In the Spirit and Strength of Elijah
Extract from the lecture of Blessed Titus Brandsma, O.Carm., given on the U.S. Tour, 1935.
A Life Steeped In Prayer
We may truly say that the life of high contemplation of the Prophet was not only founded on the practice of all virtues, but that this practice and exercise of prayer and virtue accompany his visions and mystical graces. These mystical graces are a free gift of God, but God did not grant them without asking great and heroic virtue as a human disposition and preparation.
But after all, prayer is the chief characteristic of the great Prophet. His life is steeped in it. And we see in the prayer of Elijah a providential union of oral and liturgical prayer with the prayer of meditation and contemplation – contemplation in its double sense, active and passive.
We may see in him an example of liturgical prayer, for the singing of God’s praises was an important item in the school of Prophets. The word, “Prophet,” in the ancient law had a wider meaning than we attach to it now. It was used to describe not only the one who prophesied, but also one who sang the praise of God together with others, usually seven times a day. Elijah was the Prophet in all the meanings of the term. He had a school and disciples; not in one place but in many; and most probably led them in prayer at fixed times. So we may say that liturgical prayer comes to us from a very ancient tradition, even though it is secondary to the deeper prayer of meditation and contemplation.
Our Order is not an Order of liturgical prayer, like the old Eastern Order of the Basilians or the Western Order of the Benedictines, but liturgical prayer has a special confirmation for us, and must always hold a high place in our living with God. The Rule calls us together to say the Office in community, liturgically.
St Teresa in her love for liturgical prayer would so impregnate it with holy thoughts, that it, too, in a sense, would become contemplative prayer, prayer of active contemplation. The influence and attraction of simple and devout Carmelite liturgical life has always been great More than one Carmel on the continent has been founded because of it.
Eucharist – Our Spiritual Food
Very characteristic of Carmelite spirituality is its concept of spiritual life as a growing thing; and here the life of the Prophet gives another remarkable lesson. Like the natural, our spiritual life demands food. Holy Scripture tells us how Elijah, on the strength of the mystical food administered to him by the Angel, walked forty days and forty nights to Mount Horeb. Here he was allowed to see God. Our spiritual life, and our mystical life desire the holy Food given to us by God in the Holy Sacrament of the Altar.
In the school of Carmel the mystical contemplative life is the fruit of Eucharistic life. For the Blessed Sacrament of the Altar, the fountain of our life of prayer, the life of Elijah provides us with a most striking type. The miraculous bread ministered to him is a perfect image of that Eucharistic food, in the strength of which we walk in life’s journey here below.
The special cult of the Holy Sacrament has not been confined to Carmel, but we can say that it has always been a constant and important part of our Carmelite tradition. Our Carmelite Convents have in many instances been centres of Eucharistic worship. St Mary Magdalene de Pazzi was attracted to the Carmel of Florence by the fact that the Sisters received Holy Communion every day, a custom not usual in those days. To St Teresa there was no greater joy than the opening of a new church or chapel as a dwelling for the Lord. It is prescribed by the Rule that all members of a Carmelite Community attend the Holy Sacrifice daily and that the chapel be in the centre of the cloister, easy of access at all times, and that the Canonical Hours be recited in the presence of the Blessed Sacrament. Being a mendicant Order, its churches and cloisters are plain and simple in their architecture, but in the adornment of their churches and altars poverty is not prescribed. This is a notable departure from the custom of other mendicant Orders – from that of the Capuchins, for instance, whose rule of poverty extends even to the sanctuary.
Such in brief outline is the Eucharistic tradition of Carmel; with Elijah we walk in the strength of that divine bread and since we would draw near to the life of God in prayer, we must be ever mindful of the saviour’s command, “unless you eat the Flesh of the Son of Man and drink His Blood, you cannot have life in you.” Just as the communion of Elijah in the miraculous bread of the desert led him in his journey to the contemplation of God on Horeb, so too, the Holy Eucharist must lead us to the contemplation of His Holy Face. In the caves of Horeb, God spoke to the Prophet by the voice of the gentle, whispering wind. The Lord was not in the storm nor in the earthquake, but in the gentle wind. So after Communion we must contemplate under the Eucharistic species and in the depths of our spirit, for now God passes.
Double Spirit of Carmel
Carmelite life must follow the lines indicated by Elijah’s life and experience. It must reflect his double spirit, the life of activity and the exercise of virtue in individual or social activity.
