The Prophet, Justice, and the Ministry of Spiritual Direction

Ellen O’Shaughnessy, O.P.

These addresses were presented at an Annual Dominican Family Awareness Day held at Providence College, Providence, Rhode Island, in March, 1978. They are offered to all the members of the Dominican Family through the cooperation of the Dominican Laity in the Provinces of St. Joseph and St. Albert the Great, U.S.A.
Dominicana Publications, 1979.

The Good News is preached. Too often, as fast as the waves of sound carry the eloquent words, the very words disappear in obedience to the law of physics. The words go nowhere. If, by chance, the message did delight the hearer as a new concept, inspiring idea, or engaging experience of another, frequently the words still die to the hearer for want of a way to the heart.

I do not believe that the problem is so much the “crisis of the pulpit” as it is the problem of the puzzled Christian who does not know what to do with all the eloquent words being preached. Workshops abound. Preached retreats, encounters of every kind. Read the summer offerings of the National Catholic Reporter. Offerings of Scripture courses, Liturgy courses, retreats, institutes, center-city experiences of working with the poor. There are preachers everywhere, eager to share the Good News. “Water, water, everywhere” but for some, “not a drop to drink.”

From my experience in the ministry of spiritual direction, I find that the expertise of the preacher and teacher can be met by individual hearers with firm resistence. A resistance textured and colored by what I would call TIMIDITY. Many say: Who am I? Who is God? What are they all saying out there? What am I being called to do?

If you can in any way relate to these questions, may I suggest to you that they embody the resistance offered by the prophets throughout history. Moses told the Lord that he could not follow the call. Why? Because he stuttered. Jeremiah said (May I paraphrase a bit?), “No way, I am too young. Get someone over thirty who has more credibility.” Mary, upon the angel’s declaration that she was to be the mother of God (no less), replied, “How can this be done?” She, too, proceeded to give a very good reason for her questioning.

All three of these persons initially resisted words that came their way. They could have chosen to let the words die with the law of physics. Yet all three worked through their resistance. They allowed the Word of the Lord to break open their fear, their timidity. Moses, Jeremiah, Mary let go of fear and let the Word enter and empower them. Then dynamite followed. And they gave to us their life’s story. Now, preachers tell the stories of Moses, Jeremiah and Mary over and over.

Our Prophecy

But when are we going to get the point? It is our turn to tell the story of our lives, our call. We are prophets. That’s why we are here. Only in telling do we become convinced that we have a story to tell. When: we are able to overcome our timidity, we come to the conviction that our religious experience is worth a good story.

When we arrive at this conviction that God is active in our personal history, we share in the very life of the Word preached: the companionship of the Risen Lord among us. And how else is the life of the Risen Lord to be lived except through us? — not so much in the eloquence of the preached words, but rather in our lives lived and proclaimed, It is in this mystery that the virtue of justice flourishes. When we allow oppressive unfreedoms to lift from our lives, we can empower others £or freedom. In all of this lies the hidden secret of our own resurrection, a resurrection hinted at by the courage to cut through our timidity be are called to tell our story. A story in which we are the characters and God is the plot.

Invitation and Decision

John Shea in his book Stories of God says that the story of invitation and decision is the tale that the parables and some of the sayings of Jesus unfold. In the parables, God is not imagined as the lead character or as a background presence. God is the plot. God is what happens to people in the story or to the people hearing the story. God is what happened to Moses, Jeremiah, Mary. God is what happens to you and to me.

But, we realize, God as plot is invisible. Shea points out that the parable of the fig tree proclaims that He is “the summer God”. “Take the fig tree as a parable: as soon as its twigs grow supple and its leaves come out, you know that summer is near.” (Mark 13:28). No one has seen summer, yet its presence is announced by the budding tree. No one has seen God, yet His presence is proclaimed by the believing, transformed person. Shea exemplifies this by pointing to a poem in Kazantazakis’s Report to Greco which trades on Jesus’s parable of the fig tree:

I said to the almond tree, “Sister, speak to me of God.” And the almond tree blossomed.

I say to you, “Sisters, brothers, speak to me of God!”

It is in the telling that freedom comes. I experience this through individuals in the context of spiritual direction. Justice comes to flourish in the land when persons are freed of timidity, of resistances that hold them back from the conviction that the summer God is near. Justice comes to flourish in the land when they, as prophets, cut through and disarm harmful and oppressive structures and persons in their lives. The man or woman who becomes the contemplative, who allows the Word of God to become the plot of their lives is dynamite. Prayer is dangerous. Contemplation has its consequences. It is hardly a passive experience. The flower blossoms, the Word is enfleshed and a prophet is born. Things start happening. Love, freedom, justice — formerly just concepts — become alive. The Word calls forth in these individuals about whom I speak a life of justice: a life given to reach those who ache with desire to be able to laugh again; to those who are poor with a life of material poverty; to those who are poor and bored with a life of affluence; in other words, to those who hunger and thirst for Good News.

