Prophetic Mysticism: The Call to Live Prophetically

Resources »Eapr »East Asian Pastoral Review 2008 »Volume 45 2008 Number 2 »Prophetic Mysticism The Call To Live Prophetically

Kathleen Coyle, SSC

Kathleen COYLE, SSC taught at the EAPI and at Maryhill School of Theology.  She lectures and gives retreats in Korea, Myanmar, and Malaysia.  Her book Mary in the Christian Tradition (Mystic, CT: XXIII Publications), in its revised Asian edition, has been translated into Portuguese.  She was the immediate past editor-in-chief of the East Asian Pastoral Review.


I begin this paper with an introduction to contemplation and mystical experience, before entering the cave of the heart where we nourish our contemplative consciousness. Then we reflect on the inner journey of Jesus, his Abba experience and its meaning for our own inner journey. Afterwards, we discuss prophecy, the prophetic lifestyle of Jesus, our own call to prophecy, and the integration of contemplation and prophecy. Next, we look at compassion, at the compassion of Jesus in particular, and the central place of compassion in spirituality. Finally, we consider Jesus as our model of contemplation and prophecy to become "the icon of the very heart of God" (Alexandre).

Mystical Experience and Contemplation

At the very origin of every religion there is a mystical experience (Painadath 2006:48). A religion without mystical depth is no religion at all, for it fails to bind the believers with God at an experiential level. We hand on what we contemplate. Thomas Aquinas reminds us that our first task is not to redeem people from sin but to reveal the divine mysteries to them (Fox, 213). Bede Griffiths, who has lived in an ashram in India since 1955, has argued that Christianity must recover and nurture its mystical tradition or it has nothing to offer the world. As the often cited quote of Karl Rahner (149) reminds us: "The Christian of the future will be a mystic or he [sic] will not exist at all." A dreary kind of Kantian duty-oriented existence is what follows when mysticism is so repressed (Fox, 214). Teaching about mysticism and mystical practice has been very rare during the modern period of Church history so the void is partially filled by groups like the charismatic movement and the New Age Movement. The emphasis on the accuracy of theological and ethical statements, elaborate ritual performances, and well-organized administrative structures cannot transform the lives of the people unless they are nourished by the hidden streams of mystical experience (Painadath 2006:22).

Modern culture is restless and driven. We are bombarded daily by the restless roar of machines and the clamorous voices of the media are always trying to get our attention. Everyone is in a hurry and the inner life is being subtly evicted. We are drained of divinity. While it is often difficult to find the silence and stillness which are vitally necessary for spiritual self-discovery and contemplation, the depth and complexity of contemporary spiritual hunger requires the mystical (O’Donohue, 85). Into Great Silence, a film about contemplation, time, and silence in a Carthusian monastery, is playing to packed houses in so-called secular Europe. Surely, this is a sign of spiritual hunger!

Contemplation is the energy of religious life. We often consider it the privilege of a few to be called to the life we call "contemplative," something which remains outside the scope of our own life that is so restless and full of distractions. When we think of the contemplative side of Jesus’ life, we associate it only with the night he went up the mountain to pray, or with the moments when he raised his eyes to his Father and spoke with him on familiar terms. However, Jesus’ way of being contemplative consisted above all in the power to see life as God saw it and to penetrate the mystery with the wisdom communicated to him by the Father. Mysticism then is not a bonus added to life, but life as it is seen through the Father’s eyes. So being contemplative is not a spiritual luxury; it is our birthright! We are born from above, as Jesus reminded Nicodemus (Jn 3:7), so that we can live in the truth. Truth (aletheia) means uncovering, unfolding (Painadath 2006a:26). The Spirit unfolds the mystery of the divine. "The spirit explores the depths of everything, even the depths of God" (1 Cor 2: 10).

We are called by our baptism to be contemplative, to become mystics, to enter a universe of new meanings, and our mission is to put people in touch with the sacred, to awaken them to the mystery of their lives. When we talk about contemplation we are talking about the journey within. We often talk about "active" life and "contemplative" life as if these were true opposites and concepts in tension. We should speak rather of the "active life" and the "cloistered life." Contemplation is basic to both. The terms cloister and contemplation are not synonymous. "For some people cloister is the vehicle of contemplation; for others, God is found in the faces of the poor. In both cases, contemplation is the beginning and the end of the enterprise" (Chittister 1995:50).

