Who will give me wings like a dove?
The Prophet Elijah won a showdown at Mount Carmel. On one side were 450 prophets of the demon-god Baal, a sacrifice of a bull and dry wood. On the other side was Elijah, standing alone, with a sacrifice on twelve stones that Elijah piled up by himself -- and to make the difference even starker, the sacrifice and the wood were doused by four large containers of water.
You know the story. The servants of Baal chanted and moaned, danced and prostrated and even cut themselves to impress their god. They went on like this from morning until the evening. Nothing, of course, came. All demons -- and Baal was no different -- are powerless in the light, in the face of God’s Word, His Logos.
After all, Elijah spoke the Word of the Lord -- he expressed the message and represented the presence of the Son of God. If Jesus in the Gospel always exorcized demonic presence, then His Word -- even in the Old Testament before the Incarnation -- always did so as well. This is how we understand the struggle of the nation of Israel in the Old Testament against dark powers of Canaan: from Joshua through the Judges through the kings (or rather, what they should have done) and now through the prophets, the story is mainly about the exorcism of the Promised Land by the Word of God.
Let us remember that Baal is a heartless demon-god of commerce that required lust for his liturgy, babies for sacrifice, and the enslavement of weak, poor, unattractive people.
You know the story. Elijah won the showdown in a blow-out. The prophets of Baal exhausted themselves with their dead-end repetitions of darkness, and all they had to show for it was a dead bull lying on top of a pile of wood.
Elijah, on the other hand, prayed a simple, short prayer. “Then fire fell from the Lord out of the heaven and consumed the whole burnt offering, the firewood, and the water in the furrow. The fire also licked up the stones and the soil” (3 Kingdoms 18.38 LXX).
Let us remember that Baal-worship (whether Baal is named or not) always becomes enraged at any knowledge of God. The demonic culture of Baal will attack, with passionate wrath (as St John Chrysostom points out), any mention of the Holy Trinity -- that God is beautiful, that He is peace and comfort, that He is Love, that He is coming to save His people, that He will deify His entire Creation -- from the hearts of humans to the animals and trees and to the stars ... and demons like Baal will have nowhere to go.
You would think that Elijah could rest on his laurels after such a big win, that he could just “live happily ever after.” But such is not the case in real life. Immediately, the evil Queen Jezebel sent agents to find and kill Elijah, because he had so shamed her god Baal -- Baal who had made her powerful and very rich indeed.
Elijah had to run. He ran one hundred miles from Mount Carmel to Beersheba (south of Jerusalem). There, exhausted, his servant could go no further and Elijah continued alone. That night, in the wilderness, Elijah asked God to take his life, because he was so tired. In the morning, an angel of the Lord brought him breakfast and told the prophet, “Arise and eat, because the journey is far for you.”
Elijah ate the bread and water, made by the angel, and traveled for forty days into the desert, and finally arrived on Mount Horeb -- which is the other name for Mount Sinai. The place of the Ten Commandments so many years before.
Holy people -- the saints -- have always loved the wilderness and have always been drawn to dwell in its quiet beauty. Jesus Himself retired often to the solitude outside the city and civilization. There you can pray easily, because God’s Creation is seen clearly in the wilderness, and His Creation is really the “first book” of His introducing Himself to us as a God of complete love, total power, and infinite splendor (Romans 1.20). Things are clearer in the wild: “I want creation to penetrate you with so much admiration that everywhere, wherever you may be, the least plant may bring to you the clear remembrance of the Creator” (St Basil the Great, Hexaemeron). Cities and civilization are where God has always sent His servants -- the prophets, the apostles and the saints: but these places were places of constant affliction ... the wilderness is where they were “put together again,” where they met the God of comfort, and were “re-minded” of His primordial peace, and beauty, and the Love that He IS.
So it was for Elijah. Jesus came and spoke to Elijah (just as Elijah -- and another prophet of Sinai, Moses -- would come seven hundred years later and speak with Jesus at the Transfiguration). “Elijah, what are you doing here?”
And Elijah confessed, which means he opened his heart completely to the Lord and expressed out loud his grief: “I have been very zealous for the Lord Almighty since the children of Israel have forsaken You. They tore down Your altars and killed Your prophets with the sword. I alone am left, and they seek to take my life” (3 Kingdoms 19.10).
