The book is my own attempt at a twenty-first century reflection on the Elijah story (especially the bit found in 1 Kings 17:1-5) in the old Carmelite manner. Beginning with that story, I ponder the experience of spiritual dryness; the meaning of detachment, charity and grace; the Holy Spirit; the often unexpected instruments of God's communication; and the role of meditation and contemplation in personal transformation. That's a lot of ground to cover in a scant 125 pages, which indicates that this is just a dip into a much deeper pool.
The ravens who brought food to Elijah intrigue me because ravens as scavengers were considered unclean by strict constructionists among Elijah co-religionists, as was anything they touched -- such as the bread and meat they brought the prophet for his meals. The following excerpt is taken from the chapter that deals with the ravens:
Unexpected Messengers of God
And these you shall have in abomination among the birds, they shall not be eaten, they are an abomination: the eagle, the vulture, the osprey, the kite, the falcon according to its kind, every raven according to its kind, the ostrich, the nighthawk, the sea gull, the hawk according to its kind, the owl, the cormorant, the ibis, the water hen, the pelican, the carrion vulture, the stork, the heron according to its kind, the hoopoe, and the bat.
Ravens appear in various books of the Old Testament, and there is a certain ambivalence about their significance. As noted above, ravens as scavengers contaminated by contact with death were unclean.
(This raises the unpleasant question, perhaps, of the nature of the meat they brought to Elijah for his evening meal, although most readers probably assume the meat was cooked in some way by the same divine agency that provided it. There is a rabbinic tradition that the ravens stole the food from inns to bring to the prophet, but that creates other problems.)
Ravens are not evil, for being unclean had to do with ritual purity, not with morality. This is a point that is sometimes misunderstood in cultures such as ours in which the notion of ritual impurity is unfamiliar. Except for Jewish and Muslim Americans, most of us in this country have no religious ideas about unclean food. We do have some cultural biases, however, such as a reluctance to eat certain kinds of meat. The notion of eating a dog or a grasshopper, for example, while having no religious significance, is repulsive to most of us. Yet there are places in the world where such animals are eaten and even considered a delicacy. In any case, we do not consider dogs or grasshoppers to be evil.
The raven appears in the story of Noah and the ark (Genesis 8:6-8), when the raven was sent forth before the dove to fly over the waters in search of land. The raven, no doubt finding ample carrion on which to feast, did not bother to return. Thus the raven was in a sense the first animal restored to the earth after the destruction caused by the flood. Still, the image of a dark bird hovering over scattered dead bodies is hardly as pleasant as that of a white dove flying over a renewed and pristine earth with an olive branch in its beak.
Although we tend to associate small and tender birds with scripture – the dove and sparrow, for example – ravens appear as examples of God’s special care in Psalm 147:8 where the Lord is said to “cover the heavens with clouds, to provide the earth with rain, to produce fresh grass on the hillsides and the plants that are needed by man and woman, who gives food to their cattle and to the young ravens when they cry.”
Everyone is familiar with the admonition of Jesus to consider the birds of the air, found in the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew (6:26), but Luke’s version indicates that Jesus spoke specifically of ravens. (Luke 12:23) Note also that God feeds the ravens here as in Psalm 147. Apparently the carrion that sustains the ravens and that renders them unclean itself comes from God. Again we see that the idea of ritual impurity is not the same as immorality or evil.
In September of 1972, I went to the Discalced Carmelite novitiate outside Little Rock, Arkansas to be interviewed as a candidate. My conversations with the vocation director went well, but he told me that I would also need to meet with the novice director who had reservations about admitting me because I had been Catholic for only a couple of years. In the course of the interview the novice director, who was warm and charming, asked if I could deal with ambiguity. He later claimed that I had responded, “Maybe yes, maybe no.” He thought I was trying to see if he could deal with ambiguity.
It is a vital question, however, that of our ability to cope with ambiguity. Contemplatives, as we will see in a later chapter, do not find their certitude in clear-cut answers but in God and God alone. So we cannot be certain that a messenger is from God based only on clear ideas about what such a messenger should look like according to our own lights. There is ambiguity.
God nourished Elijah by means of unclean ravens. In the Book of Numbers (22:28) we are told that God spoke to the prophet Balaam through the agency of an ass. God is not limited in the means of communication with us; we must strive to place no limits on our listening for that communication, however surprisingly it may come to us.