As religious we appreciate celibacy as a charism which witnesses to contemplative experience, and makes visible in the world the ultimate fidelity and supreme generosity of God’s divine love. Celibacy is about making space for God and celibate solitude has as its primary purpose the fostering of contemplation. If it is cherished and dwelt in, it will find its meaning in contemplative prayer which unites us with the sacred at the core of our being. A commitment to celibacy needs silence and solitude. Both are necessary for the development of a contemplative consciousness by which the border separating formal moments of prayer and the rest of life becomes simply a passage point into alternative rhythms of a life totally lived in the divine presence, and where study and ministry become extensions of our personality. If not, our prayer and work may just become projects. Joan Chittister (1995:55) summarizes it well:

What religious life needs now is the cultivation of the sacred, not separate from the secular, but out of its very substance. Without a strong, clear, witnessing spiritual life, absorbed in the mind of Christ and grounded in the gospel, the best work in the world is purely social work, whether it is done by religious or not.

Chittister’s thoughts are echoed by Sandra Schneiders (24):

Celibacy’s life-breath is prayer. Its ultimate explanation lies somewhere in the depths of Holy Mystery. And it is carried in fragile vessels of clay in order that it might be clear to all that the "transcendent power is from God and not from us."

Aloneness is the inner structure of the life of religious. The questions for religious then are: How do we nourish the longing of the eternal that awakens within? How do we flood the depths of our soul? How do we develop a contemplative consciousness that leads to action?

We begin by going into the deeper levels of our consciousness in contemplative stillness. Contemplation puts us in touch with a source of energy that is cosmic in scope.

Our Mystical Intuitive Consciousness

The mental state, the level of wakeful consciousness, is where we communicate from mind to mind. Mental prayer takes place at this level. We move below the mind to the next level of consciousness, our psyche—that potentiality hidden within us where our memories, our unexpressed emotions, and early childhood traumas are preserved and reveal themselves in dreams and myths (Painadath 2006:7-8). Then at the deepest level of our being, our mystical, intuitive consciousness, we find the deepest levels of our spiritual faculties, the mystical space within us (Painadath 2006:9-12). Like the prophet Elijah, we move from the first level of consciousness, that of the mind, past the psyche, to the cave of the heart. It was this intuitive consciousness that Jesus had in mind when he said: "When you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret" (Mt 6:6). It is there that we touch the incomprehensible mystery of the divine. In disciplined silence we explore the deeper level of our consciousness in pursuit of the divine and experience our true self in union with the divine mystery. Like a river flowing into the divine ocean or like waves in the ocean of God, our souls merge with the Divine Spirit. The river and the waves are submerged in and become the divine ocean and contemplation is an experience of swimming in this divine ocean. Just as two people cannot talk while diving, but can describe the experience of diving only at the level of the mind when they come up out of the water, so too with us (Painadath 2006:12). It is later at the mental level that we can describe a mystical experience. Anchored in the divine presence we realize our true identity in harmony with the totality of reality; we taste sacredness and become increasingly transparent to the divine presence. Sensitivity to this inner Spirit demands contemplative silence, for it is in silence that one actually listens to the Spirit within. Only the divine Spirit reaches the depths of God (1 Cor 2:10). "In God we live and move and have our being" (Acts 17:28). It is difficult to describe this experience of being in God. Perhaps T. S. Eliot expresses it best in poetry, the language of silence:

We must be still, and still moving
into another intensity,
for a further deeper communion.


The Inner Journey of Jesus

Too often we reduce Jesus to a divine guide or exemplar. We need to explore the fascinating spirituality he worked out for himself. The evangelists tell us that he retired to the solitude of the mountain to pray, or that he spent the whole night communing with the Father (Lk 5:16; 6:12; 9:18, 28; 11:1; 22:41). He lived and spoke of an abiding consciousness that the Father was with him (Jn 8:16; 16:32; 14:10). How did he go into the deeper levels of his consciousness and grasp the deeper dimensions of the great mystery of his inner experience? It is John who describes his inner search as well as his intense experiences with his Father. Sinking into intense contemplative silence, he experienced deep oneness with his Father, his divine source. It is from the depth of his contemplation at the deepest level of his consciousness that he experienced the unfolding of the Divine through the human and the consequent divine mission (Painadath 2006:16).