Let me share with you the story of individuals that I have been privileged to be with through the ministry of spiritual direction. But first, a word about the ministry itself. I see it as a service of enabling, of facilitating the awareness of God’s love in the lives of persons who desire to know God. It is a ministry of “watering the garden”, of helping others to freedom in choosing God. It is akin to the ministry of John the Baptist: of pointing toward the Lord. It is a ministry which encourages the other to tell his or her story. It is a ministry which helps cut through personal pietism and encourages the other to share his or her gifts at the service of the whole community. It is a ministry which helps dispel resistance by first recognizing that resistances are present. It is a ministry which proclaims that we are loved sinners and that each of our stories is sacred.

Three peoples’ lives demonstrate all that I have said. I gave a directed retreat to a woman religious who for 27 years “said her prayers”. She made the retreat because in her words, “God wants something from me and I don’t know what it is…I haven’t had time to listen.” I found out that she had taken a year of absence from her community. She needed the space away from situations that she allowed to define her, namely, an authority position which she held within the community. Time elapsed and she returned to the community after the leave of absence. She slipped right back into the old motions and accepted the same position of authority. The hassle started all over again. She let others control her responses; she let the situation define her. It got the best of her again, We discovered that she had no life that she could call her own, that she could claim as her own history, her own present.

The day that she prayed the prayer of remembrance in which images of her past emerged through prayer was a day both beautiful and painful. “Who is God to me?” she asked. “How could He ever love Me?” Her image of God began to emerge as a punishing mother. As she began to listen to the new God who was calling her to life, not oppression, she began to experience that she was loved by God. Her images became transformed by passages in the Scriptures wh ch stress a personal, loving God: Psalm 139, “I give you thanks for I am wonderfully made.” This woman’s prayer became focused, contemplative, imaginative. The effect of her prayer life upon her community had its consequences. Among the images that emerged in prayer were those of the oppressive, unjust structures of her congregation. She can no longer live with them. She believes that one of the gifts of the retreat was the courage to say “no” to all of the injustice without leaving religious life again.


The second story is about a “professional” prophet. He was always predicting the future. Nine time out of ten he predicted doom. And nine times out of ten, he was right. Poverty, desolation, isolation. And there he was in the midst of it all: poor, desolated and isolated himself. He admitted that he would feel guilty if he felt any other way. He knew all the issues, all the points of injustice, every agency that was corrupt, every lazy suburban parish that was prejudiced or just plain apathetic. But he was burnt out, weary of social ministry, of living with nothing but poverty, desolation, isolation. Yet he resisted everything else. He said he would feel guilty if he were happy. How could he be merry? Justice is what counts. This overdose of guilt prevented him from realizing God’s love for him, prevented him from being God’s prophet.

The second day of the retreat he wept. Not the way Jesus wept over Jerusalem. He didn’t cry over his city. He cried over his life. He despaired and rejected a God who could cause all that suffering, including his own. He stayed at the empty tomb and wept until something within him compelled him to look up. With Magdalen, he saw the risen Lord in the Garden. He kept saying, “If I hadn’t looked up…I recognized him. It’s a miracle.” I, too, experienced a miracle. Thomas the sceptic had nothing on this prophet. His story still unfolds.

God’s Prophet

He is breaking down oppressive structures and confronting oppressors. He is bolder, more dangerous than ever. He is indeed a prophet. God’s prophet. He has seen the stars, felt the wind, known the love of God, the love of a friend, chosen companionship in community.

He has gazed at the Lord in the Garden. He is durable. He is merry. He is contemplative. He is dynamite. How else could he survive in the center of the city?

The third story is about a married woman who after years of marriage despaired at the thought of living the rest of her life with her husband and teenagers. Boredom set in. She knew that there had to be more to life than the routine that she had fallen into. She got angry at me in spiritual direction because I was not giving her solutions. She did not want to take responsibility of her own life. It belonged to everyone else – her husband, her children, her ailing parents.

But gradually she began to take time for herself, for prayer, even if it was in the bathroom with the door locked. She was desperate for sacred space before she could ever see the love of God in her husband and children. Especially when her husband was monosyllabic, and her children teenagers. She began to see that she was loved by her Creator and became more loving herself, more courageous. She moved from boredom as she began to pray. One event followed another. She and her husband are about unravelling a history of injustice. She knows that relationship in marriage is a radical commitment when lived in the name of freedom of the Gospel. She invites her husband to this life of freedom. It is how she recognizes her call to be a prophet.

How to conclude? I issue an invitation: I call you to courage, to admit that your history is sacred, to accept your call as prophet, to break through injustice, to be contemplative. The contemplative life is the most direct way to break open the chains of injustice. The stories of individuals have revealed this to me.

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