The Carmelite Feast of Saint Elijah, Prophet
July 20, 2017
Both branches of the Carmelites today honor the Old Testament prophet Elijah as a saint. The Order of Carmelites celebrates the Sacred Liturgy today as a solemnity, while the Discalced Carmelites honor the prophet with the rank of feast.
While the saints of the Old Testament are rarely honored as such by Catholics of the Roman Rite, Eastern Catholics along with the Eastern Orthodox have a rich tradition of honoring these figures of salvation history. Not only the Sacred Liturgy honors the Old Testament saints in the East: churches are often named after them. For example, the Maronite Catholic cathedral in Aleppo, Syria is St. Elijah Cathedral (or St. Elias Cathedral, as his name is often called in the East).
The Carmelites also honor Saint Elijah in the Divine Office. The feast’s texts and prayers in the Office complement those of the Mass for the day. For example, the antiphons for Morning Prayer draw out the Scriptural themes of Elijah’s vocation. The first of these antiphons is: “God lives; I am standing in his presence.” The second: “Go out and stand on the mountain in the presence of the Lord; for the Lord is passing by.” The third is: “With zeal have I been zealous for the Lord God of hosts.”
All three of these focus on the Lord, not Saint Elijah. In first two of these antiphons, we hear of standing in the Lord’s presence. The third expresses Elijah’s zeal for the Lord. For Carmelites, this focus stands for immersion in God, which flowers within the prayer of contemplation. There might seem to be a contradiction here. If you were to ask a large group of people one word that describes Elijah, the most common answer would be “prophet”. St. Elijah’s zealous ministry as a prophet involves much danger and violence. But nothing he carried out on behalf of the would make sense, or be possible, if not for Elijah’s immersion in God, and that is what St. Elijah’s “standing” refers to.
In the Discalced Carmelites’ Office for the feast of Saint Elijah, the Second Reading is a passage from Pope St. Gregory the Great’s commentary on the Book of Ezekiel. St. Gregory writes:
“Wherever we direct our mental gaze, there we may be said to stand. That is why Elijah said: ‘The Lord lives, in whose sight I stand.’ He did indeed stand before God, for his heart was intent on God. That the Jews gazed at the pillar of cloud and stood at the doors of their tents in adoration, has this meaning: when the human mind perceives these high and heavenly things, albeit in image, the elevation of its thought has already lifted it free from the limits of its bodily habitation; and although it is denied sight of the divine substance, it humble adores Him whose power it can already see by spiritual illumination.
“This is why Elijah is described as standing at the mouth of his cave and veiling his face when he heard the voice of the Lord speaking to him; for as soon as the voice of heavenly understanding enters the mind through the grace of contemplation, the whole man is no longer within the cave, for his soul is no longer taken up with matters of the flesh: intent on leaving the bounds of mortality, he stands at the cave’s mouth.
“But if a man stands at the mouth of the cave and hears the word of God with the heart’s ear, he must veil his face.
“For when heavenly grace leads us to the understanding of higher things, the rarer the heights to which we are raised, the more we should abase ourselves in our own estimation by humility”.