When Jesus addressed his Father as Abba, "my Father," he was not just addressing a male category of the patriarchal culture (Chittister 2000). His language was conditioned by the historical and cultural factors of his country and time, so it is not surprising that he never addressed God as mother. However, his underlying experience of his deepest intimacy with God whom he called Father is full of mother sentiments. The mystical symbols which Jesus used to describe his inner journey and his experience of the Divine reveal that the Father-related language of Jesus evolved out of a Mother-related experience of the Divine: the only Son who is in the kolpos of the Father (Jn 1:18). The primary meaning of the word kolpos, often translated as bosom or heart, is the feeding breast of the mother. The Son clings on to the feeding breast of the divine motherly Father; "come and drink from me" (Jn 7:39). Just as the milk from the mother’s body becomes the vital sap in the child, the living water that Jesus offers becomes "a spring welling up to eternal life" (Jn 4:14; 7:38). "I draw life from the Father"; "I come from within the Father"; "I am in my Father and my Father is in me" (Jn 14:10, 17, 21; 14:31); "abide in me and I in you" (Jn 15:4); the Father who is the source of life has made the Son the source of life (Jn 8:14; 42). Jesus’ consciousness of God is that of a motherly Father and a fatherly Mother, within him and beyond him, immanent and transcendent. He knew that the Father is with him, in him (Jn 8:16, 29). "I am in the Father and the Father in me" (Jn 5:26; 8:28). The Father is his source and generator and he is the expression and unfolding of the Father. There is a total and intense co-penetration (perichoresis) between them.

Jesus’ deepest experience of his Father was that they were essentially one. There is absolute unity between them. "The Father and I are one" (Jn 10:30; 17:11,21,22). This is how Jesus articulates his deepest experience in relation to the Divine. He had a consciousness that his being, life, and work have been totally transparent to the divine source which he called the Father, and that the being of the Father reveals itself through him. This consciousness is echoed in such statements as: "The word that you hear is not my own; it is the word of the Father who sent me" (Jn 14:24); "What the Father has told me is what I speak" (Jn 12:50); "What I say to you, I do not speak of my own accord; it is the Father living in me doing his works" (Jn 14:10); "My teaching is not from myself; it comes from the one who sent me" (Jn 7:16). This is why he says: "Anyone who sees me, sees the Father" (Jn 14:9); "Anyone who hears me, hears the Father" (Jn 14:10); "Anyone who knows me, knows the Father" (Jn 14:7).

Jesus had an abiding consciousness of being sent by the Father: "The Father sent me" (Jn 3:16; 4:34; 5:36-38). It is the Father who is with him and in him who sends him with a special mission and the Son understands his mission as doing the will of the Father (Jn 3:34; 5:30) and completing the work of the Father (Jn 4:34; 6:29). He spoke with the abiding consciousness of being the voice of the Father: what I speak comes not from myself but from within the Father (Jn 12:49). The Father is eternal silence: "No one has ever heard his voice" (Jn 5: 37). But he is the word that unfolds the divine silence: "Just as (katos) the father has sent me into the world, so do I send you" (Jn 17:18); "Just as (katos) I draw life from the Father, so will you draw life from me" (Jn 6:57). There is only one mission, one sending. The Father sends Jesus, who in turn sends us.

Our Inner Journey

An understanding of this depth dimension is vital to appreciate what Paul means by "in Christ." Our faith is not just belief in Jesus who lived 2,000 years ago, but in Christ, who is Emmanuel, God-with-us here and now. When we live our lives "in Christ," we enter into the deepest inner experience of Jesus and then into our own where we experience Jesus as a presence, God-with-us. We gradually learn never to disturb this experience with thoughts or words. "I live now, not I, but Christ lives in me" (Gal 2:20). This experience is what mystics try to describe in poetic images. Ephesians 3:16-19 captures it well:

I pray that, according to the riches of his glory, he may grant that you may be strengthened in your inner being [the deepest level of consciousness] with power through his Spirit, and that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith, as you are being rooted and grounded in love [divine energy]. I pray that you may have the power to comprehend, with all the saints, what is the breadth and length and height and depth and to know the love [divine energy] of Christ that surpasses knowledge, so that you may be filled with all the fullness of God.


Mysticism needs prophecy. Our call as religious is to echo God’s word in the community and when we echo God’s word, we echo God’s compassion, God’s divine energy and presence to the world. When we do so, we hold together the two streams that interact in religious life, the mystical and the prophetic, as we bring our mystical experience and contemplative moments into our mission and ministry. A mystical consciousness and a prophetic lifestyle are meant to serve each other because every true prophet is a mystic and every genuine mystic is a prophet (Painadath 2006:19). How do we religious develop a contemplative consciousness by which we experience the divine presence and vibrate that divine energy as compassion to those whom we serve in our ministry? We are privileged to participate in missio Dei, the mission of the Trinity, so our compassionate mission must flow from our contemplation.We must allow the vast wealth of mystical and prophetic energy to flow into our worship, our ministries, our formation programs, and in our day-to- day dealings with people. Jesus’ compassion came from his experience and contemplation of his deep intimacy with his Father. From this intense experience of the Divine he comes out with a sense of mission from the Father and expresses it in a life of compassionate service. Compassion demands action for justice. This is the key to the teaching of Jesus and the prophets.

