The Elianic Contemplative Prayer Experience

- Rev. Fr. Paul D'Souza

{Carmelites in the fourteenth century, re-interpreted Biblical texts in the light of their own contemplative charism and vocation. Even the name of the brook – Karith or Cherith -- where the Prophet Elijah was given a Latin etymology. 

Fr. Paul D'Souza, a Discalced Carmelite, summarizes here, after abrief introduction, the principal insights of the early chapters of a Carmelite classic known as the "Institution of the First Monks". }

The mighty figure of the Prophet Elias dominates the scenario in several chapters of the two OT books of Kings. He appears from nowhere to the errant Ahab, king of Israel, with a severe warning: “ As the Lord, the God of Israel lives, in Whose Presence I stand, there shall be neither dew nor rain these years, except by my word.” He performs signs and wonders, among which a most spectacular event is the defeat of the 450 false prophets of Baal on Mt. Carmel. 

What does the Bible say about the contemplative experience of the Prophet ? The Scriptures do portray Elijah as a man of prayer and even as a contemplative, though it does not give many details of his contemplative life. His own statement about his life of prayer is that he stands in the presence of the living God. One of the hallmarks of contemplation is the vivid sense of God’s Presence. People whom we call mystics, are in general characterized by this awesome sense of the divine Presence. 

Another remarkable scriptural passage referring to Elijah’s contemplation is the theophany on Mt. Horeb where God is revealed in the still, low, whisper. This description of God’s self-presentation to Elijah is truly impressive :

And there he came to a cave and lodged there. And the Lord said to him: ‘ Go and stand upon the mount before the Lord.’ 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 behold there came a voice to him and said: ‘What are you doing here Elijah ?’ He said” I have been very zealous or the Lord, the God of hosts…..’” 

God is undoubtedly present in the wind, the earthquake and the fire; but the contemplative experiences His Presence in the still, small whisper. How much this passage is reminiscent of the Teresian prayer of quiet in the fourth mansion of her Interior Castle !

Just as Teresa forgot her own self and her small human interests, the deeper she entered into contemplation, so too Elijah, after becoming aware of God’s Presence in the still, small whisper, goes out of his cave, to answer the question : What are you doing here Elijah ?” Elijah's answer is : “With zeal have I been zealous for the Lord, the God of Israel.” 

This, the Biblical Elijah appears as a contemplative immersed in and overawed by the Presence of the living God; and also a zealous champion of God’s rights on His people, and the demands of the Covenant. In early Christianity, however, a number of ecclesiastical writers, like Origen and Irenaeus, considered Elijah a precursor of the monastic order in the Church, Even before the Latin Carmelites claimed Elijah as their own.

The Prophet had been the inspiration of many early Christian hermits, before the Latins came to Carmel in Palestine. The scriptural association of Elijah with Mt. Carmel was naturally precious for the Carmelites, who would take this opportunity to associate themselves with the Prophet, and interpret his life and deeds in terms of their own charism.

Though the Albertine Rule does not mention Elias, Carmelites of the 13th. century were taught to believe that they had been founded literally by the Prophets Elijah and Elisha, whose disciples continued in unbroken succession to dwell on Mt. Carmel … till the Latin hermits of Mt. Carmel took up residence there and continued their way of life. This is what we are told in the first available constitutions of the Order dating from 1281; and there is every reason to believe that the tradition originated earlier. Once the idea had entered the minds of people, they would – on visiting the Holy Land – see the evidence all around them: 

“… here, the spring of Elijah,; there, the grotto or habitation of Elisha. Their disciples had lived in the cells that pock-marked the mountain-side. No hesitation was felt in adopting a local tradition, centuries old, which had become part and parcel of the mentality of the entire Christian community of the country.” 

Even the prelates of the Holy Land – as appears from a letter of theirs to Pope Martin IV -- seem to have become convinced of the literal succession of the Carmelites, and the continuity of the succession.

After the crusades, this tradition was amplified. 

Elias thus became the model and inspiration of the Carmelite, whose Rule obliged him to live in solitude and silence, pondering the law of the Lord day and night. This Elianic tradition presents – so far as history is concerned – a tripartite structure : 
1.the prophets; 2. the intermediaries; 3. the heirs

Our current concern will be the spiritual heritage that our Carmelite ancestors developed for themselves from premises that could be considered neither entirely biblical nor entirely historical. One of the most important Carmelite sources for the study of their own vocation to contemplation, and of the Prophet Elias as their model, is the Book of the Institution of the First Monks. This book makes its appearance around the year 1370 in a collection published by Philip Ribot, the provincial superior of Cathalaunia. He himself does not claim to be the author of the work but encloses a letter attributing it to the 44th. bishop of Jerusalem who appears to be fictitious. There are Carmelites who maintain that the work was actually written before the 1281 constitutions.

This book intends to teach Carmelites to recognize themselves as the heirs of the prophets, and as aspirants to contemplation. It is therefore partly historical and partly ascetico-mystical. While the historical claims of this little volume have steadily lost ground through the centuries, the ascetico-mystical teachings are timeless. These latter seem to project back on to the prophet Elijah, the understanding theories of contemplation, gained by theologians and practitioners in medieval Europe. As we have above given a Teresian colouring to Elianic contemplation, so did the author of the Institution read the contemporary thirteenth-century theology of contemplation, into the Biblical texts concerning Elijah as a contemplative.

Rather than interpret the biblical texts referring to Elijah in the sense of the biblical authors, the Institution aims at using the texts in order to instruct young Carmelites about what their own way of life should be. The Institution may therefore be considered a sort of manual from which young Carmelite may study their spirituality along with their “history”. The work was widely used for forming Carmelites and it seems practically certain that our holy Parents Teresa and John of the Cross were influenced by it. It may be appropriate, therefore, to sketch briefly, the features drawn by the Institution of Elijah as a contemplative, and as a model for the Carmelite.

