Saints are spiritual heroes we look up to and yet while they offer encouragement and inspiration they can also be intimidating in their radical commitment to Christ. And so we may find ourselves more inclined to admire rather than emulate them. This is because some of the saints seem to have been fearless, resolute, unwavering, and undeterred by great misfortune, trials, darkness, and hardships. The great Elijah who was taken up into heaven in a fiery chariot seems to be one of these spiritual giants and yet the story told in our first reading suggests that perhaps he doesn’t qualify.
Here is a man who was a fearless prophet able to call down fire from heaven in his challenge against the prophets of Baal and, who simply by praying, both caused and then ended a devastating drought. And yet despite these resounding achievements we find him (in today’s reading) deeply dejected, discouraged, and seeking to die rather than live. God for his part doesn’t chide Elijah for this seemingly self-pitying state but—through his angel—gently coaxes him out of his depressive state, giving him water and a hearth cake. Elijah partakes and but dejectedly lies down to rest again and so the angel repeats the process after which a reinvigorated Elijah undertakes a forty-day journey to Mount Horeb where he encounters God not in the violent wind or in the earthquake, but in that silent sound.
If our idea of saints and spiritual heroes is of flawless men and women who never stumble or have a doubt or ever feel ready to give up, then Elijah may not qualify! On the other hand, being taken up into heaven in a fiery chariot seems to suggest that, in God’s eyes at least, he wasn’t a failure. Instead, it affirms that Elijah wasn’t a god or demigod, but simply a human being trying to respond ever more fully to God’s grace and call. That he experienced at least one major setback and ended up in the throes of despondency and discouragement should be an encouragement for us and not a source of disillusionment. For if such a great prophet could go through something like this, we needn’t be surprised or dismayed when we do.
Not infrequently these episodes in our lives follow in the wake of their opposite—either, great consolation and a deep sense of God’s presence, or (as in the case of Elijah) following some great spiritual achievement or spiritual breakthrough. The ever present risk of pride and a sense of self-sufficiency that can follow as a consequence of spiritual success and achievement, necessitates these God-induced descents from the heights to the depths of our own nothingness when God seems to abandon us to our own resources and withdraws his sustaining hand. God’s intention in doing so is not to humiliate us or jealously guard his essential role in any good we do or achieve, but rather to protect us from ourselves from the misery and ultimate spiritual death that comes when pride seeks to sever the loving, indispensable, and life-giving bond between the Creator and the creature.
This, in turn, calls forth trust and loving surrender as we humbly partake of the hearth cake and water of God’s grace reaching us in our desolate and inconsolable state. And provided that we remain engaged in our spiritual practices and disciplines we are further called to trust that these alternations between consolation and desolation are the work of a wise physician bringing healing and wholeness to our hearts and reminding us that, in the words of the gospel, no one can come to [Jesus] unless the Father who sent [him] draw him. Therefore, let us submit to this often unpleasant divine medicine and in the words of Ephesians, let us not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, with which [we] were sealed for the day of redemption. For, while we may not be taken up into heaven in a fiery chariot, we have Jesus’ assurance that everyone who, despite repeated setbacks and failures, perseveres to the end, will be saved.