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Climbing Carmel Elijah: Founder, Prophet, Paradox - Order of Carmelites

Climbing Carmel
Elijah: Founder, Prophet, Paradox

| July 20, 2012

At St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome, in a place of honor directly behind and to the right of the Papal Altar, there is a stone tribune arch, containing four niches with four statues. In the bottom right niche sits the statue of Elijah, the founder of the Carmelite Order. Unlike the other 38 founder-saint statues found throughout the Basilica who are typically depicted surrounded by children or angels and holding some benign symbol of their ministry: a cross, staff, or book; Elijah is shown standing alone, leaning against a flaming chariot wheel, cradling a fiery sword in one arm, while the other muscular arm is thrust out of the niche, pointing towards the horizon.

Determined, masculine, rugged, and fierce, there is no better symbol of the spirit of the Carmelites than this statue of the prophet. It is little wonder why the Order has from its very beginnings identified Elijah as its mythical founder, the Old Testament prophet whose epic exploits harmonized a spiritual life of intense contemplation and asceticism with a bold ministry of service and leadership against seemingly impossible odds. Naturally, then, the statue of Elijah in St. Peter’s Basilica points up and outward, out of a hole in the wall, toward the horizon of what is possible in Christ.

My own relationship with Elijah is decidedly more humble. My parents divorced when I was in grade school. Shortly after, my mother converted from Catholicism to Judiasm and every year, she would invite my brothers and I to celebrate the Passover meal, called the seder, with her. After the meal, she would pour a cup of wine, open the front door, and invite Elijah into the house while we recited psalms. Although there is a rich and beautiful tradition to this ritual, to a 9-year-old boy like myself grown ups inviting prophet-ghosts into the house created a strange mixture of excitement and fear. Spring in Southern California is usually warm, but every year I swore I could feel a cold wind on my neck, and I always walked the long way around the chair we set out for Elijah at the table, careful not to upset whoever or whatever we just let into the house. Each year it was the same, this odd expectation of something coming in to the house and yet every year the glass stayed full, the chair stayed right where we left it and, at the end of the night, we put the unused dishes and silverware back in the drawer.

Re-visiting my old friend Elijah in my discernment of the Carmelites, I was struck by the appropriateness of the prophet as the founder of the Order. Carmelites are experts in the spiritual paradox of presence and absence that Elijah elicits in me. Carmelite spiritual tradition has always approached with equal intensity both the intimacy with God at the garden-summit of Carmel and also the moments when God seems to be absent in the “dark night” of the desert. Elijah seems to personify this duality in his relationship to the Order as its founder.

Carmelites cannot trace the details of their founder’s biography or connect Elijah to the historic origins of the Order as its first superior, as the Dominicans or Franciscans can with their founders. Yet, the stories of Elijah’s hidden life by the stream of Carith, his dramatic defeat of 150 priests of Baal, the miraculous meal that sustained him for the 40-day journey to Mt. Horeb, and his experience of God as a breath of wind at the mouth of a cave have all long been considered the very foundation and model of the Carmelite spirit. Like all Carmelites, Elijah’s presence and ministry should point us toward Christ. Elijah then, like Jesus, is at once a spiritual presence and a mysterious absence—a presence we invite into our hearts and homes and a seeming absence that challenges us to see for ourselves with the eyes of faith whether he has come or not.

Chris Sedlmeyer
Chris Sedlmeyer
Chris Sedlmeyer works as a Quality Assurance Director and lives on a 15 acre farm in Oregon. He has a Master's Degree in English Literature with a focus on Medieval and Renaissance literature, mythopoeic literature, and archetypal criticism. His scholarly work and poetry reflect his emphasis on archetypal psychology and Catholic spirituality. Chris has been discerning a call to religious life for the last 3 years and has specifically pursued a call to the Carmelites for the last year.


  1. Auvergne54

    Excellent post on Elijah…I learned something of him I have not ever known. I am Catholic and have studied many saints but for some reason have only thought of Elijah when he and I think Moses were speaking with Christ Jesus during the Transfiguration if I even have that right. At any rate, well written and beautifully informative article. This prompts myself as a writer to read more and pass the Word onward. Thanks for the gift!

  2. Chris Sedlmeyer

    John–you’ve got it right! Jesus talked to Moses and Elijah during the Transfiguration on the mountain. Moses represents the Law and Elijah the prophets–so the full spectrum of Jewish spiritual life and history meet and find their fulfillment in Jesus as both the New Covenant and the Messiah to which the prophets all foresaw. As a writer, the adage is “show, don’t tell” and this is a wonderfully powerful instance of that–the image of the three of them show the culmination of the Old Testament in the New in a way that is more powerful than a mere explication. In Peter as a witness to it all, we have the Church represented too–the first Pope sees and experiences this synthesis and then, as you said, passes the Word onward–and it has not stopped for over 2,000 years.

    I love to meditate on this glorious moment of fulfillment and promise and then contrast it with another aspect of Christ, on another hill–Christ as the Suffering Savior on the Cross at Golgotha. It is the same message said in two different ways: on in the language of the day and the other in the language of the dark night.

  3. John E.

    I surely wish I had your genius and education though not for envy but only because I desire to learn. I study books as Theology of the Body by Blessed John Paul II, Christopher West, our Catechism, Scripture, and Marian apparitions. I simply love and adore our faith! “In the language of the dark night,” Wow! Is this contrast perhaps in correlation to that of John of the Cross, and, “Christ as the Suffering Savior on the Cross at Golgotha?” I have been studying “Dark Night of the Soul,” in hopes of answering questions within my own life, though it is quite certain I share not the same mystical experiences as John did…though, yes, know that we are all blessed as believers.

    Thank you so much Brother Chris! It is a joy to follow you and read your work. Perhaps I may have a column as well for writing and Christ are my passions.

    Be Blessed Chris!

  4. Chris Sedlmeyer

    I believe the dark night that St. John of the Cross speaks of is the apparent absence of God in a time of spiritual dryness–consider when Jesus quotes the Psalm on the cross, “My God, why have you forsaken me?”. It is only an “apparent” absence, but that doesn’t make it feel any less desolate and real to the poor soul who must endure it! In reality, God is there in the darkness, leading us by suffering where we would never go without it–deeper into our own broken heart.

    The intent of the suffering of this dark night is to reduce us to our core spiritual element, our spiritual nucleus so to speak, which is our trust in God alone. In the absence of any support, any illusion of mastery of agency, in total abject poverty of spirit, we can only reach out blindly and say, “Lord, to you I commend my spirit”. We give ourselves away and wait. Wait for what? For the moment when God decides we are done, when we can say with Christ, “It is finished” and continue on to the next promise we have been given–the promise of a morning of resurrection and union at the end of the night we have endured.

    I think St. John of the Cross would agree that the most mystical experiences we can have are not visions or raptures, but gritty, real, honest, ugly, look-your-fear-in-the-eye moments that occur every day, every time we say I can’t go on, but do go on, relying on God’s grace and choosing to make each struggle a means of getting softer and more compassionate rather than hard. And by the sounds of it–you are quite the mystic already.

  5. Cindy Weathers

    I just visited St. Peter’s Basilica and heard the background of just about every mosaic and tomb and statue except this one. Fascinating – thanks for the info.

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