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.