SOURCE: Lent 2019 Formation Conference for Carmelite Novices & Postulants by Father Robert Elias, OCD. Mount Saint Josephs Monastery, San Jose, CA
(Below is a loose transcription of the audio)
The spirit of prophesy is embedded in Carmel’s identity. It is the breath of Carmel in the Holy Spirit. Elijah is the greatest prophet of the Hebrew Scriptures and he embodies for us what the life of a prophet looks like at its greatest. It takes on different forms and we all have a different calling to a spirit of prophesy in Carmel..
As our spiritual father, and as Edith Stein says in a short article on Carmelite spirituality, the presence of Elijah as our spiritual father is not some type of legend or myth. He isn’t simply a historical figure of our imagination. He’s a real presence and communication of Christ’s grace that is personal and relatable.
Elijahis capable of befriending and fathering us in Carmel; much like a more modern and contemporary saint like Padre Pio, who is more relatable, is acknowledged today by many as a spiritual father. Elijah is just as much as real as a saint and father to us. But this understanding is harder for us in the Western Church to acknowledge than those in the Eastern Church.
The spirit of prophesy has always intrigued me. My first personal introduction to the vocation of the prophet before I came to know Jesus Christ as Lord is through the book The Prophet written by Kahlil Gibran, who was a Lebanese poet and artist, probably of Maronite Christian descent. This understanding of prophet has remained a vital part of my soul’s quest for union with God.
What does it mean to be a prophet?
Throughout scripture from Genesis to Apocalypse, we see a spirit of prophesy. The spirit of prophesy is very much part of the Judea-Christian tradition. When we look at comparative mysticism in other religious, in the eastern mystical religions, like Hinduism and Buddhism, their understanding does not have a prophetic tradition in the way we do in the Judeo Christian understanding, with Elijah as our model.
In the Old Testament, Moses prayed that his spirit of prophesy would be bestowed on the 72 elders, when his father-in-law said that he needed to delegate his duties and to pray that what God had given him would be given to others. Because only a person that has a spirit of prophesy can give the spirit of prophesy. You can’t give what you don’t have.
But what did he give them? It says in scripture that ‘The spirit came upon them and they prophesied.’
What did that mean? That question has always been a curiosity that has led me to a quest in finding this treasure.
The Wisdom literature describes a prophet as an intimate friend of God, someone who has a personal experience, and direct contact with the living, transcendent God, and who has a heart knowledge of this Divine Being. And as a result of this friendship, they are called, often reluctantly, to communicate to a people who are deaf and not listening.
The relationship first involves contemplative prayer, which is then shared. The prophet bears the burden of divine mercy, according to Thomas Merton. You’ve experienced a cutting of your heart and now that you’ve allowed this healing, God asks that you communicate this same grace to others.
But here’s the catch. They may kill you as a result because they are blinded by the sin like the prodigal son. You have the responsibility now that you know God intimately, to communicate a truth, which will be an inconvenience and a controversy to the people. That’s the burden of divine mercy. That’s one of the vocations of the prophet of Carmel.
One of the great wisdoms of Eastern Christian mysticism, teaches that a lay person can have a spirit of prophesy more than a priest – neumaticos – a person anointed with the Spirit to pray with power. ‘This power is not human eloquence or wisdom,’ as St. Paul says. St. James in the fifth chapter of his letter, says that the prayer of a righteous person is powerful indeed and he says, ‘remember Elijah who by his very words called fire upon heaven to consume the idolatrous offerings’
The power of prayer can only be inspired by God. St. Paul says in Romans 8 that the Holy Spirit intercedes for us, and those who pray by the power of the Holy Spirit, pray by the anointing of God. This praying with power is what Jesus calls us to.
But we first have to believe in the power of God’s word, and that faith will empower us by the Holy Spirit, having penetrated and changed our lives by the renewal of our mind with truths that are not of this world.
The prophet isn’t zealous for the law in of itself. The prophet is zealous for the spirit of the law. The prophet has the wisdom, insight, and spiritual vision to see the presence of God and what His will is in different situations, and desires His will.
St. John of the Cross is the best example of someone with the evangelical spirit of prophesy. The prophet is not a legalist or a Pharisee. St. John says that there is no cookie cutter, sound byte that will fit every soul. Every soul is unique and you have to be open to the mystery of how God is working in each person.
That doesn’t mean relativism, but that God’s spirit is incarnate in people uniquely and is given as gift in each soul in the order of their ability to understand. The spirit of prophesy is not based on externals or obsessed with accidentals; it is not pharisaical, but it longs for the essence, the pure spring.
The Carmelite Rule mentions the Spring of Elijah – the spring of the Holy Spirit by which we are able to enter into the gift of God as I a who Am – Love. The spirit of prophesy is that of simplicity, humility, and purity of heart to be able t o realize with Easter eyes, the true presence of Jesus – in His essence, in the Holy Spirit.
For example, Carmel’s cry in the wilderness, it’s longing can be expressed in the two words – ‘God Alone.’ These wordsexpress a heart knowledge of God as the ground of life, as I am who Am, as the absolute Absolute. And the one thing necessary is to love Love with all one’s life. Everything else is a distant second to that.