Jesus’ Prophetic Lifestyle

United in deep, contemplative stillness with his Father, the divine source, Jesus was saturated with divine energy and grasped the consequent divine mission. He acted out of an abiding consciousness that he was doing the Father’s will and the Father’s work: "the works which I do are not my works, the Father in me does his works" (Jn 5:30; 10:25). His commitment to his Father’s mission demanded an extraordinary lifestyle and passion for mission and for people. It was when Herod was arrested that he left the desert and the river Jordan and started a dramatically new ministry of preaching and healing and caring for the poor, the sick, the sinners, and the lost sheep of the house of Israel (Nolan 1997:27). Jesus’ deepest experience of his Father came when he became immersed in the sorrows of the grieving widow, when he met the paralytic at the pool, or the lepers who cried out to him for healing. "In his fellow human beings he saw not sin and guilt but woundedness, brokenness, sickness, confusion, and fear" (Nolan 2007: 80). The peasants in Jesus’ time were destitute and were often asked to do jobs that were socially demeaning. Like the poor and marginalized today, they were caught up in a spiral of violence with ever increasing taxation. They suffered from malnourishment and disease and lived in a state of insecurity and anxiety. In reaching out to people, Jesus shared the divine energy with them and expressed it as compassion. Healing is the mystic’s call.

In the social world in which Jesus lived, racial purity was of great value for the Jews. One was racially pure if one’s ancestors were Jewish for five generations. The next stratum of society below the pure was the mixed race. It included those who had married Gentiles. At the bottom of this system were the impure: lepers, the handicapped, the mentally ill, prostitutes, bandits, and murderers. They either carried the stigma of the sins of their parents or were possessed by evil spirits. This lowest category of the impure included such people as tanners, butchers, barbers, bath attendants, blacksmiths, nurses, shepherds, caravan riders, herdsmen, weavers, tailors, tax gatherers, dung collectors, etc. Aside from this list of socially despised jobs, there were also 39 types of prohibited work on the sabbath, but the majority of the poor, the beggars, the lepers, etc. could not refrain from work on the sabbath as they were materially impoverished and hungry. In Luke’s gospel, Jesus becomes a critic of the purity system because purity divides and excludes; compassion unites and includes (McBride, 6). For Jesus, it was not separation but nearness. He even calls the Pharisees—those self-appointed guardians of the system—unmarked tombs upon which people stumble. In other words, people become unclean by contact with them! He saw the temple, not just as a religious center, but also as a center of political power, trade, and economy that needed cleansing.

Jesus had a deep sense of his divine mission. The social rigidity of the structures of society did not affect him. His whole concern was with the person with whom he dealt with reverence and compassion. He ignored every form of social bias and dined with the broad category of "outcasts" and "sinners." There is a class of people in the Old Testament who are habitually referred to as outside the law. They are the resh’aim and are mentioned often in Scripture as those who prey on the poor and exploit them (McBride, 7). In the New Testament they are referred to as "outcasts" and "sinners." Not only did Jesus count them among his friends, they were also the focus of his mission. They too needed healing.

Those who considered themselves racially pure only invited those from their own caste to meal-fellowship because "sharing a table meant sharing life" (Jeremias, 115); it was a sign of intimacy, communion, and fellowship. Meals were also sacred functions and symbolized the messianic banquet (Is 25:6; 55:1-3; Lk 22:30). Jesus’ table fellowship with those from the impure strata—the impure, outcasts, sinners—was not only an expression of solidarity with them but also a proclamation of his protest against the socio-religious structures that supported discrimination. The scandal of Jesus’ ministry was that everyone was invited to his table—which signified that the impure would be present too at the messianic banquet. For Jesus, there were no privileged places at table. No wonder the poor were happy! It was no surprise to them that he appeared mad to the authorities. Gradually, such a revolutionary practice of meal-fellowship with outcasts and sinners led him to the final confrontation with the religious-political leaders and finally, to the cross.

Vowed Life and Prophetic Lifestyle

When we move into the cave of our heart, we switch off the inner stream of our thoughts and feelings, soak in the divine presence, and experience, like Jesus, the same outpouring of divine life into our hearts. We are invited to become "the icon of the very heart of God’s love." We perceive every human being through divinity and we treat each one with divine respect. We reach out to others with a great sense of urgency, to bring them the fruit of our contemplation and of our deep mystical experience, because we ourselves have been touched by the compassion of God. We find ourselves deeply bound with the lives of others as branches of a divine tree all emerging from the same divine root, energized by the same divine sap. Contemplating the divine mystery invites us to appreciate the transforming power of divine compassion in the world and creates in us a sense of urgency to bring that compassion to the enslaved and poor of our world. Compassion is the fruit of contemplation and a deep mystical experience by which we are touched by the compassion of God inviting us to deal with people with reverence, devotion, and respect. The first Christian community experienced Jesus as embodiment of the concern of God, the outpouring of divine love into their hearts.

