I am spending this summer at a monastery by Lake Superior. I came here away from the noise of the world, to hear God’s voice more clearly. Between work crises and family worries, it’s not always very quiet inside my head, but as the days pass, in the peace of the chapel and the rustling of the lilacs, I am beginning to discern the whisper I so cherish. The whisper I recognize. And it’s asking me a question. And the question makes me think of Elijah, again.
(For an essay on Elijah and the Eucharist, read the post from August 15, 2012, titled “On the bread of life.”)
Elijah is a strange figure in the prophetic world of the Bible, unique in many ways. Everyone knows that in the Hebrew Scripture he doesn’t die. In a spectacular, dramatic scene he is taken up to heaven in a fiery chariot. For Christians, he is mythically the companion of Moses in the foreshadowing of Christ: both of them part waters, both stand with Jesus at Transfiguration. He is a miracle-worker and a non-Israelite. Yet I am most intrigued by a different turn in his story: Elijah begins his work for God long before he experiences his prophetic call.
It is a staple for a Hebrew prophet to be called by God – to have an encounter with God during which the prophet sees or hears the Lord and accepts his mission – before beginning to prophesize. We call it “theophany,” an encounter with God, and this is when a prophet becomes a prophet. A prophetic call has its rules in the Bible: God appears with the mission, the stunned human demurs – he is not ready, not worthy, not willing – and God overcomes all excuses and empowers the man, who finally accepts. The very process of such a theophany is a fascinating and enlightening insight into the human psyche, societal pressures, and the relationship between man and God, and it happened this way to most major prophets: Moses, Isaiah, Jeremiah. In a way, Ezekiel. And it makes sense. The life of a prophet is awesome and terrible, his mission is completely overwhelming, his message is fire not to be contained. One needs an experience of divine magnitude to embark on such life, a conversion, a sending – and the Bible tells us what it was.
Not so with Elijah.
He comes out of the woodwork beyond Jordan, a foreigner, right out with messages and miracles, stirs up Israel and the unrighteous royal couple Ahab and Jezebel, predicts a drought, brings back rain, institutes a perpetual food pantry, slaughters false prophets, fires up a splendid burnt sacrifice of a water-drenched bull – all as if he were a fully certified prophet, yet he hasn’t really been commissioned yet. He hasn’t faced the Lord. At least, not that we know. His work for God is just…sort of matter of fact.
So finally, Elijah makes lots of spectacle proving God’s supremacy over Baal. Baal is conspicuously absent, the furious efforts of his priests notwithstanding, and the Lord of Israel takes up Elijah’s soaked sacrifice in an astonishing display of pyrotechnics. There, in front of Ahab and Jezebel, everyone sees the one true God in the fire. Baal’s servants are dead in a bloody mess, and Elijah is on the run for his life. In the desert. Dying of hunger and thirst. Barely revived for one more trek by a miracle, fed by an angel after collapsing under a broom tree.
This is how Elijah finds himself on Mount Horeb, at the end of his rope, lost for direction, and, finally, alone with God. Here, both are naked before each other, down to their essence: because Elijah is hiding and God is not. Elijah has crawled to this place at the last of his strength, physical and spiritual, sustained only by a thin thread of God’s promise – gaunt of soul and sparse of hope – to discover that all his previous spectacular prophecy was really just that: a spectacle. “I will show myself to you,” God tells him, and he witnesses again a series of astonishing pyrotechnics, but as he watches, cringing and bowing before the fire and wind, shaken by the earthquake, he begins to realize that God isn’t in any of it: not in the noise, not in the shock, not in the awe. God has never been in any of it. God was behind it, all right, but Elijah had never stepped through the curtain to see, never had fallen silent enough to hear.
And now in a desert mountain cave, where the man who had once been the talk of the nation and a sword-wielder has tucked his exhausted and fugitive body, all of his senses assaulted again and again with the thundering sounds and terror and heat, only now does he understand the ultimate emptiness of the world’s spectacle. The deafening show is over; Elijah has grown up.
For the first time in his life – and for the first time in the Bible – Elijah truly listens to the “sound of sheer silence” that contains God’s voice, and the “still, small voice” speaks to him from within his very heart, where God always has been. For the first time in biblical history we understand that the voice of God is conscience. And as Elijah stands at the mouth of his cave, drenched in the nascent awareness of intimacy with the Ultimate he could not have possibly imagined, God asks him one question: “What are you doing here, Elijah?”
Why are you here? The first words Elijah hears from God, who is no longer sweeping over nations but is nestled in his heart, are not an assurance of love and not an assignment. Elijah is lost, but this is not an answer to anything. It’s not a command. Not a consolation. It’s a discernment question. The first words Elijah makes out from God are the most important question we ask ourselves – that is, if we are contemplative enough to hear God’s voice, wise enough to find the answer, and courageous enough to live it. It’s the question about the root of our being and the meaning of our lives. It’s the question of our purpose, the one thing that matters. Why and what for. Having done all this work for the Lord already, Elijah is still at the crossroads. Whether or not he lives the Word of God will be decided right then, in a desert cave.
“Why are you here?” God asks, and the prophet answers. He is there because everything he’s done, everything he’s been, everything that’s happened has brought him there. That’s what he tells God not in so many words. He is there because he can be nowhere else, because he loves his Lord, and this love has led him to a cave on a desert mount, and he leaves the rest to God. And only then his direction – his mission and command – do come: hiding is not the answer. Elijah’s reasons are good enough, but his solution is not. His work is in the world. And back to the world he goes, to leave a legacy and leave it behind.
The time comes in most of our lives when we follow in Elijah’s footsteps. For some, it comes after decades of work, after years of wandering, after a lifetime of battle and hurry, even after we’ve stood our ground for the best and noblest causes. The time comes when we discover that God is only present in the spectacle inasmuch as God is present in all things – as the fabric of its reality and the force behind it – but that our thunderous and motley scene lacks the deep breath and steady pace of God’s walking conversation in the garden at the breezy time of day. And when we come to this realization, we go looking for Mount Horeb out in a simple place, where God so fills the silence that we can hear His voice inside our hearts. And we go and go, and when we can walk no more we crawl, and when we can no longer do that, we whimper for Him to come to us. As Elijah did.
We need time out in the desert, time and space. Time on Mount Horeb to discover ourselves. To hear God ask why we are there: to hear God ask, so we would be forced to answer. But the thing is, it’s a hard question, and the desert is large all around, and God is rarely so specific as to which direction to go. It can be difficult to find the answer and tempting to take our time, and it’s important to get this one right. It is safe on Mount Horeb and restful. It can feel like home sometimes. Ravens bring us food, and the air is thick with the presence of God. And yet, we cannot stay on Mount Horeb forever. We must come and hear God’s voice, and then we must take up a mission and return with it to the world, for whose sake the Mount is there.
We take the Mount with us. We fit it inside our hearts, where God fits, and the cave of shelter, and the desert of peace, and the mount of awe, and the heavens of unspeakable beauty. We carry it all with us and fill the world with it. As Elijah did.