Carmel finds this pure love in silence – in the nada – that holy nothingness of entering into communion with God that is beyond anything that can limit His gift of Himself to us – the transcendent God.
To enter into a pure gift of God’s love is to pray with power, with the power of the Holy Spirit, in the Holy of Holies. Only the Holy Spirit can bring us to that place, that Holy of Holies.
An interior life with God is the essence of the spirit of prophesy. It means Faith in the power of prayer, confidence in god’s faithfulness, and taking Him and his promises at His word. He does not abandon his children. He does not divorce his bride.
The prophet proclaims God as divine mercy, not as laws. He’s not fixating in anything but God alone. Our religion isn’t a matter of a list of rules. The rules are indispensable, especially Jesus’ commandment to love God and to love your neighbor – but these rules are for divine communion.
At the same time, when the prophet sees commandments desecrated in culture, the prophet is called by God to awaken people’s consciences to something that God sees as important about our humanity and our moral life.
This is why many prophets are martyrs. One author said, ‘The purpose of life is to love with your whole being and might. And if you do it, they’ll kill you.’ Even though we are made to know and love God, those who actually communicate this love – the saints- will have to suffer for it. Jesus Christ is the ultimate example.
A prophet is called to witness to God’s mighty love. Transformation in this divine love is the ultimate longing of the prophet and the heart of Carmel. This grace possesses two wings– silence and solitude. That is how we are called to live the Carmelite Mystical and Prophetic charisms.
The Mystical expresses the gift of God – the Prophetic aspect expresses the responsibility – the demands this love makes so that we can become who we are in Christ. Love is a gift and a responsibility. It’s not easy. It requires true death to the ego and sacrifice.
As members of Carmel, we are descendants and heirs of prophets. Saint Elijah, our father, stands as a bedrock; he is our source of inspiration as he burns with zeal for God’s glory. As Catholics we don’t question that idea as a Protestant would.
When Protestants hear that anyone other than Jesus is a source of inspiration, it’s taken as idolatry. But for Catholics, we see Elijah as Jesus in miniature. Jesus is the new Elijah – His ministry and miracles are a perfection of what God did in Elijah. The saints are an echo of Christ, an extension of Christ’s gift of the Holy Spirit to us.
As Carmelites, we celebrate people like Elijah because he exudes Jesus to us and embodies Him. We praise God for friends in these places. Elijah means ‘My Lord is God’ – his name describes his identity and essence. God is the substance, not the substitute – of his life.
Luther venerated Mary very much, but the rationale behind the protest of the Protestants was that many uneducated Catholics would make the saints the substance of their lives and not Jesus – and yes that was idolatry. To make anyone the substance of one’s life is a substitute. We’re called to make God alone as the substance, the center of our lives, and we are not to give that holy of holies to anyone else.
The prophet is called to cast out the false god in people’s lives, and to break the chains of attachments that enslaves us to a lesser self. And the truth is the sword by which chains are broken in Jesus’s name. The truth unmasks the lie and imparts the faith that allows God to work the miracle of freedom in our lives. This is the teaching of Saint John of the Cross, a contemplative way that sets us free from our attachments. And like Jesus he didn’t despise anything that God made in itself – the problem is not a person or a material thing, but how our heart relates to it.
The ultimate false god in this world is money. Our Lord says you can’t love both God and money, because money can mislead our hearts into a mindset that is not of God. But the error is to make the false conclusion that money is evil. That is not holistic Christian thinking – scripture says the LOVE of money, not the money itself, which leads to evil.
I am very aware that my tongue can be used for great good or great harm in regards to using it in anger. Scripture says that ‘life and death are in the power of the tongue.’ Because I have sinned with my tongue in a moment of righteous indignation, chopping off the head of others, the way Elijah did, with my tongue – I am sinning. That is not pleasing to God because charity is being sinned against. The ultimate rule of life is Jesus Christ and his commandment to love your neighbor. It is better to be righteous than to be right.
But does that mean I should cut off my tongue – of course not. The right way of relating to something the evil is not the thing itself, but how it is used. The Prophet is called to set captives free from their slavery and a prophet can do that in prayer, but there’s usually a time when a prophet is called to speak, and their mouth is meant to be the instrument of God’s Holy Spirit of grace and of Jesus Christ saving souls.
Zelos zelatus sum – with zeal I have been zealous for the Lord. Elijah is the man of zeal, the prophet of fire who is a champion of the true God, and a herald of God’s mercy. He is spiritual warrior who breathes the fire of God. We are called to breathe the same fire of Elijah– the fire of the Holy Spirit. And we too will have to be purified in the interior deserts of life. There is no true prophet who has not experienced deep purification and healing. Prophets are often led into the desert so that God can work in them, and so that He can use them to help others in a way that builds and exhorts.
To conclude, we pray that the Holy Spirit lavish upon us, Jesus’ divine love, that the humanizing power of the gospel stir us to be zealous with passion for the Lord God of hosts who loves us fervently unto the full. Glory be to the Father, to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit. As it was in the beginning is now, and ever shall be, world without end. Amen.