Blog di FORMAZIONE PERMANENTE MISSIONARIA – Uno sguardo missionario sulla Vita, il Mondo e la Chiesa MISSIONARY ONGOING FORMATION – A missionary look on the life of the world and the church
It may look strange, but the Holy Scripture is full of people with broken hopes and desirous to withdraw in disappointment, or even to put an end to their mission and to life itself. (1) Adam lives his failure fearfully hiding himself; Eva reacts in a way that shows lack of security, relaying the accusation to others (Genesis no 3, 10-12). Abraham reveals to be dragged by his introverted character towards a mysterious sadness for being without a heir (Genesis no 15, 1-4) and then for the fatal risk of having to sacrifice the son born in his old age (Genesis 22, 1-19). Moses, throughout long decenniums tries to suffocate every memory and repentance for the suffering of his people, rising five heavy objections against God’s call near the burning bush (Exodus: 3, 1-4,17).
The people in the desert also often passes from euphoria to rebellion and angry depression (Exodus: 15, 22-17,7). After revealing wisdom and courage for favouring the passage from the government of the judges to that of the monarchy, Samuel, with his choice of Saul, remains stuck in turning his elected one into a myth, so much so as to be reprimanded by the Lord for his never ending weeping (1 Samuel 16,1). We could go on with almost all the major and minor prophets, with popular leaders and disappointed wise men, like Qohelet.
The New Testament also is not without depressed and weary persons full of fear, who destroy themselves in shame (like Jude), and hopeless men and women who succeed in overcoming their guild feelings because of love (for instance Peter, Mary of Magdalene, Zaccheus, the adulterous woman, the Samaritan…). Jesus himself is not exempted from obscure and weary passages: let us think of his weeping before the walls of Jerusalem, in the Gethsemane during his anguished vigil, when he met the pious women on his way to Calvary and on the cross when he has the sensation of being abandoned by his Father. What about Paul of Tarsus, and all the times he feels discouraged, fearing because of his fragility, as well as because of the fanatic hostility of his co-religionists in refusing Christ, or due to the many difficulties that come to mind like heavy waves, reviving fears and a deep anguish.
Let us take into consideration a great champion of courage and daring, who, however, knows also the abyss of fear and the giddiness for the desire of dying. Let us speak of the prophet Elijah audacious witness of God, who appears even infantile in his fears.
The adventure of the prophet from Tisbe is narrated in few chapters by the book of the Kings (1 Kings 17-19 e 21; 2 Kings 1-2). It looks more like an epic for its huge pictures than a true biography. In fact, his family and vocation are unknown. He appears forcefully all of a sudden, threatening the total shutting up of heaven, until he decides it. We can understand what his contestation aims at only from the general context: to re-awaken the conscience of those who go on giving in to the arrogance of queen Jezebel, adopting her religious practices to Baal, which are absurd for true Israelites.
En passant, I go along the episodes of the Elijah’s activity: a thing that gives useful hints to understand his character, sometimes vehement and decisive, at times fearful and hesitant. Before the resistances from the Widow of Zerepta for the future of her food, Elijah shows no doubt: oil and flour will not be missing, but when the child of the woman, who has offered him hospitality, dies all of a sudden, the prophet is taken by a deep crisis and manifests a disconcerting uncertainty, together with an unexpected generosity (1 Kings: 17, 7-24). It is just this solidarity that will awake “a different image” of God in the eyes of the widow, more compassionate, powerless almost fearful. Thus, we can catch a glimpse of the greatest prophet, Christ Jesus, with his cries and anguish (Hebrews: 5, 7-9).
At the moment of the great challenge on mount Carmel between hundreds prophets of Baal and the Prophet of Jhwh left alone, we find again an interior fatigue of the prophet from Tisbe. If the challenge fails, he may feel of having exposed himself to a risk without net. His prayer full of anguish: “Answer me, o Lord, do answer me!” (1 Kings: 18, 37) shows a vein of fear and mortal anguish, together with audacity, which will change into a massacring fury after victory, by beheading the 450 prophets. Soon after we see a contradictory scene: the prolonged supplication of a prostrated man, in solidarity with the now long-term suffering of the people, and concluded with the euphoric race up to the royal palace of Jezebel (1 Kings: 18, 41-46).
I prefer now to focus our attention on the successive passage, on the gravest and mortal crisis Elijah passed through.
