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I have been studying the story of the prophet Elijah for a term paper in my Hebrew Bible class. It is a fascinating story for many reasons, and one that remains quite actively debated among Bible scholars.
What speaks to me most on a personal level is the theophany on Mount Horeb.
And behold, the LORD passed by, and a great and strong wind rent the mountains, and broke in pieces the rocks before the LORD, but the LORD was not in the wind; and after the wind an earthquake, but the LORD was not in the earthquake;
and after the earthquake a fire, but the LORD was not in the fire; and after the fire a still small voice.
And when Elijah heard it, he wrapped his face in his mantle and went out and stood at the entrance of the cave.
1 Kings 19:11-13 (RSV)
To briefly put this passage in context, Elijah had recently obtained a spectacular miracle by calling upon God to send down fire to consume an offering (you really must read the whole story in 1 Kings 18:20-40). He had hoped to re-convert the people of Israel to faithful and exclusive worship of God via this spectacular display of power, and at first it seemed that he had succeeded. But it was a very short-lived victory and brought a death-threat from the infuriated Queen Jezebel, who had brought Baal-worship to Israel. When he realized his failure, Elijah went out into the desert, disillusioned and even suicidal.
Eventually, he came to Mount Horeb (aka Sinai), and like Moses before him, received the rare gift of a theophany–a manifestation of God’s presence. Phenomena such as tempest, earthquake, and fire were characteristic of a theophany–and exactly what one would expect. But to Elijah, God presented Himself in a very different and unexpected way: in “a still small voice.” It was in that tiny sound that the prophet perceived God’s presence.
It’s important to note that Elijah was not a person who much appreciated silence and stillness. He was a gutsy, intrepid, self-assured man of action. When he called upon God, God listened and acted. And Elijah expected God to act with power, as He did when He sent down fire to consume Elijah’s offering. Elijah wanted to shock and stun the people of Israel into straightening up their act, and he expected God to cooperate. But ultimately, that plan had failed, and Elijah wasn’t sure what to do.
In this scene, we see the prophet at his weakest and most human. Can we not see ourselves in him? I know I can see myself. I often expect God to act according to my expectations and my timing. Occasionally, He deigns to do so, at least on the surface. In fact, it rarely turns out the way I would like it to. And that doesn’t make me very happy!
What God teaches Elijah–and what He teaches to us all at times–is that His true essence and His true way are not found in earth-shattering power. Oh, He is mighty, very mighty! But true might is much more than mere brute force. We honor God’s true power when we fall silent and still and allow His still small voice to permeate our souls, our innermost beings. The truth is, that is a far more humbling, stunning, and awe-inspiring experience than any external tour de force we could ever imagine! The realization that God wants first and foremost to be Master of our souls is enough to make these souls of ours shiver and prostrate themselves!
Instead of wishing to exert power over others or over our circumstances, we should strive to submit ourselves to God’s power, lest our own hearts grow hard and turn away from Him. When we do so, we receive the greatest miracles of all: the life and love and grace that come only from our Lord and Master.
I was pleasantly surprised to find a nice thick blanket of snow outside this morning! The weather forecasters were only predicting maybe an inch or two. We’ve gotten about 6 inches where I live! It’s beautiful. And since snow is much easier to walk on than the ice we’ve had for the last few days, I went out for a walk.
Snowy days always have an extraordinary silence about them. The kind of silence you can hear and feel. Stand still, and it just envelopes you. Even when you’re walking, the sound of the snow compressing beneath your shoes just emphasizes the quietness. The monochrome of snow and sky reflect it.
And in that white silence, I felt closer to God than I have in a while. Partly because He is recognizable in all beauty. Partly because snowy days always return me a little to the joy, innocence, and wonder of childhood, when I was always so close to Him and rarely lost sight of Him. Partly because there was no need for words, just a pure connection between my soul and Him. It was a silence that was anything but lonely.
