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A Prophet’s Depression, an Apostle’s Grief and a Disciple’s Fear

Fr. Thomas Rosica, CSB

August 4, 2014
Walking on Water cropped
Nineteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year A - August 10, 2014
Chapter 19 of the First Book of Kings presents us with the aftermath of Elijah’s brilliant victory in the contest with Jezebel and the priests of Baal atop Mount Carmel. Just when Elijah should have been triumphant, he receives a message telling him of Jezebel’s murderous intentions, and is “afraid” (19:3). The exceedingly exemplary servant of God is now in a rut – believing that all of his efforts are in vain! In chapter 18, Elijah was at the height of success; in chapter 19 he is in the depths of despair. In chapter 18 he is on the mountain peak of victory; in chapter 19 he is in the valley of defeat. In chapter 18 he is elated; in chapter 19 he is completed deflated.
Mountaintop experiences
In today’s first reading from 1 Kings 19:9, 11-13, Elijah must learn that God is not encountered in the sound and fury of loud and spectacular events. God will not be conjured up by the zealous or boisterous activity of the prophet who now stands quiet and distressed atop the Lord’s mountain. Though various phenomena, such as wind, storms, earthquakes, and fire (Exodus 19:18-19), may indeed herald the divine presence, they do not constitute the presence itself which, like the tiny whispering sound, is imperceptible and reveals in a deep way the true face and presence of God. The Hebrew expression “still small voice” (1 Kings 19:12) literally means “a voice of low whispers, a sound of gentle stillness.” Though the wretched Jezebel was thundering, she was not in control. Though God was silent, he was not absent. Elijah’s God and our God is the God of signs and wonders but he is also the God of whispers and gentleness. Only when Elijah’s mind and heart are finally depleted of ambition and self-promotion, is God ultimately heard.
Elijah’s struggle with depression
Mount Horeb is the place forever associated with the source and essence of Israelite faith. Elijah arrived at the sacred mountain where he spent the night in a dark cave. The dark cave and the dark night are reflective of his own “dark night of the soul.” The story of Elijah in the cave on Mount Horeb is a classic example of one struggling with depression and burnout. Eventually it touches everyone – even God’s chosen people, his fiery prophets and leaders, his apostles and disciples!
Elijah’s depression wasn’t due to one single cause: it was the culmination of several factors. At the root of depression is almost always some form of fear. The great, fiery prophet of Israel is scared to death of wicked Queen Jezebel’s threats and thus flees for his life. How often are we like Elijah, fearful of failure, of being alone, unable to complete a task given to us, incapable of success, and weak in perseverance, patience, and hope?
The second factor is failure. Elijah had a very low self-esteem. Elijah was in a long line of prophets who also tried to address Israel’s lack of faith and apostasy and he was no more successful than his ancestors. How often do we feel that our efforts are in vain? That we aren’t able to make a difference, just like those who went before us? How often do we think that we contributed to a problem rather than being part of the solution? How often have we failed: The job didn’t work out. The relationship went sour. The marriage broke up. The addiction made me lose everyone and everything I had.
The third factor is fatigue, exhaustion, burnout. Elijah was physically exhausted and emotionally empty. This is the great danger of peak experiences. It is the risk of those who get lost in their work and mission, who are blinded by their own zeal, and have become crusaders and saviours bound for burnout rather than humble disciples and ministers who are poor servants, simply doing their tasks. Elijah didn’t take time to rest and relax, to sit back and see what God was doing around him.
The fourth factor can be described as plain futility. Elijah feels alone, hopeless, and has little hope for the future. He suffers from paranoia, thinking that everyone is out to get him. He looks at the world through very dark glasses. He doesn’t see any way out of his existential conundrum. How many of us are afraid, lonely, exhausted, burned out, and without any hope? How many of us have given in to despair, cynicism, meanness of spirit, and smallness of heart? How many of us have lost our faith in a God who can reverse barren wombs and empty tombs?
Elijah’s therapy
In order for Elijah to revive and renew his strength, he needed to get away. He needed physical, emotional, and spiritual rejuvenation. He had been so busy taking care of the needs of the nations that he had neglected the needs and concerns of Elijah the Tishbite. Elijah talked through his frustrations as he sat in the cave atop the mountain. In the midst of his feeling sorry for himself, God asked him point blank: “What are you doing here, Elijah?” God knew full well what Elijah was doing there. In fact, God helped him to get there! God listened patiently and non-judgmentally as Elijah poured out his feelings of anger, bitterness, and self-pity. Notice what God didn’t say to the pathetic prophet: “Elijah, my prophets don’t talk like that!” God didn't make him feel guilty for his feelings. Instead God accepted him and listened to him.
