The Silent Prophet
How do writers whose work is to be like the voice crying out in the wilderness, prophetic callers in the streets, those who endeavor to say and make sayable, also resist the urge to be the first or the only or the best or the just right sayer of the words?
This was not the question I entered the past four months asking precisely, but my soul was still asking it, deep beneath the other questions percolating in my spirit. I have not learned my way through that question yet, but I have been learning that our work is not so much to resist the urges but to respond to the invitations. This is a nuanced work because an invitation to share can masquerade as an urge to fill space, or an invitation to silence can feel like a silencing thrust upon us. But this is the way of learning new ways.
One of my professors recently said that often times our spiritual disciplines can at first feel almost hypocritical. He clarified by saying they were not hypocritical, but that they can simply feel that way because we are unaccustomed to using those particular muscles or exercising that particular restraint or our world isn’t used to us shifting our form in that particular way. In other words, we’re learning to respond to a different invitation, a different party, a different gathering than we’ve always had before.
That’s a helpful picture for me because I am not, by nature, a disciplined person. My besetting sin is sloth, but not of the laziness kind. It is a slowness to move into uncomfortable spaces, preferring instead to keep doing the same thing that sort of kind of works (but not really) for a long time. If something feels uncomfortable to me, my radar is activated and my receptors alerted. “Danger” is the first thing they notice, though subconsciously. Of course it’s not dangerous (not usually) but my body feels that it is and preserves itself by taking the path of least resistance.
The path of least resistance looks an awful lot like gut responses to various urges and I noticed this at work in a lot of the writing I was reading or seeing or feeling pressured to engage in. Whatever war du jour was brewing around me felt like the siren call to engage. “If I don’t say something,” I would think to myself, “am I neglecting the prophetic nature of this work? Am I disobeying God to resist that urge? Am I silencing myself or others by refusing to participate in the alerts of the day? Am I participating in violence by being silent?”
These aren’t just hypothetical questions. These are real accusations toward many (I’d even say most, these days) writers who inhabit various platforms upon the world wide web and in print. If one says a part of something but not the whole of something, they are accused of overlooking. If we make a point about one thing but not everything, we are accused of minimizing. If we don’t add our two cents in some form to every traumatic and horrific news of the day, we are accused of ignorance or doing violence with our silence.
Let me clarify, I am not complaining. I started out saying that the work of the writer is prophetic in a sense and we all know prophets have no respect in their hometowns (or anywhere else, it seems). Nobody likes pointing fingers but also nobody likes when the fingers are pointed in their direction and also nobody likes when there are no fingers also pointed at their enemies. It’s a dysfunctional system to be a part of and therefore it’s a difficult system to break away from. But it’s not impossible and that’s what I’m endeavoring to do these days. And what I hope more of my compatriots will do too.
How does one do this? We do it like any other spiritual discipline. Lift our weary hands and strengthen our feeble knees, dress for action, and do the work. We notice the urges to react and respond quickly when they come and we resist them, waiting instead for the peace of God to settle in our spirits, for the gentle invitation to participation in his redemptive work. Of course there will be times in our lives when some swift action is called for (when vulnerable ones are being abused or refugees are being refused or power is being misused), but I am speaking mainly of our work as writers—which in the public square is more reflective than active. We pay attention to the quiet invitation of God into the work instead of to the madding crowd demanding somebody’s head on a platter, eventually our own if we don’t speak up quickly enough.
There’s a cost to this writing gig that many of don’t speak of—threats against our families, public slander and lies we can’t dispute, cancelation if we dissent or disagree, but the cost, I have found is mostly to our own souls. It is a slow erosion of our attunement to the voice of God over the voice of the clamoring crowd. And we have to get alone, get away, get tired and hungry and a little bit desperate, like Elijah in the cave after he defeated the prophets of Baal. Even God’s prophet had forgotten the sound of God’s invitation.
When the invitation came, we all know the story, it didn’t come with pomp and circumstance, greatness and hurrah, viral shareability and quick growth. It came small, still, quiet, an invitation to reenter the world he’d left, but to renter it remembering he was only a single and small mouthpiece for God and not God himself. That it was God’s work to complete and Elijah’s work to listen to God.
This is my work and if you’re any kind of writer or thinker inhabiting the public square, it is your work too. You are a prophet but before a prophet can speak the truth of God to anyone, they have to get alone and really listen to the truth of God for themselves. That means, in the words of Saint Eugene, resisting the urge to stay where the action is, and responding to an invitation to a place where whispers are the most powerful words in the room.
Today I’m asking a different question about my vocation of writing. It is no longer “What does God want me to say to others?” and it is becoming, “God, what do you want to say to me?" All the great men and women of the Bible, those myriad of mouthpieces of God, needed God’s words for themselves first and foremost. Jonah, David, Esther, Mary, Nehemiah, Elijah, and even Jesus Christ himself. As I leave the cave I’ve been in recently, that is company I want to join.