The furious reaction of queen Jezebel before the outrage perpetrated by the prophet Elijah in killing all the prophets of her court, sends to tilt the winner of the defeat on mount Carmel who, ruled by fear and powerlessness, knows nothing but fleeing away, (1 Kings: 19,1-3). He crosses Galilee from North to South and Judea stopping at Bersabea. At the boundary of the desert, he leaves the boy, who served him and proceeds to the south for a whole day walk. At sunset he falls into the darkest and mortal depression and throwing himself under a furze bush, he said: «Yahweh, I have had enough. Take my life, I am no better than my ancestors» (1 Kings 19,4). This is the clearest manifestation of a manual-like depression. Let us verify the phenomenon under various aspects.
First of all, let us consider the weight of fear before a situation, which he does not know how to face. The situation shows uncertain contours and not at all positive results, seen the wildness of Jezebel, well known from the time she massacred other prophets. It is an objective fear, magnified by his character, by his imagination, crowded with the greatness of the ancestors, whom he feels to be judges more than encouraging fathers. It is mingled also with a certain ambition, seen that he measures himself with the greatness of the past, tries to give his original contribution and the grandiose victory clings back to him as a poisoned boomerang, rather than as a blessing.
Another typical element of depression is the escape: it is the matter of a tiring physical dislocation, but above all of an escape into the imaginary, pursued by the memory of the ancestors who win the confrontation with him (this is actually what he thinks). The place he is going to and the absurd sense of that way crossing the desert do not matter. What matters is to create long distances between the source of fear and his person, just as if, like this, suffering could be annulled, made invisible, though it explodes within him all the same.
The third element that I like to underline is the desert and the solitude: a depressed man feels to be far from everybody and everything. Even if others are near, elbow to elbow, they are as absent for the depressed. This happens because he does not want, nor succeeds in contacting them and even if they want to shake hands with him, he does not want, like Elijah who leaves the boy at the boundary of the desert. Like any depressed man, he feels alone. The desert strengthens this sensation in a palpable and crushing way. The sterility of the desert penetrates him as he thinks: so much effort uselessly, a complete failure!
Another element is self-accusation: «I am no better than my ancestors”. He thinks of having mistaken everything: he has fought in vain, finding himself with a fatal menace on his head and the indifference of the people that had applauded him at the moment of victory. He is assailed by thoughts of powerlessness and guilt incapacity and uselessness. He dramatises and radicalises everything, “I have had enough!” The dangerous figure of Jezebel is in the background: she seems to deprive her of air and life, a negative phantasm that smashes him, having managed the situation and being a fright for the people.
Finally, the desire of death: he wants to die, to shut up everything, a desire similar to a fatal potion. A weary sensation that throws him under the furze bush and the will of sleeping, hoping that he may non longer go back from there, that he may not wake up. A sweet dying, since he is lacking every signal of sweetness, of care, of support. He experiences a heavenly but poisoned desire that he may no longer see anything, may no longer fight in vain and come defeated out of it. We can see –helped by the psychology of our deep being against light- that the essence of the family’s traces in the life of Elijah could mean a lack of positive experience with his mother. This is the source of his threatened, insecure self-reading as well as his disproportioned reaction.
Yet, in the depth of his destructive anguish, Elijah seems to emit a cry for help, a request of support or a trust that appears not to be corresponded by the results of events. It is just in this situation, as from an internal source, that a mysterious interior strength is revealed.
We knows what the Bible narrates: a heavenly messenger approaches Elijah and wakes him up, offering food to him and pointing at a deeper journey across the desert, a mysterious end towards a total revival in the mission and if renewed hope.(1 Kings: 19,5-8). The Prophet will set on his journey, as on a kind of initial itinerary up to the “mountain”, the birth-place of the covenant he was fighting for with so much success and apparent defeats destroying him. Up there, Elijah will say once again his boiling feelings, his fears, his anger for a person that destroys everything, that leaves him alone to defend the memory and faithfulness, without supporting him against wild threatening. The theophany of Mount Horeb has all the aspects of a concluded journey of initiation, but also of a positive crossing, with equally positive results of the depressive crisis. Let us examine some of these aspects. (1 Kings: 19, 9-18).
