Acts 13:1-12 The Hierophant

Mary Pierce Brosmer, in her book Women Writing for (a) Change, which describes the movement she started and continues to belong to, tells the story of her first poetry reading. She was asked to read after the poet May Sarton had to cancel her appearance due to an illness. Brosmer found herself standing in front of a room of about a hundred people, who responded enthusiastically to her reading. The one negative response came from her creative writing professor, who cornered her at the reception afterwards and remarked, “you really care about being understood, don’t you.” He then told her what he thought a poet should really be like. “I think of the poet as the hierophant above the people, inviting them to reach up toward me, upward toward some greater understanding.” Brosmer writes

Fortunately, having heard this enough in his contemporary American poetry class, where we studied only male poets, with the pleasant exception of Denise Levertov, I knew the meaning of the word hierophant: the prophet-priest. Yet I gaped at him stupidly, rendered mute by the arrogance of the image, and his invoking it at this particular moment (1).

Since then, Brosmer’s life has been lived in service of a very different understanding of the creative person, the person who lends their creativity, their insight, and their experience, to the communities they belong to. Women Writing for (a) Change creates these communities, and has developed practices for inviting and honoring the voices of every participant.

We see this contrast between the poet-hierophant and the poet who builds community played out in today’s passage from Acts, although here we are talking about religious leaders instead of poets. The community in Antioch doesn’t care about hierophants. We are clearly told that there are prophets and teachers, but none of them claims to be higher than other people, who must reach upwards in order to grasp their exalted understanding. When Paul and Barnabas are commissioned, when they have hands laid upon them and are sent off to extend the grace of the Beloved Community to the gentiles, it is because the Holy Spirit has prompted this action. We’re not told whose hands are laid on them, and as Justo Gonzalez points out, the greek is ambiguous and could imply that the entire church is blessing them (2).

It’s no accident that one of the first people that Paul and Barnabas encounter on their journey is someone who thinks of himself as a poet-hierophant, the false prophet Bar-Jesus. He’s threatened by Paul and Barnabas because hierophants can’t help but be threatened by the egalitarianism of the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit is more than willing to come down and dwell among the people, and seems disinterested in people who have put themselves on pedestals and think their role is to try to raise other people to their exalted understanding. As with many miracles, the physical blindness that afflicts Bar-Jesus is simply the outward and visible sign of his inward blindness, the blinkers that arrogance, insecurity, status, and a need to control have put over his eyes.

  1. Mary Pierce Brosmer, Women Writing for (a) Change, p. 66.
  2. Justo Gonzalez, Acts: The Gospel of the Spirit.
Karl Stevens
Karl Stevens is an Episcopal priest, a spiritual director, and a writer and artist. As a priest he has served as a college chaplain, a parish priest, a diocesan missioner, and a director of children and youth formation. As a spiritual director he has worked privately with directees and led groups of other directors in organizing retreats and special events. As an artist, he co-curated the EASE Gallery, created a series of paintings on the Stations of the Cross that have been used by area churches, and displays work and writings on kpbstevens.com. In addition to all of this, he is the co-host of the Lost in the Wilderness podcast, along with Rabbi Daniel Bogard. He is married with one child and lives in Grandview Heights.