Stories Seldom Heard June 2017
Stories Seldom Heard
Is Our Baptismal Call Being Overlooked?
Welcome to Stories Seldom Heard. I would especially like to welcome the parishioners of St James Parish, Petaluma, CA. In this article, I will be referring to Mary Oliver’s poem “Bone” which you can read at the end of this article and also to 2 Peter 1: 19-21. It would be best for you to print and read both of these selections before you read this article.
May and June are particularly busy months marked by Mother’s and Father’s Day, First Communions and graduations. It is also the time of year when we celebrate baptisms, confirmations, weddings, jubilees and recommitment of vow ceremonies. Recently, I attended a baptism and was reminded once again that our sacraments are not only for those who are committing/recommitting themselves to God, but also for all of us who participate in the service. This was particularly evident at the baptism because the presider invited all of us to enter into the celebration by not only witnessing it, but also by recommitting ourselves to our baptismal promises. Because the parish was small and the priest who presided knew most everyone in the congregation, the questions, commitment, recommitment and responsibilities that the baptismal ritual requires of us were not pro forma, but were very personal.
While the babies were being anointed with chrism, we once again, heard the words and the commission. “As Christ was anointed Priest, Prophet and King, so may you live always as members of his body, sharing everlasting life.” To this statement, we all responded “Amen” which means “Yes. I agree. Count me in!” When the ceremony was completed the families held up their tiny loved ones for us to see more clearly. We all joyfully celebrated this tender moment of faith, family and community.
As I left the church that day I wondered how many of us take seriously our priestly prophetic mission as members of the Body of Christ. We heartily responded “Amen” at the service, but I wondered if and how we live out this commitment. When do we think of ourselves as priestly people? What priestly acts do we do? When are we called to be prophetic people? What does it mean to be a prophet?
Closely following the experience of the baptisms, I was asked to preach at a Morning Prayer Service. The scripture passage was from the Second Letter of St. Peter (2 Pet 1: 19-21):
“We possess the prophetic message that is altogether reliable. You will do well to be attentive to it, as to a lamp shining in a dark place, until day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts. Know this first of all, that there is no prophecy of scripture that is a matter of personal interpretation, for no prophecy ever came through human will; but rather human beings moved by the Holy Spirit spoke under the influence of God.”
This reading was doubly powerful because I had just attended the baptismal service. We have been entrusted with a prophetic message and we are to proclaim it. But what in heaven’s name does that mean?
This is a question that each of us needs to explore because according to our baptismal commitment and the words of scripture, the gifts of the Spirit have been given to each of us. Each of us is called to be a prophet in the situation in which we find ourselves. There are many qualities we need in order to understand what this gift of prophecy requires of us. First, we need to have good hearing. By this I don’t mean getting a clean bill of health from the audiologist. Rather what I’m talking about is having an awareness and appreciation of God’s Holy Spirit. We need an inner spiritual ear so we can listen to and be attentive to the movements of the Spirit. Prophetic speech comes from deep listening. It is the ability to set aside our own agenda and prejudices and recognize the truth in a situation as seen through the eyes of the Spirit.
In the Second Letter of St. Peter, he both warns us about misinterpreting scripture and our responsibility to be prophetic people. Second Peter 1:19-21 says, “We possess the prophetic message….”
As I was preparing to preach on this passage, I went to the beach for some quiet time of reflection. As usual I brought with me both my Bible and some poetry books. I often read poetry as I prepare preaching because it helps clear my mind. It also helps me pay attention and become more aware of the mysteries of life and death as they relate to the scriptures. One morning as I was sitting on the side of a hill overlooking the Monterey Bay, I was startled by a pod of playful dolphins arching out and back into the water. No doubt, they were moving northward in search of breakfast. Right behind them about two feet above the “dark knit glare” of the waves was a long narrow line of hungry pelicans. The natural world never ceases to amaze me and reveal to me the magnificence and mystery of God. And it was at that moment that I remembered Mary Oliver’s poem, “Bone.”
Peter’s Letter reminds us that to be prophetic, we must be good listeners. Mary Oliver’s poem “Bone” describes her ponderings when she finds, on the beach, the ear bone of a pilot whale that had “died hundreds of years ago.” This pink scooped out ear bone was a reminder to her that this portion of the whale’s body “lasts the longest in any of us, man or whale.” For Mary this discovery was not an image of death. The ear bone wasn’t dried, bleached, rotting away in the salty sun. Rather it was pink — as though alive — still hearing the rhythms of nature. In its own way, it was a prophet from the deep reminding us that the Spirit of God will never allow her voice to be silenced even in what looks like “hundreds of years of death.”
At the heart of our Christian vocation is the call to be both poet and prophet joined together like “two sisters in the house of hearing” — both listening attentively, both observing what is happening around them in the world and both awakening the imaginations of those who hear. Both the poet and the prophet help us re-envision life.
The Second Letter of Peter reminds us to claim our gift and responsibility to prophecy. Peter forcefully reminds us that we do not live an uncalled life, but by our baptism we have been called into the prophetic tradition of Christ. We are called to be prophets who, like poets, stimulate memories and offer suggestions that point towards a world that does not yet exist.
Peter’s Letter reminds us that we too have the ear bone of a pilot whale, our warm blooded, air breathing, earth-sea guide and friend. This ear bone allows us to listen to the love and rage of the ancient prophets while at the same time attune ourselves to the pleading voices of the outer world in which we live. We have an ear bone that connects the old with the now — profound truths of God’s love with the on-going rhythms of life.
Peter encourages us to be bold in our speech and these words have particular meaning for us because we, like the early Christians, find ourselves in the midst of change with unanswered questions and major shifts going on in our world. We, like the poet, could describe this time as a “dark knit glare” that precludes clear sight. Whether we speak of our exploration of the universe story and the questions it raises in light of our faith tradition, or the eroding of long established structures in society and family life or the turmoil within the church, our lives as we have known them, have and are changing. What we once thought was solid ground feels like the sands of time ebbing away beneath our feet. What we thought would always be there has begun to shift and fracture.
We grieve some of these losses. There certainly is room for sadness, tears and fear of the unknown, but Peter’s words come as a passionate plea to trust the prophetic Spirit who lives in us and guides us through the rough waters of uncertainty. Peter invites us, like the prophets and the poets of the past, “to seek language that is passionate, dangerous and imaginative enough to make available the passion, danger and freedom of God” (1). Peter reminds us to be like the ear bone of the pilot whale so that we can listen deeply to our tradition and trust firmly in the presence of the Spirit. Under the influence of God this Spirit emboldens us to speak God’s truth with compassion.
Bone by Mary Oliver New and Selected Poems: Vol. II, p. 72
1. Brueggemann, Walter, Hopeful Imagination: Prophetic Voices in Exile, Fortress Press, Philadelphia, 1986. p. 24.
2. Oliver, Mary, “Bone,” New and Selected Poems Volume Two, Beacon Press, Boston, 2007. p. 72
Special thanks to Mary Ellen Green and Maria Hetherton who have helped in editing this article. “Stories Seldom Heard” is a monthly article written by Sister Patricia Bruno, O.P. Sister is a Dominican Sister of San Rafael, California. This service is offered to the Christian community to enrich one’s personal and spiritual life. The articles can be used for individual or group reflection. If you would like “Stories Seldom Heard” sent to a friend, please send a note to “email@example.com