First, the angel has not found fault with him –as “it is a comedy”, “do not exaggerate”, “what have you put in your mind?”- rather he goes tenderly and respectfully closer to him, inviting him to make concrete and necessary gestures fit for the moment. “Come, stand up and eat!”, it is not a miraculous proposal, a provocation, but a simple and efficacious gesture, fit for the moment. It is even accompanied by the touch of a hand: the tenderness he was missing, the direct questioning. “you”. He had long been missing the sensation of being a person and not a personage, fragile and fearful, rather than a hero without fragility.
The nearby presence of a visible, tangible support fit for the situation is another interesting element: A jar of water in the arid desert is a refreshment and a vital resource. Even the flat bread cooked on hot stones speaks of somebody who has made it attentively and with dedication. Besides menaces, he finds resources and gestures of solidarity. Jezebel might have looked more threatening than a boiler, but there was some other person who used these things to give solace and support, tenderness and generosity.
The double passing of the angel signals the need of adequate phases, of different moments to restore the strength and to show new journey. We cannot force situations and find fault with others. It is necessary to accompany insistently and with determination, indicating a commitment and offering the useful resources. Encouraging vitamins together with new adventures allow us to live afresh with distended availability. During the depressive crisis life had not disappeared, but the red-coals under the ashes had to be revived.
We know well that the long journey of forty days and forty nights is a symbolic number, as well as symbolic is the return to the sources of the covenant, to the place where the identity of Israel had been moulded and codified. This is why Elijah carries within himself the burning delusion of the people’s incapacity to distinguish the forms of faithfulness from those of betrayal. The interpellation of the divine voice on the Horeb provoking him, “What are you doing here, Elijah?”, can be seen also as a hint of his interior crisis of identity. It may be a question obsessively addressed to himself: why is he there, why has he gone so far, why all this adventure?
In the double answer, always the same –though it may be an error of transcription, according to the exegetes- I find traces of a pouring out of the prophet, who is not fully pacified with himself and his charism. It is the same as if he said: I have embarked on this escape and this journey, seeking a sense and a solution, but after all, for him who knows things well, I am victim of a violence that destroys everything. I do not feel like to accept this. I cannot believe that I have to adapt myself to it without burning with zeal and reacting.
In the triple spectacular theophany of the fire, the earthquake and the wind (1 Kings: 19,11-14), there may be a psychological transforming catharsis: Elijah is inhabited by these furious elements and he is the first to set himself free from them. Only like this he will find a serene and stable trust, a communion with all those who have silently persevered without being noticed, but whom the eye of God has not failed to follow with care. Elijah will overcome the interior catastrophe if his boiling thought will cool down; if he will love that people afresh, the people who looked wild and idolater. If he accepts tat fidelity passes also through different forms, less clamorous and spectacular than his own, but true and sincere, then his very defeat will be a discovery of God “other” and of another Israel, whom he had not been able to see so far.
The dangerous and fatal adventure Elijah had embarked upon, with some perplexities about his true transformation, is seen in the previous episodes (See 1 Kings: 21,17-29). Surely God has attracted him into the deepest abyss, generated by his very crisis of fear and terror, to denude him of every security, to empty him of every iconoclastic furor, to let him pour out everything thoroughly against all men and everything, not only against himself. However, he then compelled him also to get out of the cavern that protected him and made him blind. He had to know “another” God and he himself had to become “another” –though in the structure of his character, which after all will never change thoroughly- towards his people, towards God, towards a future that looked completely closed”. (1 Kings: 19, 19-21).
Called to risk his life – to say it with the beautiful books of Simon Pacot – he has to discover that Elijah opposes the joy of serving Him to his anguish and failure (1 King: 19,21). Many will oppose an alternative and a remedy to his affective and active solitude in the charismatic association of the prophets’ children (See 2 Kings: 2,1-18). The God that Elijah thought of serving with all the humanly possible zeal and whom he wanted to defend from profanation, risked to be profaned by his vehemence and blindness in feeling alone and unique, while millions of people inhabited Israel with a faithful heart.
The limpid sources for an interior re-birth of him and the people, were symbolically and traumatically exsiccated (like the waters of Kerit), but God knew how to nurture them secretly through other ways and models. Elijah found them on mount Horeb towards which he was fleeing, weary and angry. The people, instead, had always had an access to it, despite the clamour of the man from Tisbe and his accusations.
Pontifical Gregorian University – Rome