Last Friday, I traveled back to Annapolis to visit some old friends from college, both to catch up and to prepare for their wedding as it edges ever closer. Since I made the journey via public transit, it turned into a kind of pilgrimage for me. Not only does the route leave plenty of time for contemplation—it takes roughly two hours—it’s also a journey that I had to make frequently during the year after I graduated from St. John’s College. During that time, I was living in Baltimore** and working for the Episcopal Service Corps, but I was still making almost weekly treks back to Annapolis to take part in the communal life at St. Anne’s Parish as I tried to convince them that it would be a good idea to support my seminary aspirations. It’s a rather odd experience, continually returning to your college town during the year when you’ve supposedly, finally become an adult. Catching glimpses of so many familiar sights as the bus trundled along gave me pause, musing about the difference between who I was then and where I find myself these days. (Admittedly, the proximity to my 30th birthday probably didn’t help the instinctive turn towards self-examination.) What does it mean to grow up? And what does it mean to become who we’re meant to be?
In this week’s Hebrew Bible reading (1 Kings 19:4-9), we get a brief, bleak glimpse into Elijah’s literal and figurative journey as he tries his best to live into his own vocation as a prophet of the Lord. Having just taken the drastic measure of executing all of the prophets of Baal as he tries to stem the tide of idolatry in the kingdom of Judah, Elijah is fleeing for his life before the wrath of King Ahab and his infamous wife Jezebel. Having failed to move the royal hearts to anything but wrath, the prophet despairs. He cries “enough” and begs God to “take his life, for [he is] no better than [his] fathers” (19:4). After this lament, he collapses into an exhausted sleep beneath a broom tree. (If there’s any image that can illustrate the dichotomy between the supposed loftiness of being the Divine spokesperson and the reality, it’s Elijah needing to seek shelter underneath a literal bush after his desperate escape into the wilderness.) However, the Lord does not take his chosen prophet’s life—to the contrary, God tends to Elijah with almost gentle concern. In a sequence that echoes the calling of Samuel (1 Samuel 3), the prophet is awoken twice by an angel with instructions to “arise and eat” (1 Kings 19:5,7). Thus, even in the midst of his despair, even in the midst of the bareness of the wilderness, God provides. Elijah is fed with “a caked baked on hot stones”*** and his thirst is slaked with “a jar of water” (19:5). The prophet’s emotional and physical needs are met, and he continues on in his journey for “forty days and forty nights,” which echoes, among a number of different Biblical precedents, the mountaintop experience of Moses and Noah’s sojourn in the Ark. His literal and figurative journey comes to an end at “Horeb the mount of God” (19:8). And it should be noted that “Horeb” means dry place, though it’s often used interchangeably with Mount Sinai. So, even in fulfillment, God’s prophet finds himself in a place that is paradoxically both dry and the heart of his faith.
I offer you that summary not to suggest that my trip or my thoughts were anything like Elijah’s, but rather to illustrate just how much growing up and becoming who we’re meant to be can mean letting go of the familiar and its expectations. In despair, Elijah meets the Lord. In the wilderness, Elijah is fed. I’m not sure that my freshly-minted college graduate self could ever have imagined what my life looks like now, and I’m positive that the teenager who enrolled at St. John’s couldn’t possibly have. It’s a strange blessing to know that my life has exceeded my younger vision. I pray that it continues to do so—though, Godwilling, without ever coming too close to the prophetic experience. That’s also my prayer for Emmanuel more broadly. May our communal journey exceed our abilities to hope, like water and bread underneath a broom tree. May we recognize God as our constant companion, even in the driest of places. May we one day find that, without ever quite noticing that it’s happening, we’ve become more than we ever meant to be.
*While Joan Didion’s collection of essays, Slouching Towards Bethlehem, might more quickly come to mind these days, I'm more inclined towards Yates’ “The Second Coming."
***The Ancient Near East equivalent of pita