The meaning of the Prophetic branch of the Church
What can a better knowledge of the structure of the Church offer to our Spiritual Life? The following text is on the “Prophetic Branch” of the Church. It is an important one. It is like an epiphany (the revelation) of a hidden albeit vital aspect of the Church. What appears to us in the Church does not encompass all that the Church is. There are hidden treasures in the Prophetic Branch of the Church, or the “Church of the Desert”; we need to discover them because they are relevant for each one of us.
Spiritual Life and the Structure of the Church
The structure of the Church is not static or constituted of equal bodies with no interaction. On the contrary it is dynamic, and its bodies interact between each other. Essentially, the Church is constantly “under construction”: remember St. Paul (1 Corinthians and others) as well as St. Peter mentioning the fact that the Church is a “construction” and that Christ is its Cornerstone. There is an inner tension or dynamism in the Church as it constantly constructs and reconstructs itself.
We can keep this image of construction or also add to it the image of biological growth: just think of the growth of a tree, or of a human being. The “construction” image has the advantage of helping us see that we need to aim at completing the entire building. Each one of the faithful is like one more added brick. The image of biological growth greatly enhances the fact of the growth of the Church as one. The Church is the Body of Jesus.
The Church is being driven by three forces contributing to its construction. Each is different but they work together. The Prophetic force (latin: munus), the Priestly one, and finally the Kingly one. Each force is represented by a body in the Church.
1- The Bishops and the Pope embody or incarnate the Kingly force. As successors of the Apostles, they are ‘Masters of Perfection’, they lead the two other bodies with discernment as well as governing them.
2- The second Body in the Church consists of the Parishes with their Priests and the Faithful. They embody the Priestly force for construction. This is the largest base on which the Bishops and the Pastoral Ministry of the Church focus their attention. Usually everyone who becomes a Christian does so in a Parish, and his or her initial Growth through the first initiation sacraments (Baptism, Confirmation, Eucharist) is nurtured here. Every person starts first by belonging to this Body, as is so beautifully expressed by St. Augustine who says to his Flock: ‘I am faithful with you, and Priest for you’.
3- Finally, the third Body in the Church is the Prophetic one. It consists of the ‘Doctors and the Prophets’ (see Acts 13:1): the theologians, the teachers and their institutes, universities, schools and the consecrated persons: monks, religious, secular institutes, new movements, virgins, missionaries…. They live holiness, they teach holiness, and they pray and worship, offering their entire life to God and to the Church. The core aspect of this body of the Church is a specific Call from Jesus to follow Him more closely (“come and follow me”). Becoming a Theologian is a real call and one of the hardest. Amongst these “Doctors and Prophets” we have Masters of Spiritual Life (Master of Novices), Abbots, Spiritual Directors.
The main two bodies where growth occurs are the Priestly body and the Prophetic one. But they have different implications (size wise, tasks wise) and proceed at different speeds. The prophetic one is powerful, very focused and accelerated (with exponential growth) with the privilege of having tried and tested ways of life, a Body of Teaching and rules or ways of life that lead to holiness.
Again, the core interest in the “construction” of this “edifice” is the construction of the main body of the Church, the Priestly one. But the length, width, height and depth of that growth is simply holiness, and nothing less that it. Who is in charge of offering the teaching, discernment and experience in this field? It is the second Branch of the Church, the Prophetical one. Who is the yardstick in holiness? It is the Prophetical Branch.
The part that each of these branches takes in the construction process is different. One is the foundational phase and the other is the further “growth to the fullness” phase.
We can see this in the structure itself of the main document of the Council Vatican II on the Church: “Lumen Gentium”. There is a total of eight chapters that describe the Church. Three of them are on each one of the bodies:
- Chapter III is on the Bishops
- Chapter IV is on Lay people
- Chapter VI is on the person who follows Jesus more closely.
But before going from Chapter IV to Chapter 6 we have Chapter V that is the starting point of this new dynamism, which is the deeper spiritual life or “consecrated life”. Chapter V is the Call for Holiness. It is the hinge. This is the Call that will explain the new dynamism we find in Chapter VI and the benefits of crossing from IV to VI.
Understanding the deeper dynamic aspect of the structure of the Church is very important. All its life and activities tend toward holiness. There is therefore a healthy “tension” generated by the vital necessity for growth. He who does not doesn’t go forward goes backward on the journey toward the fullness of holiness.
