Winter 1989, Vol.41 No. 4, pp. 292-304.

James D. Whitehead and Evelyn Eaton Whitehead:
      The Gift of Prophecy

By recognizing the signs of the times, prophetic leaders in the Church empower the people of God to transform their depression into desolation and thus begin the process of healing.

James and Evelyn Eaton Whitehead are educators and authors who live in South Bend, Indiana. Their forthcoming book, The Promise of Partnership: Ministry in an Adult Church, will be published by Harper and Row early in 1991.

WE live in an exciting time. Renewal in the church quickens our faith and arouses our generosity. We hear again God's voice: "Behold, I am doing a new thing: now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?" (Isaiah 43:19). But these events confuse us as well. So much has changed! Have we not lost important parts of our Christian heritage? We share our ancestors' distress: "This is the cause of my grief, that the ways of the Most High have changed" (Psalm 77:10). The transformations of the past twenty-five years have brought us to grief.

These perilous changes also stir our memories, reminding us of the ancient gift of prophecy. In our distant religious past prophets appeared in times of distressing change to show God's people which direction to take. The great prophet Moses led his people out of servitude and through a hostile desert. Nathan challenged King David's leadership. Jeremiah accused Jerusalem of being deaf to God. This revolutionary gift enabled our ancestors to recognize signs of God amid the chaos of change.

But prophecy is not an ancient memory. This gift of God seems to have disappeared from our midst. In a season of profound change, we pray for its recovery. We ask God to arouse our imaginations to recognize what is happening and stir our hearts with the courage to go wherever we must.


Our search for this elusive gift begins in recalling our religious past. Throughout ancient Israel's history prophets appeared. In periods of stagnation of infidelity, they called the community to change -- to let go of old ways and renew their commitment to God. Hosea, Isaiah, Ezekiel, Judith, and many other prophets called the people of God to fidelity in the midst of change.

Prophecy was still vibrantly active during Jesus' time. John the Baptist played this role as he called people to conversion. Jesus' own life was essentially that of a prophet: wandering from town to town, interpreting Scripture, calling believers to greater justice and charity. In the earliest Christian communities this ministry continued to flourish. Paul recognized prophecy as one of the gifts given to a faith community (1 Corinthians 12); the author of the Acts of the Apostles listed the prophets and teachers active in Antioch (Acts 13:1); the writer of the book of Revelation described himself as a prophet (Revelation 1:3; 10:7).

For almost two centuries after the death and resurrection of Jesus, the gift of prophecy remained strong among Christians. Often serving as itinerant ministers, prophets would visit Christian communities, celebrating the Eucharist and preaching conversion and renewal. By the end of the second century, however, this special ministry had withered and seemed to disappear.

Whatever happened to prophecy? As the Church expanded, concern mounted about orthodoxy and heresy. We wanted to be faithful to our past, not seduced by every new wind of doctrine or belief. In such a climate, prophecy seemed like a luxury we could not afford. The fertile imagination of the prophet sprouts new insights, novel ideas, dangerous suggestions. The Church turned away from this dangerous and upsetting gift. Prophecy, of course, did not die. As Edward Schillebeeckx observes, bishops began to interpret this calling as part of their ministry: "The earlier prophetic authority of all believers now becomes a property of the office of the bishop."(1) While the annexing of prophecy to the ministry of the bishop helped to prevent its abuse, it did little to foster its growth. The bishop, as chief administrator of a diocese, was frequently more concerned with stability than with new, potentially disruptive interpretations of Christian faith.

As an enduring gift of the Spirit, this revolutionary ability to see and challenge went underground. The active imaginations of religious mystics (and heretics) were fertile ground for this gift. Later, monasteries and religious orders would provide shelter for its fragile strength. The imaginations of Christians, however unrecognized and approved, continued to envision the confusing movement of God among us.

