Carmel, Elijah and the Destroyer of Worlds

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Call me odd, but I find it is always a good sign when a liturgical reading accidentally corresponds to the feast. From the Office of Readings, the first lectio is from the Book of Kings, wherein Elijah, retreating from the noise and din of the world on Mount Horeb, hears God’s voice not in the thunder and earthquakes and the rending of rocks, but in the ‘still, small voice’, a whisper even, in the original Hebrew, ‘silence’.

Today we commemorate Our Lady of Mount Carmel, title named after the place where Elijah was said to dwell in a grotto on its highest point, looking 1700 feet above the Mediterranean Sea, and where he challenged the 450 prophets of Baal to the sacrificial contest, to see whose God was the true God. Tradition has it that Jewish hermits lived there, until the founding of the Carmelite Order in the late 12th century. No one knows who the human founder is – there is a reference to a ‘Brother B’ in the original rule given by Albert, the Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem in 1210. We may believe that God was the founder, in that ‘still, small voice’, through Elijah, and then Our Lady. What we do know is that a monastery was built there soon afterward, and the Carmelite way of life – simple and beautiful, of prayer, contemplation and work -spread throughout the world. That first monastery has had a history as troubled as the land itself, becoming a mosque, then a hospital, then a mosque again, then destroyed; but, thankfully, it is now again a Carmelite monastery, and we may hope is so until Elijah comes again, in fire, on that great and terrible day of the Lord.

And while on fire, today is also the anniversary of the first detonation of the atomic bomb, in 1945, over the testing site at Alomogordo in New Mexico, codenamed by Robert Oppenheimer ‘Trinity’, ironically enough. No one really knew what would happen when the uranium within the core was split, but all were quite blown away by the awesome might of the conflagration, which really was apocalyptic. As Oppenheimer reportedly whispered a line from the Bhagavad Gita: Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds. Indeed.

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The United States is the only nation that has used the so-called nuclear bomb in war, less than a month later, destroying the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japan, on August 6th and 9th. I am still flummoxed when I read of people – Catholics included – justifying this wholesale destruction of life. We may pray that, whatever God has in store for ending this world – and end it will someday – these may be the last use of atomic weaponry in war, and that Death has not the last word.

And, finally, this is the day, in 1054, when the Churches of the East and the West, Pope Leo IX, via his two legates, and Patriarch Michael Cerularius, mutually excommunicated each other, in the great cathedral of Hagia Sophia. Although the schism still remains – the ‘Orthodox’ not recognising the full primacy of the successor of Peter – we may hope that progress in healing has been made, especially since all anathemas and excommunications were lifted by Pope Saint Paul VI, in his meeting with Patriarch Athenagoras I in 1965. We may hope and pray with Christ ut unum sint, that we may be one, before that day of Elijah.