Carmelites are rooted in a prophetic tradition which goes back to the time of the Prophet Elijah. The original hermits of Carmel chose to reside at the Wadi Carith, Elijah’s well. The choice of location for the Carmelite’s initial foundation placed them within the prophetic shadow of the Prophet Elijah, who is identified as the Father of Carmelites and who is still celebrated as a saint within the Order (Feast Day July 16). Even St. Peter’s Basilica contains a statue of him with a sign stating, “Elijah, Founder of the Carmelites”. However, the world these days contains many self-proclaimed prophets. How are we as Catholics called to identify with and incorporate into our lives the prophetic vocation we received at baptism? The Carmelite understanding of the Prophet Elijah holds the answer for us.
The Spirit Makes the Prophet
The Word of the Lord is With Elijah (1 Kings 17: 2a)
A prophet is one who speaks, acts, or writes under the influence of God to make known the divine counsels and will. Thus, prophets, must always, have a relationship with the Spirit. Remember what we profess in the Nicene Creed: “[…] We believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the Giver of life, who has spoken through the prophets.” The prophet is not their own but always represents another.
Throughout all the Elijah accounts we see the great prophet both listening and acting on behalf of God. He is constantly making and allowing himself to be a clear instrument of the Lord. He listens then acts, the one always opened to receive the Spirit of the Living God. It is not by the action of Elijah, himself, but the work of the Spirit who seeks him and comes to him and desires him, so Elijah can make known the Love of God for the people, and the need for them to repent. As Elijah said “How long will you straddle the issue? If the LORD is God, follow him; if Baal, follow him” (1 Kings 18:21).
”In the Old Testament, the prophets announced that the Spirit of the Lord would rest on the hoped-for Messiah for his saving mission” (CCC 1286). Elijah through the Word of God, that was with him, desired to bring the Israelites of the Northern kingdom back into relationship with the God who saves, the One who gives life. The Spirit made himself known to Elijah and that is why he can speak in this way,“I have been most zealous for the LORD, the God of hosts” (1 Kings 19:14). Being a prophet is first an act of the Holy Spirit upon a person, like Elijah, our response needs to be one of relationship, so the Word can rest in us. A prophet is one who has a relationship with the Spirit and seeks to share it with others.
Trusting in Prayer
The Story of the Widow’s Son (1 Kings 17: 19-23)
The widow’s son is dead and she accuses Elijah of failing them. Elijah did not fully understand, why God would allow this to happen, prophets rarely understand God’s plan, that is why they are beacons of faith to us, they act with trust. Even though they do not know fully the divine will or understand it, they know the God who is speaking to them, and they act with trust. Looking at Elijah, we see him trust in God, who is the God of Life who will save His people. He calls upon God knowing he will be heard by God and, therefore, he asks for the boy’s life to return to him. God hears His prophet, for God’s word was with him. We see the trust of Elijah for God, lived out in his life of prayer. Why pray if you think God is not going to listen? To live out our prophetic identity we too need to be rooted in prayer, prayer which pours forth from our trust in God. Prayer is like an exercise that strengthens the heart to remain faithful to our Lord. The prophetic heart is this a prayerful heart.
The Fire from Heaven, the Cloud from the Sea, and the Rains Return (1 Kings 18: 42-44a, 45a)
For over three years no rain had fallen in the land of Israel, and a great drought has devastated the people. Elijah, by the power of God, warned the king, but the king would not listen to the Lord. The king desired the pleasure of his wife and her joy and therefore put his faith in her Gods. Now, after three years the winds of change have blown, and Elijah has returned. The leaders and their prophets now have before them this wild looking man from the wilderness, who invokes a response, powerful enough to call everybody to come to Mount Carmel, i.e. God’s vineyard. It is in God’s vineyard where Elijah challenges everybody to abandon the ways of idolatry, i.e. the false fruits of life, which has led them to this suffering and to begin anew by returning to the God who saves. 400 pagan prophets versus 1 lone man, a contest to show who is the true mouth piece of God. The 400 pagans were given the whole day to call down their God, all Elijah needed was a few seconds to pray. But, these were not some words spoken in silence separated from others. Elijah prayed in boldness, given to him by the Spirit. It was in those few bold yet prayerful words of Elijah, rooted in trust of his Lord, that open the people up to receive the Divine flames, not only their world but in their hearts.