The Mansions of the Church
As we have said above, the Church is Jesus himself. Christ is our Way, the Journey toward the fullness of the Father. Therefore, the Church is “Christ our Way”. She is all-together, the final place for all who are holy and united to Christ and with Him, and the journey itself that leads to the final place. The journey has different stages and dwelling places. In fact, the great doctors of the Church present us with the journey as divided into various steps, until we reach Union with Christ and finally reach the fullness of his height and love. This means that there are various dwelling places in the Church herself, each one hosting whoever has reached it and preparing its actual dwellers to cross to the following dwelling place. The journey we are talking about here is a journey of transformation, sanctification (divinisation).
The Church is the Lord Himself, His body. He receives us in his body, He and His Spirit are in charge of our sanctification. At each stage or set of stages the Church collaborates with the Lord and His Spirit in order to help in the work of Sanctification of the individuals. This has been the Lord’s desire from day one when He chose and called various individuals to “be with Him”, so they could learn from Him how to help others to grow. This experience has been transmitted from generation to generation till today.
The Two Branches of The Church
Each stage of growth needs a specific help. An allusion to this is given to us by St. Paul when he talked about “milk” and “solid food” (see I Corinthians 3:2; see also: Hebrews 5:12; 1 Peter 2:2).
The different sets of stages themselves are “managed” by different entities or branches in the Church.
The Church itself is divided into Dioceses. Each Diocese is managed by a Bishop (in bigger Dioceses the main Bishop is helped by other bishops). A mature Diocese would have developed the Prophetic Branch and therefore would contain all the stages.
The first branch is the “Priestly” Branch, or more plainly called: the Parishes. The second one is the Prophetic Branch. It includes: hermits, monks, religious, consecrated, new movements of the Church and all those who have heard the Call of Jesus and who follow Him more closely.
Each one of the two branches has various stages in it. Each branch is “managed” (the help given for growth) by its specific leaders. Thus, the Parish Priests manage the Priestly Branch, while the Masters of Spiritual Life manage the Prophetic one.
The hinge between the two branches is what we usually name: “Jesus’ Call” to follow Him more closely (please read the following articles on the Call). Some call it: the “second conversion”. It is a personal call addressed by Jesus to a specific person at a specific moment in his or her life.
The Hinge Between the Two Branches
If we consider St. Teresa’s book called “The Interior Castle”, we find in it seven dwelling places, which are like seven different stages or levels of transformation. Amongst these one can distinguish two sets of dwelling places:
- the first three and
- the following four!
The hinge between them, is situated between the third and the fourth mansions: it is this Call made by Jesus in person to follow Him more closely. Here is how St. Teresa starts it:
“Before I begin to speak of the fourth Mansions, it is most necessary that I should do what I have already done — namely, commend myself to the Holy Spirit, and beg Him from this point onward to speak for me, so that you may understand what I shall say about the Mansions still to be treated. For we now begin to touch the supernatural and this is most difficult to explain unless His Majesty takes it in hand, as He did when I described as much as I understood of the subject, about fourteen years ago. Although I think I have now a little more light upon these favours which the Lord grants to some souls, it is a different thing to know how to explain them. May His Majesty undertake this if there is any advantage to be gained from its being done, but not otherwise.
As these Mansions are now getting near to the place where the King dwells [the seventh Mansion], they are of great beauty and there are such exquisite things to be seen and appreciated in them that the understanding is incapable of describing them in any way accurately without being completely obscure to those devoid of experience. But any experienced person will understand quite well, especially if his experience has been considerable. It seems that, in order to reach these Mansions, one must have lived for a long time in the others; as a rule one must have been in those which we have just described, but there is no infallible rule about it, as you must often have heard, for the Lord gives when He wills and as He wills and to whom He wills, and, as the gifts are His own, this is doing no injustice to anyone.” (St. Teresa of Avila, “The Interior Castle”, Mansions 4:1)
We can say that the first three mansions are managed by the Parish Priest, and the normal place for them is the Parish. The four following mansions (from 4 to 7) are managed by the Spiritual Masters (the Leaders of consecrated life) and their different places are: the monastery, the convent, some new movements of the Church.
Both branches are under the supervision and vigilance of the Bishop and his collaborators. It is true that some religious orders are under the direct supervision of the Holy See, but any/all parts of their ministry in the Diocese remains under the supervision of the local Bishop.
The Second Conversion
St. Teresa’s life itself is of great use to us because it helps us understand her teaching in the correct light, namely, she first experiences what she then describes in her teaching. We see, then, that she is first guided by the Holy Spirit through her Spiritual Masters, followed then by her experience of the Risen Lord, which thereafter she describes in her teaching.
