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Vol. V, March 1999

 

The Test and the Angel's Help

Dear Brothers in the Priesthood!

Today, particularly actual is the situation of the prophets of Yahweh who were sent to the kings of Israel. These had turned away from Yahweh to Baal, and so built up a new religion and misled the people of GOD.

1. As "the man of God" was sent to Jeroboam (1 Kings 13), so Elijah was sent to Ahab (1 Kings 17-19). The first was credulous towards a prophet, imprudently yielding to an alleged word of an angel, and fell into disobedience. We might say, he failed in the test of faith. Elijah stood firm and fought very jealously for God against the king and his new religion to the point of executing 450 prophets of Baal; he gained a great victory for God.
It might be surprising to note then, that a woman, the spouse of Ahab, was able to make him tremble. "Jezebel sent a messenger to Elijah, saying, 'So may the gods do to me and more also, if I do not make your life as the life of one of them (the 450 prophets) by this time tomorrow" (19,1-2). Threatened with death, Elijah "was afraid, and he arose and went for his life, and ... went a day's journey into the wilderness, and came and sat down under a broom tree; and he asked that he might die, saying, 'It is enough; now, O Lord, take away my life; for I am no better than my fathers.' And he lay down and slept under a broom tree" (v. 3-5).

2. The type of test changes according to the soul's state in the spiritual life.

a) At the beginning, when the goal is not clearly seen due to lack of formation and faith, the will can easily be moved, mostly towards a more immediate, easy or attractive goal. That was the case of 'the man of God' who was sent to Jeroboam. Before that it happened already in paradise: "The woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise" (Gen 3,6). Here, the will depends still very much on the intellect and understanding, and can, by new changes of perspective, easily change.

b) Whoever has grown firm in faith, must further mature in hope. Temptations against hope strive to weaken the will in two ways: by discouragement, especially at the beginning, and, later, as one approaches the goal, by overestimation of self. It is easy to understand how a priest gets discouraged when his sermons are frequently misunderstood or when he is attacked because he defends the sacredness of the sacraments or of the doctrine of the Church. It is less comprehensible, however, and expected, that his will should be weakened through success for the Lord. When everything 'just flows from his hand or his mind', the priest may forget that he cannot do anything without Christ, without His help and grace. He does not experience the need to rely much on prayer or on books or counsels of a confrere. Facility and success can lead to an exaggerated reflection of himself, to an unrealistic security followed by an over-estimation of self and pride. Such disparity from the objective reality makes him less careful; he will not watch out as he should and not ask or discern what 'is couching at the door'(Gen 4,7) and, in consequence, can be knocked down already by a small attack!

c) That seems to be the situation of Elijah here. He had just won a great battle for the Lord against the new religion of Baal and his prophets: 'When all the people saw it, they fell on their faces; and they said: "The LORD, He is God!" (18,39). At this high point of his mission (cf. v.10.), the right moment had come to lead Elijah further through a purification of his hope."Elijah was a man of like nature with ourselves", states St. James (Jas 5,17). He too had to mature to the sincere conviction of his poor and pitiable condition as a creature before man and God, and, consequently, rely exclusively upon the help and grace of God! Therefore, we should not be surprised by his human reaction, his fear, discouragement and desire for death. Souls on their way to heaven, who take the call of God seriously, need to walk once out into this desert, and reach the crucial point: life or death, God or nothing. Jeremiah, for example, once exclaimed: "Woe is me, my mother, that you bore me, ... all curse me" (Jer 15,10; cf. 20,14). Later, however, he reacted differently: When the priests and prophets said, that he "deserves the sentence of death", he replied: "The Lord sent me..., therefore amend ... and obey... But as for me, behold, I am in your hands" (26,11-14; cf. Tobit 3,6; Job 6,8; 7,15; Jonah, 4,3.8).  Trials are accelerators in the maturing process of man. They are not always caused by man's negligence, but are also part of God's plan for man. The good will of man and the watchful eye of God are seen here in the praying Elijah and the presence of the Angel.