As the official ministry of prophecy waned, Christians began to portray this power in an ever more exotic light. Prophets (we told ourselves) were people gifted with an extraordinary capacity to see hundreds of years into the future. Describing prophecy as exceptional reinforced the conviction that its power was absent in our own time. Since none of us seems to have such an unlikely gift, surely the ministry of prophecy exists no longer.

But our present period of upheaval invites us to envision prophecy in a new light. Perhaps prophecy does not entail seeing the distant future; it may refer to the ability to see what is happening right now. Prophecy may not be so exotic or bizarre; this gift may be available -- and required -- in Christians today.

We recognize the ministry of prophecy in the ability to show the Church God's future. Not the distant future, but the future that is breaking into our life today. This understanding respects the gap between the Church and reign of God. As servant of God, the Church struggles to discern God's initiative and faithfully to follow this direction. The Church is a community in pilgrimage; on the way, we sometimes lose sight of God's action. Bogged down in busy-work and every kind of distraction, we forget that "the ways of the Most High" can change. When the community drifts toward stagnation, God stirs the imagination of some of its members to see anew, to recognize again the need for conversion.


In The Prophetic Imagination, Walter Brueggeman sketches the shape of the prophet's role today.(2) Prophets help the community see through the present, to recognize God's action breaking into our life. The difficulty of this ministry is rooted in the nature of the present. The present holds all the duties, delights and distractions that fill our day. The present absorbs our attention, as the good we are doing and the troubles we are avoiding conspire to consume us.

The disciples on the road to Emmaus (Luke 24:13-33) were absorbed by the present. Staggered by the loss of Jesus, engulfed in grief, they forgot the central message of the master's teaching: by dying we come to life. Their current distress spiraled them into amnesia. Coming in the guise of a stranger, Jesus pulled them out of their stupor. He recalled the words of the ancient prophets. Acting as prophet himself, Jesus challenged them to recognize anew the pattern of God's fidelity, transforming failure and even death.

The Emmaus story reminds us that the power of the present to rivet our attention often has negative results. We forget the past with its salutary lessons and we neglect the future with its rightful claims. Encircled by the present, we feel protected from unpleasant surprises and the need to change. Harassed by the pace of our hectic schedule, we may complain. But we are secretly grateful for this defense against what the future holds.

The present becomes authoritative as the status quo. We arrive at a way of doing things; soon this becomes the only proper way to act. Brueggeman reminds us how quick our own religious ancestors have been to confuse the status quo with God's mysterious action. This temptation bears bitter fruit in the emergence of "the royal consciousness." Whether in ancient Jerusalem or modern Rome, religious leaders are tempted to idolize the present by identifying the established way of doing things as God's unchanging will. Gradually we replace God's surprising presence with predictable patterns and privileged arrangements.

Prophets among us today call our attention to the royal arrangements that seem to block the Spirit's movement. Women cannot be sacramental leaders; clergy are separated from laity. The royal arrangement sponsors an international synod on the laity and fails to invite the laity as full participants. In the royal arrangement, the present way of doing things gains a sacred aura and becomes very difficult to challenge. But the gift of prophecy enables us to see through these arrangements and move us toward transformation.


A second gift that God gives to prophets is the ability to know what time it is. The royal arrangement seeks to build an orthodoxy that will be untouched by the winds of human time; it aspires to an eternally valid correctness. Brueggeman gives us two examples from Israel's history of the prophetic challenge to recognize a time for change.

Jeremiah exercised his ministry of prophecy in Jerusalem shortly before Israel was driven into exile in Babylon in the year 587. The people of God had fallen into every kind of infidelity and injustice. The worship of false gods replaced their fidelity to Yahweh and their ignoring of the poor compromised their commitment to justice. Jeremiah's imagination began to see where this unfaithfulness would lead; he was able to recognize the immediate future that was dawning on the nation. He draped a yoke around his neck and paraded through the city streets to show the people dramatically what was in store for them (Jer. 27:1-15). His peculiar behavior was crying out: it is time for us to change our ways!