Although Teresa of Avila enters into the Monastic life at nineteen years of age, her experience of Christ only undergoes a very radical change after roughly twenty years of religious life! And it is only then that her spiritual life takes off. Beforehand, she was oscillating between moments where she was doing well spiritually, and others (longer) where the opposite was true. In fact, the cause of this was the fact that her heart was divided between the Lord and some people of her acquaintance. Her heart was not given totally to the Lord. Therefore, she could not hear the Lord’s Call clearly: as a consequence, she was not able to answer it and receive the abundance of Graces He wanted to give – as He wants to give each one of us. (About hearing the Lord’s Call please see this link.)
All that we know about her, all the Teresa of Avila we know, her writings, her foundations, come after this conversion at the age of almost forty. This moment of conversion is the hinge we are talking about and characterises the entrance to the Fourth Mansions. (About St. Teresa’s Conversion please see this link.)
Only then would her heart be unified, her desire becoming to follow Jesus, she would give Him everything: she would allow Him to lead her, her way of praying would change, her daily life would change, the Grace of the Holy Spirit would start then to work wonders, showering her with graces. She would grow exponentially.
Let us now consider the life of another fundamental saint in order to understand more clearly the two branches of the church and the hinge between them. Let us consider the life of St. Anthony the Great.
St. Anthony The Great
Traditionally, St. Anthony the Great (third-fourth century A.D.) is considered to be the Father of all Monks (East and West). St. Benedict, by comparison, is the Father of all Western Monks only.
The life of St. Anthony, written by St. Athanasius, is an important foundational document. In a way it shows us the birth of Monastic life. It shows us in a very clear “geographic” way the two branches of the Church. Initially St. Anthony, an orphan living with his sister, is living in a parish in lower Egypt. One day, while attending Mass, the Gospel that was proclaimed has included Jesus’ Call to follow Him more closely: “go, sell what you have, give the money to the poor and come and follow me”. Forthwith St. Anthony decided to seek out detachment in the desert, going into ever deeper isolation and living for years in a cave, in the quest for “nothingness” in order to find Jesus and be with him. When some brothers came to him after many years and asked him to be their Master, an historic moment in the life of the Church, as described by St. Athanasius, was reached. Although monastic life existed, although some communities already existed, what we are witnessing here is the official description of the birth of the Prophetic branch of the Church.
When St. Anthony was listening to the Gospel in his parish, he did not hear it in a normal way. He heard the words as being addressed to him personally by Christ. In fact, Christ used them to touch him, talk to his heart, and mostly, to call him to follow Him more intimately. Christ did not ask him to become a Parish Priest. This could have been the case! But his call is not to the Priesthood. This aspect, indeed, is not even mentioned by St. Athanasius in further stages of the story of St. Anthony. Why? Because this is not the core of the Call. The core of the call is to search for Jesus only. We can almost say that the core of the call is essentially Spiritual and characterised not by a priestly status, but by a lay status totally immersed in a spiritual Call for transformation.
Here we come face to face with the birth point of the Prophetic Branch, the Branch of the Church that is meant to harbour all those who are called to follow Jesus more closely. The “desert” is the geographical place of this Branch. And “desert” means absence of any distraction, of anything that can allure or attract and lead astray from the one thing: the Quest for Union with Christ. What characterises this Branch, right after Jesus’ personal Call, is the total response of the person. This is why, there is a specific moment where one can hear the call, and not before (please read again: “A Call is a Call”).
As we can see, in the case of the Father of all Monks, the Father of the Prophetic Branch, the two branches are even geographically distinct: the Parish, in a city or town, and the Desert. The development of the different forms of following Christ more closely in the Prophetic branch will show us that it is not the physical geography that matters and characterises the “Desert” but that the “desert” is mainly an inner state. This is why many say today that our cities are like “deserts” where the quest for Union with Christ can be implemented. But we need to find the means that characterise the Prophetic Branch.
Drawing Spiritual Ecclesiology
Let us try to illustrate Spiritual Ecclesiology. In the drawing below, we have the different mansions represented in different colours. We include ten mansions and not seven as it exists in the case of St. Teresa of Avila, in order to show the continual growth in love until we reach its fullness in dying.
At this point it is worth reiterating that the first set of three mansions is the foundational work done in the parish by the Priestly Branch. The following mansions (4 to 9) are the ones that belong to the Prophetic Branch. As we can see, the Church’s life is very dynamic, it all tends toward the union with Christ and the fullness of love. Growth or sanctification is its law.
Note: “6a” and “6b” is to differentiate between “6a” “the dark night of the spirit” (see St. John of the Cross’) in St. Teresa’s 6th mansions – hardly mentioned by her – and “6b” the “Spiritual Engagement” that follows it. “8” is meant to underline the growth in intensity of the love (Transformative Union, see St. John of the Cross “Living Flame of Love”) with “9” being the participation in the Passion of the Lord. “10” is the Christian’s sacred death, the final encounter with the Beloved as described by St. John of the Cross in the Living Flame of Love.
