A Flaring Torch

Many years ago, before I became a nun, I went to Toledo and walked up to the town from the railway station. It was a summer’s evening and the scene that unfolded was, quite literally, picturesque. Some muleteers were driving their beasts across the bridge at the foot of the cliff, red tassels swinging as they lurched on their way. Higher up, where the mountain swifts were circling, one could see those famous lines of St John of the Cross, carved into the honeyed stone: En una noche oscura . . . It was another of those paradoxes in which Catholicism in Spain seems to delight: the fleeting intimacy of a moment of prayer emblazoned on a rockface for all the world to see.

I think today’s readings about the prophet Elijah and his New Testament counterpart, John the Baptist, and the feast of the Carmelite, John of the Cross, we celebrate today express another paradox. All three were inflamed with an ardent love of God, at once enormously attractive yet profoundly disturbing to those whose love is less certain. All three were men of deep and powerful silence whose words, when uttered, seared the soul. All three were men of mystery, most at home in the solitude of the desert, whose public lives were anything but obscure. In themselves they personify both the interiority of prayer and the exteriority of action. The source was, of course, one and the same: that passionate, intimate relationship each had with God.

During these days of Advent Elijah, John the Baptist and John of the Cross remind us what it means to be consumed with love of God. It must blaze out from us, shine, like ‘the shining from shook foil’ as Hopkins would say, become a fire that never goes out. And it must do so, that others may take fire, too.

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Elijah and Extra-Terrestrials

The feast of Our Lady of Mount Carmel, which we celebrate today, set me thinking about Elijah, that strange and mysterious prophet whose story dominates the latter part of 1 Kings and the beginning of II Kings. Some sci-fi enthusiasts believe that Elijah was an extra-terrestrial, someone who visited earth from another universe. One can see why: he appears from nowhere, without introduction or ancestry, just like Melchizedek. He challenges the accepted order, works miracles and disappears in a chariot drawn by fiery horses. No wonder he has become associated with the end times. In both Jewish and Christian tradition, he holds an important place as harbinger of a new order.

On any other occasion I’d love to explore some of the themes associated with his name. This morning, however, my eye was caught by some speculation about the existence of life, perhaps even intelligent life, outside our own planet. What interests me is not principally whether such life exists (we’ll find out one day) but the enthusiasm many have for trying to make contact with it. I would have thought that the experience of a few thousand years of human history might make us more cautious. Can we assume that if life exists ‘out there’, it is beneficent? Are we so confident in our own powers that we believe we have nothing to fear and everything to gain? Might we not end up being exploited or enslaved, as human beings have exploited and enslaved their fellows at various times?

The enthusiasm for making contact is evidence of an irrepressible urge to explore the unknown, and I have to applaud the optimism and goodwill it suggests even if I sometimes wonder if it isn’t also a trifle naive. But I can’t forget Elijah, not this morning, anyway. He was not a comfortable man, happy with the status quo. The theophany he experienced on Mount Horeb changed him and made him an agent of change in Israel. Might not our extra-terrestrial be just as likely to upset our accustomed order, and would we really welcome the change?

Note for the literal-minded
The above is a little jeu d’esprit for a dismal Monday. 🙂 Please don’t forget to pray for all Carmelites today.

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