What happened to Elijah happens to us, especially when we pay much more attention to negative events than to all the good that is happening around us. It happens when we are very hard on ourselves, and take ourselves far too seriously, and God not seriously enough! God intervened in Elijah’s sorry state and reminded him that his vision of life, his understanding of events, his view of God were terribly distorted.
Elijah needed to know that God was there and that there were in fact others who had not bowed down to Baal. Elijah thought he was the only one who was still faithful to God. God allowed Elijah to sit in the dark cave of self-pity for only so long. There was a new king of Israel and a new prophet to be anointed. The time for complaints and self-pity were over; Elijah now needed to get back to work. What can we learn from this whole episode atop the mountain? Perhaps the best way to stop feeling sorry for ourselves is to start feeling compassion for others.
Great sorrow and anguish
Today’s second reading (Romans 9:1-5) presents us with Paul, a man who had an unbelievable willingness to be sacrificed for his people. He was willing to be accursed, separated from Christ, if it would save his people. He was willing to swap his salvation for their doom if it would lead to their salvation. Paul felt the deepest emotion, love, and concern for his own people. He avails himself to the essential question of how the divine plan could be frustrated by Israel’s unbelief.
Paul speaks in strong terms of the depth of his grief over the unbelief of his own people. Israel’s unbelief and its rejection of Jesus as saviour astonished and puzzled Christians. It constituted a serious problem for them in view of God’s specific preparation of Israel for the advent of the Messiah. Paul would willingly undergo a curse himself for the sake of their coming to the knowledge of Christ (9:3; Leviticus 27:28-29). His love for his people derives from God’s continuing favour on Israel and from the spiritual benefits that God bestows on them and through them on all of humanity (9:4-5). Paul’s point is clear: God desires to use Israel, which had been entrusted with every privilege, in outreach to the entire world through the Messiah.
The reading from Romans 9 raises some significant questions for us. When was the last time you pleaded with a lost person to accept Christ? How does the possibility of being rejected affect the passion with which you share the Gospel? When you share the gospel, how convinced are you about its power to save the lost? About its ability to change the habits of sinners? About its real need in today’s modern society? What sacrifices are you willing to make in order to see the lost members of your family, your friends, or members of your faith community return to Christ or perhaps come to him for the first time?
“Take courage, it is I; do not be afraid.”
In today’s moving Gospel story (Matthew 14:22-33) set on the lake, the disciples, labouring against the turbulent sea, are saved by Jesus. Jesus’ power is expressed by his walking on the choppy waters (Matthew 14:25; Psalm 77:20; Job 9:8). Jesus challenges Peter also to walk on the waters! Because of Peter’s fear and weak faith, he begins to sink. When Jesus stretches out his hand and catches Peter, he reminds his disciples and the Church in every generation of his constant care for us. He teaches us that no storm will overturn the boat in which we sail, and no water will swallow us up in darkness.
At certain times in the contemporary history of our Church, everything seems to indicate shipwreck, fear, drowning, and death. But let us be honest and realize that the Church goes on, saving souls and journeying forward to its final harbour. In that blessed realm, beyond the seas of this life, all of the things that threaten God’s Church in this world will be gone forever. At times of turbulence, we must listen to the Lord, as Peter did, and cast our nets again into the deep; for it is our faith that is being tested – not as to whether we profess it or not, but as to whether we are ready to do something about it or not.
He calms the storms of life
Let us never forget this fact: we are on the waters with Jesus. He is in the boat with us, during the night and during the storms. The Lord does not abandon those who come seeking his mercy and his forgiveness. He walks upon the waters. He calms the storm. He guides the boat into safe harbour, and brings with him the great catch, the great feast, to which we are all summoned – the daily feast of his very self, his Body and Blood, our food for eternal life. This is cause for rejoicing!
[The readings for the Nineteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time are: 1 Kings 19:9, 11-13; Romans 9:1-5; and Matthew 14:22-33.]
This reflection first appeared on the Zenit International News Service in 2011 as well as on the Salt + Light Blog. The complete collection of reflections for Year B, entitled “Words made Flesh,” is now available in book form through our online store. Book editions for Year A and C reflections are coming soon.