In-Sight: Mystic-Prophets

Last month I said we are living in a Micah moment, and using Micah 6:8, I explored the kind of life that God calls for in such a time.  But embedded in all this is the question,“What kind of person is “required” (Micah’s word) for justice, kindness, and humility to be expressed?” This post is a response to the question. The life required is that of the mystic-prophet.

I first saw the term in Matthew Fox’s writing.  It was his way of saying, “We need to reunite contemplation and action and mysticism and prophesy.” [1] I have since found the same sentiment in others [2], and I agree that one of the great needs of our day is to raise up a generation of mystic-prophets. I write this month to describe the life that emerges when we commit ourselves to being mystic-prophets. I will do this by looking at each dimension, and then by bringing them back together into their organic union.

Mystic….To be honest, I shied away from this word longer than I should have. It was a word (I now realize) that others caricatured and by doing so, made it unattractive—a word that I mistakenly took to mean a person who was so heavenly-minded they were of no earthy good.  In so many words, I was told, “You do not want to be a mystic, someone who is strange and separated from life.” And of course, I did not want to be that kind of person, so I turned my attention away from the mystics  to other things.

I was shown the error of my way when I studied the devotional life of John Wesley in my PhD program at Duke University. [3] I learned how he too struggled to make sense of the mystics and had to sift the gold from the sand in them, but in doing so he came to embrace mysticism as an essential element of the Christian life. [4] In fact, he added experience to the Anglican trilateral largely because of the influence of the mystics and the formation of the contemplative tradition. [5]  Looking at the mystics through Wesley’s eyes opened my eyes to them, and his desire to embrace their experience kindled a similar flame in me. I hope this post will do the same for you, if you are among those still holding the mystics at arm’s length. When we step back and allow the Christian tradition to teach us, it shows that being a mystic in the true sense of the word is an essential characteristic. [6]

A mystic believes a direct and sustained relationship with God is possible. God is not “out there somewhere,” but rather the Holy Spirit dwells in the us (1 Corinthians 6:19) and we abide in Christ (John 15:4). This is a formative communion, one in which we discover and develop the imago dei (true self) and recognize that the true self is not selfish, but rather oriented to the love of God and others (Matthew 22: 34-40). It is in contemplation where we sense the heart of God, which is always a heart for the world.

One of my most important discoveries about mystics is their whole-life orientation. Far from being detached in some kind of spiritual La La Land, they engage the complete spirit, soul, and body humanity which St. Paul described in 1 Thessalonians 5:23. Through contemplation (spirit) they catch the vision for righteousness, peace, and joy (the Kingdom of God). Through meditation. (soul) they explore the vision with their power of mind and use of reason (“ask, seek, knock”). Through implementation (body) they turn theory into practice by compassion (to “the least of these”).

Mystics practice the disciplines of abstinence, especially solitude and silence. [7] They go into “the cave of the heart” to experience a knowing that is not opposed to knowledge but goes beyond it into an intuitive dimension that the Bible calls wisdom. [8] From the place of wisdom they discern what really matters and give themselves to it through ongoing study practical application. 

The life which flows from this Center is summarized in the fruit of the Spirit (Galatians 5:22-23), life dimensions which shape our inner character and outer conduct. Mystics have “eyes that see and ears that hear” (Mark 8:18), and this attentiveness ignites the flame of love which is returned to God in worship and to others in service. The social consciousness they find in contemplation becomes their motivation for social action. [9]

Jesus personified the mystic-prophet combination. He announced it in his inaugural sermon in Nazareth (Luke 4:1-19). When he said “the Spirit of the Lord is upon me,” he was referring to his Spirit-to-spirit contemplation. When he then said the Spirit “has sent me,” he was declaring the prophetic dimension. He then spent the remainder of his life enacting the vision by declaring that the kingdom of God is the Reality, not the kingdoms of the world.

What I have learned from those whom I mentioned below in footnote #2 is that consciousness (being a mystic) must precede activism (being a prophet), just as a tree must be rooted before it can bear fruit. But just as a rooted tree exists to bear fruit, so too does being a mystic mean that we will be prophets. 

Prophet….William Hocking says, that “the prophet is the mystic in action.” [10]  Hocking’s words provide the bridge from contemplation to action. The move is a natural one, just as exhaling is the obvious effect of inhaling. In fact, the connection between being a mystic and a prophet is so natural there is no awkward movement from one to the other.  Being a mystic-prophet is the heartbeat of the spiritual life. Walter Brueggemann has summarized the three dimensions of being prophets. [11]

First, prophets call up reality, the reality which has been lost or obscured by illusion or imperialism. Prophets are the ultimate truth tellers, but not truth solely as a concept or as a regulation. Rather, they declare there has been a moral-ethical violation of the will of God. At the heart of their concern is that the two great commandments (Deuteronomy 6:4 and Leviticus 19:18) have been broken, and people are suffering as a result. Prophets come on the scene to say, “Enough is enough!”

Then secondly, prophets call for repentance.  The word means more than repenting of a sin.  The word means regaining a lost outlook on life by having a “large mind” (metanoia) about things. Sin is selfishness, which is a form of small mindedness (i.e. “It’s all about me”) that must be changed if the will of God is to be restored. Prophets hope to induce godly sorrow, to be sure. But in calling for repentance, they are demanding that the old comes to an end. The new will come when people live for good. Prophets demand renewal.

