Of Wizards and Men
One of my favorite moments in the legendarium of J.R.R. Tolkien is the arrival of the wizard Gandalf on the shores of Middle-Earth as recounted in Appendix B of The Lord of the Rings. For those unfamiliar with the details, Gandalf, as he would later come to be known as, was the last of five angelic creatures sent to assist the free folks of Middle-Earth against the tyrannical, and indeed demonic, evil of Sauron. Few understood who or what these wizards were, thusly why many common people thought them to be merely regular wizards or magicians, with only the wisest discerned their true origins and purpose. For only one person, the ancient elf Círdan the Shipwright saw in person their arrival from across the sea. He discerned each one and when Gandalf arrived Círdan gifted him Narya, one of the three Elven rings of power:
Take this ring, Master… for your labours will be heavy; but it will support you in the weariness that you have taken upon yourself. For this is the Ring of Fire, and with it you may rekindle hearts in a world that grows chill. But as for me, my heart is with the Sea, and I will dwell by the grey shores until the last ship sails. I will await you.
Gandalf took Narya and as a constant reminder of his mission to offer instruction and counsel, to build up heroes to lead the fight against the forces of evil, and above all else, to enkindle hope in a world growing chill. Those familiar with the story of The Lord of the Rings know that this is very much what Gandalf would go on to accomplish even when the other wizards failed.
I bring this somewhat obscure moment in the legendarium to your attention so as to propose it as an icon of the munera of the prophet. Each Christian is a priest, prophet, and king through baptism and in a particular way the ordained priest is especially called to live and serve the Lord as a prophet.
But what is a prophet? Is he a soothsayer, auger, or clairvoyant? Some sort of psychic? No and no. Much as the common people of Middle-Earth failed to discern the Istari (as these five were called in Elvish) from their petty sorcerers (although, to be fair, many elves also didn’t get it… but I’ll try to avoid arcane tangents so I digress) so too many today in the real world fail to discern a true prophet from the many self-acclaimed sibyls scuttering about; be they shamans of false religions, mystagogues of erroneous ideologies, or plainly cracks looking to scam some easy money.
A true prophet is, as Gandalf describes himself, a servant of secret fire (C.f., The Lord of the Rings, The Fellowship of the Ring, Book II, Chapter 5: “The Bridge of Khazad-dûm”; see also the Ainulindalë of The Silmarillion). The secret fire refers to the creative power of God, or to use more theological terms, the Divine Logos, the ruling principle of creation, which we also hail as the Word of God. Thusly, we can identify a true prophet as a servant of the transcendent Word of God which holds all creation in existence and orders it accordingly. Gandalf speaks words of wisdom not from his own acumen and study but from his humble contemplation of the truth and love of the transcendent goodness of his creator.
Gandalf is also known as a good counselor. The examples are nearly innumberable but one of my favorites is certainly when he counsels Frodo against doubt and despair (The Lord of the Rings, The Fellowship of the Ring, Book I, Chapter 2: ” The Shadow of the Past”):
“‘I wish it need not have happened in my time,’ said Frodo.
‘So do I,’ said Gandalf, ‘and so do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.'”
With these words of consolation, Gandalf counsels Frodo in such a way as to not only give present comfort but to also prepare him for the quest in front of him. For while the munera of the prophet is often described as a teaching role it is more than catechetics or education as it goes to work leading others not only to knowledge of what is truly right and good but to understanding and wisdom. In other words, fostering in others obedience to the Divine Logos so that they might willfully receive its graces in their lives.
In the same dialogue, we see Gandalf plant the embers of hope in Frodo’s heart and this perhaps begins to unveil the core identity of the prophet: the servant of Hope.