The double spirit has a three-fold sense. The first is the double portion of the inheritance of the Father, the portion of the first born son, the portion of the privileged children. The Carmelites are the privileged children of the great prophet and ask from him the portion of the first born. But only he who has the intention of maintaining the noble traditions of the house may ask this privileged portion. If we ask his double spirit in this sense, we have to be his first children and to follow him as well as possible.
Another sense is given to this double spirit: namely, the marvellous mixture of contemplative and active life in the great prophet. He was above all the great contemplative, but God called him many times from his contemplation to the active life and his place in the history of Israel is as one of its most untiring labourers. He always returned to the solitude of the life of contemplation. So the Carmelites must be contemplatives, who from their active life always return to the contemplative as to the higher and better part of their vocation.
However, the double spirit of the prophet is spoken of in a third sense as the harmonious union of the human exercise of virtue and the divine infusion of mystical life, It is in this third sense that the old institution of the Carmelite Order has taken the double spirit of Elijah and this double spirit we must ask from Heaven. Our institution must reflect his double spirit, the life of the exercise of virtue in individual or social activity, founded on a life of prayer, and the life of continual practice of meditation, crowned by active contemplation or prayer of simplicity and that other spirit unspeakably more exalted: the mystical, real experience of God, even in this life. It must be the union of active and passive contemplation, the union of human endeavour and the infusion of the mystical life of God. Our sufferings and sacrifices, our labours and exercises in prayer and virtue will be rewarded by God with the beatifying vision of His love and greatness. So we may truly say that “the life of Elijah is the shortest summary of the Order’s life.” But then we immediately have to ask: What are the characteristics of this prophetic life?
Walking in the Spirit and Strength of Elijah.
When Elijah was being taken away from the earth in a fiery chariot, Elisha, his faithful disciple, begged of him the inheritance of his double spirit. In the mantle which he received and with which he covered his shoulders, Elisha received the inheritance he had asked for. The Prophet’s mantle was to him a symbol of an assurance, and through the miracles worked by the mantle his disciples understood that the spirit of Elijah had descended on Elisha. And just as Elisha walked in the spirit and strength of Elijah so his disciples followed him. It is the same spirit the Carmelite Order has ever striven to continue in its members. It even sets before them the ideal of the double spirit and gives the promise of a double crown.
Living in the Presence of God.
To what degree of contemplation Elijah was raised on Horeb is an academic question. There are some who say he saw the Lord face to face as we hope to see Him in heaven. All spiritual writers number Elijah among the most favoured mystics. His experience on Horeb was a reflection of what he was to witness on Thabor when the Saviour was transfigured and Moses and Elijah were seen associated in His blinding glory. The Holy Scriptures say of Moses that when he descended from Sinai after his conversation with God, on his face shown the brightness and glory of divine light, so that the Jews dared not look at his face. The same is not said of Elijah, but we see him coming to the Jews, as if from another world, from the courts of heaven, and declaring at his appearance: “God lives in whose sight I stand.” This is the foundation of his life of prayer.
This living in the presence of God, this placing himself before the face of God is a characteristic, which the children of Carmel have inherited from the great Prophet. “Our conversation is in heaven”. Elijah was not taken up to heaven, but while on earth he lived in heaven and stood with a pious heart before God’s throne: “God lives, in whose sight 1 stand.” This realisation of the presence of God is of the very greatest significance in the spiritual life.
We need not say that this practice of the presence of God is not confined entirely to the Order of Carmel. It is at the root of all spiritual life and though methods may differ, all spiritual writers lay it down as an essential element in religious development. But in Carmel it takes a special place. It is significant that one of the most widely known works on the practice of the presence of God was written by a lay brother of the Paris Carmel. He was born in 1666 and died at the age of twenty-five. The book is a slight work containing four dialogues and sixteen letters of great importance. It was published a year after his death and soon afterwards translated into English. It has since been translated into many languages.
In our own time little Thérèse of the Child Jesus and the Holy Face is the great example of this exercise of the presence of God, expressing itself in her devotion to the Holy Face. This devotion was also characteristic of her sister, St. Teresa of Avila. In many of our old churches we may yet see traces of this Carmelite devotion to the Holy Face. The picture is painted on the big keystone of the gable of the sanctuary of the church at Mainz and Frankfort-in-the-Mainz, looking down on the choir and surrounded by appropriate texts, reminding those in prayer that the eyes of God are always upon them and that they must look upwards to the Holy Face.