Jeremiah complained that Israel could not recognize this signs of the times:

Even the stork in the heavens knows her times;
and the turtledove, swallow, and crane
keep the time of their coming;
but my people know not the ordinance of the Lord. (Jer. 8:7)
An alertness to time is a vulnerability to loss. Time is about change; as Brueggeman reminds us, time is always an end-time -- some part of our life coming to an end. Time is always an enemy of the royal arrangement.

Jeremiah's pleas went unheeded. The people of Jerusalem could not imagine what he was talking about; they could not guess what time it was. And so it became a time to go into exile, to wear the yoke of prisoners in a foreign land.

A generation later the Israelites found themselves immersed in a period of imprisonment. Living as captives in Babylon, they despaired of ever returning to their own home. In this mood of grief, the voice of Second Isaiah announced another surprising change: it was time to return to Jerusalem! God was about to rescue them and return the home (Is. 40). Disheartened by their long exile, the people of God did not know what time it was and could not imagine such a change. In the depths of numbing despair, the revolutionary voice of Second Isaiah told the people what time it was: "Remember not the former things, nor consider things of old. Behold, I am doing a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?" (Is. 43:18-19).

The Second Vatican Council challenged Christians to recognize "the signs of the times." These signs are signals of God's presence among us, signals of what time it is. Prophets among us listen to the changes happening in the Church. They point out transformations in the human community's sense of women's dignity and the variety of their gifts. They remind us of the many ways ours sexual love becomes fruitful. They have us acknowledge the depletions in the numbers of priests and vowed religious. Then the prophet sounds the unsettling question: what time is it?

We make prophets too heroic by insisting that they know what time it is. Perhaps their gift is the boldness to raise the question. In the midst of change, we do not need to see clairvoyantly into the distant future. We need only the courage and patience to ask of ourselves: what time is it?

But the ability to ask this threatening questions demands a special discipline. Many of us ministers, absorbed by the demands of our work and the needs of our communities, do not have the leisure to listen to the signs of the times. We are much too busy. The noise of present does not permit us to hear such subtle sounds. Prophets are those folk among us who dare to stop doing good. That is, they dare to be less busy, less consumed by the legitimate demands of the present day. Their peculiar asceticism is to stop the busyness, and in the stillness to listen. Only as the absorbing and distracting demands of the present are stilled will we hear the sounds of the future. This is a considerable risk. The good we are doing now not only fills our day but tells us who we are. In it we find our worth. Without it, who would we be? What if we quiet our hearts and then hear nothing? But the gift of the prophet is to seek silence, convinced that only then well we heart the subtle murmurs of God's Spirit. These sounds alone can tell us what time it is.


Prophecy is a two-edged sword. It announces God's future that is breaking into our present. And it warns us of an end of the royal arrangement. Prophecy arouses us to hope and also brings us to grief: "This is the cause of my grief, that the ways of the Most High have changed."

In a time of renewal our excitement about new possibilities at first distracts us from another dynamic of change: we must let go of parts of our religious life that we had thought were essential. Only gradually do we realize, in the words of our colleague J. Gordon Myers, that "every beginning starts with an ending." New journeys commence with farewells. The prophets among us help us to say good-bye.

Our ability to acknowledge our losses and to grieve depends on our evaluation of this emotion. To many American Christians grieving is a sign of weakness rather than a virtue. It entails a shameful submission to emotion and tears. Our culture instructs us to cut our losses, put our troubles behind us and get on with life. And, always to remember: big boys don't cry. All these imperatives lead us to deny our distress and mask our mourning. But the Jewish-Christian tradition has left us a legacy about grieving: this is an honorable action and a necessary virtue. It takes courage and patience to taste these emotions that we would rather just swallow.

Prophets help a community to grieve by bringing private pain to public expression. Very often the pain of a transition is first experienced in private. A woman feels great sorrow that she cannot serve the Church as a priest. A gay Christian regrets that his committed love for his partner of many years must remain hidden from public view. A priest's troubles with alcohol seem to be (only) a matter of his personal weakness. But these individual distresses are repeated thousands of times in the Church. If the Church is resolutely committed to defend the royal arrangement, it must keep these pains private.