Finally, prophets call forth restoration. They point to hope.Truth telling unto repentance is the message because the final word is that God is ready and willing to heal the land and breathe new life back into the people. God’s justice rolls down like water and righteousness flows like a stream (Amos 5:24). The prophetic message ends with the declaration, “You can count on God to revive you again.”  Death is defeated by life.  Darkness is overcome with light.

The Synthesis….I have already noted the natural union between mysticism an prophecy.  But what is the nature of the union?  In a word, it is love. For the purpose of this blog, we can use the two great commandments to illustrate the synthesis.

Loving God with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength is an expression of the mysticism.  Each of the dimensions is internal and inherent. We “inhale” the Spirit of God through worship (personal and communal), and we are nurtured in all four aspects of life. Henri Scougal called this “ the life of God in the human soul.” [12]

From this inner life we love our neighbors as ourselves. We “exhale” our commitment to Christ through service which is marked by compassion and nonviolence, two of the characteristics of the life of Jesus (e.g. Matthew 9:36 and 1Peter 2:23).  

Benedict of Nursia established his Rule and Order on the foundation of this synthesis: ora et labora—prayer and work—contemplation and action. [13] Betnard of Clairvaux used the metaphor of the reservoir to teach the same thing.  The reservoir is designed to first be filled, and then to overflow. [14] Jesus described the synthesis when he said, “Freely you have received, freely give” (Matthew 10:8).

As I bring this post to an end, I would call your attention once again to footnote #2. These people are mystic-prophets, and they are only a small sampling of the great cloud of witnesses whose lives have been shaped by the union of contemplation and action. If we want to be instruments of God’s peace as we live in this new Micah moment, we will order our lives in ways which form us into mystic-prophets. 


[1] Matthew Fox’s Daily Meditations, 8/8/2020.

[2] The mystic-prophet (contemplative-activist) dynamic is found in the writing and ministry of Thomas Merton, Dorothy Day, Oscar Romero, Howard Thurman, Gustavo Gutierrez,  James Lawson, Richard Rohr, Martin Luther King Jr., Walter Brueggemann, Henri Nouwen, Richard Foster, Wilda Gaffney, Steven Charleston, Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove, William Barber II, Liz Theoharis, Mirabai Starr, Barbara Holmes, Andrew Harvey, and John Dear—to name a few.  

[3] My dissertation is entitled, ”The Devotional Life of John Wesley: 1703-38’ (Duke University 1981). It included my first scholarly study of the mystics, a study which made the idea come alive for me and in me.

[4] Robert G. Tuttle, Jr., ‘Mysticism in the Wesleyan Tradition (Zondervan, 1989).

[5] Richard Foster provides an excellent overview of the Contemplative tradition in his book, ‘Streams of Living Water’ (HarperOne, 1998).

[6] Evelyn Underhill has played a central role in helping me recover the mystical dimension.  Her book, ‘Mysticism’ (1910) is a classic exploration of mysticism. It remains available in multiple formats. She wrote other books on the subject as well.

[7] In his book, ‘The Spirit of the Disciplines’ (HarperCollins,1988) Dallas Willard organized the disciplines to show how they help us to form the pattern of the Christian life: abstinence and engagement.

[8] Cynthia Bourgeault, ‘The Wisdom Way of Knowing’ (Josey-Bass, 2003) provides an excellent introduction to the wisdom tradition, with an application of the tradition to today.  Her book, ‘The Wisdom Jesus’ (Shambala, 2008) shows how Jesus was a Wisdom teacher.

[9] John Philip Newell, ‘The Rebirthing of God’ (Skylight Paths, 2015) draws from the Celtic tradition, devoting several chapters to showing how the Wisdom tradition inspires social justice, nonviolent living, compassion, earth care, etc.

[10] Quoted in Matthew Fox’s article, “Moral Issues and Ethics, ” in Progressing  Spirit, September 27, 2018.

[11] Walter Brueggemann, ‘Reality, Grief, and Hope: Three Urgent Prophetic Tasks (Eerdmans, 2014). I wrote about this in a series of Oboedire meditations entitled, “The Prophetic Task” from 10/16/2017 to 1/15/2018. You can find it in the “Categories” list on the Oboedire home page.

[12] Henry Scougal, ‘ The Life of God in the Soul of Man,’ (1677).  This devotional classic remains available from a variety of publishers in multiple formats.

[13] ‘The Rule of Saint Benedict’ (c. 516 a.d.)  established the monastic pattern which is still followed today.  The Rule is available in many formats.  I wrote an Oboedire series about it entitled, “Benedict’s Rule” from 1/7/2011 to 3/22/2013.  It is available in the “Categories” list on the Oboedire home page.

[14] Bernard of Clairvaux, ‘The Song of Songs’ (1153 ?).  This classic remains available from a variety of publishers in multiple formats.

About Steve Harper

Retired seminary professor, who taught for 32 years in the disciplines of Spiritual Formation and Wesley Studies. Author and co-author of 42 books. Also a retired Elder in The Florida Annual Conference of The United Methodist Church.
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