Vowed Poverty. Our commitment to vowed poverty calls us to be a prophetic voice for the voiceless of our world. Our lived poverty is a protest against materialism, consumerism, selfishness, and the poverty in which the poor of the world are forced to live and impels us into practical solidarity with those who have not made an option for poverty, but who live in situations of deprivation and degradation. God hears the groans of the hungry and the pitiful cries of the oppressed for compassion and justice as their blood, like that of Abel’s, cries out from the very ground on which they are denied their rights, or even starved to death. And the majority of these are women and children, tribal peoples and minorities, and they are the majority of Asian Christians today (Prior). Vowed poverty and prophecy are at one here.

Placing ourselves in the midst of the lives of those whose poverty is not a matter of virtue, but is the condition of the life and the situation exacted of them by society, we live our prophetic lifestyle as a total openness to God. Our solidarity with the poor obliges us not only to a detachment from the goods of the earth but also to keep ourselves informed about global debt, the silent killer of the poor. As prophets we must also critique the global economic structures and the model of development which the industrialized countries and the International Monetary Fund continue to promote.

Vowed Celibacy. Our celibate lifestyle ought to symbolize for all Christians, not only the final solitariness of our relationship with God, but also the quality of our human relationships. Celibacy is about something far more important than sexual abstinence, more important than an asceticism that is more disciplinary, more functional, and more pragmatic than enlivening. It is not so much about what it denies us as about what it calls out of us. It is not non-love; it is another way of loving. "It is the heart whose eye takes in the whole world in a single glance, whose vision … is openness to the whole world. It is not so much a struggle of the body as it is a stretching of the soul" (Chittister 1995:68). It is easy to turn celibate love into celibate alienation that masks as holiness and one can easily choose self-centeredness over celibacy. Half-hearted participation is no service at all to the world (Chittister 1995:69). Celibacy is love unbounded, love unleashed in solidarity with the victims of society. The new name for compassion is solidarity and it is how we make God present in this world. In the words of John Paul II (Sollicitudo rei socialis, #38):

Solidarity is not a feeling of vague compassion or shallow distress at the misfortunes of so many people … it is a firm and persevering determination to commit oneself to the good of all and of each individual, because we are all really responsible for all.

Vowed Obedience. The word "obedience" comes from the Latin ab audire, "to listen." It invites us to listen together to the Spirit in the community. It is an obedience that allows our brother and sister to speak as we listen to their needs. Obedience and justice are related in Scripture. Yahweh’s message to Abraham "to keep the way of the Lord by doing what is right and just" (Gen 18:19) is echoed by the Deuteronomist centuries later: "There will be no poor among you if only you will obey the voice of the Lord you God, and carefully observe all these commands which I enjoin on you today" (Deut 15:4-5). By the vow of obedience, we commit ourselves to seeking the will of God as we work for the liberation of all people. In responsible obedience we challenge the structure of domination with its uncontrolled greed, ineffective financial systems, and distrust of collaboration. Institutionalized selfishness, exploitation, and irresponsibility result in the untimely death of millions of people. No longer can we tolerate the violence and injustices of caste and privileged class. Our call to a prophetic life and our vows of poverty, celibacy, and obedience are at one here.

Prophetic Lifestyle. Our task as prophets is to live in this world the way Christ lived to be "healer and prophet, voice and heart," "touching lepers, raising donkeys from ditches on Sabbath days," ministering to those who have been abandoned "to find their way alone, unaccompanied through a patriarchal world."1 In 1987, police officially recorded 1,786 dowry deaths in all of India, but the Ahmedabad Women’s Action Group estimates that 1,000 women were burned alive in the state of Gujurat alone. That was 20 years ago. I wonder what are today’s statistics? And mortality data from India reveals that 19% of all deaths among women age 15-44 are due to accidental burns (Chittister 1990:57). In 2007, international news carried a report on female infanticide—baby girls poisoned, suffocated, drowned, starved, or simply left to die in Orissa. The report also revealed the ratio of 1,000 males to 874 females, forcing men to "import" wives from other states. The film Water offers us a gruesome glimpse of the confining life of 38 million Hindu widows who, with shaven heads and secluded in ashrams, are forbidden ever to remarry. How can we raise a prophetic voice for all those widows and for the women who are enslaved, exploited, excluded, deprived, refused education, and whose heritage is stolen? We must speak out on their behalf and those who are not allowed to be at the center of the community—all those who are affected by racism, sexism, colonialism, and neo-colonialism. Because of these ideologies, entire peoples endure downtrodden lives in silence and voiceless women are always among the victims. Our task as prophets is to critically evaluate what is oppressive, manipulative, consumerist, and unjust.