But if the woman who aspires to the priestly ministry can be made to see that her distress is her problem, we will then mobilize the Church's resources to console and assist her. The Church is eager to minister to gay and lesbian Christians as individuals. Treatment centers welcome the alcoholic priest for private care. The royal arrangement seeks to isolate these pains and keep symptoms private. Prophets see these distresses in another light. By bringing these private experiences to public expression, prophets invite us to hear these complains in unison. What is this is more than personal pain? What if these sounds of distress are signs of God's immediate future breaking into our defended present? If we can isolate individuals in their pain, we will never be disturbed by this communal lament. The Church will never have to change.

Bringing private pain to public expression has both a psychological and religious effect. Removing this pain from its isolation, we find how many others carry a similar distress. We are not alone! This woman's sorrow is joined to thousands of women's grief with their treatment of the Church. This gay Christian's regret is reinforced by a thousand other similar lamentations. The priest's alcoholism is a symptom shared by many other ministers. In this solidarity our pain gains power. At first its power is mainly consolation: our sorrow is shared. Then this common grief empowers us to question the royal arrangement. The terrible threat and power of grieving, is the public admission that things are not fine. In Brueggeman's words, "real criticism begins in the capacity to grieve because that is the most visceral announcement that things are not right."(3)

Religiously, when we rescue our grief from privacy, we give it a voice. As long as it is isolated in our hearts, it remains mute. When we pronounce our pain together as Christians, we turn our distress into prayer. Our complaint becomes a public lamentation. We lift up our voice in anger, regret and even blame to a God that we do not understand. We complain and question and reproach God. Jews and Christians have a rich tradition of such grieving. In the Hebrew Scriptures Job cries out:

Since I have lost all taste for life,
I will give free rein to my complaints;
I shall let my embittered soul speak out.
I shall say to God, "Do not condemn me,
But tell me the reason for your assault." (Job 1:1-2)
This style of prayer flourishes in the Psalms:
I am worn out with groaning,
Every night I drench my pillow
And soak my bed with tears;
My eye is wasted with grief,
I have grown old with enemies all around me. (Psalm 6:6-7)
These groans and accusations are our untidy prayer in a time of grief. With these messy laments we reach out to a mysterious God.


When we turn our pain into prayer we transform our emotions. Instead of denying them, we hold them up for inspection. We hand them to God and demand some attention. Our memory assures us that this strategy works: "I have seen the affliction of my people who are in Egypt, and have heard their cry because of their taskmasters; I know their sufferings, and I have come down to deliver them out of the hand of the Egyptians" (Ex. 3:78).

This healthy grieving begins our healing. As theologian David Power has observed, "that which is remembered in grief is redeemed, made whole, renewed."(4) Prayer acknowledges our pain and asks God to do something about it. This daring exercise transforms our depression into desolation.

Depression is a complex emotional state that arises as we refuse to deal with negative emotions. If we cannot acknowledge our anger toward our parents, this neglected feeling will transform itself into the fatigue of depression. When we refuse to face our fear, this emotion will turn into a pervasive mood of defeat. As Maggie Scarf observes in Unfinished Business, depression is a "hybrid emotion" generated by our denial of some other distressing feeling. The exhaustion and fatigue of depression come from our effort to keep this pain hidden and this sorrow private.(5)

The experience of desolation is very different. In the Jewish-Christian tradition, desolation is a noisy sorrow. The author of the Book of Lamentations cries out in desolation:

All you who pass this way, look and see:
Is any sorrow like the sorrow that afflicts me,
With which Yahweh has struck me
On the day of his burning anger? (Lam. 1:12)
This style of prayer is a blend of anger and pleading: "You cannot mean to forget us forever? You cannot mean to abandon us for good?" (Lam. 5:20).

