He appears “like a fire,” with “flaming words,” “shattering his enemies,” “trampling them underfoot like breadcrumbs”; he “shuts up the heavens” and “brings down fire,” and so on.
This description of Elijah which we heard in today’s reading sounds more like the curriculum vitae of a seasoned soldier, or the biography of a heavyweight champ. You almost want to instinctively add, “and he floats like a butterfly and stings like a bee.” And yet this is a description of a simple prophet, some poor, raggedy old fellow who prayed a lot. In fact, Elijah is venerated as one of the most important contemplatives in salvation history, the founding father of the Carmelites even, continually held up by the spiritual writers of both East and West as the ideal ascetic. This is a man whose last moments on earth can be topped by very few, a dramatic finish indeed—riding off (or better up) into the sunset in a chariot of fire. But, once again, he didn’t seem to do very much with his life; he just prayed a lot. So how did he accomplish so much?
He prayed a lot. Whether it was single-handedly defeating the 450 prophets of Baal in a spiritual showdown, or bringing proud kings to their knees, or raising a poor widow’s son from the dead, Elijah’s success can all be attributed to his life of prayer. As one Eastern spiritual writer said, commenting on the life of Elijah, “When someone is so united with God through unceasing prayer and contemplation,” then he is capable of such great things; for, so to speak, he “compels our most compassionate God to do whatever he wants.”
If prayer is so powerful, so necessary, why is it that prayer is so belittled by so many, even by many practicing Catholics, even by many clergy and religious, whose first duty in life is prayer? Is having a heart to heart talk with Almighty God such a small thing? Is adding one’s voice to the choir of saints and angels the last thing on one’s to-do list each day? Is interceding for all of humanity before the throne of God—shutting up the heavens, if you will—viewed as something that interrupts all our more important duties? Do we “pencil God in,” saving a place for him until something a little more exciting comes along?
“Elijah has already come,” our Lord said, “and they did not recognize him.” They did not recognize the greatness in the gruff ascetic, John the Baptist. After all, why should they? He didn’t do much except pray all day and eat locusts. As St. Francis de Sales said of him, “His life was a continual prayer.” And yet St. John the Baptist, the second Elijah, also brought about the conversion of many and was feared by kings, and prepared the way for Christ—and to think that he did this without ever sending an email or a text! He just prayed a lot.
In the coming years it is very possible that our active works will become more and more limited by the enemies of the Church: laws prohibiting us from doing certain things, or going to certain places, and so on. But no one will ever be able to keep us from doing the most important and most powerful thing we can do and ought to do: pray…a lot.
With some days of vacation and holy leisure approaching for many of us, it is a good time to call to mind what our chief duty is, and the fact that we can do far more good for the world and for ourselves than we can even imagine by simply celebrating one Mass, praying an hour of the Divine Office, reciting one rosary.
May Holy Elijah, St. John the Baptist, and all the saints—who now spend eternity praying a lot—intercede for us, that we may use our time wisely in holy conversation with Almighty God, to whom be all glory and honor. Amen.