As prophetic leaders, we allow God to challenge us through our reading and our contemplative reinterpretation of the signs of the times. As prophetic leaders, our solidarity with the poor obliges us not only to a detachment from the goods of the earth and to critique global economic structures, but also to keep ourselves informed about global debt, the silent killer of the poor. We must vibrate divine energy, expressed in compassion in the face of globalization, the horrors of the constantly reopened wounds in such places as Palestine, Iraq, Sudan, the military dictatorships of Myanmar and Iran that hold so many in bondage, the uprootedness of millions of refugees and migrant workers, and the helplessness of our sisters and brothers living under the threat of war. A "no people" has to become "God’s people, a people with a voice, with self-respect and confidence."2 Like Mary, our prophetic voice must be heard if we are to bring down the powerful from their thrones and lift up the lowly (Lk 1:52). In speaking the prophetic word, we hold together the tasks of criticism and energizing and invite the oppressed to confront their oppression and alert the oppressor to their plight.

Our prophetic life style also invites us to critique our world dominated by mammon economy. Franz Hinkelammert (1995) argues that since the downfall of socialism in 1989, symbolized by the fall of the Berlin Wall, capitalism has become a one-world system. In this system the First World needs the resources of the Third World but not its people. There is a world-wide split between a more or less small upper class profiting from the world market, a vast majority of impoverished and excluded people, and a middle class, most of whom are losing out more and more. Hinkelammert argues that within the structures of globalized capital markets, growth is killing jobs. It is in the midst of today’s "mammon economy," with its global structures of oppression, that we reach out to those who need our compassion most. In the concrete, this involves a re-evaluation of our lifestyles and the abandoning of the privatized exclusivity of religious subculture.

Historical Precedents and Modern Challenges. History records how the saints lived the compassion of God. Frequently it led them to countercultural and subversive activity; at other times it led them to focus on the outcasts of society. They healed lepers, nursed the sick, founded hospitals, and educated the poor. This was clear for St. Basil (330-379): "The bread which you use is the bread of the hungry; the garment hanging in your wardrobe is the garment of him who is naked; the shoes you do not wear belong to the one who has no shoes."3 Aristides, defending Christians before the Emperor Hadrian, declared (cited in Coyle, 377):

Christians love one another. They never fail to help widows. They save orphans from those who would hurt them. If they have something they freely give to the one who has nothing. If they see a stranger Christians bring him home and are happy as though he were a real brother. If one of them is poor and there isn’t enough food to go around, they fast several days to give him the food he needs. These are really a new kind of people. There is something divine in them. [Italics added.]

How do we help the people we live and work with experience the outpouring of divine love in their hearts? Hopefully, by our prophetic word and action, people can experience the caring and gracious presence of God in their lives. An important question for each of us and for our congregations may be to ask who have we been given to care for in this life?

Mission. Mission has its origin in the heart of God. We are missioned to make the goodness and compassion of God experientially available to people. It is a privilege to participate in missio Dei, the mission of God, to spill God’s mystery and God’s compassion into our communities and into all of creation. Our compassionate mission must flow from our contemplation and our being nourished by the energy of the divine. It comes from the sacredness within our hearts. Mission needs mystery. A mystical consciousness and a prophetic lifestyle are meant to serve each other because every true prophet is a mystic and every genuine mystic is a prophet (Painadath 2006:19). Rather than try to balance contemplation and action, it is more accurate to see contemplation in action, because of its very nature contemplation is profoundly ethical. It has never meant flight or evasion from any kind of social, political, or historical responsibility (Finnegan, 271).

Integration of Contemplation and Prophecy

Jesus invites us to accompany him to places where life is most at risk, and to trust in the secret power of compassion which reveals life’s hidden possibilities just when it seems that death has had the last word. He offers us a parable of a man half-dead by the roadside and refuses heady discussions about the identity of our neighbor. The Good Samaritan is contemplative and sees, compassionate and feels; his heart is moved, and he acts to restore the dignity of the wounded man lying in the gutter. (There was an intense dislike between the Jews and Samaritans and a tremendous distrust built over years of hatred and animosity. The Samaritans were considered schismatic, unclean, and untrustworthy by the Jews; the Jews were considered mean-spirited and narrow by the Samaritans.) This kind act happens on a highway known for robbers, outside the protection of cities or temples. The Samaritan is a foreigner, holding different religious beliefs, travelling alone, with no resources, yet he acts as his brother’s keeper. The urgency of caring for the person in need leads him to interrupt his travel plans and put his own projects on hold. On the other hand the scribe, this learned man, cannot even utter the word "Samaritan"—so much is his distaste for Samaritans—so he replies, "the one who showed him mercy (Lk 10:37). Jesus proposes the Samaritan as a model for the Scribe—and for us: "Go and become the image and likeness of that Samaritan because he is now the icon of the very heart of God’s mercy."