This feeling of “alone-ness,” or isolation, even abandonment, is tragically a common experience of God’s prophets and apostles. Moses felt it. So did the Judges between Moses and Samuel. King David certainly experienced this grief -- at least a fourth of the Psalms talk about this sense of “I alone am left.” St Paul (and all the Apostles) felt this: “... we were troubled on every side. Outside were conflicts, inside were fears,” he wrote, describing his Elijah-like experience in Macedonia.
And, most importantly, the Son of God, fully divine in His nature, yet in His human nature He too -- more than any other human -- experienced this same “I alone am left.” In the Garden of Gethsemane, He said to the disciples: “My soul is exceeding sorrowful, even unto death: tarry ye here, and watch with me” (Matthew 26.38 KJV).
Indeed, the loneliest confession of all Time was His own, at the extremity of the Cross: “My God, My God, why hast Thou forsaken Me?” (Matthew 27.46, quoting Psalm 21.1 LXX).
Jesus was falsely accused and prosecuted in the city. St Paul got attacked time after time in the city. Baal and his fellow demons continue to dwell and fester in the city (extended everywhere now by the media web). King David suffered one conspiracy and court intrigue after another in the city: “I have seen iniquity and strife in the city. Day and night strife shall surround her, even to her walls, iniquity and vain toil and unrighteousness are in her midst and usury and deceit never depart from her streets” (Psalm 54.9-11 LXX).
That is why David, ancestor and poet of the Lord, said “Who will give me wings like a dove, that I may fly away and be at rest? See how far away I have fled, I have dwelt in the wilderness” (Psalm 54.6-7 LXX).
That is why Jesus told Elijah to go stand on the mountainside of Sinai. So that Elijah could leave the confusion and strife, and see clearly, spiritually, the Beauty of the Lord written large in the wonder of His creation -- the expanse of sky and the majesty of the mountain.
Elijah, in his humility and pity, in his faith and confession, could see the invisibility of God’s true Kingdom through the visibility of God’s Creation. God’s Beauty must been seen, as God’s Beauty -- as Dostoevsky said so truly -- “will save the world.”
Three moments passed. First a powerful wind stormed over the mountain: but the storm itself was not the Lord Himself. Then the ground shook with terrible force: but the earthquake itself was not the Lord Himself. The a fire raged fiercely: but the fire itself was not the Lord Himself.
Each of these three elements reveal God’s infinite power and glory: they show Him, but they are not Him Himself. This point is where the human mind usually goes wrong, always tempted to do the lazy thing by stopping at the sign, but not going on to what is signified. This is where the devil and the demons stopped, by the way, and still are: they stopped at the sign, possessed it, and confined it to the Self.
But Elijah waited, knowing better than Baal or the devil, or Ahab or Jezebel or the city.
After all these manifestations of glory, then the Lord came in a still, small Voice. Jesus Himself, invisible, in the heart.
And He told the lonesome prophet, “No. You are not alone.”
Which is reminiscent of another mountain, in another time, when the Lord told His disciples, “I will never leave you nor forsake you, even to the end of the age.”
This is the Comfort that Elijah needed, and the “peace that passes all understanding” (Philippians 4.7), which happens when we repent and turn away from our passions and our entanglements in the frustrations of the City ... and when we turn to God in the quiet and look to see Him, the Invisible, in the beautiful Visibility of His Creation.
“Truly,” St Dionysius the Areopagite wrote, “the visible is the manifest icon of the invisible” (Epistles 10, 1117B).
* * * * * *
Sometimes, we all have to take our leave of the city and seek God’s Peace in the wilderness, like Elijah, listening -- with the Bible and the Fathers in hand, a pencil in the other, with our eyes and ears open, waiting upon the rustling of the leaves and the trickling of clear waters, breathing in the scent of field and forest and letting the sunlight settle on our shoulders. Sometimes, we need to let the rain fall and put away the urban umbrella.
I tell my seminarians, every year, that sometimes you need to get away in the woods to clear your head. I say the same to you.
Too much of the city is in our heads.
We need to see the invisible through the visible.
We need to hear the still, small voice.
Sometimes, things have to change.
For the better, for beauty.