prophetic life is to enable each one to discover his or her deep heart, which is the place of God’s Presence in man. The uncovering and quickening of the heart is the work of the Holy Spirit, Who reproves, cleanses and makes it sensitive to receive the word of life, that it might be illumined by the Lord Jesus, and that His very form might be engraved upon it. Thus is wiped away the sin of unbelief in Christ, righteousness and the instruction of the Cross are renewed within the heart, and finally the enemy is shamed and punished.
The discovery of the heart and its refinement by the grace of God aims to make it fit to seize the word of God and with its energy to bear witness to Jesus, Who is risen from the dead. Although the word of God is by its very nature inexpressible, when it enters the heart, it does not perplex its host but rather fills him with incorruptible comfort. A prophetic event then takes place. The soul humbly surrenders to her visitation so as to conceive and bear it within herself. A personal covenant between God and man is then sealed, which is accompanied by inexpressible divine comfort. Man’s spirit is ‘born again, and this regeneration is man’s encounter with living eternity which overshadows him and makes him like ‘one that dreams’, so ‘drunk’ is he with the joy of salvation. He overflows with the energy of indissoluble life, and the word of God is henceforth the divine source of his inspiration.
Christ continues to suffer in this world(26) and this suffering lays its head in the hearts of His true disciples. They too suffer: they are tormented by the fact that their heart is as yet not large enough to bear the great portion of the Lord’s love, which he promised to the sisters of Lazarus and to everyone. But the disciple of the Master is none the less convinced to the end that ‘God is greater than our heart’(27) and reproaches himself as an ‘unprofitable servant’(28). The prophetic inspiration his spirit has, will not allow him to rest until his zeal cleanses the house of God(29) so that it becomes a ‘temple of the living God’(30). As the Lord Himself explains, ‘I am come to send fire on the earth; and what will I, if it be already kindled?’(31)
On the one hand he sees the example of Christ as the ‘lamb without blemish and without spot’(32), Who ascends to Golgotha to suffer and die for the whole Adam. His perfect image becomes impressed in his heart. The heritage of His words, ‘Love one another, as I have loved you’(33) is unceasingly confirmed by the Spirit in groanings ‘which cannot be uttered’(34), and by the heart which loves and cries out within us ‘Abba, Father!’(35) On the other hand, he sees more deeply and clearly than ever before the terrible falsehood and smallness, the unfaithfulness and the inconstancy of his love. He is captivated by the utterly inexpressible beauty of the humble love of the long-suffering Lord, Who prays even for His enemies, and kneels before Him in holy fear and deep reverence, worshipping the Saviour in gratitude and love. At the same time he is ever more deeply and clearly conscious of his nothingness. He is repulsed by his false self and with the force of self-hatred turns towards the gracious Lord. He separates himself from every created thing, even from attachment to this earthly life, and becomes ‘one spirit’(36) with Him. This twofold awareness, and his downwards attraction after Christ, increase the disciple’s inspiration.
The force of self-hatred conveys the whole of the disciple’s life to the place of the Presence of the Master, Who then imparts His own state to him. He makes him worthy to contemplate the ‘form’ of His Person and of hearing his indescribable ‘voice’. The disciple then acquires true knowledge of eternal life. When he returns from the dwelling- place of the divine Presence, and utters a word to his brethren, he testifies to the indissoluble life of which he has partaken. And his witness will be so informed by grace that they too will become partakers of the joy and hope of the salvation to come.
The prophetic authority of those who have been in the living Presence of the Lord has nothing to do with worldly authority. It is a spiritual power of humble service and love, pulling down the strongholds(37) of pride which make it so difficult to fulfil the two great commandments of love. Indeed, the true prophet has a true relationship with God and with his brethren. His attitude before God is similar to that of the great Prophet John the Baptist, while in his relations with others he is distinguished by deep humility, like the Apostle Paul who said, ‘Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners of whom I am chief’(38).
A genuine prophet, who has had a living encounter with the Lord Jesus, and has seen the Light of His Countenance, be it only once, will forever aspire to the divine measure which Christ revealed, and not the mortal measure of this world. For this reason his humility is indescribable and grace-given. The story of his meeting with the Lord of glory and the description of the state He has communicated to him, is the gift of living theology which worthily glorifies the One God of love in Three Hypostases. His whole life unfolds as a potent confirmation of the testimony of Jesus Christ risen from the dead(39). He is passed over from death to eternal life: ‘dying no more; death hath no-more dominion over him’(40).
‘The testimony of Jesus is the spirit of prophecy’(41).
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Prophetic Life and Authority in the Church
 Eph. 4: 8-10.
 I Pet. 5: 5; Proverbs 3: 34.
 I Pet. 4: 10.
 I Cor. 14: 32.
 Jn. 14: 6.
 Rev. 3: 7.
 Eph. 2: 8.
 I Tim.4:8.
 Lk. 17: 10.
 Rom. 3: 23.
 Cf. I Pet. 4:12.
 I Pet. 4:14.
 Cf. I Pet. 4:14.
 I Pet. 2: 19.
 I Pet. 2: 20.
 I Pet. 1: 8-9.
 I Jn. 3: 20.
 Saint John Climacus, The Ladder of Divine Ascent, (Holy Transfiguration Monastery, Boston, Massachusetts, 1991) Step 8 ‘On freedom from anger and on meekness’, paragraph 27, page 85.
 Matt. 8: 20; Lk. 9: 58.
 Ἀπολογία ὑπέρ Χριστιανῶν 1, 67, PG 6, 429.
 Cf. Jn. 10: 10.
 I Cor. 11: 24; cf. Lk. 22: 19.
 I Tim. 4: 4-5.
 Matt. 6: 6.
 II Pet. 3: 12.
 Acts 26: 23.
 I Jn. 3: 20.
 Lk. 17: 10.
 cf. Jn. 2: 17.
 II Cor. 6: 16.
 Lk. 12: 49.
 I Pet. I: 19.
 Jn. 15: 12.
 Rom. 8: 26.
 Rom. 8: 15.
 I Cor. 6: 17.
 II Cor. 10: 4.
 I Tim. 1: 15.
 Cf. II Tim. 2:8.
 Cf. Rom. 6: 9.
 Rev. 19: 10.