After the prayer and sacrifice of Elijah is received by God, the people proclaimed their faith. Then the bold Prophet Elijah travels to the top of Mount Carmel to wait for the rains. His attendant checks seven times, and on the seventh time he saw a small cloud rising from the sea, the salvific rain has returned. Elijah was silent when he needed to be and bold when it was called for. As prophets, we need to be bold and not afraid to challenge others when it is necessary. We, as prophets, must also allow our prayers to be bold, “ask and you shall receive” (Matthew:7:7).
Being Open to God’s little Gifts
The Small Breeze on the Mountain (1 Kings 19:11-13)
From my earliest time in Carmel I was always told to learn and to let myself be shaped by this story from Elijah’s life. After fleeing his home land, and succumbing to despair in the desert, God still called Elijah to go forward, God does not say where Elijah chose Mount. Resting on the mountain Elijah senses God is coming but the divine presence is not in the roaring winds, the earthquake, or the fire, but in a still small breeze. Recall that before Elijah reached Mount Horeb, he wandered in the desert for 40 days. God sought to comfort Elijah, so it was by the small breeze that God choose to soothe His prophet. The breeze shows us God’s mercy, and it is Elijah’s openness to God in all things, which allows him to experience God in the breeze. God chose to meet Elijah in his ordinary and everyday need. Thus, a prophet must always be open to God in the ordinary and everyday things of life. Why? Because it is through those things that the whispering voice of God is heard, and a prophet is one who is always open to his or her God.
God’s Message Goes Beyond Us
Elijah Taken up into Heaven and the Passing on of the Spirit (2 Kings 2: 9-14)
Elijah was a man. He was not God; he too had to pass on. Note I did not say die, I said pass on. He was called from this world to the next. However, God made a promise to Elijah “You shall also anoint Jehu, son of Nimshi, as king of Israel, and Elisha, son of Shaphat of Abel-meholah, as prophet to succeed you “(1 Kings 19:16). The work God had given to Elijah, goes beyond him and will continue, through Elisha. This should be a sobering message for us, who suffer from the sin of pride, for in this scene we see the words of Christ lived out:
“Already he who reaps is receiving wages and is gathering fruit for life eternal; so that he who sows and he who reaps may rejoice together. For, in this case, the saying is true, ‘One sows and another reaps.’ I sent you to reap that for which you have not labored; others have labored and you have entered into their labor” (John 4: 36-37).
There was no room in the life of Elijah for vain glory and pride. He knew who he was before the Lord and he lived totally for him, “For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it; but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it” (Matthew 16: 25). Humility is a necessary virtue for all prophets. Humility for Elijah was about being self-aware, that God’s plan will continue without him. Christian prophets are not like the Titan Atlas. Prophets do not hold up the world, God does. As prophets are called to be bold for the Lord, they must also have a foundation of humility.
Returning to our question: How are we as Catholics called to identify with and incorporate into our lives the prophetic vocation we received at baptism? As Catholics, with the grace of God, we need to: cultivate a relationship with the Holy Spirit, grow in prayer, be bold for God, allow ourselves to be open to the Lord in the ordinary things of life, and strive for humility. As prophets, we must always be ready to speak and serve on behalf of the Lord. As St. Teresa of Avila wrote:
Christ has no body but yours, No hands, no feet on earth but yours, Yours are the eyes with which he looks Compassion on this world, Yours are the feet with which he walks to do good, Yours are the hands, with which he blesses all the world. Yours are the hands, yours are the feet, Yours are the eyes, you are his body. Christ has no body now but yours, No hands, no feet on earth but yours, Yours are the eyes with which he looks compassion on this world. Christ has no body now on earth but yours.