In the closing scene of the movie “Alexander the Great,” Anthony Hopkins delivers this speech about the late Alexander the Great: “But the truth is never simple and yet it is. The truth is, we did kill him. By silence, we consented. Because… because we couldn’t go on… I never believed in his dream. None of us did. That’s the truth of his life. The dreamers exhaust us. They must die before they kill us with their blasted dreams.”
He pauses and then turns to the scribe writing down his words, “Oh, just throw all that away, Cadmos. It’s an old fool’s rubbish. You shall write, ‘He died of fever and a weakened condition.’
“All his life he fought to free himself from fear. And by this and this alone he was made free.
“He was the freest man I’ve ever known.
“His tragedy was one of increasing loneliness and impatience with those who could not understand. And if his desire to reconcile Greek and barbarian ended in failure . . . What failure! His failure towered over other men’s successes. I’ve lived—lived a long life, Cadmos, but the glory and the memory of man will always belong to the ones who follow their great vision.
“And the greatest of them is the one they now call Megas Alexandros; the greatest Alexander of them all.”
Pardon the lengthy quote. But I thought the drama of the scene—it does help that Anthony Hopkins delivered the monologue—captures the main message of this Sunday’s Gospel, “A prophet is not without honor except in his native place and among his own kin and in his own house.”
A simple definition of a prophet is someone who is called and sent by the divine to deliver a message from the divine. As Christ summarizes the history and the fate of the prophets of the Old Testament, we glean the great burden of the mission or the office. But more than rejection, the often tragic end to many a prophet’s life is the greater challenge—and glory—of the mission.
The prophet is always someone who disturbs the status quo, otherwise there is no need for God to send one if everything is going well. By this simple definition of his/her task, we smell trouble for the prophet. People, in general, do not want to be disturbed.
Let us first qualify the “do-not-disturb” syndrome of people. These two strains of the syndrome is—I qualify here clearly—a “do-not-disturb” even if something has to be fixed or set right. Thus it is a “do-not-disturb” because I do not want to be inconvenienced by change or adjustments. I do not want to get out of my comfort zone, either out of fear or complacency. Or, worse, “do-not-disturb” to protect vested interests.
Let us get to the meat of the prophetic mission. The prophet delivers a divine message and often it is calling back to, a return to the original vision of the community.
In our Judeo-Christian tradition, it is a going back to the covenant with God. “You will be my people and I will be your God,” or as Christ transforms it, “You are my sons and daughters and I will be your Father.”
The prophet calls us back to the original vision that first created the community to which we belong or of which we chose to be a part. When the community strays from its founding vision, the very reason for its existence, the prophet’s voice and message reminds us that, one, we have strayed and, two, we have to change course and to get back on track.
The effects of a prophet on us and the community could be very unsettling for many. Only those in genuine search of the truth and an authentic life of fidelity to noble things—vision, mission, meaning, truth—will be willing to go through the discomfort and struggle that genuine renewal and change entail.
Much more than most of us care to admit, we often pay lip service to renewal and change. Let me just focus on renewal in this reflection.
I have always been a believer in renewal before change. Change is a result of renewal. If it is not, it is merely correction, not change.
Renewal makes us go back to the original and authentic core of our organization/community’s identity and mission. Time and again I have referred to identity and mission. This is our DNA, who we are and why we are here. This is what makes us human.
Perhaps most of nature’s elements have an identity and a purpose, a role in the cycle of life, but it is the human choice, rooted in freedom, that can only allow a sublime and noble mission infused with meaning. It is what sets human life apart from other life forms.
When we have lived an identity and mission other than those we were intended to live, there is need for renewal. We need to renew the original inspiration that first made us realize who we are and why we are, our God-given identity and mission.
Two months ago I was meeting with the head of a major foundation that is considering our formation program for the teachers, principals and supervisors in the public schools in the communities they work with. I was sharing with her the “horrors” I have to deal with in one project.
Very matter-of-factly she said, “Father, at this point in your career, you can choose who you want to work with. Do not degrade yourself by working with such people.”
It disturbed me. It set me into a period of soul-searching. Admittedly, there was some denial—I tried to convince myself that this work was important and for the good of many. It was noble. But hers was the voice and the message of a prophet.
Fr. Joe Blanco, SJ, told us many years ago that if what we are doing is not God’s will or mission for us, no matter how good it seems, there is no grace in this work. Rather radical, yes, so let me put the context.
This was said in the context of Jesuit obedience. Part of the grace of the Jesuit charism is one must be totally obedient to God’s will and this will is expressed in the mission one’s Jesuit superior gives you. Hence obedience is a core value, so to speak.
This was one major consideration I had when I asked to be dismissed as a Jesuit. My spiritual director told me that the movements of God’s spirit in my prayer and life (from 2003 to 2005) were very clearly leading me out of the Society of Jesus to do my work of formation for teachers. His exact words were, “Go! The movements are very clear.”
The simple comment of the foundation head was the prophet’s call to renewal. It was a struggle to admit I needed renewal; that again I had strayed from the mission, and an even greater struggle to get back on track.
Why? One did not want to disappoint people who have placed their hopes and trust in you—even if there is ego-tripping in this. One also believed in the cause one committed to—even if there is no personal gain involved. One seems to be doing a lot of good, even if it is a genuine desire to do work for the common good.
But the prophetic voice is uncompromising. There is no grace if it is not God’s mission for you—no matter how seemingly noble the task. It was time for me to get back on track and focus on my mission to work on teacher formation.
I am sure many will not understand my decision, in the same way many did not—and some still do not—understand my decision to leave Ateneo and the Jesuits. This is part of the “tragedy… of increasing loneliness” Anthony Hopkins says of those who follow the vision; of those who heed the prophetic voice that calls us back to the truth, to our authentic self and mission.
Even on a societal level, time and again God sends us prophets. He sends us a Mother Teresa to remind us of compassion and care for the least in our society. He sends us a Ninoy Aquino to remind us of the self-sacrifice needed to win freedom and democracy, “the Filipino is worth dying for.” He sends us the heroic volunteers of “Ondoy”—students who went out in droves to help and rescue complete strangers—and of “Sendong”—people who risked their own lives to save others—to remind us that a caring, compassionate community is inherent in the Filipino soul. It continues to call us to respond to the prophetic call to renewal and change as a people.
The prophetic voices abound. We must listen. Sometimes—often—these are voices from within us. At times they are voices that come from the most unexpected sources at the most unexpected time, but you will know it is the prophetic voice. It will disturb you. It will challenge you to take the path of renewal and the change will follow.
What was said of Alexander the Great is more powerfully true of Christ: “What failure! His failure towered over other men’s successes… the glory and the memory of man will always belong to the ones who follow their great vision.”
Christ’s was the greatest of all visions—the new heaven and the new earth—won by the failure of the cross that gave us eternal life in the Resurrection. The final prophetic voice calls, “Come follow me.”