Elijah appealed to all the people and said, “How long will you straddle the issue? If the Lord is God, follow him; if Baal, follow him.” The people, however, did not answer him.
Elijah taunted them: “Call louder, for he is a god and may be meditating, or may have retired, or may be on a journey. Perhaps he is asleep and must be awakened.” They called out louder and slashed themselves with swords and spears, as was their custom, until blood gushed over them. Noon passed and they remained in a prophetic state until the time for offering sacrifice. But there was not a sound; no one answered, and no one was listening.
1 Kings:18:21, 27-29
As sacred words, Scripture, we are told, is to be read as if it is addressed to us personally in the present moment. As I began to read today’s passage from 1 Kings, it seemed to me as if Elijah had stepped off the page and entered our world of 2018. For we proclaim ourselves to be followers of Jesus Christ, but our lives take their shape from the gods of our cultures and social systems. As the prophets of Baal, we are screaming and slashing ourselves in service to the gods of power and wealth, in the meantime diminishing our humanity and destroying our planet. For some so-called very orthodox Christians, Pope Francis is a heretic for suggesting that there is an inextricable connection between our faith in God and Jesus and our care for our common home and for our hospitality toward refugees and all who are the victims of our worship of alien gods.
As I read the words that describe the fruitlessness of all the self-flagellation and screams of the prophets of Baal, “But there was not a sound; no one answered, and no one was listening.”, the lyrics of the old Paul Simon song came to mind:
And the people bowed and prayed
To the neon god they made
And the sign flashed out its warning
In the words that it was forming
And the sign said, the words of the prophets are written on the subway walls
And tenement halls
And whispered in the sounds of silence
In the spiritual life, we often speak of silence as a condition for union with God, and so with oneself and the world. Yet, there is another kind of silence. The silence that is the fruit of the idol worship of the prophets of Baal and that seems to lie just beneath the sound and fury of our contemporary world. Unlike the deep silence that is presence to the Whole, the silence we as a people experience far too often is that of a self-created and perpetuated isolation, an absence from the presence. An image of our frantic and despairing life is that of the prophets of Baal who slash themselves until blood is gushing all over them, meanwhile screaming out in such a way as not to feel or hear the truth of their actual state.
The terror of this self-imposed silence does not exist because God and the world have ceased to speak. It is rather because we have ceased to listen. God is present on Mount Carmel, but the false worship is so noisy that this truth cannot be heard. So too with us. In the past few decades, especially, Mother Earth has been speaking to us of the damage we are inflicting on her. The intensifying droughts that are bringing greater starvation and suffering to some of the poorest among us, the floods that are destroying both the homes and homelands of those who can least afford to be displaced, the fires and coastal flooding that destroy the homes of the more affluent who have willfully developed land which required being left undeveloped are all speaking to us of our arrogance and selfishness and calling on us to repent and return. Yet, we do not hear because our own clamor for more (more wealth, more security, more power, more self-willing autonomy) deafens us.
So often I ask myself how it is possible that we human beings can be so willfully obtuse. Are we so hopelessly driven by our will to pleasure and our will to power that we would continue, all evidence to the contrary, to destroy our common home rather than alter, even slightly, our share of the world’s wealth and resources? Is our selfishness so strong that we do not really care what we leave behind to our children and descendants?
Be it in our own personal life, in our life in family or community, or in our small part in the human and world community, we are always straddling the issue of what God we believe in, whether the God of our own and our culture’s creation, or the Lord who is the One God. This straddling is the tension at the heart of human formation. As St. Paul puts it in Romans 12:2: “Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will.”
We often miss the universal truth of Paul’s statement. There is always a contradiction between “the pattern of this world” and the call of God, for us the call of the Gospel. Quoting Adrian van Kaam, William Sadler writes: “To fulfill the meaning of maturity involves openness to experience; but it also requires responsibility in experience: ‘the most fundamental characteristic of the true personality is constant readiness to respond fully to the demands of reality.’” So often, “the pattern of this world” and our own version of faith in God serve as buffers, as filters of reality. We have been formed culturally, by “the pattern of this world” to see and hear reality in a certain limited way, with preconceived notions of its meaning. The Lord God of all is above all mystery and cannot be fixed into preconceived notions. To hear God’s call requires, as van Kaam says, “a constant readiness” if we are “to respond fully to the demands of reality.”
Thus, after the hysteria of the prophets of Baal, Elijah merely sets the stage for God to act and then prays: “Lord! Answer me, that this people may know that you, Lord, are God and that you have brought them back to their senses.” On the whole, many of us in western culture and at least the American version of capitalism have lost our senses. The earth speaks to us, but we cannot hear it. Our brothers and sisters who are fleeing war, famine, violence, and destitution are crying out but we are deaf to their cries. Persons have become but commodities in the vast global struggle for excessive and obscene wealth, but we have become so accustomed to this pattern of the world that we see no alternatives.
Recently I noticed a book, one of many these days, that expresses the conviction that Pope Francis is a great heretic who is destroying the Church. What if for many we are at a point where to live and proclaim the gospel is destruction of the Church? Anyone who is a disciple of Jesus, who proclaims the gospel in his or her life ,will be, we are told, a sign of contradiction. Every human institution, as every human person, will, over time, increasingly conform to “the pattern of this world.” When those structures, of church or state, become the objects of veneration and worship, they become idols. There is only one God and that God is mystery to us. The mystery, however, is one that is always calling us through “the demands of reality.” To be a mature human person is to stand ready to heed and respond to those demands. This requires, however, that we learn to detach from the filters of habit and culture that would blind and deafen us to that reality and those demands.
Standing ready to face reality and to respond will always require of us some non-conformity “to the patterns of this world.” What makes this difficult for us is, in part, that it is at first a very lonely place. Much of what we have counted on to support us and to give us our sense of identity is absent from this place. It is a place of silence that precedes a full presence to reality and response to its demands. But after the silence, like after the prayer of Elijah, the truth of the Mystery may show itself. This silence becomes then a fullness, so different from the silence that lies under the noise of the hyper-activity in service to the false gods.
In our day we live the paradox of incessant noise and vacuous silence. So over-stimulated are we by information, self-obsessive tweeting, and all the nonsense that bombards us constantly, that reality and so God as Mystery seem to be silent to us. Perhaps the grace in all of this is that the patterns of this age have now become so excessive and ridiculous that, despite our resistance to waking up, to submitting to reality and to God, we may have to discover another way. That way may be to enter a silence of a very different kind and to have the courage to endure it until reality begins, once again, to show itself to us.
The call of the Gospel has never been for the faint of heart. It is but human nature to domesticate its call and to tame its challenges. In our time, the God of American Christianity is becoming a bit of a caricature. And so, the challenge of Elijah is, for us who take ourselves to be believers, a summons from reality: “How long will you straddle the issue? If the Lord is God, follow him; if Baal, follow him.”
O Great Spirit,
whose voice I hear in the winds,
and whose breath gives life to all the world,
I am small and weak.
I need your strength and wisdom.
Let me walk in beauty
and let my eyes her behold the red and purple sunset.
Make my hands respect the things you have made
and my ears grow sharp to hear your voice.
Make me wise so that I may understand the things
you have taught my people.
Let me learn the lessons you have hidden
in every leaf and rock.
I seek strength not to be greater than my brother or sister,
but to fight my greatest enemy, myself.
Make me always ready
to come to you with clean hands and straight eyes
So when life fades as the fading sunset
my spirit may come to you without shame.
Chief Yellow Lark