In this mood we publicly voice our distress. We loudly lament our loss. We both disperse some of our pent-up energy and we try to get God's attention. Desolation is an unhappy mood, but it does not wreak the interior destruction of depression.

When a troubled family finally consents to seek therapy, it is very likely depressed. Anger, regret, blame, and other emotions churn through the family, unaddressed and unhealed. Exhaustion and fatigue envelope the members. In a fruitful experience of therapy the family learns to turn its depression into desolation. By naming its pain and searching out its causes, the family lifts up its distress and give it a voice. No longer mute, it learns to communicate about its pain. Blame and abuse give way to sorrow and regret. A mood of desolation ensues as they acknowledge the havoc they have wrought and the hard work ahead, but this somber mood is very different from a crippling sense of depression.

Similar experiences multiply in today's church. The Women's Ordination Conference challenges the royal arrangement in the Catholic Church that prohibits women from ministering as sacramental leaders. Members of this groups bring their individual pain out of its privacy; they join their distress together in a single, focussed lament. Desolation abounds, but without the destructive results of depression.

Several years ago Vatican officials censured Archbishop Raymond Hunthausen of Seattle for a number of his leadership decisions. Many members of the diocese were distressed and angered by the punitive nature of this censure. Had these many Christians kept their sorrow to themselves, a mood of depression would surely have descended on the diocese. Instead, they came together to pray about their distress. In public discussions and liturgies they raised their voices in lament. They brought their private pain to public expression. In so doing they turned their potential depression into desolation. Lamentation became this diocese's mode of prayer. Observers saw a community in distress but could recognize this grieving as both healthy and holy.


Christianity, in the midst of its creative renewal, has entered a season of grieving. Despite great gains, we are suffering significant losses. A parish is forced to close its grade school -- the place where so many generations of Catholics had their first lessons in the faith. As the parishioners face this decision, they feel a mood of dismay and regret settle like a cloud over the community. A congregation of women religious decides, reluctantly, to sell a hospital it can no longer staff. A century of serving the sick and especially the poor who fall ill is coming to an end. For the town this brings a sense of great loss and for the sisters a painful mood of diminishment. A rural parish learns that it will not have a resident priest next year. With the declining members of priests, none will be available for them. Anger and shame swirl throughout the parish; we don't even deserve a priest! What are all these Christians to do with these dreadful feelings?

Even in thriving communities Christians are coming to grief. The delight of depending on priests to guide our faith like good fathers is being snatched from us! Old comforts and accustomed ways of relating are being stripped from adult believers. Becoming adult in our faith is a great good, but it brings with it many losses. How are we to mourn?

Without the help of available rituals, communities of faith stumble through their separate grieving. Often, of course, this begins in denial. This is not happening; everything is fine! But the facts are unavoidable and soon denial turns to anger. We blame our leaders who have let us down. We castigate liberal bishops and radical theologians who have robbed us of our heritage. In the rural parish deprived of a priest, many will vent their anger on the woman pastoral administrator assigned as resident minister. Offended that they are not worthy of a priest, they demand: Who is this person and what is she doing here? Only gradually does her skill and care make inroads in this grief and help it to mature.

We are slow to see what is happening in the Church. God is inviting us to a future that does not include all of our past. The mixed feelings that surround this transformation excite the long dormant gift of prophecy among us. We remember that prophecy is an enduring gift to the people of God. Prophets help us see through the present and the royal arrangement. They urge us to ask what time it is. And they help us grieve: they remind us that new beginnings include painful farewells. They incite us to turn our confusion and depression into lamentation, believing that what is remembered in grief is redeemed and made whole.

  1. Edward Schillebeeckx, The Church with a Human Face (New York: Crossroad, 1985), p. 71.
  2. Walter Brueggemann, The Prophetic Imagination (Philadelphia: Fortress Ress, 1978).
  3. Ibid., p. 20.
  4. David N. Power, "Household Churches in the Coming Church," Worship 57,3 (May, 1983): 254.
  5. Maggie Scarf, Unfinished Business (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1980).