Tucked away in bed, a nervous, hen-pecked Ahab and his vicious wife, Jezebel, are having pillow-talk. He dreads this because she wants to know what’s been going on. With great reluctance he casually mentions that the prophet Elijah has destroyed all the pagan temples and, for good measure, killed the false prophets (1 Kings 19: 1ff).
Jezebel sits up in bed, absolutely furious that Elijah has dared to interfere with her patronage and pet projects. Right away she sends a messenger: “May the gods do thus and so to me if by this time tomorrow I have not done with your life what was done to each of them.” In a word: “I’m going to wipe you out!” Elijah’s only contingency plan is to flee the country and the kingdom. After a few days of running, he finds a cave. Even though an angel has fed him, he decides to hole up in the cave and simply call it quits: “This is enough, 0 Lord! Take my life, for I am no better than my fathers.”
Throughout history, the image of a cave recalls temporary or even permanent residence, and not merely for primitive peoples. Carmelite nun Ruth Barrows (To Believe in Jesus) applies the idea to us: “We live in a cave. The cave is so vast and we are so small that we cannot perceive it is a cave until we have grown in stature.” Startling as it may seem, even in our spiritual life we can become reluctant to move out of our personal cave. “It seems a limitless world, a most beautiful city full of good things, everything we need for our stimulation and growth.”
Our spiritual life — our life with God — is a proverbial case in point. We shield ourselves, although we don’t consciously recognize the process, with customary devotions and prayers, convenient good works, the reception of sacraments and grand theological discussions. Frankly, God should be pleased with us, and we need do no more except carry on as usual. We like our cave. With Elijah we prefer to stay where we are, afraid to face what the Lord may ask of us. “Do Not Disturb” is the front door sign. A verse from the Book of Revelation (3:20) comes to mind: “Behold, I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will enter his house and dine with him, and he with me.” Be it a cave or a house, the attitude is similar: In our heart of hearts we prefer something of a safe distance between ourselves and God.
But the gracious Lord invites Elijah out of his comfort zone: “Then the Lord said, “Go outside and stand on the mountain before the Lord; the Lord will be passing by.” The prophet expects the customary presence: wind, fire or earthquake. Not so! There is an unheard of manifestation of the Lord: “After the fire there was a tiny whispering sound.”
This is a revolutionary concept for the prophet and for us. He is being called to leave his cave, go beyond the accepted divine manifestations and seek God in new ways. Burrows elaborates: “Our awareness of it will be an awareness that we are, in fact, in a cave; that what we had thought of as a spiritual world has disintegrated. We see that we are trapped, confined and without hope of betterment unless someone intervenes. This is when we really appreciate that we need a savor. It cannot happen until we have exhausted the possibilities of the cave, until we have used to the full what is offered us there.”
Yes, like Elijah, we are reluctant to accept new possibilities in our spiritual lives. “When he heard this (the tiny whispering sound), Elijah hid his face in his cloak and stood at the entrance of the cave. A voice said to him, ‘Elijah, why are you here?’ He replied, ‘I have been most zealous for the Lord, the God of hosts. But the Israelites have forsaken your covenant, torn down your altars, and put your prophets to the sword. I alone am left, and they seek to take my life.’
Bargaining will not do. While the Lord acknowledges Elijah’s past efforts he is persistent: “Go, take the road back to the desert near Damascus,” not discounting the good works the prophet has accomplished, but inviting — urging — him to welcome new adventures of faith.
That invitation comes down to us, here and now. We have our comfortable devotions and liturgical prayers, and we are faithful to these even in times of spiritual darkness. But the question, very personal, IS: Are we content solely with our present prayer life? Specifically, do we have a regular “quiet time” (even five or ten minutes) for simply listening instead of speaking to the Lord? At the outset this can appear to be a total waste of time, but that very space makes it possible for the Spirit to touch our innermost self. Faith and courage on our part are essential. For Jesus promises (Jn 17:26): “The Advocate, the holy Spirit that the Father will send in my name—he will teach you everything and remind you of all that I told you.”
By Father Warren Rouse, OFM, shares his words of wisdom from the Serra Retreat Center in Malibu, California. THE WAY OF ST FRANCIS July – August 2013
Bible quotations are from the New American Bible.