The feast of Saint Elijah is celebrated July 20th in the Carmelite calendar.
Saint Elijah was a prophet of the Old Testament. His story is recorded in the First and Second Book of Kings. He is also acknowledged as the spiritual father of Carmelites because the early hermits of Mount Carmel lived together near the spring of Elijah (wadi en-Siah)in Mount Carmel to follow his way of life.
He is known for his spirit of courage when he confronted the prophets of Baal for a showdown to determine who is the one and true God of Israel.
“ How long will you straddle the issue? If Baal is god, follow him. If it is the Lord, then follow him.” (1 Kings 18:21). The events that followed were so dramatic that it became the most repeated story in the Carmelite tradition.
Elijah was both a man of prayer and action. He lived in Mount Carmel to savor the delights of deep contemplation and left it only when sent by God to do His bidding. He was a man of no compromise, a man who spoke the truth when it wasn’t popular, a man who allowed himself to be guided by his zeal for the Lord God of Hosts. He was also a man of deep compassion and sensitivities. When the son of the widow of Zarapath, whose hospitality Elijah was enjoying during the drought in Israel died, Elijah performed a miracle of raising him back to life. He felt the human feeling of sympathy and did what he could to comfort the widow. He wasn’t always brave. When Queen Jezebel sent her men to hunt him down, after Elijah slaughtered most of her false prophets, at the showdown in Mount Carmel, Elijah went into hiding and despair and begged God to take his life (1 King 19:1-4).But true to his calling, he continued his mission, prompted by God and nourished by the food from heaven. After Elijah was taken up to heaven by fiery chariots (2Kings 2: 9-12), the prophet Elisha succeeded him.
The story of Elijah is always an inspiring one for me. I think he is very relevant to us in our modern age. The basic needs of the human heart never really change. The ways of expressing these needs may vary because of culture and time, but the realities of thirst for the supernatural, search for truth, dissatisfaction with the false gods of power, wealth, ambitions and prestige, longing for a deeper respect for human life, the need to call on a power greater than our own, experiences of fear and despair when faced with forces greater than our own, remain the same. Faced as we are in this modern era with materialism, secularism and intellectual atheism, we most often straddle important issues of our day and adopt a “politically correct” and overly simplistic approach to life’s most important questions.
Elijah did not find solutions to his problems by himself. He allowed himself to be filled and guided by God in moments when he sought Him in prayer. He did not weigh the consequences of his actions in the sense of acting only when there was assured victory. He was totally abandoned, docile and trusting that God would finish what he has began. Even in his dark night of spirit he was docile and humble. He was not afraid to lend a voice to his despair and to acknowledge the fact that he was afraid and inadequate. He desired death because the fight became wearisome. He felt abandoned thinking he was the only one left among the followers of Yahweh. He was ready to give up. How could this chosen man of God feel the way he did? This man who left everything of the world, lived in solitude and deep intimacy with God, drank the wine of deep contemplation? How did he end up the way he did, in despair, and almost suicidal?
Yet, it was through this fear that true courage was born. It was through this emptiness that the cup was filled. It was in this nothingness of man that God was manifested as God.
As Carmelites, I pray that the spirit of our holy father Saint Elijah be given us. His double spirit of prayer and action is the hallmark of true Carmelite spirituality. In our age of intellectual rationalizations, the voice of this great prophet is once again heard: How long will we straddle the issue? If we believe in God then we must follow him unreservedly, with docility and courage, and with holy indifference. What does holy indifference mean? It means not counting the cost, not acting only because of assured success, not worrying too much about the good opinions of others and not being too preoccupied with results whether they be good or bad as we define them to be good or bad. We accept the fact that we will never understand everything that happens to us despite our greatest and honest efforts. We will constantly fall into despair and fear, but we can rise again and be filled by the grace of God. This was the story of Elijah. This may be our story also.
The clip below is a short introduction to the contemplative life of the Order. It is not the entirety of Carmel. Carmel has many streams, but only One Source. That Source is God. Carmelite spirituality is lived today in the double-spirit of St. Elijah, action and contemplation or better yet, contemplation in action. The Carmelite spirituality is lived in the cloister, hermitages and in the apostolic ministries of education, healthcare, foreign missions and in the hearts and souls of men and women living in the world.