3. Elijah still looked up to heaven when he laid down under the tree. How far down his spirit had fallen was evident in his prayer: 'It is enough; now, O Lord, take away my life; for I am no better than my fathers.' He did not close himself up in desperation; neither did he turn to man (cf. Jer 17,5; Mt 6,39), but to God, and God sent him an Angel to strengthen him (as later on to Jesus): "An Angel touched him, and said to him, 'Arise and eat'" (v. 5-8).

a) The Angel whom God sent to Elijah did not just inspire positive thoughts against his negative state of mind. He lead Elijah out of himself! In a rather delicate way, due to the circumstances, he 'touched him' (cf. Gen 16,8 or Jn 20,13; contrary to the 'struck' in Acts 12,7). Because he had not capitulated to despair, Elijah was disposed to being wakened and roused from his slumber in this way. The Angel brought him the most fundamental nourishment's, bread and water, putting them significantly 'at his head.' He instructed Elijah to take up life again: 'Arise and eat.' That the prophet laid down again was surely not the intention of the Angel; what was missing? The Angel "came again a second time", repeated patiently his request and added the reason: 'the journey will be too great for you.' Then, Scripture states explicitly: Elijah arose, which indicates some resolution on his part and a new conversion to the call of God. He took up life again: 'He ate and drank, and went in the strength of that food for forty days and forty nights to Horeb.' Now, bread and water, received through the hands of the Angel, gave him strength, strength to pass through the desert, the dryness of this earth, and to persevere through all the trials of this life  (symbolized by the number 'forty') to the mount of God.

b) Such is the Angel in his mission towards man: A light in hours of darkness; encouragement in moments of despair; strength when all resources are exhausted; direction when man is without orientation! He comes from God to man and leads man to God, he really testifies to 'the goodness of God Father'(Giudici, The Angels, II,2); Origen said, the 'Angel is like a father'(in: Danielou, The Angels and their Mission 7, p.69); for the Angel, who helps another Angel or man to greater perfection, who enlightens like a teacher or educates, though it be through purification's, (cf. Heb 12,6-10), acts with that 'paternity'which 'is named'from the 'Father'in heaven (Eph 3,14-15; cf. St. Thomas, S.Th., I,45,5 ad 1; In Eph, III,4; 168). As an authentic servant, he simply represents God and therefore, steps back when the soul has reached God.

c) The trial of God is arduous: 'Many false prophets will arise and lead many astray. And because wickedness is multiplied, most men's love will grow cold. But he who endures to the end will be saved'(Mt 24,11-13). The Angels did not bring Elijah already the reward for his effort for God, but helped him reach Horeb and meet God. The aim of the trial of hope is man's exclusive trust in God. It presupposes detachment from the world and indifference to all people. Every form of dying is hard, but in faith it always means a birth; that becomes especially clear on Horeb: Elijah's encounter with God in "a still small voice" (v.12) is of such a pure kind, that it is only possible with a chaste soul who is free from all creatures for God alone. ? Those who are in the light, the holy Angels, are willing to bow down and lead man from his weakness to Almighty God, if man will but call to heaven and take his refuge in God's paternal care.

4. Dear brothers, what we observe in the life of Elijah is not far from ours. Rupert von Deutz (PL 167.1, 1246) explained, that we have to bow ourselves beneath the Cross of Christ and to die with Christ, like Elijah, who as a figure, laid down and slept under a broom tree. As priests we should mystically die with Christ at the altar, there the Angel will take our sacrifice to the heavenly altar; and we who receive the Bread of Angels, the Precious Body and Blood of our Lord, will be filled with every grace and blessing and strength for our spiritual journey to God. God has foreseen all things and has prepared what we need to remain faithful to him in all circumstances.

We need but to do our part, that is:

  • To never give up prayer in which we express our confidence in God's goodness and our hope in the promised, fatherly Love;
  • to deepen our friendship with our Guardian Angel whom God has already sent to us and who constantly gives us the marvelous example of serenity in all circumstances, fidelity at all times, prayer and unshakable confidence; he is always with us, especially at the meeting place of Angel and man, beneath the Cross; to never place success before obedience and fidelity in our duties towards God and the Church;
  • to never seek in ourselves alone the solution for all problems but rather try to resolve matters with the help of our visible 'Guardian Angel', our confessor (or spiritual director);
  • to become familiar with the exemplary life of many holy priests; to cling to the Holy Eucharist as the strengthening 'bread and water' as the holy Cure of Ars, patron of parish priests, did almost literally in his struggles;
  • to always have an eye open for lonely confreres and to try this Lent to do something for the priestly fraternity in the diocese or in your region near by.

Like Elijah or Jeremiah, also St. Paul had to learn from the Lord: "My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness;" may we with them confess out of loving trust in our Lord:

"I will all the more gladly boast of my weaknesses, that the power of Christ may rest upon me. For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities; for when I am weak, then I am strong" (2 Cor 12,7-10).

Fr. Titus Kieninger, ORC