Here is a link to some photos I took while I was out.
Profound silence falls over the world when Christ, the Word of God, descends to the realm of the dead. My heart is close to bursting with prayer and supplication… desperate to fill the silence and the void.
Despair is closer than ever, easier than ever, on this day.
And yet a small spring of hope still wells forth in the heart’s deepest, darkest recesses.
For the realm of the dead cannot confine Him who is Life Itself, Him through whom all life was created. And even now, in the deepest, darkest recesses of the universe, He is very much alive and constantly at work, reviving and liberating the souls of the just from all previous ages, all the way back to Adam and Eve.
Our silence is their jubilation. Our closeness to despair’s chilling breath is their hope and their breath of life. He whose empty body we on Earth saw laid in a tomb is the living and mighty champion of those in the underworld.
And even for us, Easter’s promise, so close at hand and sensible, sends up that little rivulet of hope.
Last night at scripture study, we were looking at this Sunday’s Gospel reading. After miraculously curing the leper, Jesus tells him not to spread word of what has happened–to keep the “Messianic secret.” The cured man, however, does publicize the miracle, and Jesus is forced to withdraw to deserted places.
I always had trouble grasping the meaning and importance of the Messianic secret. Last night, it finally made sense when our priest explained that Jesus wanted to avoid any “hoopla” that would 1) distract Him from His mission and 2) distract mankind from His mission. Jesus did not perform miracles for their own spectacular sake or for His own glory. The true purpose for His miracles was to show His divine love and mercy. Jesus is not just a miracle-worker–He is the One who brought God’s mercy and tenderness to heal mankind.
Then Father drew a connection between the miracles of Christ and the liturgy. Just as Jesus didn’t want any hoopla to distract from the true meaning and message of His miracles, so also God doesn’t want any hoopla to distract us from the true meaning and message of the Mass and of our own worshiping. The point of our prayer and worship is not to perform actions for God, or to entertain ourselves. The only thing God wants from us is for us to offer ourselves to Him, to open ourselves to inner transformation. And prayer and worship exist solely to help us do that–they help us to offer and to open ourselves. Liturgy is only good insofar as it helps us to reach and to seek for God. Anything that distracts us from that, anything that comes between us and God, is to be avoided. Like Jesus, we often need to withdraw into silence and solitude–these can be extremely beneficial and necessary for our spiritual growth and well-being.
Also yesterday, I was reading Msgr. Guardini’s The Art of Praying, the chapter on “Inward or Contemplative Prayer.” Msgr. uses the term contemplative prayer broadly to include our acts of meditation as well as the passively-received grace of a more mystical union with God. Here is some of what he has to say about this kind of prayer:
[It is] a form of prayer which moves, as it were, away from the spoken word and toward silence. [It is] a form of prayer whose main feature (or trend) is to draw away the soul from the manifoldness of mental activity and to enable it to become single-pointed. …
Contemplative prayer … is concerned with the truth as such. It tries to apprehend the nature of God, to grasp the meaning of the kingdom of God, to gain insight into the condition of man and an understanding of one’s own place in the pattern of things, to obtain a true picture of the world.
By contemplative prayer we seek to strengthen and to give direction to our will in order to master the confusion of life and to create the conditions for better and more fruitful action. Contemplative prayer must not induce a state of dreaminess and unreality; on the contrary, we must remain alert throughout, conscious of the relationship to God which we are trying to establish. Contemplative prayer should be a living encounter between man and God in which man strives to get nearer to God and in so doing to become purer, simpler, and more substantial.
So we see that contemplative prayer is all about focus, concentration, silence, seeking, discerning, relating, simplicity, and purity. It’s pretty much the antithesis of hoopla. It is about connecting to God as He is and as we are. It is about being with God, coming to know Him better, and through Him to know ourselves better. It is a spiritual withdrawal from all the confusion of life, as Msgr. says–not to shun it, but to master it. And Christian contemplation is not like Eastern contemplation where people seek to just sort of fade into nothingness; rather it is all about reality and truth. Encountering God isn’t like achieving Nirvana; it does not obliterate us as individual persons, but rather makes us more the individual persons we were created to be.
