Today is the feast of the Prophet Elijah (or Elias in Greek) and we have much to learn from him. One story in particular stands out. The Prophet Elijah was on the run. Israel had committed national apostasy. Almost the whole country and especially its leaders had rejected the Lord of hosts and embraced paganism. No one who held to the true faith was safe. The prophets of the Lord were a special target because they commanded the respect of the people. Elijah must have truly thought that he was the only faithful servant of God left; and although he probably wasn’t, it felt like that. So he fled into the desert and was immediately overcome by a profound depression. The Scripture we have just heard makes this plain; he prayed to God that he might die. Our Lord then took compassion upon him and sent an angel encouraging him to eat. Strengthened spiritually and physically Elijah then marched to Horeb, fasting as he went, urged on by the Spirit. He did not know what he was to do; he was still in flight mode but now trusting that God would give him some sort of answer, some sort of practical plan.
The Mount of Horeb is significant here. It is the mountain most closely associated with Moses and may have been the same mountain as Sinai. In antiquity you met with God in this place; you listened, and He spoke. Elijah will have known this; and it was, therefore, with some trepidation yet also hope that he approached the holy mountain. He spent the night in a cave and indeed God spoke to him asking him what he was doing. Of course, God does not need to ask questions like this. He knows all, but we do not know all; and sometimes God asks questions in order that we might know ourselves better. So Prophet Elijah poured out his complaint before the Lord; and at this time no answer was given to him other than that he should leave the cave, go out onto the mountain and pray. Now God was teaching Elijah a lesson in how he might discern more deeply the will of God in mental prayer.
First, God showed Elijah how he was not going to speak to him. Exposed to the elements on the mountain the Prophet was subjected to a roaring wind, then an earthquake, then a bush fire. By this time, he must have been scared out of his wits, but he learnt nonetheless that God’s voice was not to be heard in these pyrotechnics. After the fire, there came to him a still small voice. It was the Lord speaking to him, but this time more deeply in his soul, and more surely in his mind and heart. Elijah had learnt that effectiveness in God’s service, particularly in times of stress, requires, above all things, the ability to listen. God’s voice was low, murmuring and small precisely because Elijah needed to improve his listening skills in prayer.
As Elijah drew more deeply from the well of God’s providential care in prayer, he not only received a new call from God but also the strength, the grace and the wisdom to accomplish that call. His depression which was due in this case to his trusting in himself, in the context of vicious political oppression, was entirely overcome. Why? Because now in that fearsome place Elijah had learned to reconnect to God through stillness and quiet, through active listening. The mission which God then gave to Elijah was little different to the one which had so overwhelmed him before. He knew he had to confront the rejection of God in the very highest places of State and indeed this would require that he anoint new leaders and indeed his own eventual successor in prophet-hood, Elisha. Before this encounter with God in the desert and Mount Horeb this task seemed utterly impossible, but now he knew that with God, indeed, all things are possible.
We should take from this amazing story a number of lessons and inscribe them deeply in our hearts. The most important is that we must listen to God in prayer. He is not to be found in modern earthquakes, winds and fires, by which I mean amazing and extraordinary external events. The sound and fury of these may be quite impressive and in a religious context quite powerful. There are heretical churches that have built the whole of their common life based on these principles of God disclosing himself through amazing signs and wonders. The trouble is that the devil can counterfeit these and lead many astray. As Orthodox Christians we should know from our own Tradition that the lesson Elijah learned has never been forgotten by those great Saints, the so called hesychasts or “still ones” who have always listened to the still small voice of God after the fire. St. John Climacus explains this in his great ascetical work “The Ladder:”
Take up your seat on a high place and watch, if only you know how, and then you will see in what manner, when, whence, how many and what kind of thieves come to enter and steal your clusters of grapes. When the watchman grows weary, he stands up and prays; and then he sits down again and courageously takes up his former task.
(Step 27, 21 of the Ladder - St. John of Sinai)
The thieves here refer to temptations, impassioned thoughts, which seek to take our minds and hearts off God through ceaseless chatter inside our heads. In reality such distractions can be external as well as internal. We need a strategy for stillness and listening that will deal with such alluring distractions both inside and outside our minds. Not all of us of course can flee into a physical desert or climb an actual mountain to be rid of external distractions. Indeed, Elijah had to learn that such barren places still brought with them their own temptations in the quake, the wind and the fire, so perhaps it is more useful for us to realise that the real spiritual battle goes on inside our hearts. Simply put, this battle is the challenge to learn how to give our full attention to God and his Word. We need to learn to focus on Him and to listen. So many give up when doing this, because they do not get an immediate answer or word from God, which brings me to another important truth in developing these listening skills—patience.
Unless we have patience and remain still and attentive for as long as it takes to hear the Lord in our hearts, we will perhaps never hear God’s voice; and that, of course, is spiritual death. Such patience only comes through sustained and long-term practice; and this is only possible in souls that are resilient, robust and fully determined to be servants of the God of love. Coming to church on a Sunday or at other times during the week is essential, but it is not enough, not enough to be bearers of God’s Word which He calls all of us to be. Not only does our own salvation depend on this patient stillness before God, but the salvation of others also waits upon that prophetic word being spoken by us to them.
So how do we go about making practical provision to be good listeners in prayer to God?
So, it’s all about commitment, time and perseverance. The time required need not be overlong. God spoke to Elijah in quite short measure in a few moments after the fire. What is needed is that we keep our appointment with God when he tells us to go out onto the spiritual mountain, that is our faith, the rock of our Christian confession and pray, not just once but over and over and over.
Will you commit yourself afresh to this connection with God so that when you come to church it is not with a heart empty waiting to be filled but with a heart filled waiting to be emptied in praise? You see, many of us seem to have got this whole thing back to front. We don’t attend church to get our batteries recharged. We recharge our batteries privately, quietly and in our room. We then come to church with our batteries fully charged to pass some current so that, if you will pardon this laboured metaphor, others will be electrified by his Word spoken through and from us. The still small voice after the fire will then become a thundering Word which will overturn our own national apostasy, anoint new leaders, both religious and political, and turn this nation round. If we complain to God that this is too great a task and cannot be a calling for me; remember that the Prophet Elijah said the same when he fled in fear, panic and depression. God overcame his fears and turned him round and sent him back. We have therefore no excuse, no wriggle room. We come to God; we listen; and we act or we perish and with us countless others. The cave and the mountain then, awaits.