In the world of mammon and possessiveness, where entire peoples endure downtrodden lives in silence, the parable is inviting us to anchor ourselves in the divine presence and bring our mystical experience and the energy of our contemplative moments into our mission and ministry. As religious, sometimes our lives are subordinated to the smooth running of our institutions, and smothered by inflexible routines and unquestioned traditions, a lukewarm existence. Spontaneity is snuffed out when we cannot freely express our opinions, disagreements, desires, and dreams. We are like the half-dead man by the roadside. The parable is inviting us today to open ourselves to the new realities of the Spirit, so that "rooted and grounded in divine energy" (Eph 3:19), we vibrate that divine energy as compassion and become "the icon of the very heart of God’s mercy" to the victims and the wounded and the half-dead people we meet on the highway of life.

Divine Energy and Compassion

When we bring our mystical experience and contemplative moments into our mission and ministry, we offer God’s divine energy as compassion to the world. In the words of the Sufi mystic, Rumi, in his work, The Silk Worm, "we travel on our thousand feet throughout the earth, our sacks filled with the sacred." In doing so, we hold together the two streams that interact in religious life, the mystical and the prophetic. The prophet challenges the mystic and the mystic inspires the prophet.

The Hebrew Scriptures present God as creating, saving, and judging. A careful reading of the Bible shows that underlying each and every divine activity, God is revealed as compassion. There are several Hebrew words that have been translated as "compassion" or "compassionate." We will limit our investigation to just one, rahamim. The root word rhm which yields rehem can be translated as "womb." It connotes sensitivity and the bond of profound emotion between a mother and her unborn child as well as between those who come from the same womb. Like the generative properties of the womb, divine compassion is life-giving. The repeated reference to the steadfast compassion of God is an ever-present acknowledgment of God’s love for God’s people despite Israel’s sin. "The Lord [is] gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and repents of evil" (Joel 2:13). God’s response to repentance is always divine compassion. As the womb brings forth life with all its possibilities, so divine compassion leads the lost and lonely to rebirth. As soon as we have the first concrete account of human beings outside paradise in Genesis, God speaks God’s first words and they are words of compassion, "the voice of your brother’s blood is crying to me from the ground" (Gen 4:10). At the end time the last words God speaks are also words of compassion, "I was hungry and you gave me to eat … I was thirsty and you gave me to drink …" (Mt 25:31- 46). God is identified with the oppressed and is loved through relieving their pain so that salvation is where they are. The reality of the oppressed is a mystical issue. On them depends our capacity to experience our God because the God of Jesus is now to be found in the neighbor.

In Hebrew thought, the living out of compassion is expressed in a life of living justly. Justice is not an abstract concept; it is concerned less with law than with relationships. Living justly is holiness, "justice and only justice you shall follow" (Deut 16:20). It is a quality of relations between humans and between humans and God. The holy person in Judaism is a just person, characterized by integrity and compassion. Justice as the living out of compassion is the ultimate. The prophets guided by the Spirit are passionately committed to the cause of the poor and exploited. They preach that compassion, justice, and concern for the poor are equivalent to knowledge of God. For Isaiah, to fast is "to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house" (Is 58:7). For Hosea, without justice "the land mourns and all who dwell in it languish" (Hos 4:3). The prophet Amos asks the people to "let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever flowing stream" (Amos 5:24). Jeremiah chastising the young Jehoiakim compares him to his caring father, Josiah: "Woe to him who builds his house on wrong, his terraces on injustice … Because he (Josiah) dispensed justice to the weak and the poor, it went well with him. Is this not what it means to know me says the Lord" (Jer 22:13-17)? And Hosea adds, "What I want is compassion, not sacrifice; knowledge of God, not holocausts" (Hos 6:6). No wonder they clashed with kings and sometimes with priests, too! The presence of God has filled their consciousness, inspiring them to speak the word of God and give it new depth as they proclaim God’s compassion and justice—God’s womb love for God’s people—to the community and to the nations.