A little later, in his chapter on “Divine Providence,” when talking about how we each have a role in bringing about the coming of God’s kingdom, Msgr. Guardini says:
Herein lies the gravity of being a Christian: the inescapability of the call, in which no one can take another’s place because everyone has his appointed part.
I just love that, because it highlights one of the distinctively Judeo-Christian conceptions of what it means to be a human person–that each and every one of us is irreplaceable and un-interchangeable. And we each have to take action in accordance with God’s will (or not, as we may choose). We each have responsibility to unite ourselves with God–nobody can do it for us. Passively or loosely being part of a parish or other religious community won’t cut it. We don’t just absorb the faith. We each have to live it out.
Which ties back into what my parish priest was saying about liturgy, prayer, and worship… It is very clear that going to Mass doesn’t consist of just passively going to this certain place at a certain time and saying certain words and singing songs. It does not consist of socializing and leisurely enjoying ourselves in an average, worldly way. It does not consist of some kind of drab obligation where we’re compelled only by our family ties or what our community expects of us.
No. No. No.
Going to Mass is a way in which each of us as individual persons presents ourself before God, offers ourself to Him, and receives Him as He offers Himself to us. We must treat our attendance and participation at Mass as a prayer, both an oral prayer and a contemplative prayer. We must not merely say the words and sing the songs–we must listen and ponder for the entirety of the Mass–the proclamation of the Word, the homily, and every single prayer–especially the Eucharistic prayer. No reading the church bulletin or writing out our checks for the collection basket or whatever. If we’re not listening and pondering, then we might as well be somewhere else, because we are not availing ourselves of what God and His Church are offering us through the liturgy and through the sacred space of the Church.
Obviously, the Mass is also communal. But it can only be truly communal insofar as we are all united in our will and in our purpose for being there. And yes, there will be little incidental distractions, or even major incidental distractions, but that doesn’t give us leave to be distracted, and certainly not to promulgate distractions of our own. That breaks the community.
And then, of course, there are the multitudes of my unfortunate fellow Catholics who approach Mass reverently and for the correct purposes, longing for that sacred encounter with God… only to have to deal with a bunch of HOOPLA foisted on them by priests and/or liturgical directors and/or musicians who don’t get it. Some of them may have some vague understanding that their job is to help people to encounter God–not distract people from encountering God. But they just don’t get how people encounter God, and therefore they do the completely wrong things to help bring it about.
No matter how well-intentioned they might be, it’s no excuse. That’s because the Church tells us what to do in order to encounter God. The Church tells us how to pray and worship. For that matter, Christ Himself shows us how to pray and worship, as we saw in looking at this Sunday’s gospel reading, among other things! The Church gives us liturgical rules and traditions. Not to limit us, but to liberate us. We have to remember that the Holy Spirit guides and conducts the Church. He constantly works in and teaches the Church. Nobody in the Church has any business disregarding that!
So… this is all stuff that’s been going through my head since yesterday. Is it a coincidence, then, that today I decided the time is right for attending a TLM for the first time? No way, no how. Now, in my case, Deo gratias, it’s not that my usual parish Mass is deficient in some way. That’s not it at all. I’m just exploring the TLM as a new and additional avenue, as a nice supplement, and as one more part of the great treasure and patrimony that is mine and every Catholic’s. I feel I would be remiss not to do so.
And just to say it one more time: I really highly recommend Msgr. Guardini’s The Art of Praying. Everything I’ve said about going to Mass is intimately related and intertwined with the personal, individual prayer life. We absolutely have to pray, for:
Without prayer, faith becomes weak and the religious life atrophies. One cannot, in the long run, remain a Christian without praying, as one cannot live without breathing.