The Epiphany of the Church of the Desert
The Church does not consist of one dwelling place: the Parish. The Church has different Mansions. St. Teresa describes seven of them as we have seen. The Parish is in charge of Evangelisation and Catechesis: the first three mansions. The Desert is in charge of helping those who hear the call to follow Jesus more closely. Added to this the Bishop supervises not only the Parishes, but also the “Desert” dimension in his Diocese. This is why St. Thomas Aquinas calls the Bishop: Master of Perfection, Perfection being the modus operandi of the Desert. This is why it rapidly became the habit for certain Eastern Apostolic Churches to choose future bishops from the Monasteries.
The section of the Church that is the “Desert”, indeed, is the most striking and most powerful light for the world. If on one hand the Parish has to lay the foundations of human life, led by the ten commandments and catechesis, the Desert on the other hand is the area that shows the higher perfection to which the Lord came to call us. If the first is for everybody, the second stage requires the accomplishment of the first. This is how the Lord operated with the rich young man! When he asked Him: “Good Teacher, what good thing shall I do that I may have eternal life?”, Jesus did not start by offering the deepest aspect of his message. He went back to the foundations: “if you want to enter into life, keep the commandments”. The Lord is not even hinting at the existence of other ways. This is the path, this is the order to follow! In order to build a very high tower one has to lay the foundations first.
It is only when the young man said that he had observed the commandments from his youth, that is, stating indirectly that he had solid foundations, that Jesus opened the perspective of another dimension, far more demanding: “If you want to be perfect, go, sell what you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow Me.” (Matthew 19:21)
Jesus is Calling… many are called as He says, but even though it is to the next stage of growth, where things will take off and grow exponentially, it is very demanding, totally demanding: the gift of everything and of oneself! It comes as no surprise, then, that the young rich man became sad: he went away sorrowful, for he had great possessions” the greatest possession being oneself. We know how it took St. Teresa of Avila almost twenty years to really “sell everything”, to leave her heart free and entire for Jesus, and to really start to follow Him.
She will constantly teach this point of her conversion: we take a lot of time to give ourselves!
As we can see, the most beautiful part of the Church: the Desert, and the Spiritual Doctrine of Jesus is very demanding. Drawing closer to God is very demanding! God is a Jealous God, in the sense that He wants everything, not by half measures! The absolute! And the reward is absolute: Himself, given to us! Nothing on earth or in heaven can equal this reward, to experience the fullness of the intimacy of God. But the cost of it is very dear: all of our being! Remember the widow, who gave apparently very little, but in fact gave all that she had to live on, and in the eyes of God gave more than all the others! She gave herself, denied herself, and preferred Christ above anything else.
The beauty of Christ is tough! He does not surrender himself totally if we do not! He takes what we give Him says St. Teresa of Avila, but He will not give himself totally unless we do so. Love burns!
“Many are called” (Mt 22:14)! Actually, all of us are called to Christ’s Beauty. But how many will experience it in its fullness? How many will know Jesus divinely? Spiritual Doctrine is harsh! It takes everything! This is why this branch of the Church is truly called: the Desert.
The Church of the Desert should shine in our heart and mind. It should be honoured as the Jewel in the Crown of the Church. It should be present constantly. Should help us to plumb the depths of the Gospel, the depths of Christ, the depths of the Gift of God (John 4:10). If we hear Jesus’ Call to follow Him more intimately, “Spiritual Formation” should become, indeed must become, the core of our interest (see this article about Spiritual Formation).
Ecclesiology and Spirituality
The crossing from the Priestly Branch to the Prophetic Branch, from the Parish (the Parish Community) to the “Desert” is a passage from one economy to another. From one perception of the Providence of God to another one that is totally different.
One is really Christian when he or she belongs to a Parish. No doubt about it. But there are many ways of being Christian! There are many ways for the Holy Spirit to work in us (please see this article on The Five Modes of Activity of the Holy Spirit).
When we belong to a parish, our way of being Christian does not necessarily place God above everything in our life. We pursue other terrestrial (often legitimate) goals, we use a mix of human means and spiritual means with a human modality. Even if we consider God a Being, the Source of everything in our life, we are still the ones who are holding the reins of our life. We are still the ones who decide what to do, where to go.… Jesus is not being followed closely. He is not yet our real leader, minute by minute, who orientates us, opens the way in front of us and with whom we have a personal relationship. Therefore, it is only generically that we can say in this case that we are following Jesus.
