Readings: I Kings 19:1-13, Secrets of Heaven #5036:2 (see below)
Sometimes it can be hard to relate to the Bible. Without historical context, many of the stories seem strange to us. But chapter 19 in I Kings is one of those chapters in which the millennia that separate us and the time it was written just fall away. Who cannot resonate with the heart of Elijah’s experience? We may not personally be under threat of an evil queen, we may not have a wilderness to which we might flee or a broom bush under which we might pray. But we know what it is to feel like there is something that might destroy our life or happiness, some loss that will devastate us. We know what it is to feel like to need to run away. We know what it is to say: “I have had enough, Lord.” We know that feeling of weariness, emptiness, and aloneness.
These feelings are a part of being a human being. Jesus felt all these things too, in the garden of Gethsemane, on the cross, in being rejected by his hometown, in all those times the disciples just could not understand what he was trying to do. These are truths of our human experience; they are real and we honor how difficult they are.
But…as valid and as real as these truths of *our* personal experience might be, they do not necessarily tell us the truth about God. The ultimate truth is that we are never alone. God is always with us and never withdraws. Likewise, angels are with us in every moment and always desire to benefit us and do their best to help us. But, the truth is sometimes, like Elijah, we just don’t feel it. At all. What does Swedenborg teach us about these times?
First, it is important to note that not everyone experiences connection to spirit and to God in the same way. We are all unique and different, and likewise we will all have unique and different forms of spiritual experience, different ways that we perceive the presence of spirit, different ways we are moved by spirit. Some of us might feel the movement of spirit through music, or prayer, or nature, or silence. Some of us might feel the presence of spirit through ideas, through insight, through words put together in a way that illuminates, through story. Some of us might notice the presence of spirit more literally in sight or sound, or more diffusely through feeling, perception, intuition or dreams. One kind of experience is not better than another.
Second, Swedenborg teaches that we are not generally supposed to be able to feel our connection to spirit in a way that encroaches on our freedom.(1) Sure, it might seem like it would be comforting to have a literal angel by our side all the time, giving us whatever we need, or an angel showing up in times of challenge to give just the right advice, but the nature of that kind of occurrence can also be somewhat coercive. We are not supposed to feel the connection in a way that gives us no choice in acknowledging it. The natural power and transcendence of angels cannot help but naturally influence us, and might well force us into belief, erasing our ability to doubt.
And we need to be able to doubt. Swedenborg writes that doubt is extremely important to our spiritual process:
In addition it should be recognized that it is in accordance with the laws of order that no one should become convinced of the truth instantaneously, that is, should instantaneously be made so sure of the truth that he is left in no doubt at all about it. The reason for this is that when truth is impressed on a person in that kind of way, they become so fully convinced of it that it cannot be broadened in any way or qualified in any way. Truth like this is represented in the next life as that which is hard, not allowing good into itself to make it pliable. This goes to explain why in the next life as soon as some truth is presented through plain experience to good spirits, some opposing idea giving rise to doubt is presented. In this way they are led to think and ponder over whether it is indeed a truth, gather reasons in support of it, and so introduce that truth into their minds by the use of reason. This enables their spiritual vision in respect of that truth to be broadened, seeing even into the ideas that are opposed to it. (2)
Angels would never want to take away our ability to doubt, to influence our process in a way that ultimately does not serve us over time. So, angels typically work with us in a gentle and nuanced way, using that which is already within us to provoke feelings of hope, positivity and strength.(3)
But sometimes, even a gentle presence or connection may not be discernible to us. Swedenborg teaches that there are two reasons for feeling such a separation:
First, we ourselves might have turned away. Angels can only work with what we give them. If we are making choices that are evil and unkind, if we are entertaining and defending false notions, and if we do these things to serve our own selfhood and self-preservation, it is harder for angels to be present and useful to us. Think of it like turning our cell phone off, or literally turning our back towards a friend and plugging our ears.
We all make choices, and sometimes those choices will privilege our egos, our self-absorption, and our defensiveness. These states of mind are less open spirit and more naturally closed and inward-looking. We can’t receive calls with our phones turned off. We can’t hear our friend with our fingers in our ears. Yet, there is nothing permanent about this. We can always choose to turn our phone back on or turn around. A friend, even the best and most compassionate might at some point leave if we ignore them for too long but God and angels never will. They continue to work as best they can for us, as closely as they can, even if we are not letting them in.(4)
The second reason that connection to spirit might feel faint is if we are actively experiencing temptation. The Swedenborgian notion of temptation is a little more robust than our current cultural one, which generally seems to be about either seduction or an irresistible piece of chocolate cake. But really, true temptation is nothing other than a situation that exposes a challenge to our spiritual or moral conscience. We might just call it “spiritual struggle.” We come across these situations all the time, in lesser and greater forms, whereby we experience varying levels of agitation, confusion, sadness and anger. There are too many examples of spiritual struggle to list, and all of them deeply personal. We can all remember times we have been tempted to walk by, withhold love, give up hope, discount ourselves, make an assumption, lash out, close our eyes. We think of Elijah, standing up to to an evil regime, but empty, afraid, not sure what to next or how to move forward, doubting that anything he did mattered. This is temptation and it isn’t fun.
Not that it is much of a comfort, but it is through these experiences of temptation that we are forged, that we are propelled forward in our spiritual journey. Through them we shed notions and ideas that do not serve love, we let go of desires or fears that hold us back from doing good in the world. Temptations of many kinds are necessary, so that we might become progressively more heavenly.
