July 20, 2008

Our Spiritual Father - Saint Elijah

Prophet & our Father - Feast - July 20

This prophet of God, Elijah, was the chief of the monks, from whom the holy and ancient Order of Carmel took its origin. For it was he who, desirous of greater progress in the pursuit of divine contemplation, withdrew far from the cities and, despoiling himself of all earthly and mundane things, was the first to adopt the holy and solitary life of a prophet which he had established, at the inspiration and command of the Spirit.

In a vision God had ordered him to depart from the ordinary dwelling of men and to hide himself in the crowd, and thus live alone in solitude in the manner described according to him. This proved from clear testimony of holy Scripture. As was written in the book of Kings:

"And the word of the Lord came to him (Elijah) saying: 'Get you hence, and go towards the east and hide thyself by the torrent Carith that is over against the Jordan, and there you shall drink of the torrent: and I have commanded the ravens to feed you there."

Between the years of 1206 and 1214, there existed this group of hermits living in Mt. Carmel in Palestine that had formed themselves into a group under the leadership of a man named Brocard. This group proceeded to ask Albert, the Patriarch of Jerusalem, to provide them with a "formulae vitae" or rule of life which became the Carmelite rule. Because of the association of Mt. Carmel with the Prophet Elijah, these first Carmelite hermits took him as their "Dux et Pater", leader and father. They also had a particular devotion to Our Lady, building an oratory, which is a place of prayer, which we now call a church, dedicated to her and by doing so pledged themselves to her service and placed their community under her patronage and protection. Hence, they later became known as: "the Brothers of St Mary of Mount Carmel."

Hermits, belonging to ancient Orders or New Institutes, or being directly dependent on the Bishop, bear witness to the passing nature of the present age by the inward and outward separation, from the world. By fasting and Penance, they show that man does not live by bread alone but by the work of God. Such a life "In the Desert" is an invitation to their contemporaries and to the ecclesial community itself, never to lose sight of the supreme vocation, which is to be always with the Lord.

Our knowledge of Elijah comes mainly from the biblical stories in the First Book of the Kings. He lived around 850 BC when the king of Israel was Ahab. The king married a foreign princess, Jezebel, who was a worshipper of the god Baal. She set out to supplant the worship of Yahweh, the God of Israel, with the worship of this idol. The reign of Ahab was a time of prosperity for Israel but riches were for the few while poverty and oppression were the lot of many.

Elijah is an enigmatic figure - he arrives on the scene very suddenly without any introduction and makes a dramatic exit in a fiery chariot. Elijah is portrayed as a man of God and a man for the people. The central experience of Elijah as a man of God was his journey to Mount Horeb. Elijah had just won a stunning victory over the prophets of Baal when his sacrifice was accepted rather than theirs. Yet despite this demonstration of Yahweh as the God of Israel, fear of Jezebel left Elijah downhearted and depressed. God provided Elijah with the food that gave him strength to journey to Horeb. There God spoke to Elijah not in the mighty crashing of thunder or earthquakes but in the sheer sound of silence. Strengthened by his encounter with God, Elijah is given his commission to return to his ministry. This scene is clearly a highpoint for Elijah and reflection on this scene caused him to be chosen as patron of hermits in Christian times. Yet it is throughout his ministry that we see Elijah portrayed as a man totally at God's disposal. The Word of God dominated the life of Elijah. He is the servant of God before whom he stands. The Word of God pointed Elijah toward service of people.

Elijah was a model of the man of prayer, of one who listened for the voice of God in silence and solitude. The Carmelites changed from being hermits to being mendicant friars when they came to Europe. Then Elijah became for them also a model of their availability for the service of people. Elijah, and the Carmelites after him, became a man for people because he was a man of God. He proclaimed the justice of God in a world full of injustice. Elijah showed his solidarity with the poor and oppressed, with the marginalized of society. This too is an important part of the life of Carmelites.

Elijah and his ministry therefore speak to the two sides of the Carmelite vocation - contemplative and active. We seek to be people of God like him. God gave Elijah the strength to preach His word in difficult circumstances. Our world is very different from that of Elijah but we too are called to proclaim the word of God in and to a society, which is often far from ideal. We are called to follow in the footsteps of Jesus Christ whose whole life was dominated by the desire to do the will of God. He proclaimed that God's Reign was close at hand. By our prayer and service of others, we seek to help people become aware of the presence of God in their lives. By being faithful to both aspects of the Carmelite vocation, we will be faithful to our motto taken from the words of Elijah:

"I have been full of zeal for the Lord God of hosts."

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