The Compassion of Jesus

Mysticism and prophecy, the living out of compassion, form an inseparable whole in the life and spirituality of Jesus. He was not concerned with a political revolution. He saw himself as a prophet whose immediate mission was the introduction of a social revolution that called for a deep spiritual conversion (Horsley, 324). His compassion came from nourishing the divine energy within and contemplating deep intimacy with his Father. From this intense experience he comes out with a sense of mission and expresses it in a life of compassionate service. He invites his followers to live compassionately, "Be compassionate as your heavenly Father is compassionate" (Lk 6:36). These words were spoken in the context of giving: "Give and it will be given to you—good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over, will he put into your lap. For the measure you give will be the measure you get back" (Lk 6:38). For Jesus, compassion as feeling separated from action is inconceivable. He said to the doctor of theology, "Go and do likewise!" (Lk 10:37). His greatest act of compassion was the laying down of his life for us. This was the moment during which he gave greatest glory to God (Jn 10:1-8). In giving the love commandment, he uses Jewish exegesis in which one Old Testament text interprets another text. He quotes Deut 6:5, "you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might," and adds Lev 19:18 "and you shall love your neighbour as yourself." Deuteronomy interprets Leviticus. The "and" is not an "and" which adds. It is an explanatory "and." The passage can therefore be interpreted: Love the Lord your God …, that is, love your neighbour as yourself. The Christian commandment is not loving God and neighbor but loving God through neighbor. The early Church took this message very seriously.

In Jewish society which was structured around the purity system, holiness meant separation from everyone and everything unclean. Jesus was brought up on this religion, yet he says: "The Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost" (Lk 19:10), and he offers us an extraordinary maxim, "Be compassionate as your heavenly Father is compassionate" (Lk 6:36). Holiness for Jesus means compassion, to feel as God feels; he is the embodiment of the compassion of God. We, too, having been nourished by the divine energy, can reach out and translate the divine energy within us into compassion for those to whom we minister. Helpful guide questions for us individually and as community might be: Who needs our compassion most? How do we seek out and save the lost?

Compassion as Central to Spirituality

Historically, we have come out of a long tradition that has ignored compassion. It was a tradition that was ambivalent towards the world. The Christian view of history that dominated Christianity in the Middle Ages viewed the "hereafter" as the authentic life. The religious domain was viewed as the only real world. The physical world revealed by the senses was inferior, if not actually sinful. This was a world from which one prayed and was rescued, a "vale of tears" from which one is saved in order to achieve one’s spiritual destiny. This tradition’s basic concept of the human being was that of a sinner in need of personal salvation from his/her fallen state. The 14th century was a traumatic moment for civilization. One-third to two-thirds of the population of Europe were wiped out in 20 years. With an overemphasis on individual salvation, understood as the salvation of the soul, scripturally supported realities of society, human community, and concern for the neighbour were ignored. This fall/redemption spirituality continued through the religious upheaval of the 16th century, the Puritanism and Jansenism of the 17th century, and further strengthened by the shock of the Enlightenment in the 18th and 19th centuries.

The Church today is recovering compassion as central to spirituality. Christians are encouraged to develop a contemplative consciousness that leads to action—action that is vitalized by an interior mystical life. Passion for God must be combined with passion for the poor. In the past, we were concerned about the unevangelized; today we are concerned with the non-persons of society. In the poetic words of Bonnie Thurston, we pray:

Throw your mantle of stars
over us all,
but cover most gently
the poor, lost and lonely,
those whom the inn
has always turned away.

Jesus: Our Model of Contemplation and Prophecy

In the Incarnation, God entered our world as compassion. Because the Word became flesh, the glory, the doxa of God is now present in the person of Jesus. In him the invisible God is uniquely embodied. God’s glory—God’s innermost being, God’s divine energy, God’s sacred mystery, the splendour and sacred identity of God—is now revealed in him as compassion. "We have seen his glory, the glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth" (Jn 1:14). Jesus reveals that glory when he gives sight to the blind, gives another the ability to walk, preaches to the poor, heals a leper, accepts publicans, prostitutes, and Gentiles, and praises the widow who placed her last coin in the temple collection. These are people in whom society places little value, yet they are all human hearts thirsting for God. And before Jesus died he prayed: "I glorified you on earth having accomplished the work you gave me to do" (Jn 17:4). And he adds: "The glory you have given me I have given them" (Jn 17:22). The glory, the sacred reality of God, has now been offered to us. When we embody and practice the compassion and love of God, like Jesus, we bring the glory, the pastoral presence of God to others. When we feed the hungry, care for the miserable and the marginalized, offer forgiveness, become a voice for the voiceless, and appreciate the humanity of another person with attention, devotion, and reverence, when we allow our hearts to be touched by the poor we meet along the way, we bring the creative love and glory of God into their lives. We reveal the glory of God again, and again, and again. We pray their griefs and their joys through us and we become a channel of grace in this world.


1. This section relies heavily on retreat lectures given by Sebastian Painadath, SJ, at the East Asian Pastoral Institute, Quezon City, November 2006.

2. Telesphore Toppo, paper delivered at the Asian Mission Congress, Chiang Mai, Thailand, 2006.

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