But they are difficult and challenging work, and in those times when we are consumed by our own feelings, when it feels like we are fighting for survival, it can be hard to notice how God and angels are present with us. It is like having the phone on but not being able to hold it to our ear, or letting our friend hold us but crying so hard we can’t hear what they are saying. This is okay. Angels have nothing but compassion for us in this state. And again, there is nothing we can do that would make them leave, for they have been through all of it just as we have, and they know how hard it is.
But even more, they are not simply passive during times of temptation. Swedenborg teaches that angels and spirits are connected to our thoughts and feelings. When our selfish feelings and our false thoughts are in conflict with our good feelings and true thoughts, then the spirits and angels with us are in conflict as well. The angels are fighting for us. We heard in our reading that the angels defend us from within. That reading continues:
As stated, temptations arise primarily when a person is becoming spiritual, for at that time we are gaining a spiritual understanding of the truths of doctrine. The person themself is often unaware that this is happening; even so, the angels present with us see spiritual concerns within our natural ones since our interiors at this time are open towards heaven. (5)
What is most amazing is that the angels are not only fighting for us as we are now, they are fighting for who they know we can become. The angels present with us see spiritual concerns within our natural ones since our interiors at this time are open towards heaven. The angels know something about us more deeply than we ourselves know it. The angels see us truly, they see what is still obscure about us to us, yet they see the best of us and they draw that forth and protect it. What faith! Within our natural concerns they see the infinite and eternal, they see the heart of the matter, even if we can’t see it. They see our yearning and our deepest hoping, they see the cracks where the light can get in, they see our openness and they fight for it, even as we fail and stumble and fall. They bring us food and water, love and insight, nourishment for the journey. They believe in us. They say: “Get up and eat, otherwise the journey will be too much for you.” They don’t fix our problems for us, but they give us the sustenance to make it to the mountain of God. And most of the time we don’t even know they are doing it.
Today, we will join together in what we call The Holy Supper, when we recall Jesus breaking bread and drinking wine with his disciples. We ourselves eat bread and drink wine as a remembrance of the how far God reached out to us, as a recognition of the ways that we are connected to spirit through God’s love and wisdom, and in gratitude for the ways we are nourished by what is good and what is true, what is loving and what is real. Today, let us also think of the angels attending Elijah and providing sustenance in the same way. Wine and water both correspond to truth, and so today we will have both wine and water available, so that if you wish it, you may enact a recognition of the ways that angels show up for us and nourish us.
All at once an angel touched him and said “Get up and eat.” He looked around, and there by his head was some bread baked over hot coals, and a jar of water. He ate and drank and then lay down again. (I Kings 19:5-6)
(1) Emanuel Swedenborg, Secrets of Heaven #4249
(2) Ibid #7298:2 (3) Ibid #2338
(4) Ibid #3402 and #2121
(5) Ibid #5036:3
I Kings 19:1-13
Elijah Flees to Horeb
1 Now Ahab told Jezebel everything Elijah had done and how he had killed all the prophets with the sword. 2 So Jezebel sent a messenger to Elijah to say, “May the gods deal with me, be it ever so severely, if by this time tomorrow I do not make your life like that of one of them.” 3 Elijah was afraid and ran for his life. When he came to Beersheba in Judah, he left his servant there, 4 while he himself went a day’s journey into the wilderness. He came to a broom bush, sat down under it and prayed that he might die. “I have had enough, LORD,” he said. “Take my life; I am no better than my ancestors.” 5 Then he lay down under the bush and fell asleep. All at once an angel touched him and said, “Get up and eat.” 6 He looked around, and there by his head was some bread baked over hot coals, and a jar of water. He ate and drank and then lay down again. 7 The angel of the LORD came back a second time and touched him and said, “Get up and eat, for the journey is too much for you.” 8 So he got up and ate and drank. Strengthened by that food, he traveled forty days and forty nights until he reached Horeb, the mountain of God.
9 There he went into a cave and spent the night. And the word of the LORD came to him: “What are you doing here, Elijah?” 10 He replied, “I have been very zealous for the LORD God Almighty. The Israelites have rejected your covenant, torn down your altars, and put your prophets to death with the sword. I am the only one left, and now they are trying to kill me too.” 11 The LORD said, “Go out and stand on the mountain in the presence of the LORD, for the LORD is about to pass by.” Then a great and powerful wind tore the mountains apart and shattered the rocks before the LORD, but the LORD was not in the wind. After the wind there was an earthquake, but the LORD was not in the earthquake. 12 After the earthquake came a fire, but the LORD was not in the fire. And after the fire came a gentle whisper. 13 When Elijah heard it, he pulled his cloak over his face and went out and stood at the mouth of the cave. Then a voice said to him, “What are you doing here, Elijah?”
Secrets of Heaven #5036:2
As for temptations themselves, they are going on while a person is in the actual process of being regenerated, for no one can be regenerated unless they also undergo temptations; and the evil spirits around then are the means through which those temptations are brought about. In temptation the person is brought into a state in which the evil that possesses them, that is, possesses their own essential self, is dominant. Once they enters this state evil and hellish spirits surround them, and when they realize that inwardly a person is protected by angels those evil spirits reactivate the false ideas a person has previously contemplated and the evil deeds a person has committed. But the angels defend us from within. This conflict is what a person experiences as temptation, yet the experience is so vague that we are aware of it as scarcely anything more than a feeling of anxiety. For a person, especially one who has no belief at all in influx, dwells in a state of complete obscurity and discerns scarcely the smallest fraction of the things over which evil spirits and angels are engaged in conflict. Yet a battle is taking place at such a time over us and our eternal salvation, with both sides using what is within us; for both draw on what resides with a person and engage in conflict over it. The truth of this I have been led most certainly to know. I have heard such conflict going on, I have perceived the influx taking place, and I have seen the spirits and the angels, to whom I spoke at the time and subsequently about what was happening.