The full richness of the Mass is found here and there. But the way of participating in it is very different if you are in the Parish or in the Desert. The Mass itself, as a ritual remains exactly the same! But the way to celebrate it, the way of entering spiritually into it is very different! It corresponds to the difference between the “general help of the grace of God” and the “particular help”. Remember the prayer, “lift up your heart”, in the Mass! The Desert is the place that teaches you how to do it and is expert in discerning the inner depths as well as being the place and the place par excellence that lives it and from it.
The Mass celebrated in the Desert, in the desert way, is a real Transfiguration: the eyes of the Apostles were opened, they could see the Lord transfigured and the Gospel (Jesus) in dialogue with Moses (the Torah) and Elijah (the Prophets), see Luke 24. Yet again, the Mass celebrated in the desert way embodies a real the experience of meeting the Risen Lord, just as what happened to the Disciples of Emmaus, or even better still what happened when the Lord appeared to the Apostles in St. John Chapter 20, through closed doors. The Desert is nothing less than the Upper Room.
Summing up we can say that according to these two branches we have two faces of Christianity. The Parish tends to present Christian life in a binary way: “1” I am in a state of Grace (I went to confession and received Communion and continue to do my best to be a good Catholic), or “0”: God forbid, I have sinned, and therefore I need to go to confession. After the Call of Jesus, however, our spiritual life starts to really move and take off. We start to have a greater perception of the notion of growth, transformation, sanctification, Union with Jesus. We no longer function in the binary 1/0/1 way, but instead we start to perceive the existence of an exponential curve of growth. Of course, we continue to go to confession, but it is growth that is now at the heart of our daily challenges. Our vision of Christianity, changes! We understand that there is a Desert, i.e. only God matters, nothing should distract us on our journey as we follow Jesus ever more intimately, and we understand that the Desert has different depths as the story of St. Anthony the Great, mentioned above, indicates where step by step he divests himself of self to enter into greater depths in the Spiritual Journey towards Union with Jesus.
Note: “Parish” and “Desert” as used in this article are not strictly only geographical demarcations for the two branches of the Church – the “Priestly” and the “Prophetic”! One can perfectly have received the Lord’s Call to follow Him more closely, and have already started to do so, having started to receive Spiritual Formation, having one’s daily schedule changed, having a spiritual director, and yet still live within the perimeters of one’s parish and go and attend the different services in the Parish and take part in some activities. But the individual knows at this juncture that he or she is receiving his or her formation from the “Prophetic Branch” with all its specificity and richness. Discernment is important in order to alleviate the burden of not knowing who does what in the two branches and not to search for elements of the Prophetic Branch present in the Parish.
Last but by no means least, it is most important to remember that the Prophetic Branch, the Church of the Desert, this hidden aspect of the Church, is totally placed under the leadership of Our Lady, it is her personal domain, her private garden! It is the “best part” (Luke 10:42), as the Lord puts it in the Gospel. It is the most sacred place, the true domain of the book of the “Song of Songs”. “Therefore, look! I will now allure her. I will make her go out to the wilderness, and will speak to her heart.” (Hosea 2:14)
Let us remember that the word “desert” as it is used here is mainly an image, the image of the attitude to have as one endeavours to journey in the Prophetic Branch: being focused on Jesus, not becoming distracted by anything else, maintaining silence in order to listen to Jesus, solitude, recollection, Jesus being the “only one thing [..] necessary” (Luke 10:42). Let us remember also that this “desert” is called upon to flourish: “The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad; and the desert shall rejoice, and blossom as the rose.” (Isaiah 35:1).
This is the most beautiful part of the Church, but it is also the most hidden one to the common churchgoer! One enters into it only when called! It is a sacred and private domain! The true Jewel in the Crown of the Church and as such deserves deep honour.
One thinks he or she knows the Church! One thinks he or she knows Christ. Absolutely not! The Church has a sacred garden! We can call it “Desert”, we can call it “blossoming garden”, “garden” being the synonym for Eden or Paradise. It is the place of the intimate encounter with Christ the Groom.
Finally, if we asked the question “What does the Desert Church bring us?” the simple answer would be reiterated by the greatest saints, to name but a few, with St. Benedict answering: “I do not prefer anything else above Jesus”, St. Francis adding: “Jesus is my everything” and finally St. Therese of the Child Jesus answering with: “Jesus is my only Love” – “Love” being written with a capital letter – “Nothing exists in my life out of Jesus. It is a love story between him and me!”
Reading: Regarding the Functions of the Church: John Henry Newman, Preface of the Third Edition of his book “Via Media”.