Elijah as Founder
Living one’s charism is certainly more important than learning its history. Elijah knew the Presence of God experientially. This experience cannot be put into words. 

Knowing something about the founder however may provide stimulus and inspiration :

“For although the following of this way of life is something that belongs purely to the realm of experience, so that a full verbal account of it cannot be given except by one who has been through that experience (nor will you be able to master it completely until you have laboured to grasp it, by both study and toil, experimentally) you will be better equipped to follow the course marked out by your profession, and all the readier to be assiduous in its pursuit, when you realize the high dignity of its authors and founders, and learn how the Order was first instituted.” 

What we learn here is that the Carmelite way of contemplation is first and foremost, experiential. Life is emphasized more than theory, knowledge and information. There are four steps that lead to this contemplative experience:

The Biblical Text
The word of the Lord came to Elijah : “Depart from here, and turn east, and hide yourself in the brook Kaerith …” 

How did our early Carmelites adapt this text to their project of initiating their budding Carmelites, the elements of their vocation ? 
Elijah, they said “bent upon divine contemplation and stirred by a longing for higher things, withdrew far off from cities, and, stripping himself of all things worldly and profane, was the first among men who of set purpose undertook to lead the prophetic and eremitical life; and this beginning and institution he made at the word and bidding of the Holy Ghost.” Was not Elijah told to hide himself in the brook Karith ? These texts must be interpreted “…not in a merely historical but rather in a mystical sense, for they contain the fulness of our vocation;…”. 

First Step
That divine contemplation presupposes detachment is common knowledge among monks and hermits. For the instruction of candidates and juniors, statements from the Bible must be adduced as proofs. 

“ Now, my first command to you was ‘depart from here,’ namely, ‘from your country and your kindred and your father’s house…” 

This text is an indication that the author is more concerned here about the contemplative life than about Elijah’s contemplation. The word “depart” takes him from the book of Kings to the book of Genesis, from Elijah to Abraham. He is well aware that when Elijah is told to “depart”, detachment is not so clearly enjoined as when Abraham is told to “depart.” That is the first step “to the pinnacle of prophetic perfection.” 

Second Step
The fourth chapter deals with the second step to “prophetic perfection.” This step is encapsulated in the injunction given to Elijah : “go eastward…”. This is taken to mean that a person should renounce not only the pleasures of the flesh, but also the independent use of the free will. As in other chapters, the doctrine on these essentials of the monastic lije, is supported by chains fo citations from Sacred Scripture – from the Old as well as the New Testament.

Third Step
“Now for the third step. The next of my commands is: hide yourself by the brook Cherith. I would not have you linger among the crowds of the cit…”, where there is plenty of wickedness, strife; injustice, oppression and fraud.

“So flee from familiarity with crowds, lest you should be compelled, fmding yourself in the city, to do the things both nature and will are only too ready for: to be stirred up by another's anger, swept into quarrels not your own, ensnared by a harlot's eye, lured on to lawless embraces by a glimpse of comely features, bound by the chains of avarice and the rest of the vices - all of which you will avoid in the desert.” 

What follows from these reflections about the conditions of the world in which we live ?

“So you, my son, if you would be perfect and attain the goal of, the monastic eremitical life, there to drink from the brook, hide yourself by the brook Cherith, nurturing silence in the depths of solitude”. 

Fourth Step
This fourth step leads us close to the pinnacle of prophetic perfection, which is charity. As the Apostle says, however much a man may excel in every other good quality, though he speak all tongues, have every prophetic power, all faith, all knowledge, give away all he has…, deliver his body to be burned, but have no charity, he gains nothing. 

The goal of the monastic life is , therefore, the perfection of charity. The follower of Elijah, must like Elijah, hide himself in the brook Cherith, which is interpreted as charity. He must love the Lord, God with all his heart and soul and mind and strength. Nothing and nobody must be loved as God is loved.

In the style in which the Imitation of Christ addresses the disciple, the Institution continues : 

“ avoid and detest, for love of me, everything that is against my will, everything I forbid you, ho.wever difficult that may be, and to observe and carry o.ut, fo.r o.f me, everything that is according to my will, everything I bid yo.U do., ho.wever hard that may be, then you are beginning to. me, after a fashio.n, with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, 

And what about love of neighbour ? That, too, is necessary :

“… for he who does not l ove his brother whom he has seen cannot love God whom he has not seen - the second co.mmandment is like it: you shall love your neighbour as yourself; in the same way, that is, and for the same reason as you ought to love yourself, desiring your own true good. 

Hiding in Cherith …
Charity, the goal of the monastic-prophetic life, requires a struggle against the world and the flesh. These

“…will often come between your attention and me, and will gradually coax your heart away from any love of me that is fervent.” 

Even those who reach the state of habitual love for God, may not attain a state of actual love. It is this love that covers a multitude of sins. Elijah was bidden to hide in Cherith. So is the hermit bidden to hide in the love of God and neighbour. 

To overcome their temptations, we have the means to the perfection of charity : poverty, chastity, obedience, and the solitude of the desert. 

Drinking from the Brook
At this juncture, the Institution begins to speak of perfect union.

“…in that perfect union between you and me, I will give you to drink, you and your companions, from that brook of which the Prophet tells me: Thou givest them drink from the river of thy delights. For it is written: If you will return to the Almighty you shall be built up,…” 

Rev. Fr. Paul D'Souza
Institute of Philosophy
R.S. Naidu Nagar, Mysore- 7, Karnataka State, India
Phone 0821-2490638/ 2493949/ 3099005
mail:- or 



© 2006. St. John the Baptist Church

 You are visitor No :

COURTESY : Business Online, Bangalore